I have what I can only describe as a bizarre relationship with Pavel Chukhrai’s 2004 film “A Driver for Vera.”  I seem to conflate Vera with Anna Odinstova from Turgenev’s “Father’s and Sons.”

*Disclaimer* I have a passionate love affair with “Fathers and Sons” that knows neither boundaries nor sense, so my comparisons are colored by my emotions. Also I might be a bad person. *End Disclaimer*

The majority of the people I polled, all six of them, expressed some sort of distaste for Vera. They described her as arrogant, manipulative, and utterly spoiled. These are the same charges that I have heard against Odinstova. People act as though Vera and Odinstova should understand the plight of individuals who lack their monetary and social advantages. Vera has spent her entire life swaddled so tightly by her father that she barely has a life of her own, and Odinstova’s experience with poverty taught her to protect herself and her family, not pity others; what would make either character question the system under which they had spent their entire lives living?

By describing these women as manipulative and cruel, people fail to recognize their complexity. Odinstova and Vera are both desperate, lonely, and absolutely terrified. Vera is pregnant by a man who hardly acknowledges her, has been told all of her life that the only way anyone will love her is if Daddy threatens them, and images that her future remains trapped in a military complex friendless and alone. Odintsova’s loneliness may be more of her own making, but it protects her from the world. Whenever these women lash out, it is not out of sadism but out of fear.

When people watch “A Driver for Vera,” they seem to forget that her class does not make her immune from suffering.

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I tend to think of the War in Chechnya as Russia’s version of Vietnam, though I recognize the comparison lacks a certain amount of accuracy. The idea remains that Chechnya is a place where Russia does not belong.

Sergei Bodrov’s 1996 film “Prisoner of the Caucasus” – forgive me, but I refuse to call it “Prisoner of the Mountains” – certainly takes the perspective that the realms of Russia and Chechnya are incompatible and trapped in a cycle of conflict. Though the film was ostensibly based on a work by Tolstoy, I suspect the finished product has more to do with the film’s contemporary circumstances than with a work of literature written in the 1800s. The film’s source material does, however, serve as a stunning reminder that the conflict between the two people has lasted for generations.

The cinematography luxuriates in the landscape of Chechnya. This world of hills, herders, minarets, and towns nestled on rocky outcroppings is completely at odds with either the urban areas of Moscow and Petersburg or the lush fertile landscape that many Russian films seem determined to show. By reveling in the depiction of this dusty earth, the film implies that Russians do not belong in this space.

The idea that Russians should not interfere in Chechnya also arises in one of the songs repeated throughout the film. In the lyrics of what appears to be a Chechen folksong, the singer warns that strangers fear and have reason to fear this land. The Chechen people, however, belong to this place as surely as the Russians do not belong in it. The structures and even the gravestones appear as natural parts of the landscape, ancient and settled.

The film displays the Chechen people as individuals who live by rules that are very different than the rules by which Russians live. When the film shows the morning call to prayer, and the prayer rug, the images emphasize how foreign this culture is to Sasha and Zhilin. Though the clothing worn by the individuals does not have the flash and flair that earlier depictions of non-Russian cultures may have head, the vestments worn by Dina and the other women appear much different than the clothing worn by Russian women in the 1990s; Dina perpetually has a head covering, her long skirts often end in fringe and are richly colored.

The ending of the film implies potential for change does exist. Unlike Sasha, Zhilin attempts to understand the Chechen people on a human level. He had Dina have a good rapport, and he tells her a bit sadly, “I would marry you.” Their ability to interact alludes to the potential for mutual understanding between the groups. The bombing of the town precludes this potential happy ending.

This endless timeless cycle appears repeatedly through the film. The presence of broken clocks and Zhilin’s ability to fix those clocks implies that he may be able to jostle these two cultures out of their eternal cycle of violence. In the end though, Zhilin did not have time to fix the last clock, so the cycle of death remains in place.

