Potentially Most Explosive: Ilyich’s Gate
In terms of potential energy, Ilyich’s Gate was the most explosive Soviet movie of the 60s. I say potential energy here because the film never got its moment to crash onto the scene and shake things up. Instead, it slowly burned out with the cooling temperatures of the new stagnation brought on by the Brezhnev era. Ilyich’s Gate, as director Marlen Khutsiev conceived it, was to be the defining statement on the energized but disillusioned youth culture that embodied Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw.
Taking his camera to the streets of what is now the Tagansky District of Moscow (and the titular neighbourhood has also reverted back to its pre-Revolution name, Rogozhskaya Zastava Square), Khutsiev and cinematographer Margarita Pilikhina sought to poetically capture the continuity of Soviet history through the spirit of a moment as embodied by its youth. The title is key here: while “zastava” can mean “gate” as is often translated in the case of the neighbourhood, it also can mean “guard”. The film is centred around the troubles of three 20-something boys, each a personification of some part of Khutsiev’s own life: one his work life, another his home life, and the last the one he hoped he could become. Khutsiev observes a cycling through history, where the youth of yesterday clash with the youth today, while both still embody the same revolutionary spirit. Now, I don’t want to dive too deep into the complexities of the story and its ideological roots here as I already have in a much longer essay for Frameland two years ago, but suffice to say that for Khutsiev, these boys, the Soviet youth, are literally very literally “Lenin’s guard”. What I do feel needs to be cleared up (and is one of the hardest parts about covering Ilyich’s Gate) is its complex and often contradictory history of cuts and reshoots. Here I’d like to construct for you the clearest timeline that I can about the movie’s different versions:
Originally shot in 1961, Ilyich’s Gate was virtually completed in 1962 with a runtime of 197 minutes. Despite its powerful champions (including the Minister of Culture), the censors deemed it unacceptable and Khrushchev even went as far as to personally attack the film during the waning days of his leadership, where he had a change of heart on his previously lenient attitudes on art. Khutsiev was forced to spend the next couple of years reshooting and recutting the film, sometimes in compliance with the censors, sometimes not. It was first seen publicly in its retitled version, I Am Twenty (1965) which, from what I can gather, was paired down to just about 90 minutes. Despite this it still walked away with the Special Jury Prize at the 23rd Venice Film Festival. Nevertheless, I Am Twenty remained on the shelf until perestroika, when in 1989 Khutsiev had the opportunity to put together a new “director’s cut” where he combined elements of both the original cut and vast reshoots. The final film was released in 1990 and ran 164 minutes. It is currently the only version on DVD and digital, and is the one most viewers are familiar with. However, one final confusion comes from the runtimes advertised in most festival screenings and retrospectives (I was actually initially mistaken about which cut IFFR was playing because of this) as this director’s cut is sometimes labelled with either title of the film and can be advertised as running either 164 minutes or 189. Since this difference in runtime usually comes down to whether or not it’s being shown physically or digitally, and I haven’t found any sourcing on a potential fourth version, I think it’s safe to assume the difference is that one is accounting for a 15 minute intermission between the film’s two chapters. What’s more, with only an 8 minute difference between the cuts, there’s likely very little difference between the two film’s broad strokes, most of the change is probably in the synthesizing of the original with the reshoots. This is also the most common version and the one we have playing at IFFR.
It’s at once a shame that the movie has to exist in this wacko narrative of censorship, shelving, and cuts, but incidentally it has turned the film into an even greater reflection of the Soviet system than it ever thought it was. Josephine Woll, the preeminent English-language scholar on this era of Soviet filmmaking, summed it up nicely in saying that, “Inevitably, the Soviet Union that watched it was not the same society as the one in which, and for which, Khutsiev had made his film.” While its messages may have been for a USSR that had come and gone the first time it got released, it is more valuable now as a cultural artefact than maybe it ever could’ve been then. It’s a dangerous game reflecting on youth culture as it’s happening, as it’s always built on the fleeting and fluid way in which the young interact with time, and the old systems can never conceivably be enough at pace to meaningfully say something while it is still happening. Ilyich’s Gate at least tries, and tries beautifully.