THE HERMITAGE DWELLERS: What surprising stories, of survival, of heroism, of suffering and tragedy!
What a place in St. Petersburg: 1000 palatial rooms and 3,000,000 art objects, paradise on earth. That’s how those employed at the Hermitage State Museum feel, humbled and deeply grateful for their jobs, according to Aliona van der Horst’s touching, pensive documentary, The Hermitage Dwellers, which screens September 8-24 at the MFA. What sounds quite dull, talking-head interviews about toiling within the Hermitage, proves stirring and revelatory.
What extraordinary people! What surprising stories, of survival, of heroism, of suffering and tragedy! Opened in the mid 18th century as a home of the tsars, the Hermitage became also a private gallery featuring the opulent start-up collection of Catherine the Great. In the 19th century, the tsars kept adding items, a Leonardo, a Michelangelo, a Rembrandt, marble statues and crown jewels. Then with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917, the Hermitage turned state museum under the Communists, open to the People.
That’s when things got really bad. Stalin and Hitler! It’s the elderly Hermitage employees, women in their 70s and 80s, who offer the woeful tales, shaking their heads in sorrow, choking on their words, still tearing up after all these years. One curator keeps on her mantel at work a photo of her handsome father: he was a baron, shot by Stalin. Another curator recalls the terrible time when ancient churches were destroyed by the gleeful Marxists and also the art objects within. (There’s a cut to some horrific 1930s documentary footage of pyres of Russian Orthodox icons, akin to the Nazi bonfires of Jewish books.) This curator, now in her 80s, travels through the former Soviet Union trying to locate lost religious icons. She’s not pious herself, but the beauty of the objects is her religion, bringing, in her word, “wonderment.” And then there’s the sinewy old bird who barks orders at the young Hermitage workers. Why is she so tough? Interviewed, she tells of the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, a mighty city strangled, and of her mother, her brother, her family, all dying of starvation.
And post-Communism? One 30ish man, Vadim, a John Travolta look-alike with an earring and pierced eyebrow, alludes to unspeakable bloody happenings when he served in the Russian army in Azerbaijan.
What the Hermitage means to all of these people: a sanctuary from that awful world out there. As curator Juna Zek says of her 42 Hermitage years: “There is culture, there is kindness. There’s no place for killings, for maniacs.”
One of the more radical films ever for kids is Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981), which screens this Saturday at the Brattle. Years ago, I interviewed him about it. I began by complimenting him on daring to personify the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson).
Gilliam: I don’t think that’s unusual. Isn’t the Wizard of Oz a Supreme Being–type character? Children have always been fascinated with the Big Question.”
Compliment two: the film ends in disorder, not closure.
Gilliam: I always resent that children’s movies are so neatly packaged. When they’re over, no questions need to be asked, and everybody can get back to whatever they were doing. So I tried for a very ambivalent ending, allowing children’s minds to open up a bit.”