Tag Archives: Russian revolution

Shine, Shine, My Star (1969)

“The peasant is on a farm. The worker is in the industry, and the bourgeois bloodsucker in on the Black Sea.”

Shine, Shine, My Star (Gori, Gori, Moya Zvezda) a 1969 film from director Alexander Mitta is a gem of Soviet cinema which examines the role of Art in society and asks whether or not an Artist can perform and create without political consequences. A complex, subtle and highly symbolic  film, Shine, Shine, My Star presents the story of a young, nimble actor, Iskremas (Oleg Tabokov), an artist who wants to bring  “The Art of Revolution to the Masses.” This he intends to accomplish by driving into the countryside and offering free theatre performances to the People.

The film begins with an explanation that it’s 1920, and that the story is set in the village of Krapivnitsky. The village is basically Red, but as the story plays out, it’s under frequent assault by bandits and also a White detachment passes through on the way to join Wrangel in the Crimea. Iskremas arrives in the village of Krapivnitsky with his “People’s Experimental Theatre,” and he’s full of enthusiasm which is conveyed through his energetic performances and speeches to the villagers.  He takes a young girl, a now unemployed Polish servant named Krysya (Elena Proklova) under his wing, and together they plan to put on the play Joan of Arc:

500 years ago, the bourgeois and the money bags sent to the stake the beautiful Jeanne. Jeanne from Arc.

The villagers, however, appear much more interested in the salacious silent film powered by Pashka, a man who ad-libs the narration and alters the content depending on the audience. Trouble arises for the villagers when the Whites arrive….

The film’s secondary title is Destiny of An Artist in Revolutionary Russia, and there are three artists whose fate we follow in the film.  There’s the idealistic actor Iskremas who wants to bring Shakespeare to the masses and his interpretation of Julius Caesar includes telling how the Roman Emperor was “killed by Revolutionaries.” Iskremas is disgusted by Pashka’s titillating film which shows the bourgeois sporting on the Black Sea. Iskremas sees the film as low-brow “vulgarity,” and tells Pashka that “people [are] yearning for genuine Art, and you give them junk.” The third artist in the film is house-painter Fedya (Oleg Efremov) whose home is full of amazing, incredibly beautiful Avant-garde paintings and who also is responsible for painting the Revolutionary Committee in the local meeting-house.

It would be easy and erroneous to dismiss this film as Soviet propaganda, and one should bear in mind the film’s conclusion and its secondary title “Destiny of an Artist in Revolutionary Russia.” The film depicts all sides of the political spectrum using art and various art forms for their own purposes (several scenes include a maudlin theatre performance of patriotic songs for the Whites), and inevitably since artists are the vanguard of culture, they all too frequently absorb the punishing results of any shift in political ideology.

The film is full of the most astonishing Avant-garde art–Avant-garde art was initially incorporated into Bolshevik culture, but after Stalin took power Avant-garde art and those who created it were suppressed. Avant-garde art was replaced by Socialist Realism which became the officially sanctioned art form. Shine, Shine, My Star shows forbidden art through the works of Fedya and then shows them being destroyed by the Whites, but including these scenes in the 1969 film is in itself a revolutionary act on the part of the director. At least some members of the audience must have known who really destroyed Avant-garde art and killed those who produced it, and including Avant-garde art in the film is a bold stroke. The Whites are shown as a fairly erratic, cruel bunch (one of the Whites is an insane Prince who shoots up everything in sight),  and while this must have pleased the censors, the scenes of this forbidden art form are breath-taking. Ultimately the film’s overall message is that the true Artist will inevitably be destroyed while Art is reduced to its lowest common denominator.

Shine, Shine, My Star, an incredible film in my opinion, is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s World Cinema Series

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Bread, Gold, Gun (1980)

“I don’t give a shit for your views and beliefs.”

The title of this Soviet film Bread, Gold, Gun (Khleb, Zoloto, Nagan) just about covers what happens in this action-packed adventure set during the Civil War era. I’ve come across a couple of Soviet films to date that depict the same scenario–a race against time to deliver gold (sometimes stolen) to the beleaguered Bolshevik forces so that they can win the day and beat the forces of the White Russians. Add this film to the sub-genre. I expect it has a name, but for the purposes of this blog, I am going to name this the Bolshie-Banditry sub-genre.

Ok, here’s the premise. Loyal Bolshevik party member and Moscow orphanage director, Olga obviously a formerly pampered member of the privileged classes, is given an assignment to deliver 3 sacks of grain to the starving children under her care back in Moscow. A sailor, Sasha,  is ordered to accompany Olga on her mission. He’s more than a bit resentful at having to guard a young bourgeois and he initially sees his role as a servant or underling and this makes him taciturn and uncooperative. As the two suffer through a series of hardships, they form a bound which acknowledges their shared morality and political goals.

