Tag Archives: Soviet

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


Filed under Russian, Soviet

Torpedo Bombers (1983)

“We”ll fix you up with a parachute.”

The marvellous 1983 Soviet film, Torpedo Bombers (Torpedonostsy), from director Semyon Aronovitch is a homage to the Soviet pilots and crews who lost their lives during WWII in their fight against Germany. For the film’s intense look at the lives of these men, Torpedo Bombers is a unique film, and the cinematography of shots of the men in their planes is simply incredible.  Brilliant, stunning shots depict the planes’ navigators in close quarters; other shots depict planes in flames–one in a kamikaze dive in a last-ditch effort to destroy the enemy. Other close-ups show faces inside smoking planes, and then shots of a plane disintegrating and falling from the sky. The Soviet planes must fly in close to drop their torpedos, so these missions tend to have a suicidal edge. This incredible film is based on the stories of Yuri German.

It’s 1944, and the film opens with the report of a “fascist convoy” in the area, so crews scrambles, planes are prepared and then take to the skies. Some shots give us an idea of the rudimentary nature of life on the base, and many of the pilots and crews have their families there with them. There’s a downside to this which becomes evident as the film continues.

Torpedo Bombers throws us right into the action, so the story can be a bit disorienting at first until you get your bearings. Many characters are introduced summarily through barked out orders, or called out greetings, and it’s not initially easy to place just who’s who. The relationships between the ranks seems casual and friendly. There’s the sense that life on the base wouldn’t be bad at all–if it weren’t for the threat of imminent death. As one man says, “Life could be so simple, so pleasant. War is so ugly.”

While the plot explores aspects of the lives of a handful of characters, the main story revolves around Sasha Belobrov (Rodion Nahapetov) who’s just returned from 3 months leave after being injured. He returns back to the remote Northern base to discover that the woman he loved has married another man. Another sub-plot concerns Sgt  Cherepets (Aleksei Zharkov), a man who falls in love with a kitchen worker named Maroussia (Tatyana Kravchenko) but is uncertain just how to approach her.

Torpedo Bombers shows the men at home on the base and at war, and of course we follow their stories to their conclusions. In one scene Soviet crew members investigate a downed Messerschmitt only to discover the pilot dead and frozen while his thermos of coffee still steams when opened.  Another scene depicts the men attending a theatre performance conducted entirely by midgets, and when the acting troupe leaves and the pilots & crew members thank them, it’s impossible not to draw the conclusion about just where these midgets would be if Hitler ever got hold of them. No heavy-handed conclusions are necessary from the plot, but these scenes grant humanity to the Soviet cause.

Real black and white footage from WWII is seamlessly spliced together with the created scenes.  We see grainy archival black and white footage of German ships firing at the sky, and then these scenes are juxtaposed with the Soviet flyers. While a large portion of the film concentrates on the air war, a substantial portion of the film concerns the men’s private lives: one man is reunited with his mentally traumatized son who was thought to be lost, but there’s no news of the pilot’s wife and baby. The boy was located in an orphanage, and the father begins to question whether the boy is indeed his son. Belobrov’s opinion seems to be that it doesn’t matter: here’s a boy who needs a father and a man who needs a son. This aspect of the film underscores the social upheaval afoot inside the Soviet Union with millions dead and missing, and those left behind trying to enjoy whatever time they have left.

Another subtle idea within the film examines the role that women play as supporters for the Soviet pilots and crews. There’s tremendous pressure on them to have sex. One woman’s husband is killed and there’s substantial social pressure for her to pick up with Belobrov. No one seems to appreciate the fact that she’s pushed to the brink by the death of a husband, and may be too fragile to get involved again in a relationship with another pilot who’s very likely to die.

The film concludes with a photo library of real torpedo bombers who died in WWII.

Torpedo Bombers is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s World Cinema Series.


Filed under (Anti) War, Russian, Soviet

The Cranes are Flying (1957)

“Give me something I will always remember.”

If you are in the mood for Soviet cinema, then go grab a copy of the 1957 film The Cranes are Flying (Letyat Zhuravli). It really doesn’t get much better than this eloquent touching film from director Mikhail Kalatozov. The story focuses on the impact of war on two young lovers, Veronika (Tatyana Samojlova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov).

The film begins with the lovers enjoying the last moments of the afternoon together as they walk beside the banks of a river. As is typical with lovers, Boris and Veronika focus on the wonder of being in each other’s company, but they also find joy in nature–cranes flying overhead in a v-shaped formation. They part, eagerly counting the moments until the next encounter, and Boris heads off to his night-shift job at the local factory while Veronika dashes home.

