Eldar Ryazanov's Films: from Social Satire to Social Drama

November 18 is the 93rd anniversary of the Soviet and Russian director Eldar Ryazanov. His films are one of the most acute social movies in Russia. His filmography is so rich that if I talked about all the films by Ryazanov, you would now read not the article but the entire longread. Therefore, I've chosen only those movies that reflect the theme more accurately and that haven't lost their relevance in Russia of the 21st century.

It's also noticeable that at first this article was supposed to tell about Ryazanov as the satirist only. But then I figured out that the more difficult life in our country became, the more dramatic, tragic and sometimes frankly frightening the plots of his films got. So, let's try to understand what social problems Ryazanov touched upon in his works and why Ryazanov of the 80-90s is psychologically harder than Ryazanov of the 50-60s.

by Anastasia Odintsova


This period in our country is called the "Ottepel". After the brutal reign of Stalin, flourishing in all spheres of society's life finally started. But the censorship and fear of innovation continued to exist. Surely, Ryazanov couldn't ignore such shortcomings of the system.

Carnival Night (Карнавальная ночь, 1956) ridicules the type of the Soviet leader who has too primitive intellection and too much fear of deviating from the party's program. 3 days before the New Year Serafim Ogurtsov (Igor Ilyinsky), a new director of the House of culture, decided to redo the entire concert program just because it seemed to him too cheerful and frivolous. Instead of a jazz orchestra he offered an ensemble of elderly musicians. After criticizing the performance of clowns, Ogurtsov removed all humor and even clown costumes from it. And he decided to start the concert with his speech and with a "short" forty-minute lecture about life on Mars.
The young staff of the House of culture (one of its members is performed by Lyudmila Gurchenko) was stunned by such changes in the program. They went to great lengths to prevent Ogurtsov from ruining the celebration and turning it into a boring ideological concert. The characters made various tricks just to avoid Ogurtsov's intervention in preparing the holiday. And during the concert itself they took him away from the stage. This action turned into a real phantasmagoria. Ogurtsov tried to go on a stage and read his speech, but he was picked up and carried away, then sent under the stage. Finally, he got into the magician's box from which he came out after a number with tricks.
Of course, everything ends well in the film. The characters merrily celebrated the New Year and Ogurtsov was made a complete fool. But just think how many such leaders have actually ruined great concerts, performances, movies and other art programs by following their party stereotypes.

Give Me a Book of Complaints (Дайте жалобную книгу, 1965) tells not only about the reluctance to improve reality, enriching it with something new and unusual. The main theme of the film is the attitude of Soviet service and trade workers to their clients. In the restaurant with a charming name "Dandelion", waiters are rude to visitors, make them wait for an order and don't remove dirty dishes from the tables. In general, they do everything to repel customers with the attitude towards them. Therefore, the complaint book is full of negative reviews. But the authorities don't care about this. Until the journalist Yuri Nikitin (Oleg Borisov) comes to the restaurant. After his smashing article about the service in "Dandelion" the trade department begins to correct the shortcomings.
Calm (read - stagnant) Brezhnev's period was not characterized by strong changes in the life of society. There was no intensity of the situation that appeared closer to the collapse of the USSR. That's the same time Ryazanov shooted The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!, 1975) which we traditionally watch every year on December 31. Of course, here there is something to laugh at besides drunk Zhenya Lukashin (Andrey Myagkov) who flew to Leningrad instead of his friend. For example, the film satirizes Soviet residential buildings and apartments which are so similar that they are easily confused. In fact, that's why drunk Lukashin didn't immediately realize that he was not at home and even not in his native city. In general, Ryazanov's movies of this period continue to please the audience with subtle humor and light plots.

Grandads-Robbers (Старики-разбойники, 1971) satirizes a vice that is typical not only for the Soviet society but for all mankind. Prosecutor's office investigator Nikolay Myachikov (Yuri Nikulin), who has reached the retirement age, is being forced to retire because his position is given to a good acquaintance of some official (Andrei Mironov). Myachikov doesn't agree with this injustice. He has devoted his entire life to the work. Nikolay is ready even to crawl through pipes in order to solve a crime. Responsibly performing his duty, Myachikov realizes with horror that the new investigator considers this place only as a temporary shelter and the concepts of honor and justice don't interest him at all. So, the character decides to defend his right to continue working. Engineer Valentin Vorobyov (Yevgeny Yevstigneyev), Myachikov's friend, faces a similar situation, but manages to stay at work. He advises Nikolay not to give up. He suggests to his friend a brilliant idea - commiting the crime of the century by themselves and solving it. This is the beginning of a series of their funny adventures.

