After Seven Years Gleb Panfilov's Film, Tema, Sees Daylight at Last and Wrests An Award from Platoon

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the Russia before Gorbachev, it was a scene bound to catch the attention of film censors. A Jewish writer, whose politically unacceptable works have forced him to find a job as a gravedigger tells his girlfriend that he is planning to emigrate. She pleads with him to reconsider: "This is your home. A writer cut off from his own country is dead." Despairing and angry, he strikes her to the ground and gives forth a cri de coeur for all artists who live and work under a threat of censorship: "Death is living in a country where one cannot practice the craft that gives one life."

Gleb Panfilov, one of the Soviet Union's most innovative directors, wrapped that film, Tema (the theme), in 1979. It had been previously approved and funded by Goskino, the state film agency, but after it went to Goskino for review, months passed with no news. Panfilov and his friends began to press officials for an explanation. "I was never given any comprehensible answer," says the softspoken director. "Only once did I receive a reasonable reply. One official told me he had watched it twice and thought it was very good, although shocking. 'Your film is very emotional,' he said. 'Therefore we cannot release it. You must wait.' "

He waited seven years. Then last June Panfilov was summoned to the movie distribution agency. "They said that the film was being released and wanted to discuss what month would be suitable and what kind of advertisements should appear," he says. "It was as if nothing had happened."

In fact, of course, Gorbachev's "openness" had happened, and the change was nowhere more evident than in the Soviet film industry. Last May the first secretary of the Union of Cinematographers, Lev Kulidzhanov, was ousted and replaced by the popular director, Yelem Klimov. He created a commission that began releasing previously censored movies and investigating injustices, among them several broken lives and careers. "I will tell you what kind of man Klimov is," confides Panfilov. "He turned down the special coupons," which are bestowed on high officials for food and consumer goods unavailable to ordinary workers. Even though Soviet audiences are seeing only a cut version of Tema, Goskino entered the uncut version in the West Berlin International Film Festival last month, where it beat out Platoon for the Golden Bear Award. Says Panfilov: "Things are totally different now."

Panfilov, 52, readily discussed the past one afternoon in the luxurious sitting room of Moscow's Komsomol Theater, where he was directing a production of Hamlet, starring his wife, Inna Churikova (who played the role of the Jewish writer's girlfriend in Tema). "It was a tough situation," he says of the period following the film's suppression. "I realized that my future plans to make films about real life, modern life, were in fact unrealizable. I understood that no action taken by me or anyone else would have any effect."

Panfilov still wanted Tema's treatment of artistic compromise to reach the public. "In Tema I had an idea for this story of an artist, not necessarily a writer, but maybe a director or an actor who realizes that he knows the truth but does not write it or anything of value," says Panfilov. The movie's main character, unlike the would-be émigré, is a writer whose accommodations to the regime have made him a member of the elite. In the opening scene he drives his car across a lonely winter landscape, and as he glances in the rearview mirror, he cannot meet the gaze of his own empty eyes, corrupted by years of privilege. Though the subject wouldn't startle a moviegoer in New York, audiences in Moscow have been stunned. "It's about the crash of a man," said one woman, emerging from seeing Tema one afternoon in Moscow. "The film was not made artificially beautiful. That's new for us."

What was new to the censors was such a blunt look at the dilemma of the Soviet artist. Although some non-Soviet critics have reported that the theme of Tema is Jewish emigration, Panfilov says they miss the point. "The film was not shelved because of the emigration scene. It was because of the artist's problem of choice, not an easy thing for an honest person in any society, including ours."

Panfilov, raised in the town of Magnitogorsk in the Urals, had already chosen a career as an engineer when he discovered film. "One evening I went to a movie. It was Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying. It was so powerful that I decided then to study cinema." With some friends, the engineer made a short, then entered the Cinematography Institute in Moscow. He finished in 1964, and after two more years of studying directing as a graduate student, he joined the Leningrad Film Studio, Lenfilm. Panfilov opted to make movies that were small, human tableaux (The Debut and Forgive My Words), avoiding the easy heroic propaganda films made by many Soviet directors.

It was during the casting of his first feature-length film that Panfilov met his current wife, Inna, an encounter both describe as "mystical." Says Panfilov: "I had drawn my own picture of the heroine, Tanya Tiyotkina. I distributed it to my assistants to help narrow the search. One day I turned on the TV and saw the face of an extraordinary girl with huge eyes and an expression I could not easily understand. Like a detective, I began to track her."

By chance, a director from Lenfilm showed Panfilov's script to a young actress friend, Inna Churikova, who was studying at the prestigious Schepkin Theater School in Moscow. "I remember sitting down in the kitchen with the script and not being able to put it down," recalls Churikova. "I went to Leningrad to audition."

Several weeks later Inna found herself reading for the part when Panfilov walked into the room. "I looked and stopped, astonished," he says, "because it was the woman I was looking for." Inna remembers with a laugh: "I thought he was supposed to be young. He was very serious, with wrinkles. I was 10 years younger and startled by his elderliness."

Panfilov and Churikova, now married for 19 years, live in a comfortable four-room apartment in the rolling Lenin Hills south of Moscow. A picture window opens onto a scene of children playing in the park. To the left are the gothic spires of Moscow State University. Books about theater line the walls, and Gleb proudly shows a biography of Inna that has just been published. Their precocious 8-year-old son, Vanya, offers to pour the Russian cabernet for guests. "This was Stalin's favorite wine," he announces. "My grandmother told me so." Like any Hollywood offspring he bounds around the room, asking, "Do you know that my mother is a famous actress and my father is a famous director?"

It will be some years before Vanya understands all the reasons that his father is famous in the Soviet Union. Perhaps it will be the day when Panfilov sits his young son down and explains why Tema was banned for seven years. He may explain his hero's dilemma to Vanya as he did to us: "There is either truth or lie. Sometimes fear results when one speaks the truth. But a director, a playwright, an actor or just a person must decide for himself if he will speak the truth or lies."

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