From this point, things begin to go downhill for Veronika. Boris has secretly enlisted in the army with his friend, Stepan (Valentin Zubkov). Like many young men who respond to the call for volunteers, Boris doesn’t want to ‘miss’ the opportunity. He imagines that he will leave some time in the misty future, and so both he and Veronika are stunned when Germany invades and the volunteers are ordered to report for duty the next day.

The next day is Veronika’s birthday and she’s still reeling from the news that Boris enlisted without telling her. Feeling hurt and betrayed, she refuses to spend Boris’s last evening with him, but Boris leaves her a birthday present to be delivered after he leaves. Boris tells his family, his physician father Fyodor (Vasili Merkuryev), his practical sister, Irina (Svetlana Kharitonova) and his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) to take care of Veronika if she should need help.

At this point, the film enters some sentimental territory which is ameliorated by some ambiguities in the plot. While this is a wonderful film and can easily be judged on its own merit, it’s interesting to note some of the subtle undercurrents in the film’s dialogue. Boris’s father, Fyodor is the film’s moral centre, and he’s distressed when his son volunteers. The scene involving the factory workers’ send-off to Boris includes a speech that would have been unacceptable a few years before. Two young girls from the factory arrive at Boris’s home to give him the hero’s send off, but their speech is preempted by Fyodor who announces for them:   “and we at the plant will meet and exceed our production quotas.” The two young, eager girls are flummoxed by Fyodor’s behaviour. He’s taken the wind out of their sails, but Fyodor is too generous a human being to continue making fun of the girls’ mission, and Boris’s last evening is spent in celebration.

In another scene, Fyodor, a widely respected physician is approached by a slimy party member who wants to use the ambulance for his own sleazy purposes. The man completely mis-understands Fyodor and thinks he’s corrupted (and corruptible).  The film subtly notes the man’s shift in tone and body langauge when he realizes that the doctor isn’t just another corrupt human being after all.

The Cranes are Flying is an incredibly touching film which also explores the issue of the loyalty of Soviet women while their men served at the front. The themes of grief and patriotism are overwhelmed in the film’s superb finale which takes place at the train station. The key, of course, is forgiveness; I won’t give too much away here, but bottom line, this is an exquisite film.

The film’s director Mikhail Kalatozov and the cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky also made the stunningly beautiful film I am Cuba in 1964. Urusevsky’s skill with the camera is apparent in the very first scene of The Cranes are Flying, and he shoots the same location several times throughout the film. In this fashion, the landscape becomes a sort of character as events take their toll not just on the people but on the country too. Another scene takes place at Fyodor’s home and one shot takes in the entire family as they all sit around the table. The camera’s placement effectively makes us the invisible guest at the table, and indeed this sort of intimate mood is present throughout the film.


Filed under Russian, Soviet

Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears (1979)

“Moscow is one big lottery. There you can hit the jackpot.”

moscow does not believe in tearsSet in Moscow in the late 50s through the late 70s, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva Slezam ne Verit) follows the lives of three Soviet women, Katerina “Katya” (Vera Alentova),  Lyudmilla  “Luida” (Irina Muravyova), and Antonina  “Tonya” (Raisa Ryazanova). Originally from the provinces, the three girls now live in a Worker’s Dormitory and work in Moscow factories. The forceful, determined Luida says that Moscow is like a lottery and by that she means she intends to marry ‘up.’ Meanwhile, the quiet, simple Tonya steadily dates her regular boyfriend,Nikolai (Boris Smorchov) and Katya, the serious one of the trio, hopes to improve herself by getting into university.

Fate intervenes when Katya’s aunt and uncle go on holiday and leave their large, sumptuous flat and their Pekingese in her care. Luida sees this as a wonderful opportunity to entertain eligible men, and entertain she does, dragging Katya into her scheme. The two girls host parties for various men invited by Luida, and the crafty Luida passes herself (and Katya) off as professor’s daughters.

 Luida’s scheme works and she manages to snare professional hockey player Gurin (Alexsandr Fatyushin) while Katya is drawn to television cameraman Rachkov (Yuri Vasilyev)….

The film then flashes forward to 1978 and picks up the trails of the three main female characters’ lives.

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears is essentially a drama laced with comedy–albeit most of the amusement comes from the marvellous character of the indestructible Luida. While Tonya seeks the traditional role of wife and mother, Katya manages to fulfill her ambition to become an educated career woman, and the way the film bridges the time gap between Katya’s struggles and then her success–through the use of a deceptively simple scene involving an alarm clock–is pure brilliance.

Luida’s ambition was to move up in society through marriage, and she employed all means possible to achieve her goal. Essentially her plan goes awry and this is perhaps both a moral and a social statement.When the film picks up the story in 1978, we can see just how far the three women–now entering middle age–have gone with their lives. Some plans have worked and others are a miserable failure. But Luida–in spite of the dashing of her great hopes still indefatigably pursues her goal of catching a man.

