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Kirill Serebrennikov releases film as trial begins

Jochen Kürten eg
November 7, 2018

As stage and screen director Kirill Serebrennikov goes to trial in Moscow for alleged fraud, the release of his film "Leto" in Germany is a metaphor for resistance. The movie was made under prolonged house arrest.

Filmfestspiele Cannes 2018 | Filmstill «Leto», Kirill Serebrennikow (Russland)
Image: K. Serebrennikow

Kirill Serebrennikov's film Leto will be released in German cinemas on November 8 as the fraud trial of the Russian director enters its second day. Appearing in a Moscow court on Wednesday, Serebrennikov denied embezzlement charges that many have equated with state censorship.

Serebrennikov is accused of embezzling state funds destined for theater productions. The director's many supporters believe, however, that the case is politically motivated and aims to discourage other Russian artists from voicing dissent in their work. The country's authorities have long viewed the iconoclastic director as a nuisance.

"These are obviously repressive measures of intimidation of an absolutely unprecedented and incomprehensible brutality," Russian film critic and journalist Anton Dolin told DW in August.

Author Viktor Yerofeyev also sees it as a "glaring example of a show trial." Serebrennikov's night arrest in Saint Petersburg, his brutal transfer to Moscow, the fact that he must sit in a cage in court, and that his house arrest was extended several times is "a crucifixion," says Yerofeyev.

His house arrest has been renewed shortly before the trial. Serebrennikov is not allowed to leave his apartment in Moscow until April 2019. He is strictly forbidden to talk to the outside world; he is only allowed to have conversations with his lawyer and his father. His internet access has also been blocked.

Director Kirill Serebrennikov imprisoned
Waiting for a hearing: Kirill Serebrennikov in detention in August 2017Image: picture-alliance/A.Zemlianichenko

Productive despite arrest

This all makes the fact that Serebrennikov nevertheless manages to work in this context all the more impressive.

His production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte premiered at the Opernhaus Zurich on November 4. Kirill Serebrennikov managed to direct it remotely despite the house arrest, with the help of his assistant Evgeny Kulagin and by relaying video messages.

The director of the Opernhaus Zurich, Andreas Homoki, said the work had been commissioned before the arrest; his opera house didn't aim to build on a "current political story," he told the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. "Serebrennikov's art should and can talk for itself," he added.

Read more: Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov to complete 'Hänsel and Gretel' despite arrest

And now the director's latest film is also being released in cinemas in Germany and in different European countries. Leto (Russian for "summer") is set in the city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in the 1980s. It tells the story of two musicians, Viktor Zoi (Teo Yoo) and Mike Naumenko (Roma Zver), and the woman between these two men, Natascha Naumenko, Mike's wife, played by Irina Starshenbaum.

Film still Leto: Roma Zver as Mike (l) and Teo Yoo as Viktor sing together
Two charismatic artists on stage: Roma Zver as Mike (l) and Teo Yoo as Viktor in "Leto"Image: picture alliance/Weltkino Filmverleih GmbH/dpa

Leto is based on a true story. Viktor Zoi was a famous singer in the Soviet Union and the founder of the legendary rock band Kino. Mike Naumenko, a few years older, was in the Russian band Aquarium and later started the group Zoopark, which also became a renowned rock band.

Both of them died young. Zoi died in 1990 at the age of 28 in a car accident, while Naumenko died a year later, aged 36, presumably of a heart attack.

Leto depicts the meeting of these two charismatic personalities, showing how they both loved the same woman, while revisiting the music and the concerts of the period preceding the glasnost and the perestroika, showing the youth's rebellion and hopes for a new beginning.

"It is the story of the last summer before the perestroika, before their life completely changed in today's Russia," wrote Serebrennikov about his film in 2017, before it was shot.

Film still Leto: two people standing in front of a bus
"Leto" also portrays the daily life of musiciansImage: picture alliance/Weltkino Filmverleih GmbH/dpa

A universal yet subversive story

Is Leto a political movie? Does the film allow us to better "understand" the Russian authorities' backlash against him? A bit, though not entirely.

Leto essentially tells the story of young people, of their hopes and dreams, their coming of age amidst the expectations of society. It is therefore a universal story that could be similarly told anywhere in the world. 

On the other hand, Leto is a political film because it portrays youth rebelling against the conventions established by their parents' generation. And since Leto is a film about music — including music from the West, which plays a big role in Serebrennikov's work — it is driven by the power and emotion of rock and punk.

Serebrennikov entering court
Followed closely by the police: Kirill Serebrennikov entering court on October 17Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Nemenov

"Serebrennikov's art should and can talk for itself." The statement of the director of the Zurich opera house can also apply to Leto. The film is a work of art but it also contains (politically and socially) subversive messages.

"That's what fascinated me about this story, how innocent and pure it was," said Serebrennikov. His generation remembers the energy of the perestroika well, but "in reality we do not know anything about the generation before ours, about their natural talent to rebel, about their inner flame."

'A film about absolute artistic freedom'

In Leto, the director chose to only portray the stage years of the musicians, not their early, tragic death: "My goal is to make a film about people who are happy and enjoy absolute artistic freedom, despite suppression by the government,"  Serebrennikov said before he started shooting the film. "We are reviving a culture that is unacceptable according to the powerful and the state cultural directives, just as Leningrad 1983 was neither the time nor the place for rock culture in the USSR."

He was arrested in August 2017 and later put under house arrest. He could only complete the film shoot remotely, helped by his assistants.

He could not attend the Cannes Film Festival either, where his film premiered in 2018.

A protester at the premiere of the film Leto in Cannes
Support actions also took place at the premiere of "Leto" in CannesImage: picture-alliance/abaca/A. Marechal

Many petitions were sent to the Russian authorities in support of the director. The over 54,000 signatories of the "Free Kirill Serebrennikov" petition published on the platform Change.org include Oscar-winning director Volker Schlöndorff, Literature Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek and Hollywood star Cate Blanchett.

At his last hearing in court, Serebrennikov thanked his supporters in Russia and abroad: "People always tell me 'hang in there'  —  and I am immensely grateful to all people for their support. I am grateful for their belief in my honesty and decency, in my complete innocence. But I want to say this: dear friends, 'hang in there' too. I am already in the millstones, I understand how soulless they are, they are meaningless, mean, foolish and ruthless. I am a free man and I will do everything to prevent these millstones from grinding me."