At first, the characters steal a painting from the museum. To their unpleasant surprise, no one has noticed the loss and they return the painting as calmly as they stole it. The eloquent title of the painting "Young man" seems to hint that every person one day will become just as old and useless as the movie's characters and no one will notice their absence.

After the first unsuccessful crime, friends commit the second one, but it doesn't lead to a desired result either. Although this time the crime is noticed. You bet! After all, this time they stole not a painting but money. This is an indicator of society's priorities. All people care about is money and high social status. Such highly moral qualities as humanity, loyalty, honesty, decency, the ability to truly love and be friends are in the past. The owners of these qualities are the characters themselves who still don't give up, show that they are young and energetic inwardly and are still capable of feelings.
The restaurant director Tatyana Shumova (Larisa Golubkina) together with Nikitin decide to completely change the atmosphere of the restaurant and its work style. But it's complicated to break the principles that govern the officials. Soviet leaders don't understand why we need European "smiles for money" on the faces of waiters or why we should spend time repairing a restaurant and lose revenue because of its closure. It's much easier to dismiss a director who doesn't cope with her duties and put a bureaucrat in her place. It's typical that the arrogant behavior of the staff in the service sector only applies to ordinary people. High-ranking persons are always served at the highest level. This is shown in the scene where the seller of a clothing store is rude to a common old lady and then affably helps an official with his choice.
As you see, in the 50-60s, there were many problems in the Soviet society that needed to be highlighted. At this time, Ryazanov's comedies are full of witty social satire. But these films are still full of kindness, lightness and faith in a bright future.
Office Romance (Служебный роман, 1977) would look like a classic love story with a happy ending if there weren't social themes here. But the elements of social satire make viewers follow not only the development of relations between the main characters - modest employee Anatoly Novoseltsev (Andrey Myagkov) and his boss Ludmila Kalugina (Alisa Freindlich).
Let's start with the fact that all the characters of the film work in a statistical institution the existence of which is absolutely meaningless. Generated by the planned economy, numerous statisticians don't actually work but hole up in the office. The female employees shown at the beginning of the film start their working day by doing makeup. Novoseltsev's friend Olya Ryzhova (Svetlana Nemolyaeva) runs to the store at any free time in order to buy scarce products (another fruition of Soviet politics). And Kalugina's secretary Verochka (Liya Akhedzhakova) does everything except performing official duties. She knits, gossips with her friends, confronts her ex-husband, tries on new boots, etc.

An important character is Yuri Samokhvalov (Oleg Basilashvili) who is assigned to be Kalugina's deputy at the beginning of the film. This is a vile careerist who has no moral principles. But, ironically, he is the one who brings the main characters together persuading his institute friend Novoseltsev to court Kalugina, so that she would appoint him a head of the light industry department. At first, gentle and weak-willed Novoseltsev flatly refuses this idea, but in the end succumbs to persuasion, not yet knowing that he will really fall in love with this woman.

Another interesting character is the trade union worker Shura (Lyudmila Ivanova). It's difficult to say about her better than it is done in the movie itself, "She is pretty, but, unfortunately, active. Once she was nominated for public work and since then she hasn't been able to be pushed back." Nowadays any team also has such active and annoying people who organize all the holidays and events, always collect money for something and give publicity to the personal life of employees.