The character of Sasha is brilliant in this film. In “Prisoner of the Caucasus”, Oleg Menshikov who also appears in “Burnt by the Sun” plays the role of Sasha Sly. Though it is easy to compare the character to Chapaev, I think Sasha is just as fascinating when not contrasted with his predecessors. Sasha is not the most brilliant man, and he knows it. When the audience first views Sasha, we are driven to hate him, this arrogant Rambo-like man who cannot even remember his fellow prisoner’s name. But as the film progresses, the viewer realizes that Sasha has a very particular sort of nobility about him; he will not ask to be saved; he should have been Hamlet; he would rather fight the nephew of his enemy than see Zhilin harmed; and in spite of his cruelties, he takes care of his son. The film attempts to prove that all people are multi-faceted. Sasha’s death is a tragedy, but so are the deaths of Abdul’s son and all of the Russians and Chechens on both sides of the conflict.

“Prisoner of the Caucasus” emphasizes the utter tragedy of a struggle that seems in danger of never ending.

*Edited to remove the assumption that everyone dies in the end.

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If “Repentance” hints at the decade in which it was created, then “Little Vera” is a trifle of the 1980s with 80s music piled upon 80s hair layered on 80s clothing all smothered in 80s politics and social dynamics. The film unapologetically results from and for the generation of Soviets coming of age in 1988-89.

Somehow the German just makes it better. And less hypersexual.

Russian director Vasili Pichul released “Little Vera” or “Ма́ленькая Ве́ра” during the height of perestroika, and the themes in the film reflect the cynicism that many Soviet citizens, especially the young, felt toward their government.

In the film, Vera’s father, Kolya, is a drunkard. His addiction to alcohol is in no way depicted as noble, and if his alcoholism is emblematic of Russians, the film does not portray this relationship in a positive manner. Vera and her mother act as though Kolya is a particularly time-consuming child. He constantly requires feeding first with his wife’s borscht and later after Vera comes home from her first night with Sergei.

I do not speak Russian. If this poster says something terribly lewd, I apologize verily.

Vera’s acts of rebellion imply a different sort of youthfulness. She is tired of being treated like a child, so she defies her parents. Through her alcohol consumption, promiscuity, and relationship to the seedier aspects of the Soviet underbelly.

“Little Vera” implies that the Soviet system has forced all of its citizens into a state of childishness that either causes individuals to rebel as Vera and her friends do or to be completely incapable of looking after themselves as Kolya does.

When watching this film, I could not help but think about what Americans viewed during the same period. Some of the top grossing films in the U.S. during 1988-1989 include “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Die Hard”, “Beetlejuice”, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, “When Harry Met Sally…”, and “The Little Mermaid”. While I am sure some hard-hitting, gritty American films also emerged during these years, it seems “Little Vera” differs a great deal from Western fare. (Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” comes of age in an arguably more pleasant world than Vera does.)

Issues of historical memory seem to have haunted Soviet citizens. When groups talk about the past, they both situate themselves within it and attempt to use their relationship with the past to direct the future. Because the characters in “Little Vera” have no worthy past, their futures are bleak.

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Director Tengiz Abuladze’s 1984 film, “Repentance”, “მონანიება”, or “Покаяние”, has performed an incredible and rare feat; it has aged well. Except for the presence of a few shoulder pads, the 1980s do not intrude. That may seem like an odd thing for me to say – this film exists precisely because of a particular period in history – yet the style of the film and the themes that present themselves remain resonant and timeless. Questions of historical memory and injustice are always relevant.

I’m afraid my thoughts on the film are rather scattered, so this post will not be as cohesive as most of mine are.

The lack of red in the film is striking. Whenever the color occurs, it appears lush, vibrant, and sensual in the form of silk and robes; the color does not have explicitly communist connotations. Instead of red, yellow takes on a threatening role. Both in reality and in Nino’s dream world, the buildings along the main street are a strange mustard hue. The viewer only sees these structures when the protagonists are in danger. Yellow light further adds to the rotting atmosphere of the film. When Abel re-buries Varlam for the first time, during Abel’s confession scene, and following Tornike’s suicide, the only illumination onscreen comes from lone sources of yellow light. These scenes all feature the unfortunate effects of the corruption and ludicrous nature of society. The presence of yellow indicates the jaundiced, ill nature of society.

The film’s relationship to the earth, both in terms of the film by Dovzhenko and nature, perpetuates the Georgian people’s relationship to the land. During Nino’s dream sequence, she and Sandro flee the city. They end up on a farm where a man tills the soil. When filming the farmer, Abuladze shots from a very low angle across the landscape. This image of a man plowing the fields is almost identical to one seen in Dovzhenko’s film “Earth”. Nino and Sandro’s subsequent burials in the soil seem to simply both that they are a part of this Georgian place and that their world is trapping them, killing them.

