Georges Nivat: “In Russia there is the idea that there is no truth, only opinions”

The memories of Russia are multiple. It is this plurality that the specialist of Russian culture Georges Nivat continues to explore in the monument work Sites of Russian memory, whose second volume – “History and myths of Russian memory” – was recently published by Fayard editions. On several hundred pages are listed the topoi from this memory – from historians who over the centuries have ordered the national narrative to peasant folklore, from mythified figures like Peter the Great and Lenin to the founding myths of “Moscow, third Rome” or of the patriotic war against Napoleon in 1812, passing by saints and martyrs, encyclopedias, the image of the Jew or the question of women…

You are openly referring to Memory places by Pierre Nora. Is your approach the same?

Memorial place, that inspired me, were built little by little. I remain very modest, but I built right away. In France, literature begins earlier, cathedrals too, free cities and the franc-bourgeoisie appear before. In Russia, we realized very late that the “chronicle” had started as early as the XIe and XIIe centuries. The Chronicles Edition, which I called “The invention of chronicles”, starts under Nicolas Ier, in particular with the publication of Chronicles of Novgorod, in 60 volumes, and continues to this day. Russia really liked to build its scientific memory through this.

Amnesia-hypermnesia, eternal tension of Russian memory issues …

Russia has a long memory, if we compare to France, which has a short memory. Take the example of the glory of arms. In France, we no longer have the idea of ​​this glory, the public no longer knows what a war is. Napoleon, we don’t have a cult anymore. Young people no longer know who Clovis is … On the other hand, there is not a Russian who does not know Vladimir the Red Sun, the founder of “Holy Russia”.

And then there is what I call “the school of amnesia”, the one we knew during the French Revolution at certain times – Lyon was renamed into “nameless city” to punish it, it doesn’t only lasted a few months. While the Russian blackout during the Soviet period lasts seventy years, when cities are renamed and history rewritten. Or the hole in the peasant memory, the loss of popular folklore, as the sociologist Boris Firsov, from the working class, who so well started living oral history with peasants, shows so well. arrived in cities in the aftermath of the revolution.

Russian society is still sick of these mutilations of memory, of amnesia imposed at the state level …

From the point of view of memory, the truth does not make sense. One can very well keep the memory of a lie by being convinced that it is the truth, and all the efforts of authentic historians to demonstrate for example that the Katyn massacre is not due to the Germans, but well to the Soviets, will be in vain. Even when the government admitted it, Yeltsin first, Putin second, opinion did not change its mind. I also wanted to show another aspect of these extraordinary memory lapses: 95% of the churches and monasteries were destroyed, but at the same time there was a first-rate restoration school for the remaining 5%.

Today, is Russian history taught in a less mythical way?

Textbooks, from the first under Nicolas Ier until today, have always been and remain to the glory of the regime. Today’s textbook is inspired by President Putin, who demanded that nothing be excluded, neither the White Army, the Red Army, nor the Autocracy. A kind of consensus.

But this unique manual is rightly criticized for minimizing the terror, the gulag, and more generally the dark aspects of the communist regime …

Yes, but the Gulag Archipelago, in the abridged version by the widow of Solzhenitsyn, is on the school program. As long as Putin does not ban this book, he defends a certain idea of ​​the terror debate.

State violence, the fear it inspires are among the topoi that you describe …

Fear of the State was established by the great reformer Pierre the Great, in the XVIIIe century. He imports both science and technology, corresponds with Leibniz, and at the same time he creates the Third Section, a secret police which instills mad fear. Pierre is a despot, enlightened but despot. Another great figure in Russian history is Ivan the Terrible. Was he a madman, a madman, or a progressive man who understood that without terror you cannot hold a gigantic territory? It was he who gave Russia its present form …

Are the debates on historical memory fruitful in Russia?

