Evidence of Russia’s rich literary past still exists in its cities. I once spent a strikingly hot summer in St. Petersburg and walked through the locations in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. On Grazhdanskaya Street there is an apartment where the main character, Raskolnikov, is said to have lived, and which now bears a plaque: Dom Raskolnikova – House of Raskolnikov. Not far away, high up on a wall on Voznesensky Prospect, is a sculpture of a nose—a gesture to Nikolai Gogol’s novel The Nose.
“In Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s film ‘A Room and A Half’ (2009), we are taken ‘back’ to Brodsky’s Leningrad in the only way the poet, exiled at the age of thirty-two, could revisit it: through memory and imagination.”
The poetry of Joseph Brodsky too points to Russia’s rich literary history, which now not only exists in the places that inspired it, but in a film that has reimagined it. Joseph Brodsky left Leningrad, modern-day St. Petersburg, in 1972 and never returned to Russia, the place of his birth. In Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s film A Room and a Half (2009), we are taken ‘back’ to Brodsky’s Leningrad in the only way the poet, exiled at the age of thirty-two, could revisit it: through memory and imagination. We visit the city through Brodsky’s memories as he takes an imagined voyage home aboard a large ship across the Atlantic. It’s an encounter that feels acutely personal to the poet, while constantly gesturing to the city’s rich, artistic culture.
The title of the film is taken from a long essay published by Brodsky in The New York Review of Books in the winter of 1986. Khrzhanovsky and Yuriy Arabov, the film’s writers, have drawn heavily on the text. In an interview for the British Film Institute, Khrzhanovsky says—upon reading Brodsky’s essay— “I realised that it was about me and for me. We lived at the same time in the same country in the same environment.” Perhaps it is this sentiment that enables the filmmaker to represent Leningrad/St. Petersburg through such a personal lens.
“A journey is the best time for memories,” declares Brodsky at the film’s opening. The poet has been in America for twenty years. He took up a post at the University of Michigan in 1972 and several other universities thereafter. In 1987 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature while remaining a poet in exile.
The domestic sphere forms the focal point of the film. Each view of the city appears, so to speak, outside the apartment windows of Brodsky’s childhood. In his essay ‘In A Room and a Half’ Brodsky describes the apartment:
Our room and a half was part of a huge enfilade—the Russian word for a suite of apartments—one third of a block in length, on the northern side of a six-story building that faced three streets and a square at the same time. The building was one of those tremendous cakes in so-called Moorish style that in northern Europe marked the turn of the century. Erected in 1903, the year of my father’s birth, it was then the architectural sensation of St. Petersburg.
After the Revolution in 1918, such enfilade apartments were broken up into single-room apartments, one for each family. Brodsky’s parents managed to get a ‘room and a half’, since they had to give up two separate apartments to move into the communal one (Brodsky’s essay makes a few wry stabs at the bizarre logic of Soviet property dispersal).
Among these factual and historical layers, however, the fictional layers of memory and imagination signify this film’s creative inspiration. Khrzhanovsky’s view plays with truth, blending documentary representation, passages from Brodsky’s essay, and purely imagined scenes—both filmed and animated. It is when the film ventures deeply into a fictional portrayal that Khrzhanovsky arguably attains the greatest truths. It’s a notion as old as Aristotle: that there are historical, factual truths, but that there are also poetic, imaginative truths that exist through art.
Scenes alternate between black and white, sepia, colour and animation, and each of these carries important meaning. Black and white scenes are either real footage, or used to represent things that Brodsky struggles to remember or finds difficult to confront. His trial under Brezhnev’s repressive regime, resulting in Brodsky’s expulsion from the Soviet Union, for example, is purely reconstructed in black and white, yet made to look like documentary footage. On the other hand, a scene of Brodsky’s parents dancing across their room and a half, watched by their child son, is awash in sepia; mirrored later as two animated crows dancing across a frozen lake. Real black and white footage of the city in deep winter is overlaid with sparkling animated snowfall. Khrzhanovsky is well-known as an animator as well as a film and documentary maker.
In what is perhaps the most visually striking scene, a young Brodsky gazes outside his window and we follow the sky as musical instruments—an orchestra’s worth of violins, cellos and French horns, along with a wooden piano—rise up and float away, out of the city. Such reminders of the richness, and the persecution, of St. Petersburg’s artistic culture are woven throughout the film.
And, finally, Brodsky arrives in the impossible city: Russia today. Scenes move in fast colour frames: mobile phones, graffiti, crowds of foreign tourists stream in and out. This city is an impossible one for Brodsky, for he died in 1992 aged 55, having never returned to Russia. Yet there are two crows hopping around this imagined city, echoes of his dancing parents who were never permitted to leave the Soviet Union to visit their son. He watches the crows closely, just as he gazes at his parents when he sits down once more for a meal in their apartment. This impossible thread, the what-ifs of history and the emotional weight of what was never able to be, shows the ability of fiction to portray its own dense, imaginative truths.
It’s a thread that could be symbolised by the peculiar, remarkable beauty of grainy footage of Leningrad in winter, where computer-generated snow falls across, but never touches, the real thing.
A Room and a Half by Andrei Khrzhanovsky (2009), 130 minutes, Russia