In the Footsteps of Anna Akhmatova: Helga Olshvang Landauer's Cinema as a Form of Poetry

Helga Olshvang Landauer
BY Zachary Deretsky

Born in Moscow, HELGA OLSHVANG LANDAUER creates films as passionately as she writes poetry. After graduating from the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in 1990, she worked on different screenplay projects for feature films, animation and documentaries. As a director, her films include Being Far from Venice (1998), Objects in Mirror are Closer than They Appear (2002), A Journey of Dmitry Shostakovich (2006, co-directed with Oksana Dvornichenko), and A Film About Anna Akhmatova (2008), which has been screened at international film festivals like Madrid Documenta (Spain), Full Frame (USA), FIFA (Canada), and at major cultural venues such as the Louvre Auditorium in Paris, Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Carnegie Hall and Baryshnikov Art Center in New York. Her newest film, Diversions, was completed in 2009.

Landauer writes poetry in both Russian and English. Author of three collections in Russian, namely 96th Book (Composer Publishing House, 1996), The Reed (Pushkinskiy Fond, 2003) and Poetry Works (Puschkinskiy Fond, 2004), her poems were also translated into Swedish, English and Vietnamese. Now residing in Palo Alto, California, she continues her parallel trajectory of film-making and writing, reconciling the two artistic expressions with one unchanged desire: rendering poetry alive. Visit her website at www.helgaolshvang.com.

The editor would like to thank the producer, Darya Zhuk, for her assistance.

What did it personally signify for you to revive onscreen a literary portrait as emblematic of conflicts in the twentieth century as Anna Akhmatova? What may this perspective offer a contemporary viewer — particularly for a total stranger to poetry?

The twentieth century, particularly in Russia, offers some of history’s most dramatic examples of conflict between the individual artist and the state. Being an artist in this totalitarian society meant, among other challenges, facing tough moral decisions; a creative choice had the ability to change one’s fate as well as the fate of family and friends. A few words of poetry written on a piece of paper could become a reason for arrests, executions, and martyrdom. Akhmatova was not a dissident, but her mere existence, the scale of her words seemed to be percieved as a direct challenge to the system.

In today’s cultural space, poetry followed the retreating paths of philosophy of wizards: it is seen neither as a sacred gift nor as a form of revelation. The majestic image of the poet is long gone, as well as those who used to point at Dante and say, ‘Look, he came back from hell.'”

Her story may offer contemporary viewers a different sense of scale of human and artistic endeavor. In the film, Anatoly Naiman stresses that the value of the poet’s word itself has significantly changed after her departure, and I begin to understand why he feels this way. In today’s cultural space, poetry followed the retreating paths of philosophy of wizards: it is seen neither as a sacred gift nor as a form of revelation. The majestic image of the poet is long gone, as well as those who used to point at Dante and say, “Look, he came back from Hell.”

No matter how thoroughly we study historical materials and memoirs of contemporaries, it is not possible to understand the life of another, let alone understand what it was like to live a life such as Akhmatova’s. For this reason, I deliberately wanted to avoid definitions as much as possible. For me it was a challenge to maintain this film as a live journey, a process of thought, a long glance at the distant, departed world, rather than making another journalistic biography about a victim of the Soviet terror. And as someone who writes poetry, I was personally captivated by a chance to explore the immense power of words.

Through certain figures in the film (e.g. the caretaker of Akhmatova’s house), one feels the affective and literary attachment between the Russian people and the writer, an attachment that seems to have survived its persecution of the Sovietic regime. What is it precisely?

Spinoza in his “Appendix, continens cogita metaphysica” wrote a fascinating phrase: “…the imagined existence may — accidentally — be the true one…” The revelatory potential of a world imagined by writers has had a strong appeal to many generations of Russian intellectuals. The works of Russian writers have long been examined not just for aesthetic qualities, but also for spiritual guidance. This trend intensified in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and was further heightened and complicated in the Soviet era when ideas of a spiritual search were dismissed and absent in officially sanctioned literature and discourse.


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