In the Spotlight: ‘17 Moments of Spring’
Published: May 12, 2009 (Issue # 1473)
This week, the country’s newspapers have been obsessing over the 1970s spy series “17 Moments of Spring,” which the clever people at Rossia television have carefully changed from the original black-and-white film to color. We’re only talking a small dash of gray to Shtirlitz’s eyes and scarlet to his Nazi armband, but the new look has caused wails of outrage. Not to mention a new crop of impenetrable Shtirlitz jokes.
The show is set in Germany during the last months of World War II. The hero, Shtirlitz, is an undercover Soviet agent who is trying to outwit the Nazis and stop them from holding secret talks with the Western powers.
It’s hard to understand why “17 Moments” is so popular at first glance, despite the stylish photography and stunningly handsome lead actor, Vyacheslav Tikhonov. The show is heavy on long dialogues and scenes of the hero gazing into the distance. The spy story is also pretty confusing, given that the Soviet agents and the Nazis all wear the same uniform — and are all speaking Russian.
If you do manage to watch the whole show, though, it will be a passport to understanding punning headlines playing on the phrase, “Shtirlitz, I’ll ask you to stay behind” — no, me neither — as well as countless jokes involving Shtirlitz and his Gestapo nemesis, Muller. It also might help to explain Russians’ affection for a certain former Soviet agent in East Germany.
You have to be careful about the comparisons you make, however. A Saratov newspaper was threatened with court action after it published a collage showing Vladimir Putin in the noble role of Shtirlitz — perhaps forgetting that showing the then-president in a Nazi uniform was not the best idea.
The show gets a regular airing round Victory Day, but this year Rossia decided to spice things up by showing a new colored-in version, which apparently took three years to complete. A nice change, you might think, but Komsomolskaya Pravda even devoted a front page to disgusted comments about the hero’s “brown makeup” and the “terrible, childish coloring-in.”
KP also printed a topical joke about a new book of Shtirlitz jokes — “The jokes are still the same, but the letters are multicolored.
“Looking at Shtirlitz’s face, which is usually a noble pearlish-gray color, but is now covered in a light colonial tan, as if the Standartenfuhrer had got addicted to a tanning salon, you think that you might as well paint a marble statue with foundation and blusher,” Kommersant wrote.
Goblin, the famous translator of Western films into Russian, who likes to add his own jokes, went even further in his blog, saying Shtirlitz’s appearance reminded him of the colored-in photographs that they put on grave stones.
One blogger, Yefim Diky, even suggested that the whole coloring project was actually an attempt to divert attention from the Mikhail Khodorkovsky trial.
The Communists of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region also announced one of their regular campaigns against popular culture — this youth group has already attacked the Russian characters in the last “Indiana Jones” and “James Bond” films as perverted Western propaganda. This time, they are calling for viewers to just say no to the colored version.