This odd relationship to the land leads me to question the importance of the crumbling fresco in the old church. As the camera notes the large scientific instruments that fill the space and the viewer hears a speech about how scientists now destroy more than the create, it pauses to linger on a depiction of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. The image could mean any number of themes in this film; it could reference the dangers of knowledge that condemn humanity; it could emphasize the religious nature of the Georgian people; it could discuss the the way that people suffer under a corrupt system; or it could reference the need for people to seek redemption for their sins whether those sins be religious or cultural.

Before I leave you, I just want to say that not only did Makharadze play faux-Stalin in this film, but he played Stalin-Stalin in the 2005 “Archangel”. Now that is what I call inspired casting. If you want to see a more mature Makharadze, start watching the clip at minute 7:00.

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Despite its portrayal of love and the fallacies of the Soviet system, director Kira Muratova’s 1967 film “Brief Encounters”, or “Короткие встречи”, focuses primarily on women’s struggles to define themselves in a changing society. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union was notoriously proud of its treatment of women. The government lauded its female directors and astronauts while condemning Western Europe and the United States their gender inequality. Despite the Soviet Union’s self-presentation, the question of gender roles plagued the nation.

The character of Valentina best expresses this ambiguity regarding her place in society. Valentina has based her entire identity on being a successful Soviet official; she takes pride in working hard and well. Rather than keeping house or spending time in the pursuit of pleasure, Valentina obsessively continues in her quest to bring water to Soviet housing units. On one Sunday, a man stops Valentina while she is walking and asks her to see if a facility is up to standard. Rather than tell the man that she will come back on Monday Valentina goes to observe the housing unit. Having a day off is less important to her than performing her work

Though she expresses pride in her work, Valentina’s failure to live up to the traditional feminine ideals of beauty and domesticity haunt her. Her position provides Valentina with an elegant, well-built living space, but the home remains largely empty. Work leaves Valentina no time for children. Valentina continuously bemoans her age and perceived lack of beauty. Even though the Soviet Union supposedly does not emphasize the importance of women being beautiful and young, Valentina feels she does not live up to some aspects of femininity. For Maksim, she attempts to fulfill the feminine ideal; she dress up and gets her hair done before he returns home. Valentina seems caught between the roles she is supposed to play.

This tension between roles persists in Valentina’s interactions with Maksim. During one of the arguments, Maksim invites Valentina to join him on his expedition. She scoffs at him and says something to the effect of “And what would I do there, make porridge?” Making house would not fulfill Valentina no matter how much Maksim and men like him would prefer she play that role than the role of the party official.

Despite Soviet rhetoric, Russian culture still believed that women should be housewives, mothers. Society was still patriarchal despite the presence of women in some positions of authority. Those conflicting positions of women as simultaneously a neutered worker and a highly gendered woman created identity crises for the women of the mid-20th century.

“Brief Encounters” resonates so strongly with viewers because the issues it portrays troubled not only the Soviet Union but other industrialized nations as well. Anne Sexton describes these conflicts in her poem “Her Kind”.

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind

Like Valentina, women in the United States struggled with society’s definitions of gender and femininity. Those issues existed no matter what side of the Cold War a woman belonged to.

Incidentally a prominent paradigm of Soviet womanhood was also named Valentina. In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel to outer space. Though Tereshkova wanted to continue her work with the Russian space program, the communist party pressured her to enter politics. She served the state better as a symbol than as a scientist. Like the film’s Valentina, Tereshkova sacrificed some personal happiness in order to fulfill her duty. I also think that Muratova, who plays Valentina, resembles Tereshkova though that could just be coincidence.

Soviet Era Stamp of Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina from "Brief Encounters"

Oh, come on. There is some resemblance there.

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It’s a pity you’re not here with me. You would understand everything.
Look. The sea is all around. We are destined to sail forever
To live forever.

- The Narrator, Russian Ark

Oh, DVD cover. Subtle you are not.

I can only describe Russia director Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark (Русский ковчег) by saying that it is a very special sort of cinema.

Both negative and positive connotations are applicable to that statement.

