Dersu Uzala


2h 21m 1975
Dersu Uzala

Brief Synopsis

A Russian explorer brings the Asiatic hunter who saved his life back to civilization.

Film Details

Also Known As
Dersou Ouzala
MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Adventure
Historical
Biography
Foreign
Release Date
1975
Location
Soviet Union

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 21m
Sound
70 mm 6-Track
Color
Color (Sovcolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.20 : 1

Synopsis

An eccentric Mongolian frontiersman is taken on as a guide by a Soviet surveying party.

Film Details

Also Known As
Dersou Ouzala
MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Adventure
Historical
Biography
Foreign
Release Date
1975
Location
Soviet Union

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 21m
Sound
70 mm 6-Track
Color
Color (Sovcolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.20 : 1

Award Wins

Best Foreign Language Film

1975

Articles

Dersu Uzala


An epic ode to the untamed Siberian wilderness and an elegy to the primitive hunters who once populated it, Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala (1975) opened the door to a more mature, reflective phase of the director's career, and earned an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film.

The early 1970s were a challenging time for Kurosawa. Having fallen out of favor with the Japanese movie-going public, the once-venerated auteur was considered a bad financial risk to investors. His 1970 film Dodes'Kaden, conceived as a comeback film, proved to be a box-office disappointment. On December 22, 1971, Kurosawa attempted suicide by razor, slashing his throat and wrists.

Upon his recovery from the near-fatal event, Kurosawa's fighting spirit seems to have been reawakened. Turning his back on his home studio of Toho (which was reluctant to fund a new production), Kurosawa looked westward and accepted an offer from the Soviet studio Mosfilm, which offered him the freedom to develop his own script. The film he made while rising from the ashes of his career, Dersu Uzala, was not the last lament of a dying man, but the bold announcement that he was not giving up the fight.

Kurosawa had read Vladimir Arseniev's memoir Dersu Uzala in the 1940s, and at this crucial juncture of his career, saw in it the opportunity to make something expansive and unconventional. Working with Russian writer Yuri Nagibin (Igor Talankin's epic Tchaikovsky [1969]), Kurosawa created a script in which the backdrop would be the most prominent feature: "the astonishingly beautiful, gigantic and awesome Great Nature of the Ussuri region of Russia." So said a note attached to the screenplay itself, according to the Japanese film magazine Kinema Jumpo.

Speaking of the film in greater detail, Kurosawa said, "The relationship between human beings and nature is getting worse and worse...I wanted to have people all over the world know about this Soviet Asian character who lived in harmony with nature... I think people should be more humble toward nature because we are a part of it and we must become harmonized with it. If nature is destroyed, human beings will be destroyed too. So we can learn a lot from Dersu," (quoted in Donald Richie's The Films of Akira Kurosawa). Or, as the title character himself says in the film, "Man is very small before the face of nature."

Dersu Uzala is told through the eyes of a Russian topographer, Captain Arseniev (Yuri Solomin), who leads a military expedition in 1902 to map the Ussuri region of Siberia, near the border of China. One night, their camp is stumbled upon by a squat, comical hunter, Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk), a superstitious member of the Goldi people, a vestige of the region's more primitive inhabitants. At first, the soldiers scoff at Dersu's peculiar habits: conversing with a crackling fire, reading footprints in uncanny detail, insisting they leave a store of supplies behind when they depart from a vacant shack (so the next inhabitant will have food and fire).

But there is much practical wisdom in the gnomish hunter's eccentricities. When the soldiers take target practice on a bottle swinging from a rope, Dersu chides them for the waste of resources. After proving his superior aim by shooting the rope, he pockets the unbroken glass bottle, explaining that it is a rare commodity so far from civilization.

In the film's justly celebrated centerpiece, Dersu and Arseniev are isolated and disoriented on a frozen tundra without camping gear. As the sun begins to set (bringing with it certain death in the bitter cold), Dersu commands Arseniev to begin cutting stalks of grass, and struggles to construct a makeshift shelter as they are buffeted by freezing winds. It is a sequence of riveting tension and extraordinary beauty (in one shot, you can actually watch the sun disappear from the sky as the characters struggle with the bullrushes in the foreground).

Five years later, Arseniev returns to the region and, much to his delight, is reunited with Dersu Uzala, but quickly learns that the timeless-seeming native is beginning to show his age. When Dersu shoots at a Siberian tiger in a moment of panic, he is overwhelmed by panic, believing to have incited the wrath of the forest spirit Kanga. Unsettled by the experience and his weakening eyesight, Dersu Uzala agrees to accompany Arseniev on his return to the town of Khabarovsk, and live as a guest in his home.

