Producer Alexander Rodnyansky on being a Jewish Ukrainian filmmaker

‘People like to say Russia is a country with an unstable past.’

Film director Alexander Rodnyansky (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Film director Alexander Rodnyansky
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Alexander Rodnyansky, Russia’s premiere movie producer, was visiting Jerusalem last week to take part in a tribute to his work as both producer and director, and was impressed by how engaged the Israeli audiences were. The tribute to Rodnyansky will continue at the Jerusalem Cinematheque until January 27. He is also making appearances at other cinematheques around the country.
“People had so many questions, they made comments, they wanted to know what happened to the people in the [documentaries], they got into everything,” he said.
Rodnyansky, a Jew originally from the Ukraine, has been nominated for multiple Oscars for producing Best Foreign Language Film nominees (a category that was recently renamed Best International Feature), including Régis Wargnier’s East/West, starring Catherine Deneuve and two recent films by Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan and Loveless. He is here to present one of his latest films as producer, Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, about two women struggling to return to civilian life after fighting side by side in World War II. The movie has just opened throughout Israel and was shortlisted for the Oscar.
These high-profile successes are a source of pride for Rodnyansky, and are just a few of the highlights of the nearly 80 films he has produced. But he has also been presenting documentaries that he directed when he was just out of film school, which are very close to his heart.
Both parts of the 1994 documentary Farewell, USSR, made in the early ‘90s, about questions of identity and loss plaguing Jews in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union, are being shown in the tribute. They show how these Jews struggled to express themselves as Ukrainians, Russians and Jews and how they fought for recognition for their losses.
In the first part of this documentary, Rodnyansky searches for a man believed to have survived the massacre of Jews by Germans at Babi Yar in the ‘40s, and finds that some of his acquaintances pretend they don’t know him. This parallels Jewish unease over the monument erected in the ‘70s to those who lost their lives at Babi Yar, with no mention that Jews were the victims of this atrocity. Facing persecution in the USSR, many Jews were afraid to speak out about the subject.
“It was time for me [in the early 90s] to consider Russian and Ukrainian Jewish identity,” he said. Rodnyansky is from a filmmaking family, with parents who worked in the film industry. His extended family includes many other filmmakers and industry professionals, among them Esfir Shub, an acclaimed documentary director, considered to be on a level with the legendary Dziga Vertov.
Rodnyansky’s family was culturally Jewish, with much in common with Jews around the world. “My grandparents would switch to Yiddish when they didn’t want us to understand,” he said, noting that he picked up a few words of the language, such as mishugenah.
But although there were many Jews behind the camera, Jews were never part of the story. “I went to the movies all the time, and I never heard the word ‘Jew’ mentioned on the screen,” he said. While Rodnyansky had a basic understanding of the holidays, “I never was inside a synagogue until I was 26, and that was just to see the building.... It was a place for old men and there was the feeling that if you go there, someone’s writing it down that you’ve been.”
He was well aware of the discrimination Jews faced in the USSR, and his grandfather was warned not even to try to help him get into to film school, although ultimately Rodnyansky was accepted and studied there. Asked whether he felt he had to be better than everyone else just to get through, he said, “Yes, of course.”
THE SECOND part of Farewell, USSR looks at the legacy of World War I and its effect on Russians and Ukrainians of his day. “The fall of the [Czarist] empire was the first big disaster and next the bloodbath of World War I,” he said. This documentary seems even more prescient now that conflicts between Russia and the Ukraine have once again taken center stage in the world, and Rodnyansky spoke about how often history has been rewritten in that part of the world.
“People like to say, ‘Russia is a country with an unstable past,’” he joked.
Two other short films that he directed in the ‘90s are part of this tribute, A Visit With Her Father, a portrait of a woman whose father was convicted of war crimes, and the haunting Raoul Wallenberg’s Mission, an attempt to shed light on the fate of the Swedish diplomat in Hungary who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in World War II. Wallenberg disappeared in the chaos at the war’s end and is believed to have been killed in a Moscow prison. This film is one of the best ever made about Wallenberg and also illuminates the contradictions and conflicts of Russian society around 1990, when the film was made.
These films gained worldwide acclaim and due to their success Rodnyansky was invited to work for the German ZDF channel, making documentaries as a director and producer, just as the USSR was breaking up. Over the years, he has created a dizzying list of production companies in Ukraine and Russia, continually producing critically acclaimed films, and finding his way in the uncertain cultural landscape after the breakup of the Soviet Union left filmmakers without the state-sponsored filmmaking apparatus that had been used to.
“In the USSR there was no need for producers up until then. The government and the studios had always been the producers,” he said. “When the freedom came to let filmmakers do what they wanted, they tried to get support from the audience and there were a lot of disastrous, artsy movies.”
But talented filmmakers, such as Andrey Zvyagintsev emerged as well.
“The tension between art films and more popular films in Russia is the same as it is around the world,” he said.
Rodnyansky has found a way to synthesize high-quality filmmaking with box-office success, notably with Stalingrad. The 2013 epic by Fedor Bondarchuk, based on the book by Vasily Grossman about the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II, became the highest-grossing Russian film of all time.
He has founded a number of production companies in the US, and has produced English-language films, including two with Robert Rodriguez, Machete Kills and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. He is also working in television, which he calls “the rebirth of the great American novel.”
Rodnyansky is currently working on an adaptation of Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, by John Nixon, the first CIA officer to debrief Saddam after his capture. It will be directed by Ziad Doueiri, whose film The Insult was nominated for an Oscar, and who made the 2012 film The Attack in Israel.
“I’m devoting myself to working with the best, most talented people I trust who are making movies I believe in,” he said.