WEST BERLIN — The Russians have come, the Russians have come, carrying West for the first time Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness) as it applies to cinema. The 37th Berlin Film Festival, which concludes Wednesday, is witnessing a surprisingly intense, dramatic--some might say democratic-- Soviet participation.
Two feature films from the U.S.S.R. previously shelved by hostile government officials have already been shown before packed houses at West Berlin's mammoth Zoo-Palast Theater.
The first, "Theme," deals with a long-forbidden topic of literary artists in the Soviet Union who are stopped from being published. The second, "Heartless Grief," is a complex and stylized retelling of George Bernard Shaw's drama "Heartbreak House," in which a bunch of boozy, sexually obsessed Russian aristocrats complain about their lives while World War I explodes outside their estate.
These once-out-of-favor films are now the Soviet's choices for the official competition. If that wasn't enough of a turnaround, the Soviets also used the strategic fest to showcase a nearly two-hour documentary, "Chernobyl," filmed on-the-spot soon after the 1986 nuclear disaster.
"Chernobyl" features potent footage of local citizenry destroying their radiated goods and interviews with victims affected tragically by the accident. In the film's most vivid small moment, a Ukrainian fisherman reels in a beautiful fish--then wonders if his catch is radioactive.
"Chernobyl shows clearly that we were not prepared for such an accident," explained Pravda film critic Andre Plachov. "For me, the main idea of the film is that all people must start thinking about taking precautions in the future against the dangers of atomic plants."
Plachov, a 10-year veteran of Pravda, was chosen last May by the ruling Secretariat to serve as chairman of the newly created Commission for Solving Conflicts in the Arts. The 20-member body of film critics, directors and screenwriters meet and arbitrate the fate of Soviet pictures--including animation, documentaries and TV movies--that have run afoul of bureaucracy.
Plachov was at the festival to speak publicly about the Soviet entries but agreed to an exclusive private interview away from the Soviet delegation. Speaking through a translator, he talked enthusiastically about the liberalized situation for cinema in the Gorbachev-led Soviet Union, seemingly unworried about being misquoted or misrepresented and getting in trouble with his government.
"In the months that we have been looking at films," Plachov said proudly, "I can say that we have not had a single picture which we have blocked. We no longer have a situation like that of 'Theme,' which was put away for seven years before being shown."
Obviously, the Commission for Conflicts, as Plachov abbreviates it, can only function because it has the tacit approval of Mikhail Gorbachev.
"We do support the New Society, and what Mr. Gorbachev is saying," Plachov noted. "We stay in contact with him, and I know he supports our work. I believe also that Mr. Gorbachev is personally interested in the cinema. I know that he is particularly interested in the film 'Matjora' ("Goodbye"), made by Elem Klimov.
"I don't know why he likes the film exactly. But in a discussion, Mr. Gorbachev was telling us all about it."
(Klimov, whose war epic "Come and See" played recently at Los Angeles' Fox International Theater, will lead a delegation of directors, writers and actors to Hollywood and New York in late March. They will stop in L.A. at the Directors Guild, Writers Guild and the American Film Institute.)
It is in describing his Pravda position that Plachov begins to sound a bit utilitarian, the Western stereotype of a Leninist cultural worker: "I choose a group of films which are of a kind and I try to discuss the tendencies in them which are weak. At Pravda, we concentrate on films which are important, which have lots of meaning. We also choose films which might be considered bad works and yet have problems which should be discussed."
But scratch farther, and Plachov the cinema enthusiast emerges, a person of nonconformist global tastes. He loves the films of Visconti, Truffaut, Bergman, even Fassbinder. Of American directors, he admires Penn, Altman, Bogdanovich. And, he added, he really likes "Easy Rider."