Konstantin Lopushansky is one of the greatest film directors of the 20th century. He is representative of the auteur cinema and the follower of spiritual traditions of Andrei Trakovsky who was his professor and mentor. In this interview taken in Vienna, Konstantin Lopushansky speaks about his experience of studying under the guidance of Andrei Tarkovsky, his apprenticeship on the film Stalker, about the meaning of art and his new film.
Elena Ringo: Do you feel that the candle of Andrei Tarkovsky has been passed over to you, in a certain way?
Konstantin Lopushansky: Figuratively speaking, the great master’s shadow, as people used to say, hangs over every all of us – directors of the 20th century, his influence was enormous. Many critics ask Lars von Trier, Alexander Sokurov, me about his influence. It is inevitable, as he is the greatest representative of auteur cinema, his quintessence of auteur cinema ideology has been absorbed by many, including me. But if we speak about style, some critics who do not like auteur cinema attempt to pick things apart; they say that in my films the water is flowing just like in his films. I respond that water flows in millions of other films. This argument is very weak.
And so on. In fact his influence is spiritual, it is the understanding of art. I was lucky to make a first draft of his lecture. He lectured film direction, later he took me as an apprentice for Stalker, we had an opportunity to socialize and one day he asked me to systemize his lectures. Using his notes written previously, with his assistant Masha Chigunova, we prepared the first draft, it was later published in the magazine Art of Cinema (Iskusstvo Kino). I noticed that his lectures in fact are not about certain professional skills, but are more philosophical, about understanding the essence of art, its essence. He said that art is like a great book; it is first of all a deed, a moral deed, not driven by commercial interests.
Tarkovsky said that “great creators of art prepared themselves, for example, icon painters fasted for 40 days, Japanese painters did similarly, and then they began working. And you people instead drink for a week and then start to write”. It was said humorously, but there is truth in this, it is a different approach to art. He was the quintessence of this point of view and asserted this position in many aspects, but not only him.
He was maybe the brightest star of cinematography, the period was like that, the important auteur filmmakers of that time are known to everyone, and I do not need to repeat their names.
This epoch existed, but now humanity decided to exalt different ideals, but this is humanity’s problem. At least I have managed to stay true to the principles which I have absorbed from him as a teacher. And not only me, but also many others who knew him personally and I think that this is the true way in art, debating this is probably impossible.
Elena Ringo: Are you an optimist or pessimist? Your films are pessimistic with a glimmer of optimism.
Konstantin Lopushansky: First of all creations of art, including mine, are a cast of the soul and the state of the soul changes in time, so my creations are different, not only stylistically but also in terms of worldview. As any auteur, for me it is important to create an aesthetic product. Because it is an artwork, it has many meanings, multiple layers and is not always so simple to understand its meaning.
If we speak about fundamental concepts such as optimism and pessimism, I do not know, perhaps my worldview is not the brightest; I guess it is deep-seated in me. I have someone to reference; Blok said that optimism is a very poor philosophy because it does not understand the tragedy of human life. So we can say that I understand the tragedy of human life.
Elena Ringo: The pictures you have directed are a synthesis of arts, how did your musical education affect you as a filmmaker and why did you turn to cinematography?
Konstantin Lopushansky: If we think about biographies of many filmmakers, we see that a lot of them had a substantial musical education. Andron (Andrei) Konchalovsky is a very good pianist and Andrei Tarkovsky had a very good music education, and many others. Usually filmmakers come to cinematography from more accessible fields of art, such as music or painting. There is a certain pattern present, not only with me. I am very grateful for my musical education because inevitably it develops the aesthetic sense. I studied well, had good results in this field, but at some point understood that it is not enough for me and decided to move into film. First I worked in a theater in St. Petersburg for three years and then went to Moscow to study at the higher courses of cinematography where I met Andrei Tarkovsky.
Elena Ringo: Your films have beautiful light, interesting compositions, but now very often we see films at big festivals with poor camerawork, plain lighting which are also described as auteur cinema.
Konstantin Lopushansky: It is a tendency, as they say today, a trend. It is not close to me, I will say it immediately. Andrei Tarkovsky said, “Take any great painting and if you pick a small part it is possible using the canvas piece to understand that a masterpiece is before your eyes.” The quality of every brick in an artwork must be perfect. This was his position, which is completely correct. But this does not mean mere glossy beauty, one thing is beauty and another is symbolism and expressiveness.
This new unfocused style takes the form of a pseudo-documentary because life is chaotic and so on. It is in favor now and commands attention at festivals. It is like a wave; it commands attention now and later it will not, these things change very fast. In fact, without carefully constructed visual sequences, containing inner meaning, cinema is impossible.
It is true, commercial cinema did go into a vivid glossy beauty. The problem is that commercial cinematography has prepared a very good school of cameramen who were able to shoot very beautifully in a glossy, polished style and then the art-house directors decided that to go in another direction. This was how Dogme was born by Lars von Trier, it is a pseudo-documentary style, in Romania there were films like this recently. For example the famous film “9 Days 9 Weeks” does not have any real ending, it just stops. It is just a kind of style.
