The fiction short "What is the Theory of Relativity?" (1964) is Raitburt's calling card, a film that "...laid the foundation for a new genre of “scientific fiction” films, in which deep fundamental scientific ideas are shown in an entertaining plot form". (From the character reference of Semyon Raitburt in his personal file. Archive of the Tsentrnauchfilm studio.) From that time until the early 1990s, Raitburt was one of the leading directors of the Tsentrnauchfilm studio, the supervising director of the “I Want to Know Everything” film journal and the “Horizon" film anthology, the creator of a unique tradition of “scientific fiction” films, and, in the opinion of the writer, literary critic, and science popularizer Daniil Danin, the founder of the Soviet auteur science cinema.
Raitburt’s biography symbolically intersects with the creative career of Daniil Danin, the author of the book "The Inevitability of a Strange World" (1961), which literally plowed Raitburt over and predetermined the direction of his directorial pursuits in the 1960s-70s. Raitburt was the first practitioner of “scientific fiction” cinema, but its ideologist was undoubtedly Danin. Raitburt admired him, never missed an opportunity to quote him, and even defended his scientific validity in disputes with professional scientists.
For Danin, the symbiotic concept of scientific and fictional narrative became the starting point for the development of a whole scientific (or pseudoscientific, from the point of view of the adherents of academic tradition) discipline - the "centauristics", first mentioned in a highly publicized polemical article, where Raitburt's film about the theory of relativity was called an "extremely difficult centaur”. (Danin D. Skol'ko iskusstva nauke nado? [How much art does science need?] / A vse-taki ono sushchestvuet [And yet, it exists!] M.: All-Union Bureau of Cinema Propaganda, 1982. S. 13.) Raitburt himself believed that his signature style - fictional plot-based novellas with dialogues on scientific topics - was formed as a result of adaptation to the specifics of educational cinema, and not in spite of it: “The whole main idea of the film, say, “Physics at Half Past Nine” lies precisely in the fundamental impossibility of depicting - and imagining! - a picture of the microworld. <…> Regardless of my personal inclinations but following the specific features of our form of cinema, I gradually came to the techniques of fiction filmmaking". (Raitburt S. Chelovek i nauka [Man and Science] // Kinopanorama. Sovetskoe kino segodnia [Film Panorama. Soviet Cinema Today]. Issue 3. M.: Iskusstvo, 1981. S. 307.)
Beginning with the film “What Is the Theory of Relativity” made in 1964, Raitburt consistently resorted to a collision, in his plots, of a knowledgeable hero with incompetent laymen (with whom, of course, the viewers must identify). For Alla Demidova, the role of a physicist in this film was the first notable film work and predetermined her persona as "the most intelligent actress in Soviet cinema". In addition to Demidova, one of his first notable roles was played in a film by Raitburt by Aleksandr Kaydanovsky, who appeared in "The Mathematician and the Devil" (1972) practically as Mephistopheles. Semyon Ferdman also made his debut in the film by Raitburt, "Vacations in the Stone Age" (1967) and in his next film would already become Semyon Farada.
Raitburt was assisted with the search for an actress for the main role in “The Theory of Relativity” by Aleksandr Blank, a student of the VGIK workshop of popular-science cinema directing, the future director of “Timur and His Squad” (1976) and “The Gypsy” (1980). He noticed an aspiring actress at the student theater of Moscow State University. Actors Georgy Vitsin, Aleksey Gribov, and Aleksey Polevoy played not just their actor colleagues, but themselves (the conductor on the train, seeing Vitsin, recalls his role in the film “Dog Barbos and the Unusual Cross” (directed by Leonid Gaidai, 1961). In this way, Raitburt amplified the sense of authenticity of what was happening and played along with the viewers, as if inviting them to correlate their own ignorance in matters of physics with the same ignorance of their beloved actor.
The casting principle is also more or less obvious. The trio was selected according to their ability to use their voice well, since some of their dialogue was used against the background of animated inserts that clearly illustrated the theses of Demidova the physicist. Vitsin and Gribov are absolute classics of cartoon voice acting, and for Aleksey Polevoy, dubbing and voice acting were actually his specialization (we might recall, for instance, his smooth intonation in “Boniface's Holiday” (directed by Fyodor Khitruk, 1965).
Although "What is the Theory of Relativity?" became the first purely fictional film by Raitburt and laid the foundations for his unique style, in one aspect it is fundamentally different from his subsequent "acted" films. Here, the laymen listeners are more sympathetic and more interesting than the scientist. Alla Demidova does an excellent job playing her role. Her character is a completely recognizable typical of Soviet cinema intellectual: restrained, balanced, carried away by the subject, slightly arrogant. In the future, the director will rely on extraordinary, even extravagant, charismatic characters. In fact, Raitburt here followed Vasily Shukshin in his interest in eccentrics, just not from among the common people, but representing the technical and creative intelligentsia. As if in search of an image of a physicist out of this world (for him a theoretical physicist was a representative of another world, inaccessible to the sight and intellect of mere mortals), in the second half of the 1960s he “trains” on portraits of artists prone to eccentric behavior - Lev Kuleshov (“The Kuleshov Effect”, 1969) and Leonid Kogan (“Performed by Leonid Kogan”, 1965).
Despite the fact that Raitburt gained fame as a director of films on physics and mathematics, as his official studio character reference rightly noted: “...a serious creative contribution was made by comrade Raitburt in art history films is well”. These are “Seven Soviet Songs” (1965), “The Ladder of Senses” (1981), “An Orchestra Rehearsal” (1985), “Seven Years and the Whole Life”, and “The Russian Modern” (1990), as well as two films indirectly related to the work of Chekhov: "The Chekhovs" (1987), about the family of Anton Chekhov, and "Anniversary" (1988), made for with the centenary of the publication of "Kashtanka". Raitburt could well perceive Chekhov’s short stories that combine irony with subtle didacticism and the figure of the writer-doctor in general as a stylistic and behavioral yardstick.
