Leonid Bichevin as Chagall and Kristii Schneider as Bella in “Chagall-Malevich.” Photo courtesy of © ShiM-Film Pictures
A story of magical realism about a great love and two competing artists is told against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution in “Chagall-Malevich.” The film highlights the opposing artistic philosophies of the Jewish painter Marc Chagall (Leonid Bichevin), a surrealist painter known for his colorful, imaginative renderings of scenes from his hometown village, and Kazimir Malevich (Anatoliy Beliy), who championed the abstract, geometric style of painting he called “Suprematism.” More than 140 paintings by the artists are shown in the movie.
The project marks the return of noted Russian director Alexander Mitta after a 10-year absence from filmmaking. Loosely based on Chagall’s memoirs, as well as on those of his contemporaries, the movie begins in highly dramatic fashion as Chagall’s young, Chasidic mother is having a difficult time giving birth to him in the midst of a raging fire set by arsonists in the Russian village of Vitebsk. The whole village is ablaze as the young mother labors with the help of a midwife in a burning room, also occupied by a cow and a chicken, as the father, a pickle peddler, hovers in the background.
The baby appears stillborn, but his mother cries out, “Revive him!” After the midwife dips the infant in hot and cold water, he begins to wail. The character of Chagall, as narrator, says, “The world was so magically bright, horrifying and beautiful that I started to breathe. And ever since then, that intolerable beauty burned within me.”
Decades later, in 1914, Chagall is painting in Paris, “the art capital of the world.” In his narration, Chagall says he and his friends learned to be artists at the museums and from each other.
At one point, he returns to Vitebsk and seeks out Bella Rosenfeld (Kristii Schneider), his future wife and love of his life. Although her father is not happy with her choice, she and Chagall are passionately in love and eventually marry. They plan to go to Paris, but their travel plans are disrupted by the war, so they settle in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), and they have a little girl. Revolution comes to Russia, and Chagall says he can’t paint with the violence all around them. They return to Vitebsk, where they reunite with Naum (Semyon Shkalikov), an old friend who is now Red Commissar of the town and who has always been in love with Bella. Chagall has a commission as Commissar of the Arts, and he establishes an academy. After being invited to join the faculty, the abstract artist Malevich challenges Chagall for leadership of the school. Through it all, Bella stands steadfastly by her husband.
Schneidermann, who is Austrian and half-Jewish on her father’s side, said she looks a lot like Bella and identified very closely with the character for several reasons: “We had quite a lot in common. The first is our languages. Bella knew a lot of languages, just like me. I know five languages and speak fluently in all of the five.” Plus, she added, “We both love theater and art. The third fact is that we love literature and writing, and everything that connects to that.”
Schneidermann also met Bella’s granddaughter, Meret Meyer Graber, whose blessing was crucial to getting the film made.
“That was an amazing experience,” she recalled, “and the most amazing thing that happened to me was that she called me her actual grandmother Bella.
“When we were sitting at a table, I sang the lullaby that I sing in the movie, and she cried and said that was the exact lullaby that her grandmother Bella used to sing to her when she was small. Meret said it was as if our souls exchanged, as if at moments she felt younger, and I in that moment, myself, felt older, like her real grandmother. So that was a very touching and amazing experience.”
As for the film itself, Schneidermann feels that, though it’s called “Chagall-Malevich,” it is more a love story about Chagall and Bella and a story about Chagall the artist.
“It’s mostly about this wonderful painter who influenced me and many people on earth, all around the world,” Schneidermann said. “He was always in this magic world, which I think the director wanted to dive into and make the audience dive into also. It’s such a magic world of kindness.
“If he was alive,” Schneidermann added, “I think maybe he would want people to get to know that he wanted love and peace to exist in the world, rather than bloodshed and war. That’s mostly what I think he wanted people to see in his work, and I think that’s mostly what our director wanted to show in our film.”
— Iris Mann, Jewish Journal.
Chagall-Malevich official page.