As might be expected, the transition from Siberian wilderness to city life is difficult for Dersu, to the point where he must choose between his spiritual death in Khabarovsk or a physical death in the wilds of Ussuri.

Born in St. Petersburg, the real-life Arseniev (1872-1930) was among the first Russians to explore the eastern regions of Siberia, and extensively catalogued the geography, flora, and fauna in dozens of books. He is best remembered today for his memoirs, of which Dersu Uzala (published in 1923) is the most famous. It is the centerpiece of a trilogy, begun in 1921 with On Ussuri's Edge, and concluded in 1937 with In the Sikhote-Alin Mountains.

Kurosawa was not the first filmmaker to tell the Dersu/Arseniev story on screen. In 1961, Agasi Babayan made his directorial debut with his own version of Dersu Uzala.

The making of Dersu Uzala was a major undertaking for the crew. It was nearly a four-year project, with two years spent on location in Siberia, shooting on expensive and unwieldy 65mm film (since it was conceived from the start as a 70mm release). Because the film was shot with a relatively small crew, without the cost of studio overhead, it was completed at the modest cost of approximately $4 million.

In one of the more peculiar anecdotes to arise from the production, Kurosawa told reporters in 1976 that he listened to Harry Belafonte records during the location shooting of the film.

The world premiere of Dersu Uzala was held in July, 1975, at the Moscow Film Festival, where it won one of three Golden (Grand) Prizes. The other winners were Andrzej Wajda's Promised Land (1975) and Ettore Scola's We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974).

Dersu Uzala received its U.S. premiere as part of the New York Film Festival, screening October 5, 1975 at the enormous Ziegfeld Theater, where the stunning 70mm photography could be properly showcased. The film was later acquired for domestic distribution by Roger Corman's New World Pictures. It is nearly forgotten that, in addition to being a purveyor of low-budget exploitation films for the drive-in market, Corman in the 1970s imported a number of significant art films, including Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata (1978), Francois Truffaut's The Green Room (1978), and Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum (1979).

Reviews of Dersu Uzala were consistently positive. Variety wrote, "the subject matter dwarfs boundaries in its human uplift."

However, most critics felt the latter portion of the film failed to live up to the first. "The first half is delicate and haunting and the second half is numb and ponderous," wrote Richard Eder in The New York Times. "The episodes in this second part go on endlessly, loosely, obviously. They lack the revelations of the winter scenes and they do little but belabor at length the points already made. They wreck the film's balance and make its achievements dull."

Looking back on Dersu Uzala, one can't help but think the critics were a bit shallow in their thinking. After the majestic and breathtaking Siberian sequences, everything else does seem suffocating and grim, and that is hardly unintentional. The claustrophobic Khabarovsk scenes induce dread on a level most viewers (and critics) are not used to experiencing. We not only see Dersu Uzala's life slipping away, we feel the loss in ourselves as well. From the moment Dersu's hunting skills begin to falter, we feel the dreadful, inexorable pull of the grave.

Though it is a departure from the Japanese setting of Kurosawa's other films, Richie points out that Dersu Uzala is not such a thematic deviation from the director's past works, and that the hunter embodies many of the qualities that the director found so fascinating in the samurai. "Like any Kurosawa samurai, Dersu is superbly competent, attuned to nature, the weather, and the presence of other human beings in the wilderness. Above all he knows how to survive. He lives, as did the samurai at his best, purely by his own code, one not unlike bushido in its insistence on subordination of the individual to a transcendent ideal. Dersu would never verbalize such an idea, again in keeping with samurai manner: he simply embodies it."

Dersu Uzala was the second Kurosawa film to earn an Academy Award. His 1950 film Rashomon won Best Foreign Language Film, and the director was awarded an honorary career-achievement Oscar® in 1990.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producer: Yoichi Matsue and Nikolai Sizov
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa and Yuri Nagibin
Based on the book by Vladimir Arseniev
Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai, Fyodor Dobronravov, and Yuri Gantman Music: Isaak Shvarts
Production Design: Yuri Raksha
Cast: Yuri Solomin (Captain Vladimir Arseniev), Maksim Munzuk (Dersu Uzala), Svetlana Danilchenko (Mrs. Arseniev), Dmitri Korshikov (Vova Arseniev).
C-144m.