There are very old debates, fundamental for the memory, but almost without exit. Like these series of collections entitled “Pro and Contra”, which present different points of view on the work of writers, poets, philosophers. It’s interesting but it creates the idea that there is no truth, only opinions. These debates give no key to find your way around. Take for example the character of Boris Godounov, at the end of the XVIe century: did he really order the murder of Tsarevich Dimitri to steal the throne from him? No, he did not sponsor it. Historians have confirmed this as early as 1920-1930. But the historian Nicolas Karamzine had found that this alliance of virtue and crime, it sounded good, this stain on the conscience of the virtuous man. The poet Alexander Pushkin took up the story [dans une célèbre tragédie, qui a par la suite inspiré, entre autres, un opéra de Moussorgski et une musique de scène de Prokofiev, ndlr]. From that moment on, it became the truth, the accepted version. Russian culture debates what its historical memory is, but it debates badly because it does not listen to the historical inquiry.

Veronika Dorman Photo Rémy Artiges for Liberation

Georges Nivat (under the direction of) Sites of Russian memory tome 2 Fayard, 880 pp., € 49.90 (ebook: € 39.99).


At the Berlinale, pearls of plenty

Now that the prize list has fallen, the time has come for a final review of this successful 70e Berlinale, to evoke a few films that have been able to float in the memory of the festival critic exhausted by an overflow of images, German coffee and stuffy pretzels.

Mental space

Siberia by Abel Ferrara

ITA, DEU, MEX 2020, Competition
2020 Vivo film. Maze pictures. Piano

Siberia of Abel Ferrara. Vivo film. Maze pictures. Piano

Let’s start with an aberration, which we cannot say whether we like it or not, one of the most awaited films of the competition which created an almost general perplexity: Siberia by Abel Ferrara. It is a series of enigmatic visions and encounters experienced by an American, Clint (Willem Dafoe), running a bar in the middle of Siberia. Memories, dreams, nightmarish or mystical apparitions are linked together in this trip where we guess the clear influence of Andrei Tarkovski. Many critics found the film grotesque, and most of the spectators in the very large room of the Friedrichstadt-Palast, where we saw it, had apparently chosen to consider that they were facing a comedy. We do not hide the fact that certain situations or ideas made us smile and that it is quite difficult to genuinely adhere to this mystical-psychoanalytic peregrination in which Ferrara immerses us in the obscure depths of his imagination. But, in addition to the fact that the film arouses in us the sympathy of unclassifiable and netless objects, it is undeniable that the one who produced it is a real filmmaker, who knows how to create singular images, invent a complex mental space or seize us by a simple connection between two planes. And in a festival where there are so many films in one day, sometimes of great platitude or shapeless blistering, this Siberia so mocked at least had the audacity to explore in its own way nothing less than the twists and turns of cinematic time and space, through those of dream and memory.

Malmkrog by Cristi Puiu

ROU, SRB, CHE, SWE, BIH, MKD 2020, Encounters

Malmkrog by Cristi Puiu. Mandragora

It is in a completely different way that we recognize a strong sense of duration and framework in the long, complex and sometimes sumptuous shots that constitute Malmkrog (presented in the Encounters section), the new film by Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu (discovered in 2005 with the extraordinary the Death of Dante Lazarescu). Shots that are not just the result of a skill in framing and photographing, but that are constantly tended by life and the words that unfold therein. Adapting texts from the Russian philosopher and poet Vladimir Soloviev, this 3:20 am film takes place in a unique place: a mansion in Transylvania where Nikolai, a large landowner, welcomes Christmas friends of aristocrat friends, of different nationalities. Between meals and board games, their main activity consists in sharing their visions of the world, essentially in French, around subjects as big as death, progress, religion, morals. We think of Manoel de Oliveira, with less humor although the film is not devoid of fantasy and strangeness. You can get lost in conversations but it is the very word that matters, the need to keep talking, to think out loud even if it turns out to be increasingly complex and perilous.

