Inspired by the memoirs of Marc Chagall and those of his contemporaries, Chagall-Malevich is a magical period drama about the uneasy relationship between two artistic geniuses. Blending fact and folklore, the film traces the return of the iconic Jewish artist (portrayed by Leonid Bichevin, Cargo 200) to his childhood home of Vitebsk. Having left behind immense success in Paris, Chagall returns to the Russian empire in 1917 in hope to marry the love of his life Bella Rosenfeld (Kristii Schneider). Here he produces copious paintings and establishes the Academy of Modern Art. A rivalry develops with abstract painter Kazimir Malevich (Anatoliy Belyy), invited to teach at the art school. As Bella rekindles a childhood friendship with military Red Commissar Naum (Semyon Shkalikov), Chagall competes for the affections of his muse and future wife. As the October Revolution sweeps across Russia, historical events intrude on personal struggles and upend the quiet provincial life in Vitebsk.
Brimming with surrealistic imagery from the paintings of Chagall and Malevich (over 140 paintings were used in the film), this sumptuous melodrama marks veteran Russian filmmaker Alexander Mitta’s return after a decade-long hiatus.
The Female Gaze contributor Dana Knight caught up with Chagall-Malevich star Kristii Schneider in New York, and spoke with her about being Bella, working with Alexander Mitta and the happy coincidences in the making of Chagall-Malevich.
Dana Knight: You’re the lead actress in a new Russian film about the famous painter Marc Chagall, could you please introduce the project and tell us how you became involved in it.
Kristii Schneider: The film is called Chagall-Malevich, it is directed by Alexander Mitta, a genius director who made about 100 or more movies, he’s 80 years old now. It was an honour for me to play the role of Bella Rosenfeld, Marc Chagall’s wife. The film focuses on Marc Chagall’s life, the director wanted to make this movie for 40 years, he’s a great fan of Marc Chagall and his work. I honestly was not a big fan myself.
Knight: Why not?
Kristii Schneider: I thought his paintings were quite simple. But after I got to dive more into the material, [my views changed]. Actually I met Alexander Mitta in Albertina Museum in Vienna, my home town. There was a Chagall exhibition there and we met right in front of one of his paintings, Above the City, which is now one of my favourite paintings. To my shame, I did not know who Alexander Mitta was back then. A man was standing next to me and I asked: “Why are they in the air, why are they flying in this painting?”. As he is a great teacher, he gave me this lecture about Chagall right in the museum for an hour and so! Then he asked me, “What do you do?”. I said, ”I’m an actress”. He said, “I’m a film director”. And I’m like: “Wonderful!”. And that’s when he invited me to Moscow for a casting, it was a spontaneous opportunity.
Knight: That’s a fantastic story, your chance encounter with director Alexander Mitta at a Chagall exhibition and him immediately casting you to play the artist’s wife. I’m stunned that such a coincidence would happen.
Kristii Schneider: Yes I was amazed too. He was this old man standing next to me and I thought he must know more about Chagall and his paintings! Then he invited me for the casting and there were really famous people there from Russian TV. I’m not very involved in Russian culture but I speak 5 languages and I love communicating with people. When I got there, I was like wow. I was actually doubting whether to go to this casting or not…It’s only when people told me he’s a genius director that I went.
Knight: What were your doubts about?
Kristii Schneider: Well, I was wondering who my partner was going to be, am I going to like the project, will it be
interesting to work with this director? But it’s not often that you find this kind of chemistry that Alexander Mitta and I have. And he was so wonderful, he was always there on every set every day, from 7am to 3am the next day. He would walk up to me and say, “This is how we play it”. My deepest concern was to prove to him that I was worthy of the role. Bella is such a great character, apart from Chagall. And in a way she’s even more important than Marc Chagall because Chagall lived 98 years but she died quite young. She was a great support for Chagall, as a woman, mother, nanny, as the love of his life. Without her I think Chagall wouldn’t have been able to become so famous.
Knight: How did you relate to Bella and what were the challenges of playing her?