by Bret Wood
Dersu Uzala

Dersu Uzala

An epic ode to the untamed Siberian wilderness and an elegy to the primitive hunters who once populated it, Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala (1975) opened the door to a more mature, reflective phase of the director's career, and earned an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. The early 1970s were a challenging time for Kurosawa. Having fallen out of favor with the Japanese movie-going public, the once-venerated auteur was considered a bad financial risk to investors. His 1970 film Dodes'Kaden, conceived as a comeback film, proved to be a box-office disappointment. On December 22, 1971, Kurosawa attempted suicide by razor, slashing his throat and wrists. Upon his recovery from the near-fatal event, Kurosawa's fighting spirit seems to have been reawakened. Turning his back on his home studio of Toho (which was reluctant to fund a new production), Kurosawa looked westward and accepted an offer from the Soviet studio Mosfilm, which offered him the freedom to develop his own script. The film he made while rising from the ashes of his career, Dersu Uzala, was not the last lament of a dying man, but the bold announcement that he was not giving up the fight. Kurosawa had read Vladimir Arseniev's memoir Dersu Uzala in the 1940s, and at this crucial juncture of his career, saw in it the opportunity to make something expansive and unconventional. Working with Russian writer Yuri Nagibin (Igor Talankin's epic Tchaikovsky [1969]), Kurosawa created a script in which the backdrop would be the most prominent feature: "the astonishingly beautiful, gigantic and awesome Great Nature of the Ussuri region of Russia." So said a note attached to the screenplay itself, according to the Japanese film magazine Kinema Jumpo. Speaking of the film in greater detail, Kurosawa said, "The relationship between human beings and nature is getting worse and worse...I wanted to have people all over the world know about this Soviet Asian character who lived in harmony with nature... I think people should be more humble toward nature because we are a part of it and we must become harmonized with it. If nature is destroyed, human beings will be destroyed too. So we can learn a lot from Dersu," (quoted in Donald Richie's The Films of Akira Kurosawa). Or, as the title character himself says in the film, "Man is very small before the face of nature." Dersu Uzala is told through the eyes of a Russian topographer, Captain Arseniev (Yuri Solomin), who leads a military expedition in 1902 to map the Ussuri region of Siberia, near the border of China. One night, their camp is stumbled upon by a squat, comical hunter, Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk), a superstitious member of the Goldi people, a vestige of the region's more primitive inhabitants. At first, the soldiers scoff at Dersu's peculiar habits: conversing with a crackling fire, reading footprints in uncanny detail, insisting they leave a store of supplies behind when they depart from a vacant shack (so the next inhabitant will have food and fire). But there is much practical wisdom in the gnomish hunter's eccentricities. When the soldiers take target practice on a bottle swinging from a rope, Dersu chides them for the waste of resources. After proving his superior aim by shooting the rope, he pockets the unbroken glass bottle, explaining that it is a rare commodity so far from civilization. In the film's justly celebrated centerpiece, Dersu and Arseniev are isolated and disoriented on a frozen tundra without camping gear. As the sun begins to set (bringing with it certain death in the bitter cold), Dersu commands Arseniev to begin cutting stalks of grass, and struggles to construct a makeshift shelter as they are buffeted by freezing winds. It is a sequence of riveting tension and extraordinary beauty (in one shot, you can actually watch the sun disappear from the sky as the characters struggle with the bullrushes in the foreground). Five years later, Arseniev returns to the region and, much to his delight, is reunited with Dersu Uzala, but quickly learns that the timeless-seeming native is beginning to show his age. When Dersu shoots at a Siberian tiger in a moment of panic, he is overwhelmed by panic, believing to have incited the wrath of the forest spirit Kanga. Unsettled by the experience and his weakening eyesight, Dersu Uzala agrees to accompany Arseniev on his return to the town of Khabarovsk, and live as a guest in his home. As might be expected, the transition from Siberian wilderness to city life is difficult for Dersu, to the point where he must choose between his spiritual death in Khabarovsk or a physical death in the wilds of Ussuri. Born in St. Petersburg, the real-life Arseniev (1872-1930) was among the first Russians to explore the eastern regions of Siberia, and extensively catalogued the geography, flora, and fauna in dozens of books. He is best remembered today for his memoirs, of which Dersu Uzala (published in 1923) is the most famous. It is the centerpiece of a trilogy, begun in 1921 with On Ussuri's Edge, and concluded in 1937 with In the Sikhote-Alin Mountains. Kurosawa was not the first filmmaker to tell the Dersu/Arseniev story on screen. In 1961, Agasi Babayan made his directorial debut with his own version of Dersu Uzala. The making of Dersu Uzala was