I am saying this, work of art is a cast of the soul, first part of the question, if it is a cast of the soul, when works appear where lewdness is visible, what does it mean – then this poison crept into the souls of the makers. Lewdness of thinking, of comprehension. To shoot films and to think how to make money, this is already lewd. This is called bargaining with holy things, this is such a psychology; there is the sublime love, Romeo and Juliet, and then there is the brothel where one can earn more money. What is better? This is such logic, which is very lewd. This example I often bring up to my students, to explain where people’s values lie. The desire to earn money has corrupted many, but cinema must continue to exist. There are many motivations. It is not always bad when a film is successful, understood by many, it is great, many wonderful works have been successful. There is no such direct link, and it is not true that we auteurs do not want to know our viewers. But there still exists a certain conflict.
Elena Ringo: There is a lot of vulgarity in life and cinema.
Konstantin Lopushansky: There a lot of vulgarity, it is vulgar to be a conformist. But to serve art unselfishly, in a self-sacrificial way, a person must show strong will to do this. To begin bargaining in any way, with authority, to fulfill a commission on a specific topic is different.
People who do this say that it has always been this way; dukes commissioned art works, paintings. This is true, but the greatest artists overcame this and climbed into the ranks of a genius.
Such an eternal dilemma exists; it is very sad to see the artist sell his eternal soul for scabby soup. Concerning television series, this is a completely different matter, they usually involve a clearly defined commission. And there are harsh regulations – if you do not subordinate yourself to the commission or to a specific position, you will not be hired again, you will not be allowed to film, your funding will be cut. One of my colleagues, a very cynical person, whom I will not name, says that “Who pays the piper calls the tune”, somehow defending the words of Medinsky (Minister of Culture of Russia) who said “let there bloom a hundred flowers, but we will water only those which are useful to us“. I wondered if he realizes what he says. But he lives this way and films this way. There have been always artists like this at all times. We must choose our position, that’s all, understanding that we will reject many material things, but it is not possible to serve art without sacrifice. Tarkovsky told us and it was written in his lectures, that the film is first of all a DEED, a moral deed and everything else is secondary. And the last phrase is “Do not be afraid to create masterpieces!”, this call to action of the Master was simple and clear. The filmmaker who starts to film without a feeling that he creates a masterpiece is already putting himself in a wrong frame. Maybe he will not succeed but at least he must aim for that.
Elena Ringo: Can you tell a bit about the Stalker location.
Konstantin Lopushansky: I spent 3 months on that location, in summer 1977. Cinematographer was at that time Georgy Rerberg who was also teaching at our institute. And my first cinematographer was Rerberg’s assistant. It is a very special place, beautiful and mysterious. I went there absolutely sick, I had pneumonia, but it was not possible not to go as this apprenticeship was a unique chance for me.
The zone is a hydroelectric station in ruins, there is yellow water flowing, probably poisonous. There was foam and when Rerberg turned on the wind machine the foam went up and it created a very beautiful image. And Andrei Arsenievich Tarkovsky said there should not be any tourists at the location, meaning that the students assistants should work and I was helping the film artist.
I put the grass on dam, I took part in creating the wonderful scene, when the camera shows the grass and then camera turns and shows water, beach, sky and we understand that it was a reflection. At that time another well-known scene was filmed – panorama with some floating objects and a page from a calendar which Andrei Tarkovsky placed himself. It was 29 December on that page, the date when he died. He himself chose the page. How did he know. We spoke about it with Zhenya who was his second director. There were many details like that. And when you are present at a shooting like that you feel as though you have entered the world of a great artist, a master who provided you with attention. We had several exercises, he took the apprenticeship seriously, he gave me several tasks to work on some episodes, we met in his hotel, I showed him my work and we talked for a long while. I cannot say that I knew everything what was going on the set, the edge was quite far away, but what I could see and feel is very important and it became the foundation of our future relationship. After that I visited his home, showed my works, he advised me on the education process and the personal relationship developed which stayed until he left the country. So this apprenticeship was very important. When I visit Moscow I stay in the hotel of Mosfilm, which is in the same house where Andrei Arsenievich lived. Every time when I approach it I feel nostalgia. There is a plaque on this house and the next entrance is the entrance of the hotel. When I enter it I see two portraits; of Emil Loteanu, who was my supervisor and Andrei Arsenievich Tarkovsky who was my second professor, so I come every time to the places where I am reminded where I come from and what one must remember.
Elena Ringo: Emil Loteanu is also outstanding film director.
