Dovlatov observes six days in the life of the eponymous Russian writer (here played by Milan Marić), beginning on November 1, 1971. That compressed timeline suggests a film of granular detail, a work attuned to the quotidian ins and outs of Sergei Dovlatov’s daily existence living under a regime which cared little for him and his fellow artists. And Alexey German Jr.’s film, though nominally an artist-biopic, is precisely that. Mostly, the camera floats languidly about Leningrad’s wintry spaces, observing interiors packed with a rotating cast of bohemian artists — some of whom, like Joseph Brodsky, eventually achieved great fame, while others more likely “disappeared like smoke.” Dovlatov’s primary virtue is a kind of all-consuming, existential ambiance. Working with Polish cinematographer Lukasz Zal (Pawel Pawlikowski’s regular collaborator), German demonstrates a keen eye for panoramic compositions. He infuses widescreen frames with what might be termed a magisterial malaise, such as in the scene of Dovlatov surveying a courtyard of discarded, unpublished papers. But he has a puckish sense of humor, too, akin to that of Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature: Just when the aforementioned scene looks like it might turn into a self-pitying reverie, German introduces an elderly woman who accosts Dovlatov for not helping move the discarded papers, so it takes on a wry edge alongside its anguished feeling.
Dovlatov immerses the viewer in a subjective experience — the fog of uncertainty surrounding the author’s own work and legacy.
German’s script ultimately goes nowhere in particular, so the film too often meanders without really accumulating force. But there’s still something admirable, almost moving about its intensely specific focus. Like Dovlatov himself, who refuses to capitulate to his bureaucratic superiors by writing “positive stories,” German doggedly resists manufacturing incident, or infusing the weeklong scenario with an artificial sense of portent. In doing so, Dovlatov immerses the viewer in a subjective experience — the fog of uncertainty surrounding the author’s own work and legacy. Dovlatov’s uneasiness is palpable and ever-present, and given frigid physicality through German’s enveloping images. The film is still filled with compelling moments: A scene in a railway tunnel, which starts out as an interview with a worker-poet, transforms into a literal excavation of history, when the bodies of schoolchildren, likely bombed by the Nazis at the end of WWII, are unearthed. For better or worse, German maintains a belief that there is something valuable to be gleaned from the desultory details of everyday life. Asked by Dovlatov why he writes, one author responds: “There’s no reason. That’s why it matters.” By the end of the film, one might very well be persuaded that there’s truth in that statement.
You can currently stream Alexey German Jr.’s Dovlatov on Netflix.