Regular readers of my movie reviews must know by now that I can’t stand hype, particularly when it involves the latest Hollywood blockbuster. But I would be remiss not to describe the two DVD package released under the title “The Last Bolshevik” as the event of the decade, at least for the small sector of the universe that still takes the idea of socialism seriously. Who knows? With Wall Street’s continuing collapse, that sector might begin to experience some bullish growth.
Chris Marker directed the documentary “The Last Bolshevik” in 1993 as an introduction to the life and career of Soviet film-maker Alexander Medvedkin who lived from 1900 to 1989, but more generally it is a meditation on the problems of artists under Stalinism and the collapse of the USSR. The package also includes Medvekin’s 64 minute silent movie “Happiness” that was made in 1934, as well as a number of shorter documentaries that he made on behalf of the Soviet government’s usually misguided efforts to drag the country into the modern age. Marker’s interest in Medvekin is clearly as a symbol of the contradictions of the Soviet Union. The Russian director was passionately dedicated to the ideals of 1917, so much so that he could not bear to openly oppose the government that was crushing those ideals under foot in the name of defending them.
Khmyr and Anna
Their horse (climbing uphill)
“Happiness” is a socialist morality tale that features a poor, scrawny mujik (peasant) named Khmyr (Pyotr Zinovyev) and his wife Anna (Yelena Yegorova). The movie begins with the couple staring through a knot-hole in the wall surrounding a rich peasant’s estate. They look on enviously as he enjoys a sumptuous repast. So fortunate is the rich peasant that food literally sails from the plate to his mouth without him having to lift a knife and fork. This special effect is just one among hundreds that lends the film the kind of surreal comic touches found in Buster Keaton’s masterpieces.
One of the major characters in “Happiness” is Khmyr and Anna’s horse, a nag that is almost as emaciated as Khymr himself and which is adorned with painted on polka dots. In order to satisfy his hunger, the horse scales the thatched roof of their hut and begins to eat the hay after the fashion of a Chagall painting.
Just as their luck seems to have run out, Khmyr and Anna enjoy a bumper crop that attracts all the scum of Czarist society, including tax collectors and Russian Orthodox priests demanding a hand-out. Once they have picked Khmyr clean, he is just as poor and hungry as he was before. In despair he decides to build himself a coffin and end his life. Once again, the officials and priests upbraid him. Doesn’t he know that he needs a permit to die? Also, they worry “If the mujik dies, who will feed Russia?”
Without going into any detail about the revolution that made it possible, the next scene takes place on a kolkhoz or collective farm, the fruit of Stalin’s war on the kulaks that Medvedkin’s film was really meant to defend. The farm is depicted as a site of struggle between socialist-minded peasants who look forward to working together and enjoying the collective fruits of their labor and a kind of fifth column led by the aforementioned rich peasant who wants to return to the old way of doing things. Khmyr is somewhere in the middle as a tug of war takes place over his soul.
Despite its obvious sympathy for Stalin’s goals, “Happiness” was never shown in Soviet theaters since its satire collided with the literal-minded and pedestrian sensibilities of Stalin’s bureaucrats. It is one of the great undiscovered masterpieces of Soviet cinema that we should be grateful for. In contrast to the more sober-minded works of Sergei Eisenstein, “Happiness” demonstrates that comedy is a universal language.
Alexander Medvedkin’s run-in’s with Soviet censors is discussed at some length in Chris Marker’s “The Last Bolshevik”. If Medvedkin remained obscure in his home country because he refused to adapt to the hidebound dictates of a “socialist” art establishment, Chris Marker suffers a similar fate because he has refused to make conventional films.
Marker was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, Île-de-France, a suburb of Paris in 1921. A life-long leftist, he fought in the French resistance during World War II. His movies have frequently been sympathetic treatments of socialist countries, including the 1961 “Cuba Si!”
Although Marker refuses to grant interviews and will not even agree to be photographed, he clearly allows his deeply personal films to speak for him. “The Last Bolshevik” is structured as a series of letters to Alexander Medvedkin, a life-long friend who once complained that Marker never wrote.
The movie consists of interviews with Medvedkin before his death, and with his contemporaries who were still alive in 1993, when the film was made (including the widow of novelist Isaac Babel who died in a gulag in 1940), and finally young Russian film-makers or scholars who have become devotees of his work. Babel had worked closely with Sergei Eisenstein on “Bezhin Meadow”, a movie that like “Happiness” had run afoul of Soviet censors and even shares its concerns about a treacherous kulak. A wiki article on the movie reveals that “It tells the story of a young farm boy whose father attempts to betray the government for political reasons by sabotaging the year’s harvest, the son’s efforts to stop his own father to protect the Soviet state, and culminates in the boy’s murder and a social uprising.” The Communist Party banned the “inartistic and politically bankrupt” movie, claiming that Eisenstein “confused the class struggle with the struggle between good and evil”.
As it was made in 1993, just around the time that the Soviet Union was completing its return to the capitalist fold, “The Last Bolshevik” addresses the mind-set of all such hold-outs for socialism, including Medvedkin who remained an unrepentant Marxist until his dying day-or, for that matter, Chris Marker himself. Not to speak of the reviewer of the films under consideration or the good people who tend to agree with him, at least when he does not deviate too far from their own ideas about socialism.
The “Last Bolshevik” package is available from Netflix, but I would urge you to make it a permanent part of your collection. You can buy discounted DVDs of “The Last Bolshevik” and other Chris Marker titles from “Cineaste,” which is offering them at 25% off list price, at www.cineaste.com.