In the early 1970s, Raitburt found the ideal ambassador for his ideas. What became so felicitous for him was "...meeting with Doctor of Technical Sciences Vsevolod Shestakov, who played the main roles in the films "This Right, Left World", "The Mathematician and the Devil", and "Physics at Half Past Nine”. He turned out to be an ideal performer for films of this type and for the first time in our cinema he managed to create a highly authentic image of a modern scientist who thinks qualitatively differently than all of us, the non-specialists". (Raitburt S. Op. cit. S. 308.) Shestakov himself, who combined active scientific work in the field of hydrogeology with acting, seemed to personify the conception put forward by Danin and Raitburt, of the synthesis of the scientific with the artistic. A self-confident and sarcastic attitude of his character seemed to mask his conscious vulnerability: he was the first scientist in Soviet cinema to realize the transitory nature of any scientific truth.
When Raitburt just came up with the idea to make "This Right, Left World" as a monologue of an extraordinary physicist, he wanted to invite Innokenty Smoktunovsky to play this role. And the role was going to be an already existing one - the physicist Ilya Kulikov from "Nine Days of One Year" (directed by Mikhail Romm, 1961). In his "physics" trilogy ("What is the Theory of Relativity", "This Right, Left World", "Physics at Half Past Nine"), Raitburt argued with Romm, believing that Room had made a wonderful film but had failed to reveal the essence of scientists' work. As if in contrast to “Nine Days of One Year”, he first arranged an exemplary lecture for the actors in “The Theory of Relativity”, and then wanted to return one of Romm’s pseudo physicists to a purely scientific environment. (It is useful to recall that Alla Demidova also appeared in the episodic role of a student in Romm's film). Innokenty Smoktunovsky refused, but many years later Raitburt managed to realize his dream of working with the actor: in the film “In the Crooked Mirror” (1982). Raitburt would also return to “Nine Days of One Year”, in a reference in the title of his lyrical documentary sketch “Nine Letters of One Year” (1975).
Raitburt’s cinema as a whole was characterized by quotation. The titles of the films “An Orchestra Rehearsal” and “Seven Days and the Whole Life” referred to Fellini’s eponymous pamphlet and the Soviet non-fiction film “Nine Days and the Whole Life” (directed by Yuri Zanin, 1979). An animated recreation of Pushkin’s process of writing in "The Ladder of Senses", of course, alludes to the "Manuscripts of Pushkin" (directed by Sergey Vladimirsky, 1937). The improvisation of artists on camera in the film "Seven Years and the Whoe Life" recalls a similar scene from "The Mystery of Picasso" (directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1956), only in Raitburt’s film Leonid Polishchuk and Svetlana Shcherbinina draw a turtle, and Picasso in Clouzot's film draws a rooster.
There were also numerous internal allusions between Raitburt's own films. We have already mentioned the narrative scheme of the scholar's debate with the know-nothings (which itself resembles Plato's Socratic dialogues) and the predilection for eccentric intellectuals. In addition to the migrating character played by Shestakov, one can also mention, for example, the mischievous Pushkin scholar Valentin Berestov ("The Ladder of Senses"), the tireless conductor of the school orchestra Rem Gekht ("An Orchestra Rehearsal"), Anatoly Cherepashchuk, fanatically devoted to the dream of space ("Nine Letters of One Year"), and, of course, Lev Kuleshov ("The Kuleshov Effect"). A special case in this sense is the film "A Time of Life" (1979), where the character was split. Raitburt first conceived a screen adaptation of the book "This Strange Life" - a documentary novella by Daniil Granin about the Soviet biologist Aleksandr Lyubishchev. But as he immersed himself in the material related to the life and work of Lyubishchev, Raitburt realized that he was involuntarily losing sight of the second hero of the story, which was "...the writer himself, who constantly compares Lyubishchev's life with his own life". (Raitburt S. Op. cit. S. 311.) Ultimately, it was the writer who came to the fore, telling about his book and its hero with unexpectedly confessional intonation and ending the film with the words that “...his real-life character will, perhaps, make the reader doubt the development of his life as well". (Troyanovsky V. Semyon Raitburt // Rezhissery sovetskogo nauchno-populiarnogo kino [Directors of the Soviet Popular-Science Cinema]. Issue 1. M.: Soyuzinformkino, 1984. S. 31.)
Often sophistic debates of Raitburt’s characters arise in an emphasized holiday atmosphere that does not in any way presuppose seriousness: a conversation of random fellow travelers on a train in “The Theory of Relativity” or a dialogue in a holiday home in front of the TV screen in “Physics at Half Past Nine” and “In a Crooked Mirror”, or a gathering by a campfire at night in “A Lesson in Astronomy".
Raitburt’s films were not only sequentially connected, but also internally controversial. Over time, his views changed. The intonations also changed: from ironic ("The Theory of Relativity") to uneasy ("Who’s Behind the Wall?"). “In 1960, I made the film “The Brain and the Machine”, which reflected the overly optimistic views on the achievements of cybernetics characteristic of that time. It seemed then that the secrets of the brain were almost no secrets anymore, that a machine was about to be created that could be likened to the human brain. But just recently we made the film "Who's Behind the Wall?", in which there is an attempt to determine just how ambitious and difficult such a task really is". (Ibid. S. 313.)
The self-confessed man of the sixties, Raitburt, who throughout his life tried to combine “a physicist and a lyricist”, is not accidentally referring here to one of the main passwords/codes of the Thaw. He notes with sadness that this era is gone, but his popular-science films of the 1960s–80s not only remained iconic documents of their time but were in many ways ahead of it.