Kristii Schneider: Bella has actually a lot of similarities with me, which was another shock. First, she looks like me, she’s like my twin sister. I play her younger self, when she meets Chagall and they fall in love and get married, the film has this magical, dreamy beginning. Bella also spoke 5 languages like me and she was the only daughter in the family, like me. Also, her father was a jewellery maker and he did not allow her to marry Chagall because Chagall was from a different social class. We see some scenes in the movie when they are without heating and freezing and hungry. It was a difficult time and very difficult for me to play these scenes and get all that across, the hunger, the revolutionary times. The third difficulty was handling children, I am very young, I am not a mother and wasn’t sure how to portray that. […] Another difficult thing was that they actually did hang us up in the air, we were hanging for two hours, together with the goat. And Mitta was screaming: “Please keep on talking” because during this scene I had to talk to Leo (Leonid Bichevin who plays Marc Chagall) at the same time. Leo is a wonderful actor, he could project Chagall perfectly.
Knight: How did you prepare for the role?
Kristii Schneider: When I came to Paris, I met the grand daughter of Marc Chagall, she was to advice me on how to play Bella. She looks exactly like Marc Chagall so when she opened the door it was Chagall who welcomed me, which was scary but also wonderful! She came all the way from Lyon to meet me in Paris and she was sick, she had fever and she asked me to help her in the kitchen as if I was her real grandmother. And I got to feel that as an actress. Then I sang a lullaby that is in the film and she told me that was the exact lullaby that her grandmother used to sing to her. I was astonished by that. I experienced something very mysterious with her, almost as if we switched roles, she told me she felt younger and at the same time I felt older. We’ve been friends ever since.
Knight: I loved the scene in which you open the door to a lovelorn woman who candidly tells you ”I’m in love with your husband” and your reaction to it. Did you write this scene?
Kristii Schneider: I actually told Alexander Mitta that I’m a person of humour, like Chagall himself. I feel him and I felt like he was always there helping me to get through all the difficulties. I did not write that scene but I contributed in other ways to the shoot.
Knight: How long was the shoot and how did you contribute to it?
Kristii Schneider: The shoot was 2 months long with a one-day break. I got to co-direct some scenes in the movie, I visualised some scenes in advance. When Mitta needed advice, I would step in and offer him my ideas. There is this scene in the underground when she goes to rescue Malevich, it was my positioning, I told Mitta that I want to make it standing with the camera framing both of us because I feel scared if a man is behind me.
Knight: What can you tell me about the rest of the crew? The cinematography is beautiful, the film looks like a fairy tale.
Kristii Schneider: We had an amazing cinematographer, Sergey Machilsky, he chose creative camera angles and coloured the movie by hand using his own unique technique of coloring. He managed to perfectly recreate the world of Marc Chagall. Costume designer Lyudmila Gayntseva created the costumes, most of them just for the production. Production designer Eduard Galkin made actual size painting reproductions. The local designer Alexander Vyshka made around 3000 singboards, shields and banners for the film. They are very accurate and copy those that existed in the city at the beginning of XX-th century.
Knight: Although the film is mainly about Chagall’s life, the character of Malevich adds some dynamism to the story, he spices things up a little bit.
Kristii Schneider: Yes, we had to make up Malevich as a second revolutionary artist because we felt we needed to put in some struggle, the struggle between two revolutionary artists, two stories against each other. But the focus remains Chagall and the love between him and Bella, the focus was not to show the revolution or the bloodshed that we have now in the world. There are some very dark movies being made nowadays. Our movie is meant to drag you into this magic world and really make you fly up in the air and make you want to see the movie over and over again.
Knight: It’s a very idealistic film in many respects.
Kristii Schneider: Yes, and I actually felt very comfortable in the atmosphere of the beginning of XX-th century, maybe more comfortable than in modern life. And after the shoot, I suddenly composed a song, it just came out of me, because a love like that between Chagall and Bella doesn’t exist in the world anymore. Now people have many girlfriends and boyfriends, it’s not so unique. So for me, the main thing was to imagine what I would feel if I had the great Marc Chagall for a husband and I believed in him. And how I could also push him because Bella is not sweet all the time, she is the basis of family and she is a mother and they are going through a revolution. She sustains Marc Chagall and pushes him forward, always. I was born on the same day as Marc Chagall actually, on 7.07.
Knight: So many coincidences about this film!
Kristii Schneider: I know, because we have a mystical project.[…] It was the most amazing experience of my life so far.