In Russia with love

Aleksei Popogrebsky, the award-winning director of ‘How I Ended My Summer,’ says he is an ‘amateur’ in the original sense of the word

Aleksei Popogrebsky 311 (photo credit: Gustavo Hochman)
Aleksei Popogrebsky 311
(photo credit: Gustavo Hochman)
For a director whose latest film, How I Ended My Summer, is a tense psychological drama about two men on an isolated polar station in the Arctic, Aleksei Popogrebsky seems remarkably laid back.
Sitting in the garden at the 26th Haifa International Film Festival, the Russian director explains what drove him to make this film, which won two Silver Bear Prizes at this year’s Berlin Film Festival for his lead actors, Grigoriy Dobrygin and Sergei Puskepalis, and for the film’s cinematography.
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“Growing up in Moscow, I was a city kid with a nice life, and I was afraid of winter and isolation,” he says, in the fluent English he honed while studying in Oshkosh, Wisconsin (“A place with the same climate as Moscow”). When the 38-year-old Popo was a child, Arctic scientists and explorers had already been eclipsed by cosmonauts as national heroes, but the field and the region held a special fascination for the director.
“This is where we filmed,” he says, taking out his iPhone and showing me a picture of a map of the world marked with the shooting location – a real polar station in easternmost Russia. For the crew, the location was an eight-hour flight from Moscow, followed by an arduous six-hour trek across the Tundra on a Caterpillar vehicle.
“We had a crew of 20, including the actors. Our shoot was autonomous and self-contained. We came with four tons of food and shot for three months at this station. We got into the routine of the place, the rhythm, the brute manpower that is needed to keep it going. There was a sauna once a week. It was the only chance to wash and do your laundry. Even the polar bears were real,” he says.
He did extensive research into the operations of these stations. “It’s all derived from facts and from bits and pieces of the diaries of men who worked there,” he explains.
With the Berlin prize and enthusiastic audience response at festivals around the world, the film has been a great triumph for his two actors, who play men with opposite personalities who, through the tension brought on by their isolation, find themselves locked in a violent conflict.
Dobrygin, who plays the younger man, a computer- game addict who spends his free time listening to rock ‘n’ roll (“It’s all original music, and it shows a lot about the character”), made his feature film debut in the movie. “But after we made this movie, he filmed a blockbuster, a fantasy super-hero story that was released before our film. So when he won the Silver Bear, one of the critics said, ‘Thank you for showing that he can act.’” The other star, Puskepalis, who portrays the tightly wound older researcher on the station, had a deep personal connection to the area: He had lived there for nine years growing up. Popogrebsky wrote the role specifically for Puskepalis, a theater director as well as an actor who starred in the director’s previous film, Simple Things.
“It was the perfect balance,” says Popogrebsky.
“Sergei blended totally into the nature of the place.”
Although some viewers have intuited political messages in the film, about the tyranny of patriarchy or the vulnerability of a deteriorating superpower, Popogrebsky says he did not consciously set out to make any such commentary.
“There is no good guy and no bad guy,” says the director. “The characters each have different ideas of their own truth.”
He recounts that one of the best compliments he got about the film came from a viewer who had seen the film twice at two different festivals. The viewer told him, “The first time I saw the film, I was sympathetic to the younger guy. The second time, it was the other way around.”
“It’s like Chekhov,” says the director. “There is tragedy, the rules that the characters cannot overcome.”
Although the film has only the two actors, “there is a third character – the landscape, nature. This is bigger than what happens to the two people. It’s about their moods and how they relate to nature and time and how they face something much greater than themselves,” says Popogrebsky.
The film has been a success in Russia on that country’s art-house circuit. But Popogrebsky is philosophical about the place of serious films in the country’s industry. After the runaway success of the Russian science-fiction films Nightwatch and Daywatch (which even crossed over and became international hits), there is a lot of money available now for what Popogrebsky calls “mindless entertainment,” as well as for large-scale patriotic productions.
But the young director doesn’t see his career going in that direction.
“I’m an amateur in the original sense of the word,” he says. “I can’t make big commercial movies like that. I wouldn’t be able to. I make movies of stories I want to tell, that mean something to me.”