As an artistic endeavor, Russian Ark stands apart from other films. Unlike in the early Russian cinema, Russian Ark does not rely on the use of montage to propel the narrative. In fact there is no use of montage at all. The film involves a single 96 minute take, and it moves at the pace of a single 96 minute take.

Despite the narrative’s sluggishness, the film manages to cover several hundred years of Russian history. Sokurov structures Russian Ark around the premise that this long single shot comes from the perspective of our intrepid narrator, whose identity the audience never discovers, has awakened from death in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace/Hermitage Museum.

(Peter the Great began construction on the Winter Palace in the early 1700s at which point the facility became the official residence of subsequent Tsars. The Palace is the facility revolutionaries stormed in 1917 in order to symbolically destroy the might of Imperial Russia. The Hermitage, however, was founded by Catherine the Great, contains the largest collection of paintings in the world, and costs a heck of a lot more to visit if you are a foreign tourist than if you are Russian.)

After gaining ghostly consciousness, the narrator meets up with a man known as “The European”. Both men wander through the various rooms and stumble across people symbolic of St. Petersburg and Russian culture in general. During the journey, they see Catherine the Great, the family of Tsar Nicholas II, images from WWII and the Cold War. Through the entire journey, the European makes sneering commentary about the Russian people. He mocks their art and their taste, calls them actors, and claims Russians are incapable of ingenuity. During the European’s abuse, the camera peers at the glorious art and people that it passes, and the narrator refutes the negative opinions. Though the European eventually admits that Russia is a worthy nation, it takes him several hundred years of history and dozens of rooms that feature artistic development in order to change his mind.

Yes, this is the guy we follow around for 90 minutes. Charming, isn't he?

The last images of the film portray the Hermitage as an ark – hello, titular reference – of Russian culture. Like the Biblical Ark of Noah, the Winter Palace, this Russian ark, preserves elements of the world. Rather than preserve animals, the Russian ark contains Russia’s history and culture. The symbolism of the ark seems to claim that quintessential Russianness must be protected from the world. Of course the European’s presence implies that Russian heritage has always required a certain amount of defending. Despite Peter the Great’s efforts, it took the West a very long time to recognize that Russia has cultural and historical value. The West’s failings do not prevent the film from making the claim that Russia will endure. That endurance seems to be a thread followed in many Russian films, this idea that no matter what cataclysms occur the Russian nature and Russian people will survive.

Though the film contains a great deal of artistic merit, watching it caused me pain. I loathe the European (or the Marquis, or Sergei Dreiden, or whoever he is supposed to be.) I recognize his presence represents the fumbling and thoughtless nature of the West’s interactions with Russia, but he does not make for an engaging character. (And he is rude, archaic, trapped in his own vision of the universe, and smells like formaldehyde.)

Despite my overall distaste for the film – and somewhere critics are shaking their heads in stunned disbelief at my inability to appreciate Russian Ark’s greatness – moments of the film caused me great pleasure. Seeing Catherine the Great watch the ballet stopped my breath. The actor in that role was superb and captured the paradoxes present in the person of Catherine. The costumes were likewise sumptuous and lush. The masks worn by entertainers and dresses worn by the women suited the periods the represented perfectly.

Is it too late for me to become Catherine the Great? She is a perfectly reasonable hero to have.

Ultimately I suspect it takes a very specific sort of person to watch “Russian Ark”, and unfortunately I am not a person of that sort. I appreciate what the film says about Russian culture and Russia’s place in the world, but I do not enjoy the way the film makes those claims.

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Prior to my recent viewing of “The Cranes are Flying” or Летят журавли, a Soviet film by Mikhail Kalatozov, I thought the title sounded familiar but could not for the of me remember where I had heard it. The strange recognition naggled at my brain, but I managed to ignore it until I saw Veronica rush through the crowded station as Boris departed. That scene reminded me of an image of a woman walking through a similar crowd handing out flowers.

Apparently “The Cranes are Flying” is that film too.

What better symbol of death, rebirth, and unity than white flowers?

Kalatozov has structured his film around repetitions such as the crowd scene all of which serve to drive the plot and imply that Russia will continue. Not only does the film begin and end with the same shot of cranes flying – hello, title – but Veronica through the same crowds, runs up the same staircases, and is covered by similar veils. Though the imagery repeats, the meaning behind the scenes changes as the film progresses. This combination of change and continuity implies no matter what challenges the Russian nation faces, it will prosper; its people will band together; its spirit will survive.

