Two Captains

English Title: Two Captains

Original Title: Dva kapitana

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Lenfilm

Director: Vladimir Vengerov

Screenplay: Evgenii Gabrilovich, Veniamin Kaverin

Cinematographer: Apollinarii Dudko

Art Director: David Vinitskii

Runtime: 98 minutes

Genre: Children's/Literary Adaptation/Adventure

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Leonid Gallis, Evgenii Lebedev, Aleksandr Mikhailov, Ol'ga Zabotkina

Year: 98

Volume: Russian

In a provincial Russian town, the young Sania Grigoriev finds a bag with letters, which, among other things, refer to a lost Arctic expedition under Captain Tatarinov. After he moves to post-Revolutionary Petrograd, orphaned Sania gets acquainted with Tatarinov’s family and decides to find out the truth about the ill-fated expedition. Sania learns that the expedition was ruined by the greed and intrigues of Captain Tatarinov’s brother Nikolai, now the director of the school he attends, where Sania also meets the Captain’s daughter Katia and falls in love with her. The suicide of Katia’s mother, for which Nikolai Tatarinov blames Sania’s arrogant insensitivity, separates the two young people for several years. They meet again after Sania has become an Arctic pilot, still pursuing his search for traces of Captain Tatarinov’s expedition. Neither World War II, nor the new intrigues of the perished captain’s brother and his minion Romashov can prevent Sania from finding the truth about his hero’s last days. During an Arctic mission against German warships, he discovers the remnants of the lost expedition.

Work on the screen adaptation of Two Captains, Veniamin Kaverin’s Bildungsroman which paralleled the stories of a pre-Revolutionary Russian and a Soviet Arctic explorer, started in the Stalinist 1940s. However, the filmic version of the novel appeared only in 1956, just after the Soviet Communist Party’s anti-Stalinist Twentieth Party Congress. While Vladimir Vengerov’s adaptation could hardly be regarded as radical or controversial, the film’s partial renunciation of ideological settings in favour of psychological authenticity represented post-Stalinist Soviet culture’s shift toward a less constrained model.

Vengerov’s film was one of the first successful efforts to establish new cinematic conventions that would transport the still inevitable ideological message in a more palatable manner, with a nod towards international cinema as Soviet audiences got acquainted with foreign films after World War II and with a retrospective look at Russian cultural tradition. The plot-driven, eventful material of Kaverin’s novel provided the basis for a cinematic narrative which efficiently discarded secondary details and concentrated on the book’s dynamic components. At the same time, the avoidance of suspenseful junctures (in spite of the story’s detective and melodramatic aspects and such plot turns as suicide, battlefield betrayal and the discovery of the lost expedition’s last stand) subordinated narrative intricacies to a nuanced treatment of the complexities and subtleties of human relationships.

Non-emphatically but compellingly, Two Captains represents a transition from the cinema of the late Stalin period to more liberal post-Stalinist aesthetics: the strategy of early post-Stalin cinema, with its search for new themes and motifs, was emblematized by the balanced and transparent technique, as well as the streamlined and reserved narrative dynamic employed by the filmmaker. The aesthetic of representational and stylistic equilibrium and of subdued dynamism – in this particular case borrowed from a canonical socialist realist literary work aimed primarily at younger readers and representing officially approved, ideologically sound entertainment – rejected the static extremism of the Stalin era but, at the same time, sought to avoid conflicts with the emerging political establishment, whose inherent conservatism still demanded non-controversial, ideologically sound artistic works with transparent narratives. Two Captains was not only a successful interpretation of a Soviet literary classic, but also an instrument of the ‘creeping’ subversion of the outdated Stalinist aesthetics.

Author of this review: Sergei Kapterev