Tag Archives: communism

Heart of a Dog (1988)

“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.”

heart of a dogIf 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.

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October-10 Days that Shook the World (1927)

“Down with the lackeys of the bourgeoisie.”

October (10 Days That Shook the World) written and directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov was commissioned by the Soviet Central Committee to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. As such, the film is a landmark slice of propaganda depicting the events of 1917, a relic not just for film lovers, and it’s a remarkable piece of revisionist history too.

The black and white silent film is told in documentary style and focuses on the efforts of the provisional government to maintain the country after deposing the Tsar in February 1917. The film was made in 1927, and by that time, Lenin was dead, and Trotsky–one of the main figures behind the Bolshevik revolution was already in the hot seat with Stalin and was effectively being cut out of the Soviet political system.

The film shows scenes with Trotsky, and doesn’t identify him at first, but then when it does it’s in a negative light. Some of the best unsubtle scenes involve the bourgeoisie women who beat up the Bolshies and tear up their flag. General Kerensky is also depicted negatively–he throws himself on the bed, covers his head with pillows and has a temper tantrum–and the tantrum continues while scene after scene depicts growing unrest in the country. The large-scale mob-scenes of the revolution remain fairly bloodless, and the emphasis is on events in Petrograd and the ineptness of the provisional government. There are some great scenes of the Mensheviks, the Savage Division and the Women’s Death Battalion. The scenes involving Lenin show the people going wild with adulation at their hero. No doubt Stalin realized that it was better (and safer) to immortalize a dead politician (Lenin), and wiser to marginalize a live one (Trotsky). As Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.”

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Cambridge Spies (2003)

 “To fight fascism you have to be a communist.”

cambridgeOne of the most notorious espionage stories of the 20th century involves several members of Britain’s upper crust. While Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, and Donald MacLean attended Trinity College, Cambridge, in the 1930s, they were recruited as spies by the Soviet government. All of the men subsequently gained prestigious jobs and successfully passed secrets to the Russians for several decades. The four-hour television mini-series, Cambridge Spies, concentrates on the characters of the spies, and how the society they were part of allowed them to flourish.

The film begins with Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1930s. Hitler’s power is on the rise, and fascism manages to impress a certain segment of the British upper classes. In response to the rise of fascism, many are attracted to communism. Blunt and Burgess are members of an elite club–the Apostles–and they are both committed communists when they meet and become involved with Donald MacLean and Kim Philby. The four men form a tight bond, which remains even after they leave university. Philby and Burgess both held high positions in MI6, and MacLean became a diplomat. Blunt–a distant relative to the royals–was knighted and became the Royal Curator of Art for the Queen.

Cambridge Spies succeeds in showing how these men were attracted to communism in the first place. They all came from wealthy, privileged backgrounds, and involvement with communism was a reaction against that, and also a reaction against fascism. The film shows the political and social atmosphere in which the Cambridge Spies made their commitment to communism. The film is also extremely successful in showing the ‘old boy network’ that existed, and which, in effect managed to protect the spies. They were simply beyond suspicion and beyond reproach.

Guy Burgess (Tom Hollander in an amazing performance) is a volatile extrovert with a penchant for self-destruction. Kim Philby (Toby Stephens) is much more controlled, and he seems the more rational of the bunch. MacLean (Rupert Penry-Jones) is another loose cannon, and Blunt (Samuel West) enjoys his connection with his royal relatives far more than he anticipated. While I deplored the misguided actions of the spies, it seems quite plausible that at least two of the four men (Blunt and Burgess) lived to really regret their youthful decision to convert to communism. But they found themselves stuck in a lifetime commitment before they realised the consequences. Blunt and Burgess seemed to truly love England, and their involvement with the Soviet government is sadly ironic.

Cambridge Spies is really is an incredible story. The plot sticks more or less to the truth–although some details are not quite accurate. The most glaring deviation concerns the defection of Guy Burgess. DVD extras include a documentary, and there’s also a ‘scrapbook’ with TV tidbits about each of the spies. Directed by Tim Fywell.

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