Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Nine Days of One Year (Mosfilm, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I watched together last night was Nine Days of One Year, a 1962 production of the Soviet Union, directed by Mikhail Romm from a script he co-wrote with Daniil Khabrovitsky that’s essentially a romantic triangle set against the backdrop of nuclear-power research. I’d first heard of this movie in Dwight Macdonald’s collection On Movies, which included a blasting review of it that made it sound so bad it could be a camp classic — he began it something like, “‘Comrades!’ said Russian officials when they still took the Five-Year Plans seriously. ‘We must catch up with and overtake rotten, decadent American capitalism!’ Well, they haven’t done it in pig iron and, as Nine Days of One Year proves, they haven’t done it in kitsch, either, and for the same reason: we just keep coming up with new, more sophisticated methods of production.” I had enough curiosity about this movie from Macdonald’s review that when it appeared on TCM’s Sunday night foreign-movie slot I eagerly recorded it — and was startled to find it was actually quite good, better than a U.S. film on the topic at that time would have been. It’s possible that Macdonald was still bitter about Romm because of the big career boost he’d got back in the 1930’s: after an early hit with the 1934 film Pyshka (based on Guy de Maupassant’s story “Boule de Suif,” which also inspired John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach and Val Lewton’s 1944 Mademoiselle Fifi) he got the plum assignment from Stalin himself to direct Lenin in October, the 1937 film meant to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Russian Revolution — the same commission Sergei Eisenstein had got to commemorate the 10th anniversary of it in 1927. Romm also made a sequel, Lenin in 1918, and returned to Lenin as a subject for a documentary feature in 1949 (which I would hazard a guess compares to Dziga Vertov’s 1934 masterpiece Three Songs About Lenin much the way Lenin in October compares to Eisenstein’s October) and a documentary short, Zhivoy Lenin, in 1957. Once Stalin died and Khrushchev instituted the “thaw” Romm responded by becoming an outspoken voice for artistic freedom (even kvetchy old Dwight Macdonald gave him credit for that!) and focusing mostly on documentaries, though he made a crime thriller in 1956 called Murder on Dante Street that marked the film debut of the actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky, who plays a supporting role in Nine Days of One Year and would go on to star in the Russian film of Hamlet (in Boris Pasternak’s translation) in 1964 and the de-Gayed Tchaikovsky biopic the Soviets produced in 1969.

Nine Days of One Year centers around three physicists at a Soviet nuclear research institute: Dimitri “Mitya” Gusev (Alexei Batalov), Ilya Kulikov (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) and the woman they both more or less love, Lyolya (Tatiana Lavrova, who also made a film of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugen Onegin — coincidentally playing a heroine with her own first name, Tatiana — with Galina Vishnevskaya as her voice double). The action begins when, in an attempt to build a controlled thermonuclear reactor to try to harness the power of the H-bomb for peaceful purposes, Professor Sintsov (Nikolai Plotnikov) runs the reactor at dangerously critical levels and Gusev is exposed to 200 roentgens of radiation. It’s explained that Gusev suffered a previous exposure to high levels of radiation while at work on the Soviet A-bomb program a decade earlier, and a third exposure will kill him. It’s also established that years before he had a clandestine love affair with Lyolya, though after that she forgot him and started dating his friend Ilya — not knowing there was any connection between the two men — only she and Dimitri re-start their former relationship once Ilya flies out to the reactor site to help rebuild the reactor and make it safer. Dimitri and Lyolya end up getting married — in a rather dispiriting ceremony that shows what the Soviets probably did if you wanted something more than just a registry-office wedding but weren’t about to risk the opprobrium you’d have suffered in the officially atheist Soviet Union if you’d gone for a church ceremony. We get the impression that this is basically a “mercy wedding” since all three parties in the triangle expect Dimitri to be dead within a year and Lyolya and Ilya to get back together after he croaks. While all this is going on Dimitri makes a sensational discovery that, at least at first, he believes is the existence of free-floating neutrons in plasma, which will make controlled fusion possible (Macdonald ridiculed the movie scientists’ shout, “Hurrah, neutrons!,” as they appear to have reached this result). Only Dimitri eventually realizes that the effect he discovered, while useful for space travel (how? Romm and Khabrovitsky never bother to explain), is not actually free-floating neutrons in plasma and therefore controlled fusion remains as elusive as ever. In the final scenes — the movie’s construction gimmick is that it does indeed take place over nine days in one year, but the nine days are not consecutive and the story jumps through a one-year time frame in nine discrete one-day installments — Dimitri, having suffered the third high-dose exposure that will kill him, volunteers to be the first human to undergo a bone-marrow transplant that previously has been performed only on laboratory dogs, and the movie has a daring open-ended ending in which he’s about to go through the treatment but we have no idea whether he’ll live or die.

What’s most fascinating about Nine Days of One Year is the level of angst in the storytelling; as I joked early on, if Dostoyevsky had lived long enough to write a novel about nuclear power, this would have been it. Macdonald faulted the film for recycling too many American-created movie clichés, but if anything Romm and Khabrovitsky played against quite a few clichés; for example, the marriage of Dimitri and Lyolya isn’t the doomed Love Story-esque idyll it would have been in a U.S. film but a miserable excuse for a union between two people who have little in common other than their jobs — and there’s a feminist undertone in that one reason Lyolya is unhappy in the relationship is she’s expected to do the stereotypically “womanly” thing and cook Dimitri breakfast before he goes off to work — at which she’s wretchedly untalented. Charles was amused by the scene in which she boils a large pot of water so Dimitri can pour it over their car in order to get to work; Charles remembered that in Buffalo, New York, where he spent a large part of his childhood, his mom had to do that to warm the radiator enough to turn the ice into water so the car would work. Nine Days of One Year is also marvelously photographed by cinematographer German Lavrov, Romm’s long-term collaborator; Romm and Lavrov give us some surprisingly oblique camera angles and a couple of vertiginous pan scenes following the characters up stairs. They also take full advantage of the naturally indirect light in northern Russia; Conrad Hall once said he was jealous of Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer, because the position of Sweden on the earth relative to the sun gave him naturally indirect light with which to work — and one wonders if Russian cameramen got the same advantage from working in the far north of their country that the Swedes did. It’s not often that you switch on something expecting a good-bad movie and end up with a work of real quality; though Nine Days of One Year gets predictably soapy at times and has some longueurs (one does get the impression that for Russian directors, especially ones like Romm who started under Stalin and his ban on the rapid-fire montage cutting for which Eisenstein had become famous, slow and ponderous = profound), for the most part it’s an interesting movie that maintains one’s interest and eloquently balances the personal and the scientific. It’s also got some surprisingly jaundiced social commentary about the Soviet system and in particular the mind-numbingly stupid decisions made by the bureaucracy — no doubt a reflection of the Khrushchev “thaw” era in which it was made!