At the same time, a Chekist officer is given three gold bars to deliver to the Bolsheviks. This gold will, of course, determine the outcome of the civil war.

All the characters converge on a train station as they try to make a connection to Moscow, but here they are ambushed by a sneaky party of Whites. The Chekist is killed but he hands over the bullion to stationmaster Zaytsev. Olga, Sasha, and Zaytsev are joined in their escape from the train station by another Chekist officer, the steely-eyed Gorbach. At first they seem to be safe, but then they run slap bang into a nest of bandits.

We really had a lot of fun with this film. For some reason, these Bolshie-Bandit films have the air of a spaghetti western. In one scene for example, as the four characters flee from the train station, the bandits appear up on top of a hill. Remember how the Indians would always appear on the hill and look down on the wagon train? Well the same moment occurs here. Also in a later part of the film there’s a long back and forth chase sequence through a small narrow village with the Reds in a car and the Whites on horseback. I’m telling you, it’s just like one of those old cowboy and indian films. The only thing that’s missing is John Wayne. Instead we get a sort of John Wayne–except here he’s a narrow-eyed, cool customer who’s the Chekist Gorbach, and of course he’s the hero of the film. 

Some of the film’s very best scenes occur in the bandit lair. The Whites are not portrayed altogether unsympathetically but when it comes to heroics, no one comes close to the cold steely courage of the Chekist officer–a man the chief bandit describes as a psycho. But in spite of the Chekist heroics, Arkady the bandit leader steals the film. He displays a fastidiousness that is diametrically opposed to his sadistic behaviour, and of course his amorality and love for money is also seen in contrast to those willing to die for their respective causes.

One of the things I enjoyed about this escapist film is that its romanticism is found in the tale itself and in the sacrifices the characters make for each other–not in some drippy smoochy scenes. Great stuff!

From director Samvel Gasparov

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Slave of Love (1976)

“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 loveSlave 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.

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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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Admiral (2008)

“It seems to me that water and war are the only loves in your life.”

If you don’t have an issue with subordinating the Russian revolution to a love story, then the epic film Admiral is a feast for the eyes. But if you expect Admiral to be heavy on politics or historic events, then you may be disappointed in this visually stunning film from Andrei Kravchuk. If you simply want to enjoy the film, it’s best to approach Admiral for what it is–rather than what it isn’t, and basically Admiral is an epic love story of two people whose lives are defined by the backdrop of the Russian Revolution.

The Admiral of the title is Admiral Kolchak played with icy toughness by Konstantin Khabenskiy, and the film begins wisely by establishing the sort of man Kolchak is. It’s 1916, WWI and a Russian battleship is setting mines when a German ship appears on the horizon. A battle commences and severely outgunned, the Russian ship takes a beating. It’s the cool head and strategic military thinking of Kolchak that saves the day, designates him a Naval hero, and brings him honour from the Tsar.

The film follows Kolchak, as he becomes Commander-in-Chief of the Black Sea Fleet and at pivotal points in his life while the story focuses on the tentative love affair the married Kolchak has with equally married Anna (Elizaveta Boyarskaya). It doesn’t take a great deal of observational powers for Kolchak’s wife, Sofia (Anna Kovalchuk) to deduce that her husband is in love with Anna (and indications are that love affairs for Kolchak are a regular event), but Kolchak takes the ‘noble’ road and tells Anna that their love affair cannot be. This begins a relationship that’s maintained for some time just by letters. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution is shaking the country to its foundations, and we have glimpses of Kronstadt, scenes of the Petrograd Soviet, the massacres in Sebastopol, Kolchak’s relationship with the Provisional Government, and Kolchak’s role as Supreme Ruler of Russia. Simultaneously, the film follows the love affair between its protagonists while the revolution wears on, so we have one scene for example, when Anna won’t leave Sebastopol (in spite of the slaughter of officers by Bolsheviks) simply because she is expecting a letter from Kolchak. Eventually, however, with Sofia living in exile in Paris, Anna and Kolchak, throw caution to the winds and begin a brief life, such as it is, together.

The film avoids political statements while touching on the sweeping brutality of the times, and the brutality focuses on the violence of the Bolsheviks. Some of the best scenes depict the wholesale class slaughter taking place, and the film’s cinematography excels at the underwater scenes. Particularly poignant (and accurate) are the scenes of the bodies of officers under the water at Sebastopol. An 1918 account from a diver who was sent to retrieve the body of a murdered officer recounts seeing the bodies of hundreds of freshly dead, weighted by stones, swaying in the sea. This unnerving sight was powerfully recreated for the film, and the imagery of the secrets held by water is a recurrent theme throughout the film, culminating in Kolchak’s eerie watery grave.

