286: The Village Detective (2021)

Archival Spaces 286

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021)

Uploaded 7 January 2022

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021, Bill Morrison)

A couple of years ago I contributed to an anthology on the filmmaker Bill Morrison, The Films of Bill Morrison (2017), edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, and I have been a big fan of Bill’s since he first showedDecasia (2002), his feature-length avant-garde meditation on nitrate decomposition. So I was particularly excited when at the Orphans Film Symposium in May 2020 (Archival Spaces 244, https://archivalspaces.com/blog-feed/page/5/), Morrison showed a sneak preview of his film, The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021). Like Decasia, it is a film that revels in the beauty of decomposed, in this case, water-damaged film, and the abstract patterns of light and shadow it creates, all of it accompanied by a beautiful accordion-based score by David Lang.

Mikhail Zharov as Aniskin, the village cop

However, the film begins with film clips of the Soviet Russian actor Mikhail Zharov (1899-1981) being interviewed by himself, utilizing clips from his many films. Only then do we see a green underwater shot, looking up at the play of light on the surface, while the filmmaker relates receiving an email in 2016 from Iceland about the recovery of four reels of film from the ocean floor.  As the shot continues, a metal barrel is dropped into the ocean and sinks slowly to the bottom, while the opening credits appear. In the interviews and clips that follow, the audience learns that the four reels discovered by an Icelandic trawler, Fróði, are from a 1969 Soviet film, The Village Detective, a film that is neither lost nor even important, according to Russian film historian Peter Bagrov. Indeed, a restored print of the film (which exists in Gosfilmofond, the Moscow film archive) would probably bore people out of their minds.

The Village Detective

Bill Morrison’s strategy is different, namely to show very long clips of the damaged film, but only those sections that advance the main plot, concerning a Soviet police officer in a small village attempting to find a stolen accordion. While the image appears and disappears as water damage dissolves up to 90% of the film emulsion, and the Russian language track is sometimes heard, but mostly only seen in subtitles, the eye is fascinated by the abstract patterns and ghostly figures moving in and out of the frame. Intercut with this damaged footage, are intact scenes of Mikhail Zharov from the many films in which he appeared over a 60+ year career, many including songs the actor performed.

The White Eagle (1928, Yakov Protozanov)
The Road to Life (1931, Nikolai Ekk)

Zharov, who was an extremely popular actor and even had a Russian stamp printed with his likeness in 2001, began his career as an extra in 1915. He made his official film debut in 1924 in Yakov Protazanhov’s science fiction masterpiece, Aelita, and was then seen regularly in films of the Mezhrabpom-Rus, including Nikolai Ekk’s Road to Life (1931), the Soviet Union’s first talking picture, which made the actor a star. From that point, Zharov became a fixture in the socialist realist cinema of Stalin’s Soviet Union, appearing in more than fifty films, mostly as a character actor. According to Bagrov, His acting was only good when he had a strong hand to guide him, like Sergei Eisenstein in Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1946-58), where he played Czar Ivan’s guard.

The Return of Maxim (1937, Grigoriy Kozinstev, Leonid Trauberg)
Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1946/1958, Sergei Eisenstein)

Morrison juxtaposes film clips of Zharov in Outskirts (1933), Thunderstorm (1935), Comrades (1936), The Return of Maxim (1937), Peter I (1937),  The Bear (1938), New Horizons (1939), Engineer Kochin’s Error (1939),  Fortress on the Volga (1942), in which he often appeared as a thief or other shady, i.e. bourgeois, character or as a singer with a guitar or accordion. Never a hero of the revolution or a good comrade, Zharov is identified as the Soviet Union’s “most beloved iconoclast actor.” He was even blacklisted for a period in the early 1950s because his wife was the daughter to a physician implicated in the infamous “doctors’ trials” of 1949. In other words, the film is neither about a great actor nor a great lost film.

The Village Detective

So what makes the film so fascinating? Both at the beginning and the end of The Village Detective Zharov mentions that he is interested in how life gets woven into art and how art reflects life. Morrison is fascinated how four reels of a no-name Russian film reappear from the bottom of the ocean – he cites a second film, Lenin is Alive (1958) was dredged up from the ocean by a Danish trawler in 1976 – creating a massively damaged, but also visually beautiful film artifact, life creating art; much of the time we only see abstract patterns in brown and sepia with ghost-like images peeking through, but also the perforations and remains of the optical track; as with broken Greek pottery, our mind’s eye fills in the images, but we also remain ever cognizant of the materiality of film. Finally, Morrison is also interested in a forgotten film career from a now-discredited era of film history, produced in a now archaic medium of celluloid, his compiled films reflecting the reality of life under a communist dictatorship, yet always a bit contrary and off. In his final role as Aniskin as the wise old village cop, Mikhail Zharov does get to play a hero; accordingly, the scene of him finding the accordion is taken from the restored print.   

The Village Detective

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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