The film explores the idea of the strong Russian woman, and the film’s title refers to the fact that the women will continue to plough on–in this case with or without men. Several of the scenes underscore the lack of eligible men available. At first, this is largely seen through Luida’s attempts to hook a man using artifice and clothes as social disguises (at one point, she begins dressing up as a student in order to haunt the university libraries for prey). But the idea that there’s a distinct lack of eligible men is still prevalent in 1978, when Katya visits a centre that is essentially a club for singles, so inundated with females that no more women are allowed to join.

The film has some nice little twists and turns. Katya’s first big mistake was to pretend to be something she wasn’t, and although she was pushed into this by the domineering Luida, Katya pays a great price for this error. Ironically just as she once deceived a man about the truth of her humble circumstances, when she meets Gosha (Aleksei Batalov) and falls in love, she hides the fact that she’s a successful engineer who runs a factory, and pretends she is a simple worker.

While the film includes many themes that are easily accessible–loneliness, career and personal sacrifice, relationships and ambition, there’s another fascinating facet to this film. American film often depicts its characters in conflict with the society in which they live. In Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, the characters are seem struggling but working harmoniously within society and not railing against it.

Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1981, and it’s easy to see why. With its universal, upbeat and optimistic themes, and its portrayal of everyday life in a frank, yet sympathetic manner, it’s readily accessible to a foreign audience. From director Vladimir Menshov

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Nest of the Gentry (1969)

“Is it true that I’m home at last?”

The Soviet film,  A Nest of the Gentry (Dvoryanskoe Gnezdo) is based on the novel by Ivan Turgenev. It’s the story of the return home of disillusioned Lavretsky (Leonid Kulagin) after he separates from his wife, Varvara (Beata Tyszkiewicz) in Paris. While the beautiful, elegant Varvara is the toast of Paris, Lavretsky is sadly out-of-place in the salon society, and after learning of his wife’s affair with another man, Lavretsky decided to return to his country estate in Russia. During his long absence, the estate has fallen into a state of decay, and during the film’s first scenes, Lavretsky wanders through the house with a loyal serf by his side. Everywhere he looks, things are falling apart–from the broken frames of portraits to the cobwebs flung across unused rooms.

nest of the gentryLavretsky has returned to the refuge of his long-unappreciated estate to “plough the land” and he very soon reconnects with long-time acquaintances–the Kalitins. The oldest girl of the family, Liza (Irina Kupchenko), catches his eye, but she already has a suitor, the dilettante Panshin (Viktor Sergachyov), a government official who comes by to lay siege to Liza on a daily basis. Liza’s mother encourages the match, and it’s one of those situations where the mother is enamoured with the daughter’s beau and arranges the match through a sort of thwarted desire. Liza, who’s a deeply religious girl, is ambivalent about Panshin, but not rebellious enough to openly disobey her mother’s wish. So it seems as though the match will take place as Panshin’s courtship extends through the long summer days.

Lavretsky’s arrival upsets all these matchmaking plans, and as he continues to visits the Kalitins, he falls in love with Liza and his feelings are reciprocated. Lavretsky is tied in marriage, but then the news comes that his wife is dead….

The film includes flashbacks of Lavretsky’s life in Paris, although his wife is a screaming success in the salons of Paris, Lavretsky seems out-of-place, superfluous, and even in the way as Varvara glitters and glides through the elegant company. But somehow Lavretsky is equally out of place in his dilapidated country estate.

Nest of the Gentry is a difficult novel to translate to the screen as a large portion of the novel is spent explaining Lavretsky’s background and his hideous education at the hands of his “anglomaniac” father. While Turgenev’s novel explains the idea of the ‘superfluous man’–an upper class man divorced from Russian culture, these portions of the novel are mostly absent from the film, and that’s unfortunate as these sections underscore the Russian upper class divorcement from their own culture. Lavretsky’s background, and the fact that his mother was a serf is only briefly mention. Several scenes, however, underscore the idea of French decadence and artificiality in direct contrast to the gorgeous summer scenes in the Russian countryside. There’s one great scene of the idle rich lounge by the river’s edge while in the background serfs sing as they slave on the estate.

The film is also quite gentle in its treatment of Panshin, and while the novel spends pages on Panshin’s egoism, the film, apart from sticking Panshin in the clothes of a dandy, doesn’t address his character or his desire to ‘westernize” Russia.

The film also ends inconclusively, and somewhat unsatisfyingly with the characters’ fates still up in the air. Those complaints aside, Nest of the Gentry is a gorgeous adaptation that should please fans of Russian literature and/or Soviet cinema, but a mini series format would perhaps effectively capture the details of the novel that this film missed. From director Andrei Konchal

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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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The Queen of Spades (1982)

“I am not in a position to sacrifice the necessary in the hope of gaining the superfluous.”

queen of spadesThe Queen of Spades (Pikovaya Dama) directed by Igor Maslennikov is an exquisite Soviet made-for-television film amazingly faithful to the Pushkin short story, and for those of us who love Russian or Soviet period pieces, it’s a joy to watch.