The Garage (Гараж, 1979) already has drama rudiments. According to the story, employees of the research institute "Protection of animals from the environment" organize a garage cooperative "Fauna". At one of the cooperative meetings, it turns out that, because of the construction of the highway, the number of garages has to be reduced.
With the onset of "perestroika", serious social problems were manifesting more and more. What we could laugh at in the past decades ceases to be funny in the 80s. Bureaucracy, poverty, outdated Soviet slogans and communist ideology which no one believes in, the dominance of officials who solve insignificant issues instead of the real problems, the inability to properly arrange life because of the nepotism existing in all spheres of society lead people to despair and sometimes even to cruelty.
The whole movie is about choosing four people who will have to abandon their garage. The management (Valentin Gaft, Iya Savvina) decides to take the garage away from the most defenseless members of the cooperative. One of them, for example, is a war veteran who modestly hides this fact of his biography. As usual, crony people, Market Director Alla Kushakova (Anastasia Voznesenskaya) and Miloserdov (Igor Kostolevsky), whose father supports building garages, are not even discussed as candidates for deprivation of the garage.
Here a real popular revolt breaks out. All the aggrieved characters begin to resist the decision of the management. Of course, there are those who actively support the management. However, not everyone does it sincerely. For example, one of the characters, the primatologist Karpukhin (Vyacheslav Nevinny), declares that he will vote for anything if only he is allowed to go home, and then he says that society and discipline are based on people like him. There are also passive members of the cooperative who don't even take part in the discussion. For example, the head of the department of insects (Eldar Ryazanov himself) sleeping at a stuffed hippo throughout the whole movie. This opinion difference turns into real aggression when the characters start fighting and trampling each other like wild animals. Here you understand that the location of the zoological institute was not chosen by chance.

The mood of the film is almost revolutionary. And, in principle, this cooperative resembles the electorate of our country where the confrontation between those who are "for" and those who are "against" has been sharply outlined for many years. For example, in one of the episodes supporters of the leadership's opinion and those who disagree with the official position line up opposite each other, armed with militant views. If it wasn't for junior scientific associate Elena Malayeva (Liya Akhedzhakova), it could have ended badly. Elena took matters into her own hands and locked up the cooperative members in order to restore justice and achieve fair voting. So, an uncomplicated film about the division of the garage turns into a harbinger of fundamental democratic changes.
Probably, A Railway Station for Two (Вокзал для двоих, 1982) is the most positive film by Ryazanov at this period. Although it can be conditionally called positive as the plot is based on the memories of the main character Platon (Oleg Basilashvili) who is serving a prison sentence instead of his wife. But the aesthetic of a fateful encounter between a woman and a man stuck at the railway station turns the film into a beautiful love story.
Nevertheless, even this story has social problems. The main character Vera (Lyudmila Gurchenko) is a common Soviet woman who is a waitress in a station cafe in a provincial town . Her life is a cycle of arriving passengers snacking in this cafe. She is forced to run all day from one table to another and to sell melons, brought by her lover, conductor Andrey (Nikita Mikhalkov), at the local market in her spare time in order to increase her small waiter's salary. Like many Soviet and modern Russian people, Vera has a very simple and monotonous life. Until the pianist Platon appears in it.

Another film based on a love story is Forgotten Tune for the Flute (Забытая мелодия для флейты, 1987). But it leaves a sadder aftertaste than the previous one. Again we see a common Soviet woman whose life is poor. Lida (Tatyana Dogileva) lives in a communal apartment, works as a nurse and receives a meager salary. Suddenly an official Leonid Filimonov (Leonid Filatov) appears in her life as a Prince from the fairy tale. He falls in love with Lida and asks her to be with him. Everything would be fine if he weren't married. Lida is afraid of relations with a man bound by marriage because she knows that it won't end well. At best, she would remain just his mistress. However, feelings take over them and the characters start dating.

At first, everything really resembles a fairy tale. But this vanilla romance ends when Leonid's wife Elena (Irina Kupchenko) returns from a business trip. Filimonov's cowardly soul manifests itself. Throughout the whole film, he rushes between the mistress, whom he seems to love, and the wife, who is a symbol of his comfortable settled life. Having understood Filimonov's character, you can predict the end of the movie in advance. Leonid won't be able to exchange his beautiful delicious life for vegetating in a communal apartment. But we hope until the last minute that he will stop being a craven careerist and will finally follow his heart (although it is worth noting that cheating on his wife is a rather dubious and immoral act). Alas, life is much more prosaic. Hardly Leonid will find the strength to put love above his career. After all, once he has already betrayed the dream of playing the flute.

