Deaf Crocodile, in association with distribution partner Seagull Films, announced today the acquisition of a trio of celebrated Russian titles. The companies will jointly release 4K restorations of famed Russian fantasy filmmaker Aleksandr Ptushko’s stunning 1956 medieval epic ILYA MUROMETS (THE SWORD & THE DRAGON), and his mystical 1959 Finnish/Soviet co-production SAMPO (THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE), as well as a 2K restoration of director Karen Shakhnazarov’s 1988 Kafkaesque satire ZEROGRAD (ZERO CITY). ILYA MUROMETS and ZEROGRAD will be released in collaboration with legendary Russian studio Mosfilm, which restored them recently. SAMPO has been restored by KAVI – the Finnish National Audiovisual Institute. All three films will be released in summer 2022 theatrically, digitally, and on home video as part of an ongoing “Russian Fantastika” collection, working with Deaf Crocodile’s partner Grasshopper Films for digital release and OCN / Vinegar Syndrome for Blu-ray release.
ZEROGRAD director Karen Shakhnazarov, who has served as Director General of Mosfilm since 1998, comments, “For us today restoration is more of a cultural action than a commercial matter. But I think that it is very important that the masterpieces of world cinema, the classics, are now in good quality – this in itself is very important for the preservation of this heritage.”
Legendary Russian fantasy filmmaker Aleksandr Ptushko’s sweeping, visual FX-filled epic ILYA MUROMETS (THE SWORD & THE DRAGON) is one of his most enchanting achievements: a stunning CinemaScope ballad of heroic medieval knights, ruthless Tugar invaders, wind demons, and three-headed fire-breathing dragons, all set against a mythic landscape of pastoral, unspoiled Russia. Based on one of the most famous byliny (oral epics) in Old Russian culture, the film stars Boris Andreyev as the bogatyr (warrior) Ilya, waging a decades-long battle against the Tugars who threaten his homeland, kidnap his wife, and raise his own son to fight against him. Director Ptushko began his career in the 1930s and went on to become a combination of Walt Disney, Ray Harryhausen, and Mario Bava for his dazzling, bejeweled fantasies including THE STONE FLOWER, SADKO, SAMPO, and RUSLAN & LUDMILA. The first CinemaScope film produced in the Soviet Union, ILYA MUROMETS was released in a truncated, dubbed version in the U.S. as THE SWORD & THE DRAGON, that heavily downplayed the epic poetry and lyricism of the original. This will be the first-ever official U.S. release of the original full-length version of ILYA MUROMETS. (In Russian with English subtitles.)
SAMPO (THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE), 1959, Finland/USSR, 91 min. Based on the Finnish national epic “Kalevala,” director Aleksandr Ptushko’s ravishing, mystical fantasy tells the story of a sinister witch Louhi (Anna Orochko) who covets the Sampo, a magical, rainbow-colored mill that can produce endless salt, grain, and gold. When the hero Lemminkäinen (Andris Oshin) attempts to stop her, Louhi steals the sun, plunging the world into eternal darkness. A Finnish/Soviet co-production and shot like its predecessor ILYA MUROMETS in gorgeous CinemaScope, SAMPO features some of Ptushko’s most surreal and fantastical imagery: a glowing red horse plowing a field of vipers; a boat of fire with a stag’s head; a weeping mother literally walking across the sea to find her lost son. With its witch’s incantations and repeated scenes of forging magical items – “Give me fire for the furnace from the nave of the sky!” – there is a Macbeth-like occult force to the film as well, underscored by the raging blue-gray seas and rock-strewn landscapes. Previously released in the U.S. in a dubbed, butchered version as THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE (and later mocked on MST3K), SAMPO has been beautifully restored in 4K by KAVI – the Finnish National Audiovisual Institute for its first-ever American release in its original Finnish-language version by Deaf Crocodile. (In Finnish with English subtitles.)
Part Kafka, part Agatha Christie, and part Monty Python, director Karen Shakhnazarov’s surreal 1988 satire of Communism ZEROGRAD (ZERO CITY) follows an Everyman engineer named Varakin (Leonid Filatov) who arrives in a remote city where nothing quite makes sense— but everyone acts as if it does. He’s quickly drawn into the investigation of the suicide (or possibly murder?) of a local restaurant chef, Nikolaev, who may (or may not) be Varakin’s missing father. The more complex and absurdist the mystery becomes, the more poignant and plaintive Varakin’s predicament. Along the way we’re treated to a bizarre and wonderful sideshow of non sequiturs that seem as if out of a Wes Anderson film, including an underground museum filled with a thousand years of real and imagined Russian history Frozen in time, frozen far beneath the surface, the waxwork figures are strangely beautiful and forlorn, like Shakhnazarov’s marvelous and enigmatic satire of Soviet bureaucracy. With music by the great Eduard Artemyev (SOLARIS, STALKER). (In Russian with English subtitles.)
“In my opinion, the essence of the film ZERO CITY is that a person mythologizes history, distorts it,” observes the film’s director, Karen Shakhnazarov. “And, constantly distorting history, he distorts his own life. In essence, we do not know history – it is, in principle, unknowable for us. We constantly use the past to achieve some goals in our modern life. But in this way, by distorting our past, we also distort our present. This concerns not only the USSR and not only Russia. This also applies to the United States, and France, and China, and Brazil, and in general everyone. This is common. For me, this topic is related to the very existence of man. This is the main theme of ZERO CITY for me.”
“Russia has such a rich tradition of fantasy filmmaking, and these are absolute treasures,” says Deaf Crocodile Co-Founder and Head of Acquisitions & Distribution Dennis Bartok. “I worked in the early 2000s with Alla Verlotsky of Seagull Films on bringing Ptushko’s magical films and other Russian Fantastika titles to U.S. audiences through touring retrospectives we organized. Now, working again with her and her partner Victoria Belopolsky in Moscow, we’re thrilled to be introducing the original full-length ILYA MUROMETS and SAMPO and Shakhnazarov’s wicked, surreal ZEROGRAD to audiences here, with much more to come.”
Craig Rogers, Deaf Crocodile’s co-founder and Head of Post-Production and Restoration, continued on the acquisition and release news, “Ray Harryhausen fans are going to be blown away by the imagery and real fire breathing dragon in ILYA MUROMETS and the stunning poetry and visual F/X in SAMPO. ZEROGRAD comes from the same D.N.A. as Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL. Surreal, wild fun. I’m so glad these films will finally be seen by a North American audience!”
“Soviet cinema is an indisputable treasure trove of gems, many of which are rarely known to American audiences,” added Seagull Films’ Founder & President, Alla Verlotsky, on the titles. “Seagull Films’s and Deaf Crocodile’s commitment to making world cinema’s unknown masterpieces restored and widely available is an act of not only cinematic but cultural preservation.”
“Russian Fantastika” is a broad and fascinating mix of genres that encompass folktale films (film-skazka), science fiction movies (nauchno-fantastichesky film) and horror (film uzhasov), according to the late Russian film scholar Alan Upchurch. Deaf Crocodile and Seagull Films will be announcing additional “Russian Fantastika” titles in the near future.