Tuesday 21 November 2017

Tatyana Lioznova

Film and television director behind the Soviet Union's answer to James Bond and George Smiley

TATYANA Lioznova, who has died aged 87, was a Russian film director who immortalised a fictional spy often referred to as the "Soviet James Bond"; in fact, Maxim Isayev had more in common with the screen depictions of John le Carre's quick-witted George Smiley than Ian Fleming's explosive hero.

High quality spy fiction was an underpopulated genre in the Soviet Union, possibly because of the risks of portraying the Cold War's ideological battle in the Stalinist and post-Stalinist era. Freedom, individual rights and democracy -- the core values defended in Western spy dramas -- could hardly be debated in a totalitarian regime.

Little wonder, then, that the favourite fictional spy of the Soviet Union was no Cold Warrior like James Bond or George Smiley. Instead Maxim Isayev -- alias Stirlitz -- was a deep cover agent providing vital intelligence against the Gestapo at the end of the Second World War.

The nature of such a foe short-circuited any political sensitivities -- all Soviets identified with the struggle against the Nazis. And with her masterly, often poetic, depiction of Stirlitz's struggle to thwart a last-ditch alliance between Nazi Germany and America, Tatyana Lioznova created a character who quickly achieved, and today retains, a unique and venerated place in Russian popular culture.

The series, adapted from a novel by Yulian Semyonov in a dozen 70-minute episodes, weaves fact and fiction to tell the story of Isayev, who has spent two decades undercover in Germany to rise to the position of SS Standartenfuhrer Max Otto von Stirlitz -- all while passing information back to Moscow.

Plot lines include his attempt to derail the German nuclear programme, but his main mission to undermine talks between SS General Karl Wolff and the American spy Allen Dulles (later, in real life, head of the CIA) aimed at forming an alliance to counter the rise of communism in Europe.

As with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the plot is given particular zest by the fact that senior figures are certain that a mole is working in their midst. In this case, it is the Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller whose investigation of Stirlitz nearly unmasks the heroic Soviet spook on several occasions.

By contrast with James Bond adventures, there are few gadgets or dramatic stunts to enable the hero to achieve his aims. But just as Bond's one-liners, gift for seduction and glamorous, roulette-wheels-and-Martini lifestyle represented the ne plus ultra of manhood to many in the West, so Maxim Isayev was thought to represent an idealised Russian. Reflective, noble, brave and self-sacrificing, he put his Motherland before himself.

Seventeen Moments of Spring was first broadcast over successive days in 1973, and has been shown in Russia every year since. Such has been Stirlitz's cultural influence that Vyacheslav Tikhonov, who played Stirlitz, was awarded a medal by the KGB's successor, the FSB. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin -- himself a former Soviet spy in Berlin -- has lost few opportunities to tap into Stirlitz's popularity by association. On hearing of Lioznova's death, he said Russia had lost a "brilliant and extraordinary woman".

Tatyana Lioznova was born to a Jewish family in Moscow on July 20, 1924. After school, when war broke out, she joined the Moscow Aviation Institute, but as the tide turned against the Nazis and the threat against Russia receded, she moved to the State Institute for Cinematography, later working with the husband-and-wife team Sergei Gerasimov and Tamara Makarova who, as director and actress respectively, topped the list of "approved" artists of the Soviet regime.

When, in 1958, Tatyana Lioznova made her directorial debut, with the film The Memory of the Heart, Tamara Makarova played the lead. Her next feature, They Conquer the Skies (1963), drew on her wartime experiences at the Aviation Institute, and was followed by At Early Morning (1966), a sentimental tale of two orphans.

It was not until 1967, with the love story Three Poplars at Plyushchikha, that Lioznova made her name.The film, with its emphasis on lingering, psychologically dramatic close-ups and wistful scoring, established the directorial trademarks that were to work so remarkably, six years later, in Seventeen Moments in Spring.

Tatyana Lioznova, who developed a reputation as a perfectionist, spent long hours in film archives for the spy series, selecting documentary footage to blend with her own film. The lasting effect is almost akin to documentary, but certain scenes -- such as when Soviet secret services engineer a meeting between Stirlitz and the wife he has not seen for years (wordlessly, smoking furiously, he is permitted to stare at her across a Berlin cafe) -- are self-consciously poignant.

She shot just a couple of films after the celebrated television series and before the collapse of the Soviet Union. These included the song-and-dance hit Carnival (1982).

When not directing, Tatyana Lioznova taught students of film, notably at the state cinematography institute, where she had studied herself and which is now named after Sergei Gerasimov.

© The Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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