“The Cranes are Flying” is a film built on Stalin’s grave. Before the Thaw and Khruschev’s loosening of some artistic restrictions the government would have allowed neither the artistry found in the film nor the film’s message. Stylistically Kalatozov returns to the cinema of the 1920s. His use of angles resembles the photography of Rodchenko. His use of shadows mimics Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”. And Kalatozov’s interest in faces resembles the cinematography found in Dovzhenko’s “Earth”. Kalatozov goes wild filming shots from extremely high and low angles, following feet as they run, and turning the camera in circles.

A heritage of Russian artists live in this screencap.

Despite his stylistic freedom, Kalatozov adheres to mainline Soviet rhetoric.

Rather than upholding Stalin as the exemplar and magnificent leader of Russia, the film emphasizes the USSR’s ability to survive and become a powerful nation once more. This ability to overcome the effects of war also subtly threatens any nations who would fight against the Soviet nation. Despite the film’s claim that Russia’s “fierce hatred of war will never diminish,” the film admits that Soviets as a people must prevent war. Preventing war could reconcile the construction of the Soviet military machine, nuclear technology, and defensive maneuvers. The USSR can claim it is not aggressive but is merely preventing war.

All of these themes of survival come in the form of Veronica, a woman who loses her home, her parents, and her love all due to war. Though she struggles with depression, attempts suicide, and marries a man she does not love, Veronica ultimately overcomes these trials. By saving the child, Boris, Veronica commits herself to raising Russia’s future. In a similar moment when she hands out flowers to the soldiers, Veronica shows the unity of the Russian people. By working together, they can over come any adversary.

Every one in a while the film also inserts references that mock the ideas of Stalin. A bust of Lenin sits on Boris’s desk but not one of Stalin. The film also references the corrupt system of buying favors that existed under Stalin. (The film does not, however, mention that the system of buying favors continued long after Stalin’s demise.) The presence of these references to the former Soviet leader implies that not only will Russia overcome war, but it will overcome its Stalinist past as well.

Kalatozov managed to squish quite a bit into such a short film. I imagine Khruschev was pleased.

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I enjoy Sergei Eisenstein’s 1944 film “Ivan Grozyny” more than the widely praised “Battleship Potemkin”. My introduction to “Ivan Grozny” occurred during a class on the history of early modern Russia, so I always think of the film in terms of history’s many depictions of Ivan rather than through the lens of Stalinist culture. That Russian course also brought me face to face with one of the few loves in my life: the politics of Russia prior to Peter. What can I say? I love the Princes and the boyars, the way they jockey amongst themselves yet adhere to a stringent hierarchy of power and control. In honor of my great affection for these princes, I must discuss Eisenstein’s depiction of Kurbskii.

Kurbskii looks terribly glowy in this picture. Does anyone else want to call him "Kirby"? No? Just me then.

First I just want to throw out a bit of background info – Kurbskii is such a fun guy that I cannot help myself. Prince Andrei Kurbskii really did fight in the campaigns against Kazan, campaigns that occurred not once as the film suggests but annually rather like birthdays except with less cake and more heads on pikes. After an extraordinary
victory, Ivan raised Kurbskii to the position of boyar.

And, as Eisenstein shows in the film, Kurbskii really did lead troops in the Livonian War. Rather than surrender, however, the real Kurbskii won his battles; he defected to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth because Ivan refused to renew Kurbskii’s position in the army. Military service was an integral part of the Russian political system. If a boyar did not serve in some way…well let’s just say that Kurbskii got out while the getting was good.

Now at this point the annals of history become hazy. Scholars know that King Sigismund granted Kurbskii the town of Kovel where Kurbskii lived out the rest of his days. There exist, however, a series of letters supposedly sent between Kurbskii and Ivan. In these letters, Kurbskii condemns Ivan’s absolutism and censures Tsar’s cruelty. If the letters are legitimate – and they probably aren’t – they would indicate that though Ivan was power hungry, he was not crazy the way some historians have described him. (Which incidentally makes him more rather than less culpable for crimes committed, but I digress.)

