“If you care about your digestion, my advice is: don’t talk about Bolshevism or medicine at the table and god forbid, never read Soviet newspapers before dinner.”
If you are a fan of Bulgakov’s satire Heart of a Dog, or if you just want to watch a fantastic film produced right at the tail end of the Soviet Union, then do whatever you can to watch Vladimir Bortko’s 1988 film, The Heart of a Dog (Sobachye Serdtse). Faithful to the novel and lovingly transferred to the screen, the film is a hilarious attack on the New Soviet Man. The film is set in 1924-1925 during the NEP. NEP (an acronym for New Economic Period, 1921-1928), allowed small businesses to open and operate for profit. This was an in-between phase in a country still in a state of flux–after the massive blood-spilling from the years of Revolution, and before Stalin came to power and systematically arranged for the murders and starvation of millions of Soviet citizens.
The film begins with a snow scene in the streets of Moscow and a voice-over narration by a stray dog as he wanders aimlessly looking for food. The dog’s thoughts are bleak and point towards a painful death–after all with people starving what are the chances that he’s going to be fed. The dog walks past lines of people waiting for food and he encounters gratuitous cruelty at the hands of passers by.
But then the dog has a stroke of luck when he’s found and adopted by a kindly, elderly doctor, Professor Preobrazhensky (Yevgeniy Yevstineyev) who takes the dog back home to his large apartment which also functions as a surgery. He names the dog Sharik and insists that his servants treat the dog kindly. Sharik seems to have landed on his feet.
But the Professor is a quack, and he’s patronized by the wealthy and powerful to combat the effects of aging through preposterous operations–for example, for a middle-aged patient with a young lover, he operates to implant monkey ovaries. All this quackery serves the Professor well. He has a great reputation, a young admiring assistant, Dr. Bormental (Boris Plotnikov), and a 7-room apartment in a large house. The Professor enjoys a good life, ignoring the Bolshevik Revolution and concentrating on art, food and comfort.
But the Revolution has not forgotten the Professor, and the resident House Committee arrives one day to oversee the “reallocation of living space.” Members of the House Committee share the house with the Professor, and these Bolsheviks don’t understand how the revolution can have taken place while men like the professor still commandeer positions of privilege. But while the proletariat argue with the Professor about whether or not he will give up one of his seven rooms, the Professor simply gets on the phone with a patient who is a leading Commissar, threatens to cease his operations, and The House Committee is forced to back off.
With his surgery suite intact, the Professor moves ahead with his plans, and he operates on Sharik, implanting the pituitary gland and testicles of a dead troublemaker. The dog survives, and the Professor proudly announces his ‘miracle operation,’ which he claims is a “revolution in medicine.” The results are both hilarious and unforeseen as the dog becomes more and more human. But once human, Sharik starts exhibiting some unfortunate characteristics. The Professor’s quiet orderly life is in chaos as the brutish Sharik renames himself Poligraf Poligrafovich, starts taking Bolshevik lessons and then begins demanding his rights.
Heart of a Dog is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, and the humour occurs on multiple levels: here’s the Professor who thumbs his nose at the Revolution and is able to ignore it, creating a safe, sumptuous refuge for himself in his home. The most annoying reminder of the revolution is the fact that the Professor is forced to be a neighbour to the noisy proletariat who insist on singing party songs all hours of the day and night, and who leave muddy footprints on the floors. But then ambition and his absurd quackery cause the Professor to experiment, and the result is that he creates an uncouth, coarse, smelly, scratching, cat-killer member of the Proletariat, and in the process, the Professor brings the Revolution into his home with catastrophic results.
The film also raises some interesting moral questions: has the dog become a ‘real’ human? What rights does he have? Can he be evicted or euthanized? All these questions are wrapped up in some of the funniest cinema ever created, and while the story may seem absurd, it works, and it works brilliantly.
The film is in black and white and its grainy look gives the sensation that the film is much older than it actually is. The acting is uniformly superb. If you enjoy Soviet cinema or love Bulgakov’s novel, then you will not be disappointed in this wonderful adaptation.