Of course, social satire is also presented in the film. First of all, the bureaucracy of the Soviet nomenclature is ridiculed here. Leonid works in the fictional Main Directorate of free time. It is trying to regulate freedom of action, which Soviet people have gained in the era of glasnost. In fact, this is one more useless institution similar to many Soviet and modern Russian departments doing bullshit. The funny song of bureaucrats that sounds in the film reflects the essence of these numerous idle officials who only lie, forbid everything, sort out papers and suck up to their superiors.

Surely, we can't belittle the significance of the "perestroika" which really gave people a breath of freedom. Even this film managed to be made with all the sharp moments that had appeared due to Gorbachev's coming to power. But the conventions that had existed in Soviet society for several decades didn't disappear in a moment. Officials continue to be reinsured and guided by outdated views and censorship. So, employees of the Directorate of free time are afraid to deviate from the usual ideology. The key meaning of the film is expressed in a phrase said by one of the employees to Leonid after he moved to live with his mistress, "Why are you doing it so openly? We can do everything, but only in whispers."

In fact, these officials shackle themselves with chains of conventions. Perhaps Lida is the only one who is free. She has no wealth, no high social status and no prestigious job. She has nothing to risk in life. So, she is the only one in the film who is free to do what she wants. This is reflected in Lida's behavior when she breaks into the Directorate's building to save Leonid who is dying of a heart attack. Only Lida is a hero in the way that we are used to interpret this word. She is a bright representative of the people, who, despite all the difficulties, lots of which are created by the officials, don't cease to be a human, are full of feelings and emotions and know how to love.

The concentration of drama occurs in another film by Ryazanov - Dear Yelena Sergeyevna (Дорогая Елена Сергеевна, 1988). It can even be called a crime drama. As in The Garage, almost the entire movie follows the principle of the place's unity. The action unfolds in the apartment of the teacher Yelena Sergeyevna (Marina Neyolova), and this only makes the situation heat up more.

High school students who have just passed their final exams come to visit their teacher to wish her happy birthday. The delighted woman, who even forgot about the holiday because of her loneliness, is infinitely glad to see her students. But soon she realizes that actually the guys have selfish purposes when visiting her. They demand to give them the key to the safe where their mathematics exam papers are stored in order to change them to the correct versions. They don't let Yelena Sergeyevna out of her apartment until morning, mocking over the teacher more and more awfully.

Each of them has their own problems. Pasha (Dmitry Maryanov) wants to enter the humanitarian institute and isn't going to lose his place because of the only B in mathematics. Vitya (Fedor Dunaevsky) wants to get at least a C in order to enter the college. Lala (Natalia Shchukina) supports her friends morally. The most evil and inhuman character is Volodya (Andrew Tikhomirnov). A son of a rich man, he seems to complain about nothing and be happy with everything. His place at MGIMO is guaranteed despite any exam results, and it's not clear what he is doing here at all. But his participation in the action is significant. It is this cynical major who proves that money and permissiveness turn a person into a monster. Using his leadership in the company, Volodya manages the entire process, coming up with more and more sophisticated ways to mock the teacher and achieve what they came for. This has become a game for him in which he isn't going to give up and wants to take away this ill-fated key at all costs, just to demonstrate his power.

There's too much hate and violence in this movie. Locked in a closed space and intoxicated by the possibility of success, teenagers behave more and more like animals and bring Yelena Sergeyevna to nervous exhaustion. Of course, their behavior is disgusting and causes only abhorrence, while you really empathize and pity Yelena Sergeyevna.