Konstantin Lopushansky: He was a good professor and a very generous person. It was within his power not to allow me to go to this apprenticeship. It was usual to go to apprenticeship to those professors who supervised you, and he was also shooting a picture at that time. But I came to him and said sincerely that Tarkovsky is taking me to work for Stalker and I want to go. He said, it is wonderful, it is more close to you, please, go. Not every professor is able to commit such generosity, I know students who were not allowed to go by their professors. And he allowed. He supported me. And he taught very well, he taught us our profession and then it was our choice to which direction to go. Tarkovsky was closer to me. These courses at that time were unique, we had great professors. At those years we watched from morning till night foreign cinema, from Belye Stolby they were bringing the best to films for us to watch, masterpieces of world cinematography which were not known at VGIK at all. Even not all critics saw them, but we watched, from morning till night. It was the principle that all the best professors were teaching there, film direction was lectured by Tarkovsky, Konchalovsky, Ioseliani, Shepitko, acting – Efros and Vasilieva. We were nourished with the best of art. There were different principles. My friends reminded me that I fell asleep watching Fellini’s film. I said, yes, it happened, because of information overload.
Elena Ringo: Which film of Fellini?
Konstantin Lopushansky: I do not remember. Yes, in VGIK many were dreaming to see Fellini and I fell asleep. Yes, we got tired a lot, but after two years we completely changed, became different people. It was not very easy to find a place at that time, but those who wanted defended themselves.
Elena Ringo: In Tarkovsky films you can see that he was a very educated person, he knew a lot, he had music and art education. Nowadays many filmmakers come to cinema from the advertising industry. Many of them do not watch Antonioni or Bergman, many of them, unfortunately.
Konstantin Lopushansky: There were always people who did not take our profession seriously. At that time there were also people who got in through connections. At that time this profession looked prestigious to them. But their biography was not culminated with masterpieces. Maybe they did film, found their place under the sun, but it was not THAT place. But it was always so. At least I teach my students to act according the Hamburg Score, as I was taught and then … how the destiny will turn.
It is clear that understanding of the art as a place where the masterpieces are created became not so popular now. In general, the spirit of commercialism corrupted the society in general. And if the approach is commercialized, the results are the same. Now more and more people who think primarily about financial interests come to the cinema. But it not possible to destroy in person the lust for real creativity. There is an internal component in the nature which tells him what is real and what is not real.
Elena Ringo: Unfortunately these people who understand what is a real gift become less popular.
Konstantin Lopushansky: It is the spirit of our time. Society oriented this way and power tries to manipulate art.
Elena Ringo: You started your career in the Soviet Union, when censorship and things like that existed. Nevertheless, you were able to create important films. Is it easier now to work?
Konstantin Lopushansky: No, it is not easier and will never be easier. In a way society always opposes the artist, there is an eternal conflict. Because society, due to objective reasons, in many respects, especially spiritual development, is lower than artists. Not all society, of course, but majority of it, which tries to lower the artist to its level. And the artist tries to lift people up to his own level. And this conflict exists.
Elena Ringo: Maybe you can say few words about your students.
Konstantin Lopushansky: New generation, new tendencies. Some people say, you do not understand new trends. There are students at the producer’s faculty and it is clear why they came to study there and they speak mostly about money and are not interested in art or film. And they watch only such films which respond to their interests. On the other hand, those students whom I selected are interested in creating art and they do not want anything else. They want to create their own art, sometimes better, sometimes worse, sometimes a bit naive, but their own, because they understand that the film is the cast of their soul.
Elena Ringo: Maybe you can tell something about your new film.
Konstantin Lopushansky: The shooting has finished and editing too. It is a film called “Through the Black Glass”. I would not like to tell too much in advance. It is a modern story, a portrait of the modern society the way I see it in Russia and a reflection of serious problems of the society, about relationship between tsar and people, authorities and the artist, about the human soul. It is all generalization because I do not want to tell many details now. Shortly I can tell that it is a story of a blind girl from a boarding house for people with sight disabilities. Suddenly her destiny changed, in a way like a Cinderella story, one very rich man saw her and fell in love and offered her to pay a very expensive operation which will give her sight back, but on one condition – she should marry him right now without seeing him. The temptation is very big and she gives in to this temptation and then we see what happens. Clearly it is a tragic situation. There are many other meanings in this story, symbols and eternal topic of Russian art – people and power, tsar and people, poet and tsar.
It is typical for Russian art to investigate these subjects and from them the other meanings grow. And I want to create a portrait of time, epoch, human relationship.
The main part is played by Maxim Sukhanov and the role of a girl – a debutant from an Alexander Theatre.
Elena Ringo: Was it difficult to find an actress for this role?
Konstantin Lopushansky: It is always difficult. I must tell that she was very serious it, she prepared well for the role; she studied well the world of people with sight disabilities, she lived for a while in a monastery, because it is a boarding school of monastery. She learned the specifics of the education of the girls in this institution and tried to absorb it in order to form this leading character on a screen. Generalizing I would say that I want to create an interesting image of a woman, similar to that which was created by Russian literature for centuries. When we speak about Russian literature you can often hear, oh, images of women. They did not disappear, these characters of women. When we looked around with producer we did not find such characters in the modern art and decided, why not to remind that they still exist, such people, like a moral chamber tone of understanding of the epoch, the world, riches, power and when you compare this character with the modern world, power, wealth, you see that the shameless world disappears in the abyss.
Translated from Russian language by Elena Ringo