“There are spies and subversives everywhere.”
If Stalin turned to you and tried to elicit confidences with the statement: “Don’t worry, we are all friends here” you would have good reason to be worried, and that’s exactly the situation Ivan Sanshin (Tom Hulce) confronts in the film The Inner Circle.
When the film begins, Ivan is a lowly projectionist for the KGB club. On his wedding night, he’s scooped by up KGB officials and swept off to the Kremlin. Since one of his neighbours has just been arrested for being an “enemy of the state” Ivan isn’t particularly optimistic about the outcome. But as fate would have it, Ivan is destined to become Stalin’s projectionist, and over the years he scurries off to the Kremlin at all hours of the night to indulge Stalin’s love of Western film.
The Inner Circle is a clever film, and it establishes a great deal early in the plot development. Ivan isn’t a noble character; he’s just someone who wants to get by, so when his neighbours are dragged off and disappear into the void, he doesn’t ask questions. Neither does he worry when he profits from their arrest and is allowed to move into their slightly larger apartment. At his job at the Kremlin, Ivan sees first hand the different standards for those who rule Russia and those who suffer from those rules. For example, one of the reasons Ivan’s neighbours are considered enemies of the state is because they possess materials written in a foreign language. Yet Stalin and his various ministers enjoy banned Western films on a nightly basis. The film very cleverly allows the viewer to draw conclusions about the hypocrisy of the leaders who indulge in activities that the minions of the state would be shipped off to labour camps or executed for. But Ivan, unfortunately doesn’t make the connections. He continues to worship Stalin and Beria–alternately overwhelmed and terrified when they glance at him.
Ivan’s wife, Anastasia (Lolita Davidovich) however, doesn’t quite accept things as blindly as her husband. She’s not portrayed as a subversive or a dissident, but when Anatasia questions the fate of the neighbour’s little girl, she jeopardizes herself and Ivan.
The film includes some wonderful imagery. The Sanshins, for example, live on Slaughterhouse Street–named aptly for the slaughterhouse that stands at the end of the road. From their basement apartment, they see hundreds of cows ambling to their imminent deaths. These sequences are accompanied by Ivan’s narration about Stalin’s purges, and the journey of the cows, is of course, symbolic of the massive slaughter of Russians during Stalin’s reign of power. Just as Ivan watches the cows amble by, he is a spectator to the actions of the Kremlin.
The fake Russian accents are tedious, but the acting was excellent. The film does a marvelous job of conveying the effectiveness of fear as a controlling device. There’s one scene when a KGB agent warns Ivan that there are spies everywhere, and there’s a sort of irony to this as, of course, the spies are your neighbours, your friends, your workmates, and fear has simply made this so. Fear–not foreign espionage–has infiltrated Stalinist society at every level. Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, The Inner Circle is Ivan’s tale, and this true story presents a chilling portrait of a horrific era.