Soviet Film Classics: Office Romance (Sluzhebnyy Roman)

Also by The Slacker: mystery novel ‘New Holland’

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This film sounds rubbish, but somehow it’s amazing. Here’s the story: geeky, repressed father of two Anatoly Novoseltsev works in a Soviet-era statistics office. His best mate and fellow employee Yuri Samokhvalov encourages him to try and impress his frumpy, cold-hearted boss Ludmila Kalugina. And guess what – after failing miserably at first Novoseltsev impresses her with his honesty and kindness, and – after the mandatory trials and tribluations – they fall for each other and go off into the sunset together.

It sounds like a poor quality Hollywood effort: the kind of thing I usually avoid at all costs. But so many Russians (and, indeed, Soviets) held ‘Office Romance’ so dearly that I decided I had to check it out. I’ve probably seen it ten times now.

So what makes it such a good film? Well, its theatre roots give it a quality that sets it apart from modern day geek-gets-the-girl movies. It is based on a play, and many of the main actors started in the theatre. Indeed, Alisa Friendlich (Kalugina) and Oleg Basilashvili (Samokhvalov) continued to work on the stage in Leningrad during filming.

But the pick of the actors is undoubtedly Andrey Myagkov (Novoseltsev). Unlike the modern geeks, who are either too handsome to be geeky or else so pathetic that they just garner sympathy, Novoseltsev is a geek with an edge. He’s clumsy, stuttering over pathetic chat-up lines about picking mushrooms and unable to control his naughty children, but occasionally he shows real soul: putting down his boss for her loftiness and arrogance, or standing up to Samokhvalov when he finds out the dirty tricks he’s really up to. He’s someone compelling to watch.

Like its stablemate The Irony of Fate (which has the same director and features many of the same actors), Office Romance makes some sly digs at the Soviet society of the seventies. Known as the period of stagnation, these were days of women spending half an hour at their desks doing their make-up to start the day, secretaries knitting whilst gossiping on the office line and employees being far more interested in gossip than serious work, all of which is portrayed in the film with an apt tinge of sadness. These were days of shortages and poverty for many but, according to my mother in law, far kinder days than the ones we now live in.

Closer to the standard Soviet message is the portrayal of Samokhvalov (his surname translates as ‘praise-self’) as the office bad boy – he’s lived in the west and seems to have learned his tricks there, all whilst smoking endless Marlboros and avoiding striptease shows. Samokhvalov reminds me of former Russian Prime-Minister and current opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov in the way he looks and carries himself – though no doubt that’s where the similarities end, given the very different times we live in.

So what’s the best thing about this film? It’s not the slightly crazy happy ending, reminscent on one level of Benny Hill; nor is it the strange roof garden which seems to come with Kalugina’s job. The best aspect is without doubt the sweeping scenes of Moscow set to songs performed by Friendlich and Myagkov: scenes of busy train stations, snow in the trees, commuters hurrying onto and off buses. There’s nothing surpising or unique within these shots, apart from the fact that the snow was filmed in September. Their beauty lies in the fact that they’re scenes from a world now gone and, for many, forgotten – there’s nothing forced or staged in these magic minutes, just people moving through a place no longer there. It reminds me of one of my favourite photograph books, ‘The Optimism of Memory’, which shows a series of photographs from Leningrad in the 1970s – a must for anyone who’s ever been there, or who’s mystified by the Soviet Union.

You might have heard there was a follow-up film last year – ‘Office Romance: Our Time’. The acting’s pretty crap, though the actors are all good-looking – something for everyone, depending on your persuasion. The storyline follows the original exactly until the last half hour, when things actually do get interesting. Probably worth a watch, but only just – it’s another modern Russian film aping Hollywood far too closely at the expense of its own culture.

Stick with the original, though, and you won’t be disappointed.

Saul Pope is the author of ‘New Holland’, a mystery novel set in St. Petersburg and published by Espresso Books. You can take a peek here or here.

A unique literary project – an entire novel to be Tweeted! Follow @paulmarlowstory to read ‘Invisible Man’ by Paul Marlow.

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6 thoughts on “Soviet Film Classics: Office Romance (Sluzhebnyy Roman)

  1. thanks for an interesting and fresh glance at our classical movie! 🙂 best regards, M.

  2. After these words I want to watch this film in English

  3. “I’ve probably seen it ten times now.”
    Thank you for that!

  4. Alexey Zharikov

    Dear Saul Pope,

    Novoseltsev is not exactly a looser. The key moment of this movie is when Kalugina, who is going to fire Novoseltsev, learn that Novoseltsev personally bring up two kids, despite hix ex-wife was alive. According to the moral of Brezhnev Soviet Union, when this movie was made, man who is doing something like this is a kind of saint.Watch the reaction of Kalugina when she learn this – Alisa Friendlich plays this reaction very natural.

    Many russian younger people who never lived in Soviet Union, do not understand this either.

  5. theslacker

    I agree that Novoseltsev is not a loser – a poor turn of phrase on my behalf. He’s more a harrassed and repressed man, but as we find out later he has real character. What he does in bringing up two children alone as a man remains unusual even now, I think.

    Alexey, I’m not even sure that this film is available in English. I did try to find it for my non-Russian speaking friends, but could not.

    Thanks generally for all the really positive feedback I have received about this article…this and Ironiya Syudbiy are genuinely two of my favourite films. I’d also be interested to hear what you think of my article on ‘Interdevochka’, a film that fascinates me largely because a) it is a film about such a narrow sliver of history, and b) I feel there is a real emptiness, a lack of warmth, at its core, which I have not felt in any other film.

  6. You can watch this film with English subtitles here: http://www.cinema.mosfilm.ru.

    The reason this and other Ryazanov’s films are so loved is that they show a lighter side of life and yet make its problems and difficulties recognizable on many levels. I believe that the subtle humor and many cultural references would escape a viewer who didn’t live in the country during the 70s.

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