“Our life is like a house where the children have been forgotten.”
Nikita Mikhalkov’s film Slave of Love (Raba Lyubvi) is loosely based on the last days of silent film actress Vera Kholodnaya. Kholodnaya rose to prominence during WWI, starring in a succession of box-office hits, but when the Russian revolution arrived, and the Bolsheviks began to influence the film industry, Kholodnaya moved to Odessa. And there she died in 1919. Officially a victim of the Spanish flu, rumours persisted that Kholodnaya was murdered.
Slave of Love is an artistic interpretation of Kholodnaya’s story. In the film, the actress is Olga Nikolayevna Voznesenskaya (Yelena Solovey), a young widow with two children who is in Crimea making yet another film, following her last film triumph, Slave of Love.The film crew expects the imminent arrival of another actor, Maksakov, from Moscow, and he’s to play the male lead opposite Olga. In the meantime, the harried director shoots the scenes that don’t require Maksakov, and the crew are often unsettled by visits from the local White Russian, Chief of Counterintelligence, Fedotov (Konstantin Grigororyev), an ardent fan of Olga.
In Crimea, the film crew are enjoying a different world, sweet sunny days and plenty of food, but there’s the sense that this time is fleeting, and that this summer will be the last. It will be just a matter of time before the revolution sweeps through the Crimea–the last stronghold of the White Russians.
In between shoots for the film, Olga has a friendship with the cameraman, Victor Pototsky (Rodion Nahapetov), and they spend many idyllic afternoons driving around the countryside, and these glorious times are in contrast to tales of war and revolution. The war seems far away, but there are cracks in this fragile, ephemeral life. There’s one scene in which Olga and her ever-present mother are in the hotel with Olga’s children. They note the continual whimpering of a dog abandoned in the apartment underneath. While the women realize that the dog has “been abandoned” while its “owners went overseas,” there’s no attempt to rescue the dog or even to discuss what exactly ‘going overseas’ meant–clearly the dog’s owners were fleeing the Bolsheviks and escaping the country while they still can.
Olga is unconcerned about politics. Instead she’s driven by fame and vanity and consumed with her stage persona. Although Olga manages fairly effectively to ignore the war, she is forced to confront it when the train arrives from Moscow full of friends and family of the crew, but the actor Maksakov is absent. He’s become a Bolshevik and has decided to remain behind. While Olga brushes off the tales of horror and deprivation told by the newcomers, she takes Maksakov’s action as a personal betrayal. There’s one scene when Olga is railing against Maksakov, and she storms over to a local cinema where one of his films is playing and begins a rant against Maksakov, but she’s quickly distracted when the crowd recognises her. Her quest against Maksakov becomes a performance, a period of fan adoration, and she’s entirely distracted from her mission–yet ironically she achieves what she set out to do in the process. But like most actresses, she is always playing a role–from her posing as a tragic figure to a screen idol, it’s difficult to tell if there’s a real Olga underneath the lightening periods of effervescence and hysteria.
As Olga’s relationship with Victor intensifies, magnified by the facts that they are thrown together by circumstance, Olga gradually learns that Victor is a Bolshevik and determined to leak vital photographic evidence of White Russian atrocities back to the Bolsheviks. Victor knows that the White Russians are considered the ‘good guys’ while “Europe screams about the Bolshevik atrocities,” so he’s fully aware of the stakes involved in his task. Desperate, he enlists the help of Olga arguing that her special status as a star places her “above suspicion.”
Olga’s epiphany arrives when she sees footage of White atrocities exacted against the local population, and so she decides to help the Bolshevik cause–no matter the cost. But how much does Olga really grasp? She tends to see real-life in terms of sets and film-making, and the final scenes underscores Olga’s problematic perceptions of reality by bringing The Perils of Pauline to mind.
Slave of Love is an absolutely superb Soviet film, tragically under-viewed. The film is crafted to emphasize silent film, some scenes are without speech while other scenes are in black and white. The camera frequently focuses on Olga’s expressive face as she struggles through various scenes of the film she is making and as she suffers tragically through events. Yelena Solovey plays the role of Olga with delicate sensibility.
On a final note, I read a few reviews that dismissed Slave of Love as Soviet propaganda, and that is an abysmally naive comment that slights an excellent film. There’s a lingering romanticism about the White Russians, probably because they stood up to the Bolshies, but Admiral Kolchak, commander of the White Russians really was a piece of work. And after his armies finished with an area, peasants who previously cared nothing about politics ran to the Bolsheviks. There were atrocities on both sides–The Red and The White, and to think otherwise or to malign the film because of that, is naive at best.