Along with Eldar Ryazanov and Leonid Gaidai, Georgiy Daneliya, now 88, is one of the greatest comic filmmakers of the Soviet era. He describes his own genre as “sad comedy,”expertly balancing a warmhearted approach to characterization with a certain melancholy undertow. Yet, with his work never distributed outside of the Eastern Bloc, except for Finland, and in the case of Kin-dza-dza! (1986), Japan, he is more deserving than any other Soviet director of critical reappraisal.
Soviet comedies in general, and Daneliya's comedies in particular, are often characterized by a certain naïveté, yet a simplicity in approach shouldn’t be confused with simple-mindedness. Instead, like in an Yasujiro Ozu movie, this plainness becomes a style in itself, a way of strengthening a story though seeming to do less. Slyly subverting the demands of a state-run studio system, this naïve approach allowed Daneliya's complex characterizations to nest themselves matryoshka doll-like inside superficially straightforward stories.
Born in Tbilisi to a Georgian family in 1930, Daneliya got his first break by playing small roles in films directed by his uncle, Mikhail Chiaureli. Then in 1956, after a brief stint as an architect, he took a Higher Director Course at the Mosfilm Studio under the pupillage of The Cranes are Flying (1957) director Mikhail Kalatozov. His first feature film was Seryozha (1960), an adaptation of the Vera Panova novel, which he co-directed with Igor Talenkin.
Seryozha may be a straightforward bildungsroman, but it is a vision of childhood as strong as The 400 Blows (1959) or The Spirit of The Beehive (1973). In seeing the adult world through the eyes of a child, it already saw Daneliya understand the power of perspective, and how simplicity can often be a director’s greatest strength. It was a lesson that would help him create one of the finest, most diverse canons in Russian cinema.
There is nothing really showy about the camerawork in Seryozha, yet the framing of each scene heightens how our central protagonist is meant to process the world. The camera often shoots from the protagonist Seryozha’s (Boris Barkhatov) eye-level, allowing us to experience things as he does. It is a limited perspective, with almost nothing shown outside of what Seryozha sees. Then, when adults tell him off, or he is told something he doesn’t understand, the perspective changes, and the little boy is shot from above, dwarfed by the adults around him. This is contrasted by outside scenes, where Seryozha is often shot against the sky like an epic hero, imbuing even the simplest activities with grandeur. Learning the lessons of Kalatozov and the way camerawork can be used to heighten emotion to a fever pitch, Seryozha’s humble life is imbued with a certain weight usually missing in conventional coming-of-age stories. It made sense he started with a coming-of-age story, as this seemingly childlike perspective would serve Danileya well throughout the years, leading to his unique mixture of wacky comedies, satires and melancholic character portraits.
With his third film, Walking the Streets of Moscow (1963), released in the middle of the Khrushchev Thaw, Daneliya provided his own take on the French New Wave, departing from conventional Soviet realism in favor of something far more optimistic and bright. Employing Vadim Yusov, then Tarkovsky’s cinematographer, to provide the images, and starring Nikita Mikhalkov, later best known for the Academy Award-winning Burnt By The Sun (1994), in the main role, it’s a carefree, easy-going depiction of life in the city that could slot nicely alongside Breathless (1960) and Lola (1961) thanks to its formal and narrative lightness. Along with Elem Klimov’s Welcome, or No Trespassing (1964), it was typical of the type of subversive, anarchy-lite content that Khrushchev tolerated in the name of de-Stalinization. Nonetheless, it baffled the authorities, leading the arts committee to claim they had no idea what the film was about and force Daneliya to include a scene where a cleaner criticizes idle writers. This was followed by the pure satire Thirty Three (1965), in which factory worker Ivan Travkin (played by regular collaborator Yevgeny Leonov) becomes famous after it’s discovered he has thirty-three teeth. Its on-the-nose satire of the Khrushchev era was too much for the authorities, leading the film to be banned until glasnost in the 80s.
In the 70s, under the watchful eye of the strict Brezhnev leadership, which reversed the thaw, Danileya’s own genre of the lyrical comedy, balancing elements of sadness with humor, was truly perfected, culminating in his strongest body of work. Daneliya's character studies may put his protagonists in humorous situations, but because we are at first invited to laugh with them, Daneliya sets us up to later feel for them. Whether it’s the depiction of a drunk plumber’s life coming apart in Afonya (1975) or a gentle tale of exile in Mimino (1977), Daneliya's stories used a simplicity of approach to mask the real issues bubbling underneath. Perhaps his most sophisticated film is the marital comedy Autumn Marathon (1979), which starred Oleg Basilashvili as Andrei Bouzykine, a translator in Leningrad trying to balance his time between work, his wife and his mistress. Bouzykine’s actions may be dishonorable, but he is instead depicted like a pushover who has gone too far in trying to please everyone. He is a truly sympathetic character because he is so hopeless—Daneliya using the farce of an affair comedy to hide this dark vision of a society in which nobody is ever really satisfied.
This two-faced approach reached an apotheosis with the surreal sci-fi vision of Kin-dza-dza!, which is a critique of Soviet life hidden inside a comic space adventure. It features a construction worker (Stanislav Lyubshin) and a violinist (Levan Gabriadze) in Moscow who suddenly find themselves transported to an alien planet with highly rampant social inequality. A kinder version of Aleksey German’s Hard to Be A God (2013), its quickly evident that the only real foreign planet being depicted is in fact the country the protagonists came from. The genius of this premise is that it could purport to satirize alien culture while really taking stabs at the absurdity of the Soviet Union in the mid-80s.
Working for a state-controlled system while managing to make movies that criticize that same system, Daneliya’s body of work is a great testament to how to use state restrictions to one’s own advantage. With contemporary Russian cinema recently harking back to the Soviet era in the case of biopics Leto (2018) and Dovlatov (2018), or using metaphor to criticize the present, such as the planet allegory of Hard to Be a God (2013) or the case of a missing child in Loveless (2017), it’s evident that Daneliya’s influence is still as strong as ever. Now it’s time for the master to finally get his due.