Rizi | Days by Tsai Ming-Liang

TWN 2019, Competition
Homegreen Films

Days from Tsai Ming-liang. Homegreen Films

Days by Tsai Ming-liang (in competition) marks the return to fiction after seven years of absence (since stray dogs, in 2013) from another great filmmaker of the plan, of their slow deployment over time. He is equal to himself in his new film where, far from Puiu’s talks, almost no words are spoken. Again, he becomes attached to solitudes that will eventually intersect. In the countryside, a man (Lee Kang-sheng, the filmmaker’s favorite actor since his first film) with tired and slow gestures, seems to be bored and suffering physically, requiring baths, massages and acupuncture sessions; in the city, a younger man, on the contrary, is distinguished by the dexterity of his gestures, especially when he is washing food and cooking it. In the montage that shows them evolving in parallel, elements visible in almost every plane already unite them: water, fire, plants, present in many forms. The film is tied to the meeting of the two men where, for the time of a sensual and then sexual massage, the skillful hands of the first relieve the tired body of the second, until enjoyment. It is very clear and very beautiful, no offense to the impatient.


Domangchin yeoja | The Woman Who Ran | Die Frau, die rannte by Hong Sangsoo

The Woman Who Ran from Hong Sang-soo. Jeonwonsa Film Co. Production

In Hong Sang-soo, the precision and rigor of the plans is not as obvious as in Puiu or Tsai. The Korean filmmaker, who claims Rohmer’s influence, again appears in The Woman Who Ran (presented in competition) a lightness and a simplicity that the frames, panoramas or zooms scrutinize with acuity but without will to artificially embellish their obviousness. A young woman (the magnificent filmmaker’s muse Kim Minhee) takes advantage of her husband’s business trip to visit three former friends. Through their conversations mixing very concrete and material subjects – the price of things, neighborhood problems, food, vegetarianism -, Hong deals in his own way with very contemporary questions, with a humor that gradually turns to melancholy . Ultimately, this film in which the few men who appear are troublesome and essentially filmed from behind, evokes a certain female solitude, chosen or suffered. To cold surveillance camera shots, Hong sets his gaze on the lookout, available to prodigious chances, such as this camera movement which reveals a perfectly placed and attentive cat at the end of a long shot where the stake of the conversation was precisely the presence of cats in the vicinity. A plan so miraculous that it sparked applause in an entire room of criticism in Berlin.

In the recesses of the parallel selections, a few films with modest means made, like Hong Sang-soo, of their economic poverty an engine of freshness and vitality. In Boarding (Panorama section), the new film by Guillaume Brac, declared admirer of the Korean filmmaker, we follow the summer getaway of two friends going to find in the Drôme the conquest of an evening of one of them. As in July tales (2018), Brac turns again with young actors from the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art, rediscovering something of the adventurous spirit of Jacques Rozier’s films but by matching it to the languages, cultures and customs of a very contemporary youth . As always with Brac, under his apparent humility the film is precise and dense, in addition to being funny and extremely endearing.

Magnifying glass

In Isabella (presented to Encounters), the Argentinian Matías Piñeiro films another friendly adventure, but coupled with an ambiguous rivalry. Two young theater actresses apply for the same role, that of Isabella in Measure for measure of William Shakespeare, while the brother of one is the lover of the other. It is a film about envy, in the double sense of the word – desire and jealousy – where the Rivetian play with the theater is made more complex (something new in Piñeiro) by a play with chronology and a formalism which sometimes leads to on an abstraction of colors and shapes. A captivating and confusing film that will perhaps be enjoyed above all by those who already know Piñeiro’s cinema, all the elements of which (theater, friendship, acting, speech) are here reorganized in a more free and mysterious way.

Finally, one of the great discoveries of the festival was A metamorfose dos pássaros, the first feature by Portuguese catarina Vasconcelos (presented at Encounters), shot for less than 100,000 euros. It is a biography of the filmmaker’s own family, of his grandparents and parents, reconstituted in beautiful fine-line shots essentially framing gestures, objects, photographs, and playing on materials, colors, simple visual effects (the recurrent use of a magnifying glass, for example) while voiceovers follow one another to evoke moments in the life of each. Imagine a Cavalier film filmed by Manoel de Oliveira (still him) to get an idea of ​​the beauty and originality of this minimalist and poetic family novel. The kind of unexpected little pearls that we always hope to find in this clutter of films that is a film festival as bloated as the Berlinale.

Marcos Uzal