If you want to read the letters – and I think they are terribly exciting – I’ve inserted a link below.

The Kurbskii Correspondence

Now at this point you are probably wondering what the heck this has to do with Eisenstein’s film.

It has to do with everything.

At the very least the history of Kurbskii-Ivan relations are important because of the way the film deviates from and adheres to the past. Eisentstein portrays Kurbskii as noble in a way that Ivan fails to be. Certainly with his hooked nose, swirling cape, and high perches, Ivan has the nobility of the hawk, but that nobility is always predatory. While Ivan is a hunter, forever circling the skies for mice, Kurbskii is the courtly chevalier, the lovelorn knight, and tragic figure.

Ivan as played by Nicolai Cherkasov very much working the megalomanic look.

Whenever Kurbskii interacts with Anastasia, he immediately becomes protective. As the peasants blame Ivan and the Glinskiis for cursing Moscow (True story, by the way. They thought Mama Glinksii rode around on her broomstick cursing the city. Fun stuff.), Kurbskii goes to where Anastasia slumps on a throne. Though he has ulterior motives, there is little doubt that if the crowd moves towards Anastasia, he will defend her. Later in the film after he checks to see whether or not Ivan still lives, Kurbskii remains kneeling beside Anastasia. His pose is supplicant and resembles images of courtly love in which the knight swears all to the lady of his affections. Though the film presents Kurbskii as morally weak, his interactions with Anastasia cause the audience to feel a certain sympathy toward him. While Ivan kills people because of his paranoia and need for power, Kurbskii sins because of love.

Lovelorn Kurbskii as depicted by Mikhail Nazvanov. Is that a heart I detect on his armor?

In effect Eisenstein presents the audience with two potential protagonists. There is Ivan with his dark eyes, crazy eyebrows, paranoia and endless charisma, and there is also Kurbskii who is less compelling, easily swayed by others and by his own desires, but is sane and relatable on a human level. Part of this dual presentation may stem from history or it may simply be because of Eisenstein’s desire to provide the feature film with more tension, but I believe that Eisenstein also seeks to give his viewers options. The audience can choose to support Ivan, or they can root for Kurbskii. The depiction of the two characters becomes even more important when we consider their historical counterparts. According to historical myths, Ivan did terrible things and Kurbskii was the wise noble trying to lead the Tsar down another path. That narrative indicates that Kurbskii could be a legitimate hero despite his flaws.

Ultimately the presence of choice ensures the film is compelling for all viewers. (And yes, I always root for Kurbskii. Even knowing how the story ends, I still root for Kurbskii.)

And just as some final trivia, did you know that there is a ballet about Ivan? I think we all need to go see it. Think of the viewing as a field trip of sorts.

Try and tell me that this ballet doesn't look awesome. Try.

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When watching Grigori Aleksandrov’s 1936 film Tsirk or Circus, I couldn’t help but think of the French film Les Enfants du Paradis. The similarities are only shallow and rely on the presence of spectacle in cinema. Both films explore the meaning of “performance” although Circus does not exhibit the same self-awareness as a philosophical medium in the way that Les Enfants does. Ultimately Circus’s lack of introspection allows the audience to delve into issues regarding performance (and what possible “shows” could mean in a communist state) or not.

Movie poster for Aleksandrov's 1936 film "Circus"

Movie poster for Marcel Carné's 1945 film "Les Enfants du Paradis"

(Both films also imply that you should never sleep with the Germans. The rationale behind this advice varies of course, but it amuses me that the moral remains the same. I imagine both French and Soviet officials would have shuddered to discover they shared an opinion.)

For Circus, the emphasis on lights,animals, glamour, and showmanship returns to the days prior to the revolution. Before revolutionary directors such as Vertov and Eisenstein created their masterpiece, cinema reflected the values of the stage. Rather than presenting settings and motions that reflect theater such as the sort seen in Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, Circus utilizes displays of glitz, incorporates complex electrical exhibitions, and fills the screen with beautiful dancing women. The film leaves no doubt that it is a production, and it seems that Aleksandrov wanted the audience to be awed by just how much work went into creating this production and then to enjoy the result.