Strangely, there are no right or guilty characters in the film. Teenagers have become such beasts because they are tired of living in a country where everything is ruled by connections and corruption, where people make ends meet and can't even buy good clothes. They are trying to prove to Yelena Sergeyevna that her impoverished life isn't normal. They want to live in a different way, in a free and fair country. They no longer need the communist fairy tales that Yelena Sergeyevna has been believing in for her entire life. And they've got a point. By that time, the Soviet ideology had really outlived its usefulness and the country needed to change. But still Yelena Sergeyevna has a huge advantage over the guys. No matter what, she remains a human. Kindness, honor and dignity are core values for her. But, unfortunately, the new society practically doesn't need such highly moral people.
The Promised Heaven (Небеса обетованные, 1991) became the apogee of the idea of people's uselessness. The action takes place on the eve of the USSR's collapse. The characters live in a landfill near the railway station. Each of them lost money and housing for various reasons. But all of them are united by the fact that the state doesn't care about them. One of the characters, Phima (Liya Akhedzhakova), begging on the bridge, says that the whole country is standing with an outstretched hand, meaning millions of impoverished people who no one wants to help. For example, Phima and her new friend Katya (Olga Volkova) are kicked out of the charity canteen. They are said that, in order to get free food, they have to collect documents and prove that they are needy. And a veteran Semyon Bakurin (Leonid Bronevoy) is arrested only for defending himself from hooligans who tried to steal the wheels from his car, the last thing he has besides a tiny apartment.
The characters no longer rely on anyone but themselves. Only their friend Aglaya (Svetlana Nemolyaeva) continues to believe in communism and the party's ideas. But is she happy about it? Living out her life in a communal apartment, earning pennies and suffering from a killing cough, Aglaya also isn't needed by the state. It only builds more and more enterprises in order to earn more money. And let them build, if only they don't interfere in the settled life of the beggars. But the government encroaches even on their dump which the beggars considered their possession, their state with their own President (Valentin Gaft). The authorities are planning to build a factory for the production of condoms. The beggars defend their only corner until the last minute. But when the authorities come at them with weapons and tanks, the characters finally realize that they no longer have a place on Earth. Now the only thing they have to hope for is the arrival of aliens who promised the inhabitants of the dump to take them to a better world.

The hopelessness and futility of being, demonstrated in the last three movies, are depressing. Is there really no light in life? Let's not end on a note of sadness and turn to the life-affirming film with the sonorous title Old Hags (Старые клячи, 2000).
There are 4 friends in the movie - school teacher Lyuba (Liya Akhedzhakova), trade union activist Liza (Lyudmila Gurchenko), railway dispatcher Masha (Svetlana Kryuchkova) and scientific worker Anya (Irina Kupchenko). In the 1990s, they faced the harsh reality of new Russia. Those changes that everyone was waiting for in the Soviet Union didn't bring the expected happiness. Women had lost their jobs and were forced to earn their living by any means. Lisa was selling fruits and vegetables. Anya was washing the cars of businessmen who got out from rags to riches. Lyuba and Masha were selling newspapers and pies in the street. But even in such difficult times friends didn't lose their heart.

The main story began when a businessman Vasily Khomenko (Nikolai Fomenko) tricked Lyuba into selling her apartment with a view of the Kremlin. Having lost her son in the Afghanistan war, Lyuba agreed to the persuasions as this apartment evoked bitter memories. Khomenko promised Lyuba $100,000 for an apartment and a house in the countryside. As soon as she signed the contract, he immediately threw her out of the apartment. The bank check for receiving the money turned out to be a fake and the promised house was an outbuilding in the cemetery. Lyuba's friends decided to win back her apartment.

Throughout the film, the heroines got into various funny adventures and mocked Khomenko every way possible. For example, once they poured shit into his car, and another time they thieved his wagons with stolen caviar that he was going to sell abroad illegally. Later they would sell that caviar to the person who really needed it - general Dubovitsky (Valentin Gaft). The heroines got acquainted with him in the casino where he was brought by extreme need. Here he was earning money for his hungry soldiers whom the state didn't want to provide with the food. Actually, Dubovitsky was a decent officer who showed reverent respect for women, stood up for justice and hated crooks. That's why he considered it his duty to help those poor women. The women themselves almost ended up in prison. But let's not spoil the entire film. Let's just say that in this movie the justice finally triumphs.
In the end, I should say, that we all live in Ryazanov's films. I could tell you about other movies by Ryazanov, including those that were shot in the 2000s. But this will be enough to get to know the director and understand his works' concept. The films described here are a portrait of our country to this day. Over time, the movies became more and more severe and their protest against the injustice of the social system sounded louder and louder. In any case, who knows how many more dramas about modern life of the Russians Eldar Ryazanov could have made if he were alive.
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