It would be almost impossible to leave Gleb Panfilov’s name out of a considered list of East Europe’s most influential living directors. Indubitably, he is one of few filmmakers around who have been able to so adroitly illustrate the collective and individual, material and psychological disposition of the region in its pre- and post-Soviet era, giving audiences a true insight into the maelstrom of political strife through which its citizens endured. Panfilov has offered moving portraits of individual plights that nimbly act as looking-glasses into the entire social and political climate of the era – all to the sheer delight of film audiences around the world.
Panfilov commenced his directing career with a slate of TV format productions between the late 1950s and early 1960s, first landing onto the scene with a quarto of short-length films – including his war documentary Vstavay v nash stroy! (1959) and ode to revered Russian ballet dancer, Nina Menovshchikova (1962) – before releasing his first feature-length film, TV movie The Case of Kurt Clausewitz (1963). The fledgling director transitioned to the big screen half-a-decade later, after keenly demonstrating his artistic prowess, with the war drama No Path Through Fire, depicting the plight of a single girl on a search for happiness amidst the upheaval of the 1917 Russian revolution and the civil war that sent a rupture through the nation. The striking film emerged as the first of an impressive string of deeply socially-aware works that would come to characterise Panfilov’s legendary approach of historical storytelling within the context of a tumultuous era – the drama garnered Panfilov a Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival.
The 1970s proved to be an especially prolific decade in the auteur’s early career, offering audiences a trio of illuminating dramas that solidified his presence as one of the filmmakers on the Soviet film scene to be closely watched. Panfilov proved that he could deftly shift his historically-oriented lens to a variety of filmic genres. First, he demonstrated this in the romantic drama, The Beginning (1970), a whimsical meta-film story set in a provincial Russian town in which amateur actress, Pasha (played by Panfilov’s real-life wife Inna Churikova), achieves her dream of playing Joan Of Arc on the stage, a fact which seems to threaten her romance with her married lover, Arkadi (Leonid Kuravlyov). Six years later, the director offered a melange of political drama and family tragedy in Proshu slova starring Churikova as the ambitious Yelizaveta, a mayor of a small town whose political endeavours are grounded to a halt after she is blindsided by the death of her son.
The most critically-acclaimed of Panfilov’s trio of releases that decade, the Golden-bear winning romantic comedy The Theme (1979), offered a witty, moving portrayal of the experiences of popular yet dissatisfied playwright, Kim Yesenin (Mikhail Ulyanov), who travels to the western Russian city of Vladimir with an admiring female student and a fellow writer. Kim’s grappling with his deep concerns that his literary oeuvre will be of no lasting value is compounded by his encounter with a mysterious museum guide, Sasha (Inna Churikova), who tells him exactly that, before subsequently turning his world upside-down. In addition to the prized Golden bear, the insightful drama was also awarded several other accolades at the 1987 Berlin International Film Festival, including the Interfilm Award and the FIPRESCI Prize.
The helmer soon shifted his specialisation in majestically-shot historical dramas to film adaptations, transporting some of the Soviet world’s most revered literary works to the big screen. In 1981, Panfilov adapted esteemed Russian playwright Alexander Vampilov’s Valentina as well pioneer of the country’s literary socialist realism movement, Maxim Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova (1983), a Moscow Golden Prize-winning dramatization of the namesake ruthless millionaire matriarch who sees no qualms in crossing moral lines in order to preserve her wealth. He also adapted Gorky’s later work, Mother (1989), centring on revolutionary factory workers, which won the Golden Prize at the 13th Moscow International Film Festival and Russia’s prestigious State Prize.
Despite Russia’s revolutionary political climate in the 1990s, as the country witnessed a breakdown in its predominant political and socio-economic ideological framework in the context of the denouement of the decades-long Cold War, Panfilov was tenacious in his efforts to see his drama depicting the epic tale of the canonization of the Romanovs, The Romanovs: An Imperial Family, come to life – and it eventually did. Released in 2000, the drama emerged as a ‘family drama’ in a dual sense; firstly in regard to the film’s legendary subject matter and secondly in that Panfilov involved both his wife and children in the making of the project. The very same year as the film’s release, the auteur was bestowed with an Honorable Prize for his contribution to cinema at the 22nd Moscow International Film Festival.
At the dawn of 2006, Panfilov’s miniseries, In the First Circle, based on vanguard writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s namesake novel, boasted the remarkable feature of having the Nobel Prize-winning author himself help to adapt the novel. The final year that Panfilov graced audiences with his conscientious and heart-heavingly poignant narratives was in 2008 with two releases that year alone. The helmer returned to his penchant for adaptations of literary works, re-working master of Russian realism, Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1884 play Guilty Without Guilt into a Golden Eagle-winning drama. Panfilov’s follow-up – and his final work up to the present date – To Keep Forever, saw him return to his deeply politically conscious roots in an illuminating historical drama. The esteemed helmer has ceaselessly demonstrated an admirably tenacious dedication to the historical genre, offering ode as well as critique of his country’s rich history in legendary tales that film audiences are certainly waiting with crossed-fingers to see, at least, one more time.