The spectacle of "Circus"

One aspect of this production brings up a pet peeve of mine. (Although admittedly “pet peeve” might be to mild a term.) I understand why Aleksandrov chose to use animals in his film – the movie is ostensibly about a circus after all – but I could never shake the suspicion that the animals in the film were not treated well. Let’s face it, one of the major jokes in the film involves beating a lion with a bouquet of flowers; the bouquet may not have hurt the animal, but it certainly terrified it. As long as there have been circuses, animals have been mistreated within them. It made me recoil to see this abuse casually displayed and then ignored in the film.

The film continues to ever so slightly fail at its portrayal of life by exhibiting the various ethnicities (nationalities?) found in Soviet Russia. As the multitude of peoples passed the child around the circus seats and sang him a lullaby, the film implies that these people, though different from one another, share the same values. They believe in equality for all, the value of work, camaraderie, etc., etc., and all of those other lovely ideals that Soviet Russia claimed to work towards. This imagery ignore the fact that while the film presents a multifaceted yet unified populace it also reinforces the sense of hierarchy found in Soviet ethnic relations.

The hero of the film, Ivan Petrovich Martinov, completes this hierarchy. Martinov is the quintessential Russian; he is tall and blond, rugged and restrained. Nothing about his bearing indicates that he has anything in common with the dark, rather hunched ethnic minorities who sit the circus audience. Not only does Martinov differ physically from these other groups, but he acts differently as well. While Martinov performs great feats of physical prowess and technological skill, the minorities watch him and applaud; they are not allowed an active role but instead support the “good” Soviet. Because Martinov presents the best of Soviet Russia, the difference between him and the minorities creates an implicit continuation of an ethnic hierarchy.

Circus brings up many issues that I suspect Aleksandrov never intended to place in his film. Those issues are what make the film ripe for discussion and what have allowed Circus to survive the communist era.

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As the titular character in the Vasiliev Brothers’ 1934 film Chapaev, it makes sense that throughout the film Chapaev would change and develop. Chapaev does change, but rather than show explicit growth, Chapaev’s shifts in character seem abrupt and disconnected to one another. Chapaev does not progress but instead encapsulates shifts in persona.

The viewer first sees Chapaev the Peasant. In this incarnation, Chapaev rides around on steppe horses, sings Russian folk songs, and throws chairs across the room in rage. This Chapaev may not spend a lot of time contemplating
philosophy or engaging in intellectual pursuits, but he know the land and his people. His followers, all of whom are also peasantry, would lay down their lives for him.

Chapaev also represents military prowess. Repeatedly throughout the film, Chapaev talks about Napoleon and makes implicit comparisons between himself and the other man. (He even resembles Napoleon ever so slightly when he is posed on his horse with his funny cap.) The film acknowledges Chapaev’s skill as a military; the commissar claims that whatever plan Chapaev has is the best plan of attack, and Chapaev’s orderly rather dreamily wonders whether Chapaev could run all of the armies of the world. Even Chapaev asserts his own skill by saying that Napoleon had it easy compared to him. Neither Chapaev nor the film ever  mention is that even Napoleon, who “had it easy”, was defeated by Russia. Napoleon’s failure does not bode well for Chapaev’s cause.

In addition to these characterizations, Chapaev acts as a disposable man. Though Chapaev represents both a folk and military hero, the success of the cause does not require his presence. After Chapaev and his hero-in-waiting Petka die, not only do the peasant forces carry on, but they win victories. For the red army and for the entire communist system, success does not depend on men like Chapaev; the system can always find or produce more just like him.

Chapaev’s understanding of the pointlessness of his own existence and his cause leads to his most poignant character as Chapaev the cynic. One night as the soldiers prepare for sleep, Chapaev tells Anka and Petka that they are both lucky because they will have a future together. He claims that “no one will want to die then” after the war. Chapaev’s entire speech implies several disturbing aspects of Chapaev’s character; Chapaev does not expect to survive the war; Chapaev wants to die; and Chapaev still has doubts about the socialist cause. The way in which he says the line is vaguely bitter. He does not have perfect faith that either his actions or the success of the red army will change the future for the better.

All of these versions of Chapaev lend the film ambiguity. Though Stalin may have adored the film for what he considered its staunchly Soviet message, the character of Chapaev presents other possibilities for interpretation. This ability for viewers to understand the film in drastically different ways presents what is perhaps the strongest aspect of the film. Chapaev says whatever the audience wants it to say.

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