Berlinale: Dovlatov (2018)

Alexey German Jr.’s character study of a great Russian writer in Dovlatov encapsulates its time period superbly, but fails to go beyond that.

As Fleeting As Fog

by Gus Edgar


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

One of the early contenders for the Golden Bear, Alexey German Jr.’s Dovlatov is a film that plays to festival audiences, for better or for worse. It depicts six days in the life of the great writer Sergei Dovlatov, who struggled to publish his work against the oppressive backdrop of ’70s Soviet Russia. Impressively unorthodox as far as biopics are concerned, bit-part characters flit in and out of Dovlatov’s life, serving to muster up a hazy atmosphere without materialising as fully fledged humans. And why should they? The exact traits of their character are hardly relevant; they’re not even constructs, they’re fog machines.

Though while the film may be laden with a thick, suffocating mist, German Jr. and Yulia Tupinika’s script goes out of its way to rid the film of most of its subtext. Dovlatov is overloaded with exposition: it begins with the figure narrating the state of the world and exactly how he fits into it, and doesn’t let up from then on in, explaining away his feelings of discontent and melancholia at every turn.

Which may be just as well, because Dovlatov’s characterisation is hardly defined. With German Jr.’s direction and in Milan Maric’s shoes, the Russian writer is infuriatingly bland, speaking in a monotone that echoes the mono-coloured palette of the film. Sure, it’s keeping within the confines of Dovlatov’s consistent mood, but there needs to be something to cut across the defeatism, otherwise the film remains one-note.

There are at least attempts to do so; not least in Dovlatov’s consistent stabs at humour, but the jokes are comprised of wry jabs that, if you aren’t too well versed in Russian literature, are destined to go over your head. It’s a film unafraid to namedrop, but one that forsakes a degree of accessibility.

The film is far more engaging when read as a meta-commentary on the film-making process: the difficulty in getting certain films made, and the pressure of conforming to the general public’s desires. One character urges Dovlatov to write about epics and heroes; the parallels are hardly flimsy.

The script is though: Dovlatov’s main takeaway is the defeatism/militant repression that plagued 1970s Russia, and the idea that art, no matter its current predicaments, will eventually find a place in society. This is all ably conveyed, but the film doesn’t go beyond this threadbare premise.

Cinematographer Lukasz Zal employs a series of tracking shots to tell this particular story. They would be technically impressive if fine-tuned, but are plagued with a stuttering camera and a (dis)array of extras that don’t bother to avoid its gaze. In any case, quite what the effect of this technique Zal and German Jr. have in mind for Dovlatov is anyone’s guess; it serves to distract more than it does aid.

Dovlatov is an almost experimental biopic that ends up underwhelming, in spite of the fact that it picks up and gradually builds to a fine crescendo following its initial sleepy start. It manages to hold on to its intrigue, if little else, but there’s not enough substance or subtext for German Jr.’s film to make an impression. Riddled with expository issues and a central character as dull as the film’s colour grading, this Golden Bear contender arrives and leaves with a Russian-inflected whimper.

Dovlatov is now showing at the 68th Berlin Film Festival.

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