The State Memorial and Natural Preserve "Museum-estate of Leo Tolstoy "Yasnaya Polyana"
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Aleksei Uchitel: “I Would Choose Anna Karenina Without Any Hesitation”

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On December 16, Aleksei Uchitel presented his new film, Mathilde, at Yasnaya Polyana. On that day, we talked to the director and learned about his experience filming in museums and his attitude to Anna Karenina.

You have just presented your film to the audience. Are such meetings important for you? What does the audience feedback give you?

Such meetings are immensely rewarding. Having talked to various audiences, you understand what problems there are in the film, what can be unclear to the spectator, what doesn’t work, and what you managed to do well. You analyse your film, since articles by critics are not always objective – they do not always evaluate only the film itself. For me, spectators’ remarks are very important.

You filmed Mathilde in palace museums – the Alexander, the Catherine, and many others. What is it like to make films in museums?

We filmed in practically all the palaces in St. Petersburg, except the Winter Palace. And the Mariinsky Theater is also almost a historic stage-museum. It is very difficult to film in a museum, to be honest. Because previous filmmakers have not always behaved properly. Because museum professionals have a very cautious attitude. There was the strictest control. For example, when we were filming in Tsarskoye Selo, the museum’s deputy director was there with us all the time, and museum employees followed us everywhere. But not everything went smoothly.

Will you tell us more about it?

We filmed a big and complicated scene at the Alexander Palace, with a shot of a very long duration – Nicholas II is walking with ministers and officials and they are discussing the construction of the port. While talking, they walk through the halls, and in the middle of one of those halls there was a huge marble vase on a base. And a camera on a special cart on rubber wheels was filming their passage. And it’s necessary to get around the vase. During one of the takes, the people who were pushing the cart miscalculated the angle and hit the marble base. A little piece broke off.

What happened then?

It was awful. The women working as museum attendants almost fainted, one of them was almost ill, and the others burst out sobbing. We were kicked out. Then a special commission was appointed, and we were issued a huge bill… The incident finished more or less smoothly. Of course, we restored the vase. So, it’s certainly not easy to film in museums.

And speaking of you as a museum visitor, what museums do you go to? What do you focus your  attention on in the first place?

I must admit, I can‘t say I often visit museums. Especially within the last four years, due to being so busy. But I’m interested in seeing something new. The Museum of Russian Impressionism recently opened in Moscow. I saw a poster about Mikhail Shemyakin’s exhibition, and in my innocence, I aksed in that museum: is Mikhail Shemyakin an Impressionist? He doesn’t really fit in with Impressionism. With a smile, they told me – no, but there is another Mikhail Shemyakin, who was an Impressionist. It was absolutely unexpected and interesting.

And what stands out most of all in your memory about Yasnaya Polyana?

During my previous visit to Yasnaya Polyana, it was Vladimir Tolstoy who was my tour guide, and that continues to make an impression on me. He told me about Leo Tolstoy‘s youngest son, Vanechka. Of course, it is a tragic story, but it is also awfully interesting, a cinematic story. It was at that point, it seems to me, where many contradictions converged, which later affected the life of Leo Tolstoy’s whole family. At Yasnaya Polyana, ideas for films can be prompted by the museum life or by history itself.

Do you mean to say Leo Tolstoy interests you as a character of a biographical film?

Of course. For example, I was so struck by Pavel Basinsky‘s book about Leo Tolstoy that I met with him and suggested that he should work on some kind of scenario about Tolstoy. But so far, these are just ideas.

And is there a work by Tolstoy you would like to make a film of?

If I were told right now to make a choice, I wouldn‘t think twice, and would choose Anna Karenina. I don’t know a more poignant story of love, both emotional and sensual. I had such a wish as far back as ten years ago, and periodically I come back to it. I can imagine all the characters and Anna Karenina herself very well. I can even say: there is a scene of a horserace and someone falling off a horse in Mathilde. Not quite on purpose, but still.

And the last question. Which of Tolstoy‘s characters do you feel closest to?

I understand female characters better. Anna Karenina, for instance. She is a character who can be interpreted, due to her complexity, quite differently, both in negative and positive ways, which I like a lot. She comes close to the abyss, she has to decide on a new course, but there isn’t one. It’s frightening when you don’t know what to do. But you are the only one who can decide which path to take, and both your own life and that of your family depend on it. In Mathilde, the future emperor also makes a choice, one that was personally very painful. So, for me Anna Karenina is a very profound work. 

The video and audio recordings of Aleksei Uchitel‘s conversation with the audience can be found on our channel on YouTube and on our page in SoundCloud.



 
 
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