a major undertaking for the crew. It was nearly a four-year project, with two years spent on location in Siberia, shooting on expensive and unwieldy 65mm film (since it was conceived from the start as a 70mm release). Because the film was shot with a relatively small crew, without the cost of studio overhead, it was completed at the modest cost of approximately $4 million. In one of the more peculiar anecdotes to arise from the production, Kurosawa told reporters in 1976 that he listened to Harry Belafonte records during the location shooting of the film. The world premiere of Dersu Uzala was held in July, 1975, at the Moscow Film Festival, where it won one of three Golden (Grand) Prizes. The other winners were Andrzej Wajda's Promised Land (1975) and Ettore Scola's We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974). Dersu Uzala received its U.S. premiere as part of the New York Film Festival, screening October 5, 1975 at the enormous Ziegfeld Theater, where the stunning 70mm photography could be properly showcased. The film was later acquired for domestic distribution by Roger Corman's New World Pictures. It is nearly forgotten that, in addition to being a purveyor of low-budget exploitation films for the drive-in market, Corman in the 1970s imported a number of significant art films, including Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata (1978), Francois Truffaut's The Green Room (1978), and Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum (1979). Reviews of Dersu Uzala were consistently positive. Variety wrote, "the subject matter dwarfs boundaries in its human uplift." However, most critics felt the latter portion of the film failed to live up to the first. "The first half is delicate and haunting and the second half is numb and ponderous," wrote Richard Eder in The New York Times. "The episodes in this second part go on endlessly, loosely, obviously. They lack the revelations of the winter scenes and they do little but belabor at length the points already made. They wreck the film's balance and make its achievements dull." Looking back on Dersu Uzala, one can't help but think the critics were a bit shallow in their thinking. After the majestic and breathtaking Siberian sequences, everything else does seem suffocating and grim, and that is hardly unintentional. The claustrophobic Khabarovsk scenes induce dread on a level most viewers (and critics) are not used to experiencing. We not only see Dersu Uzala's life slipping away, we feel the loss in ourselves as well. From the moment Dersu's hunting skills begin to falter, we feel the dreadful, inexorable pull of the grave. Though it is a departure from the Japanese setting of Kurosawa's other films, Richie points out that Dersu Uzala is not such a thematic deviation from the director's past works, and that the hunter embodies many of the qualities that the director found so fascinating in the samurai. "Like any Kurosawa samurai, Dersu is superbly competent, attuned to nature, the weather, and the presence of other human beings in the wilderness. Above all he knows how to survive. He lives, as did the samurai at his best, purely by his own code, one not unlike bushido in its insistence on subordination of the individual to a transcendent ideal. Dersu would never verbalize such an idea, again in keeping with samurai manner: he simply embodies it." Dersu Uzala was the second Kurosawa film to earn an Academy Award. His 1950 film Rashomon won Best Foreign Language Film, and the director was awarded an honorary career-achievement Oscar® in 1990. Director: Akira Kurosawa Producer: Yoichi Matsue and Nikolai Sizov Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa and Yuri Nagibin Based on the book by Vladimir Arseniev Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai, Fyodor Dobronravov, and Yuri Gantman Music: Isaak Shvarts Production Design: Yuri Raksha Cast: Yuri Solomin (Captain Vladimir Arseniev), Maksim Munzuk (Dersu Uzala), Svetlana Danilchenko (Mrs. Arseniev), Dmitri Korshikov (Vova Arseniev). C-144m. by Bret Wood

Quotes

Trivia

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States January 2000

Released in United States March 1976

Released in United States on Video August 1984

Released in United States September 1976

Released in United States September 2000

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1975

Re-released in United States on Video August 17, 1994

Shown at New York Film Festival September 1976.

Shown at Toronto International Film Festival (Year 1) September 7-16, 2000.

Formerly distributed by Nelson Entertainment.

Released in USA in 35mm prints.

Re-released in London January 17, 1992.

Shot in 65mm.

Released in United States January 2000 (Shown in New York City (Anthology Film Archives) as part of program "Kino International Retrospective" January 6-27, 2000.)

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1975

Released in United States March 1976 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Contemporary Cinema) March 18-31, 1976.)

Released in United States on Video August 1984

Re-released in United States on Video August 17, 1994

Released in United States September 1976 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 1976.)

Released in United States September 2000 (Shown at Toronto International Film Festival (Year 1) September 7-16, 2000.)