In Stanislav Rostotsky’s 1968 film We’ll live ‘til Monday, screened last week at the Regent Street Cinema as part of Kino Klassika’s ‘Youth on the March!’ film season, three schoolteachers play out hopes and regrets in midst of an atmosphere of youthful rebellion. English teacher Natasha’s young and idealistic, and deeply in love with her worn-out former history teacher Melnikov. He’s in love with her but at times thinks himself too old and, in any case, wants to give up his job because he doesn’t believe he can make a difference anymore. Despite his tendency to make sentimental speeches, which even the filmmaker seems to mock a little, Melnikov’s an inspiring and principled man suffering under a system with little room for personal expression.
A tension between the boldness of the students and the reticence of the adults is present throughout the whole of this gently meandering film. Svetlana Mikhailovna, also unhappily in love with Melnikov, teaches literature. In one revealing moment, she sets an unconventional essay in class – ‘What is happiness?’ – that the students eagerly answer, dreaming up futures full of optimism. Svetlana, who underneath her harsh exterior feels she’s never been happy, becomes outraged at one girl’s essay describing marriage to a kind man and four children as the ideal of happiness. Although the girl looks shy at first, she jumps to defend her essay from the attack and humiliates Svetlana’s silly outburst. Nevertheless, the students are left wondering whether the adults are out to make them look stupid – why’re they asked to write this essay if their teacher didn’t want an honest answer?
The essay-writing scene’s the central episode in a film with no obvious plot, relating instead the events of a couple of exceptional days in the life of a normal Soviet secondary school. In the silence of the classroom, Rostotsky draws out the romances, friendships and trivial quarrels between the students. But the scene’s also a warning of what may await them if, like their teacher, they’ll come to feel they have squandered their youth. One student, a future poet maybe, is determined not to become as lifeless as the adults around him and, later that day, he sneaks into the staff-room where he impulsively burns the ‘happiness’ essays. It’s only through Melnikov’s heroic intervention that the young man isn’t expelled from the school.
We’ll live ‘til Mondaywas made towards the end of the Thaw, when Stalin’s repressive regime had given way to a short period of more openness in Soviet Russia. Censorship wasn’t as strict and it was possible to make films subtly criticising society in the USSR. For example, the film addresses social themes such as drunkenness and depression that were difficult to discuss openly at the time. Rostotsky’s especially critical of an education system teaching adherence to the party line rather than the truth – it’s only thanks to individual teachers like Melnikov that children might leave school with a real education.
Rostotsky often cuts between different scenes, on one occasion with powerful close-ups of the student’s faces to produce a kind of avant-garde film collage. He doesn’t quite pull this off, perhaps because the subject matter isn’t itself experimental. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that the film is beautifully shot in limpid black and white, with streams of light coming from the big windows of the brutalist school building, whilst in outdoor spaces Soviet tower blocks loom over the protagonists.
One of the film’s strengths, no doubt, is its revelation that Soviet youth in the sixties are just as preoccupied with rebelling against social problems as their western counterparts. Yet We’ll live ‘til Monday’s best in its tender exploration of character. There’re many moving scenes, never sentimental, which come into effect through gestures rather than words: Natasha’s tears after becoming angry in front of the students, or Svetlana’s joy when Melnikov presents her with flowers on the 20thanniversary of her teaching career.
Unfortunately, this wonderful, understated Soviet film’s only shown in London all too rarely – but, at least, it’s only the second of nine films Kino Klassika, an organisation bringing Russian film to the UK, show at the Regent Street Cinema this May and June as part of a series focusing on the Soviet ‘New Wave’ and youth culture in the USSR. It’ll be wonderful to see more of this heyday of young Soviet cinema in the coming weeks!