Kolchak, as a leader of the White Russian forces intent on property protection and class privilege, was a ‘baddie’ as far as 20th Century Soviet history was concerned, and now the film seems to be an attempt at an image makeover as part of a celebration of Russian history. It’s ironic that Kolchak went from being a villain to being a saint or at least a flawless hero. Glaringly absent is any reference to Kolchak’s brutal methods of suppression, particularly in Siberia. There are no scenes of villages being burned while peasants are tortured and slaughtered. Personally I had issue with this almost complete lack of detail especially since the film shows scenes of the Bolshi mayhem and mass slaughter.

Since this film will be the introduction to Kolchak and in many cases the only knowledge a great number of people will have of the White Russian commander, one must ask whether or not it’s ethical to portray Kolchak in such a bleached out manner. There’s a lingering romanticism that attaches itself–at least in the West–to White Russians, and while I am certain most Westerners could sniff out a Red Bolshi propaganda film, I’m not convinced that the Whites are subject to an equal evaluation.

I think Russian cinema is making some very exciting films these days, and it’s sobering to think that just a few decades ago those associated with the film could have been dragged off to the gulag. So with the Cold War gone, and the Iron Curtain ripped asunder, Kolchak is no longer vilified but glorified. Note here that I am not trying to place the sins of the Whites or the Reds on to some sort of sliding scale of evaluation; I am noting the swinging doors of political ‘progress,’ the shift in acceptable attitudes and a sad lack of historical accuracy.

If you watch Admiral, do yourself a favor and check out the Hungarian film The Red and The White–a film that does a marvelous job of showing the interchangeability between both sides when it comes to senseless violence.

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Storm the Skies (1996)

“Exile was not enough.”

The documentary Storm the Skies digs into the life of Ramon Mercader, the assassin of Trotsky and argues against the idea that Mercader was a disillusioned Trotskyite. The film begins by tracing the life of Ramon Mercader’s mother, Calidad. Although she came from a wealthy Spanish family, in adulthood, she became a committed communist and an enemy of her class–even robbing her family’s own factories at one point. Married off to a wealthy man, she rejected a great deal of her domestic life–and her hubbie dragged her off to bordellos so that she could understand what male-female relationships were all about.

Mercader’s mother sent her children from civil war Spain to the relative safety of the Soviet Union. Here, the so-called “war children” were treated well and given a stellar communist education, and it’s emphasized that even at this point, Mercader was treated as a special case. The film argues that Mercader was a committed KGB agent when he undertook the mission to assassinate the exiled Trotsky. The film traces his relationship with Trotskyite Sylvia Ageloff, reveals Mercader’s various identities, and how he penetrated Trotsky’s household in Mexico.

Some parts of the film seem quite disconnected from the main narrative–for example, the film begins with footage of the Rolling Stones performing in Barcelona in 1975, and while it’s always great to see this band, the exact relevance to the subject at hand remains unclear. Also when describing Calidad’s marriage, the filmmaker tosses in some ancient footage of rather large women engaging in hanky panky at a Spanish bordello–again, the footage seems irrelevant. Also the exact relevance of the interview with a Spanish actress who visited Mercader in a Mexican prison remains cloudy. One of the biggest faults with the film, however, lies in the fact that those interviewed are never identified. Documentaries usually identify those interviewed with a few words at the bottom of the screen. This device is completely absent from the film, so it’s impossible to identify those interviewed–although a few people identify themselves by giving statements such as they guarded Trotsky, etc.

There’s some marvelous footage in the film–Trotsky’s funeral, and scenes of Trotsky’s house, and it’s possible to see the security reinforcements Trotsky added to the house (raised the wall, built guard towers, etc). Unfortunately, the film vacillates between treating Trotsky and then Mercader as heroes. Of course, some of those who are interviewed were in Trotsky’s innermost circle, and worshipped the man, so a certain amount of the hero-worship factor is unavoidable. When tracing Mercader’s life post prison the film asks the question whether or not he was a hero to kill Trotsky or just another pawn of Stalin and the Soviet government. By the time the film ends, there’s an overwhelming sense that Mercader is supposed to be a great hero for bumping off Trotsky. The film doesn’t elaborate on the subject of Trotsky’s many crimes to humanity–that’s clearly not the subject of the film–but instead of being caught in the argument that one of these two people is a hero, the time would have been better spent on relevant information and filling in some of the gaps. After all some of us don’t see either Trotsky or Mercader as heroes and would prefer more background information on the subject matter. The film only briefly touches on the involvement of Diego Rivera and Frida Kalho, for example, and this section could bear much closer scrutiny. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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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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