The film begins with a present day narrator, an elegant woman, the great actress Alla Demidova, who’s walking in the streets of St Petersburg as she tells the long-ago story of gamblers who play cards late at night. The narrator opens the door to a room in which the 19th century characters are assembled playing cards, and this is the seamless transition to the Pushkin story. One of the men, a German, a young engineer named Hermann (Viktor Proskurin) is not a gambler, but nonetheless rather strangely, he chooses the company of gamblers, and is intent on their game and their talk.

As the night wears on, and the officers sprawl around the card table, one of the officers, Count Tomsky (Vitaly Solomin) tells the story of his grandmother, who in her youth lost heavily at cards and wheedled the secret of a particularly winning combination of cards from Count Saint-Germain. Tomsky admits his frustration that his grandmother, now a frail, elderly woman on the brink of death, refuses to pass on the secret in spite of the fact that her sons have begged her to do so numerous times. Hermann listens closely to the tale–but not so closely that he picks up on its more fantastical aspects. For example Tomsky brags that Richelieu was  in love with his grandmother, yet Richelieu was a 17th century figure who died in 1642. And again, the officer mentions Saint Germain a character whose murky origins are tied to the occult, and who pops up periodically in the midst of fantastic tales. His part in the tale should ring alarm bells for Hermann. But Hermann, so obsessed with the notion that this old lady may hold the key to a fortune, hears what he wants to hear and begins to plan….

In the home of the old lady is a young, impoverished relative named Lizaveta Ivanovna (Irina Dymchenko) and Hermann begins to woo her in order to gain access to the house and to the elderly wilful and cantankerous old grandmother (Elena Gogoleva)….

This version of The Queen of Spades, the classic tale of obsession, is incredibly faithful to the Pushkin story and watching it creates an almost uncanny feeling that someone is reading the book while the scenes play out before our eyes. There are scenes with the narrator that segue into the past, and there are other points at which both the 19th and 20th century share the stage. This merging of past and present creates a sense of delicate timelessness.  The film Russian Ark used a similar method of merging past and present, but whereas in the Russian Ark this dream-like technique serves to underscore the notion of the proximity and influence of past events, in The Queen of Spades, the physical addition of the narrator into the 19th century scenes reinforces the storytelling element. And at the same time this deliberate merging of storytelling with the visual elements of film creates a perfect version of this Pushkin story that seems to unfold from our own imaginations.

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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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The Captivating Star of Happiness (1975)

“It’s too late to turn back.”

The film The Captivating Star of Happiness is the background story of the Decembrists–the mainly military conspirators who plotted to overthrow Czar Nikolai I in December 1825. The plot failed miserably, and the Czar rounded up the conspirators for either execution or exile. The film–which states that it’s dedicated to the “women of Russia” chooses to focus on the relationships between the conspirators and the women in their lives. Some of the wives did not accompany their exiled husbands to the frozen Siberia tundra–while others made tremendous sacrifices to be with their husbands.

The film is episodic, and the identity of many of the characters is vague, so it helps if you know a little bit of the background to this particular period in history. The film begins with Volkonsky (Oleg Strizhenov) burning letters after the plot’s failure, aware that arrest is imminent and that he may be executed for his actions. The film then goes back in time to show several of the conspirators as they plot the assassination of the Tsar, and the men are seen with the various women in their lives.  The idea of the Northern and Southern Societies is mentioned, and the assassination of Count Mikhail Miloradovich in the Senate Square is also depicted. Even so, it’s still confusing in parts as some characters are not identified, and the film goes back and forth in time so it’s best to come to the film with some information about the story beforehand.

Most of the story concentrates on Volkonsky and his wife, but another large slice of the film is devoted to a young army officer and his French lover, Pauline. While their match would have been impossible before his arrest and exile, the fact that he’s stripped of his rank and shipped out to exile makes marriage possible yet a tremendous hardship for the frivolous Frenchwoman who’s ready to sacrifice all to be with the man she loves. Some scenes depict the utterly ridiculous decadence of the gentry when Pauline attempts to persuade her captured lover’s mother to help him escape. The mother is a member of the nobility and quite potty–dressing up her servants and making them enact plays for her amusement.

The scenery is gorgeous (reminds me of parts of The Russian Ark)–snow covered landscapes, and splendid mansions with glowing lights. Russophiles should seek the film out, and it’s certainly interesting for anyone interested in 19th century Russian history. Directed by Vladimir Motyl, The Captivating Star of Happiness is in Russian with English subtitles.

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Filed under Period Piece, Soviet