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How Kurosawa Found His Dersu

The story of the filming of Dersu Uzala was told to RIA Novosti by the cameraman of the movie, Fedor Dobronravov, who has been living in New York for the past 20 tears.

“Kurosawa had long been thinking about making a film from Vladimir Arseniev’s novel ‘Dersu Uzala”. It turned out that this was one of his favorite works. Kurosawa had no hesitation about selecting Yuri Solomin for the role of Arseniev. After “Adjutant of His Excellence”, it was difficult to find a more suitable “aristocrat-intellectual” on the Russian screen. But where Dersu was concerned...

Months went by, but there still was no actor for the role. Many showed up, tested for the role, even a singer who sang a big hit of those times, “I”ll take you to the tundra”. Kurosawa was procrastinating and constantly watched Soviet movies. One day he was watching one of little known films, and suddenly he jumped, and pointed out with his finger, in a crowd scene, a running, bow-legged little guy. Nobody was able to identify this person, not even the director of the film. In the course of investigation it turned out that it was Maxim Munzuk from the Tuvan Musical Theatre. Kurosawa gave an order to Dobronravov and another cameraman to bring this person.

“In the Tuvan theatre, we were told that we could not see Munzuk because he had gone hunting. Almost a week went by, we were expected to go back and we were getting ready to leave the next day, when a strange man came into our room, right in his hunting outfit. Nobody could say that he was handsome, so we took along to Moscow two other actors, who, in our opinion, had more pleasant looks. But all of them turned out to be Tuvan hunters”, remembers Dobronravov. The testing did not work out well at first– the cameramen started out with the better-looking actors. Kurosawa was displeased and kept growling.

The third one was Munzuk.

“We pushed him into the room with Kurosawa, but we ourselves were scared to go in, we listened behind the door. After a lengthy period of silence, in the end, out of curiosity, we opened the door. Kurosawa had Munzuk sitting in his own armchair, and just admired him. Even later he always called him his most favorite actor in his whole life. “ – says Dobronravov.


It was not simple to work with Kurosawa – the filming day started at 7 am and went on for 15 hours. He wanted to convey all the nuances of all the four seasons of the year, and we ended up filming for 2 years. The director loved to film the changes between seasons, especially from spring into summer, and from summer into autumn. Every take had to have its own flavor – the actors had to have real moustaches and beards, and he would personally, with his own hands, “age” the soldiers’ belts and leather straps with sandpaper.

During the filming, he was also difficult - everything had to be real. He had an artist rebuild a log building, because the logs were crooked. “Anybody who builds anything has to have a lead !”( to measure the perpendicular).- he said, not accepting any excuses”, tells Dobronravov.

At first, the work did not go smoothly because of “civilizational differences” - the Soviet team of the “dailies” at 1.5 rubles would just sit and eat sunflower seeds, as is traditional for them, while Kurosawa was getting into the next take, setting up some newly found picturesque tree stump. He simply could not understand, why so much of Soviet film would turn out to be faulty, and he would have to film the scene again. He would not accept carelessness. Then the cultures became closer…..

“According to the scenario, we had to build a pit trap for animals – a pit covered up with branches. Kurosawa came to the spot, hung about for a while, then disappeared somewhere… Later we found him right inside of our trap, he could not get out, and was absolutely happy – “ Great guys, you made it very well, but I did not trust you”, - remembers Dobronravov.

Kurosawa aimed at making everything in a take to come alive. Once he even had a heart attack, when a typhoon tore off all the golden taiga leaves just before filming a planned scene. “Mosfilm trappings came in useful – Dobronravov ordered 10 boxes of autumn girlands from Moscow and everybody had to go and wreathe them onto the naked trees, bringing them from one scene to another. Kurosawa went to hang leaves with everybody else.

“More than anything, we were shocked that a secretary named Nagami went everywhere with Kurosawa, taking notes of everything that anybody said. Once we were discussing something, and Kurosawa said – do what you suggested on Tuesday. I did no remember, but Nagami opened her book, and read out everything I said.”, remembers Dobronravov.


“Mosfilm” almost did not manage to push through filming in the Far East in Arsenievo, at the home of the writer. It was a completely secret zone, where foreigners, and much more so Japanese, were not allowed to go. “Mosfilm” could not talk Kurosawa into filming the taiga around Moscow, and finally the filming was realized only because of some special edict of the government.

“We stayed at a hotel of the army base, and our food was sent by the army field kitchen of the nearby troops. It was strictly prohibited to associate with the soldiers. A KGB member was assigned to our team, who always hung around without doing anything. But the Japanese managed to hide in the taiga anyway. They had some sort of maps, and we knew that they were looking for the graves of their soldiers”, tells the cameraman.

For two years, Kurosawa ate at the same table with everybody else, the same army rations from the same army metal bowls and cups. Sometimes he invited the team for tea.

“ He had an interesting way of making tea - he mixed tea with boiling water, then whipped it with a shaving brush until it was green foam, then he would put it into our cups, and he called it green tea. We laughed about his tea behind his back, but in our turn, we introduced him to Russian vodka. He did not refuse, either.” – smiles Dobronravov.

Kurosawa’s favorite expression during the filming was “Don’t talk so much” – the whole Soviet filming team learned this expression in Japanese, and used it in every possible context.

“We did not break the language and cultural barrier completely. I never had the nerve to ask Kurosawa about the scars on his wrists”, - admits Dobronravov.

The film eventually received an OSCAR, it entered the history of cinematography, but it never had box-office success. It seemed too long, and the end was too sad – that time wiped away even all traces of Dersu’s grave, assumes its surviving co-creator.

“In that farewell scene, we had no end of trouble with Munzuk, he did not want to play dead and kept refusing to get into the grave. We were already covering him up with a blanket, but he still kept moving. He was a nice, entertaining, and superstitious person”, says Dobronravov.

Maxim Munzuk left this life in 1999, at the age of 89 years.. They were the same age with the great Kurosawa, who died a year earlier. After he recovered from working on Dersu, the master made not a few more masterpieces about the crossing of cultures of East and West, and received another OSCAR “for contribution to the cinematographic art”.

RIA Novosti, traslated by Heda Jindrak
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