My entry into professional writing was reviewing the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list for DigBoston. Now I’m doing the same with the Russian Guild of Film Critics’ equivalent list found here. Rather than review each film, I’ll be recapping each decade.
I’ll also include the burrito I ate while collecting my thoughts. Welcome to BurritoAndAMovie.com.
Road to Life (Путёвка в жизнь) 1931, dir. Nikolai Ekk (YouTube)
Outskirts (Окраина) 1933, dir. Boris Barnet (Kanopy)
Chapaev (Чапаев) 1934, dir. Sergei Vasliev, Georgi Vasiliev (YouTube)
A Severe Young Man (Строгий юноша) 1934, dir. Abram Room (Wikimedia)
Jolly Fellows (Весёлые ребята) 1934, dir. Grigori Aleksandrov (YouTube)
The Youth of Maxim (Юность Максима) 1935, dir. Grigori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg (YouTube)
Happiness (Счастье) 1935, dir. Aleksandr Medvedkin (Kanopy)
Alexander Nevsky (Александр Невский) 1938, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (YouTube)
Burrito (last one pre-isolation):
Steak Burrito Grande, Herrera’s, Boston, MA
The dream of workers’ democracy in the USSR died in the 1930s. Stalin tightened his grip on power until all opponents were silenced, exiled, or executed, sometimes all three, as part of his Great Purge. Nearly every single Old Bolshevik – a Party member from before the 1917 revolution – was killed within a four-year span, even those loyal to Stalin. The system of forced labor camps grew exponentially, encompassing everything from hardened vory to academic dissidents. Man-made famine swept the nation, caused by economic mismanagement and fueled by political repression and negligence. Millions were killed, particularly in Ukraine in what is known as the Holodomor.
During this period, greater restrictions were placed on all forms of art. The new official style was called “socialist realism,” and its guidelines were defined by Maxim Gorky at the 1934 Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers. All work was to be: proletarian (relevant to the lives of the proletariat), typical (depicting everyday life), realistic (in style), and partisan (supportive of the state and Party). Filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein, who had put Soviet cinema on the map with technical and theoretical breakthroughs, was condemned for excessive formalism; though he would eventually recover his career, many trailblazers would not, and were not able to seize the new possibilities of the sound era.
It is helpful to think of Soviet censorship on its own terms, as more than an equivalent to the Hays Code or MPAA ratings. Though the guidelines seem clear and there are iconic examples (on the RGFC list, Chapaev, The Youth of Maxim), it is largely ill defined what content is and is not permitted. It was enforced by a technocrat with no experience in film, Boris Shumyatsky, after whose sacking, Jay Leda wrote, “all of Moscow’s film makers gave parties.” It was unevenly applied, used to condemn films that by all rights should have been embraced (A Severe Young Man) while others flew in the face of what one might expect (Jolly Fellows). Officially sanctioned films often contain content that might be censored on television today: harsh language, violence, nudity, and sexuality do exist in these films, which can be jarring for Western viewers.
Socialist realism is sometimes cited as a reason to dismiss films from this period as artistically impure propaganda (a term that is used too broadly, allowing for no difference between glorification of authority and sincerely held political beliefs). While it is true that the 1930s did see the rise of Stalin’s Cult of Personality and its depiction on film, it is important to remember that humanity does not simply disappear in times like these. People still want to be moved, and filmmakers do their best to meet their audience’s demands. The decisions they make in these films tell us quite a bit about what was on people’s minds, what they found funny, what made them insecure, and what they wanted to see.
With all of this in mind, there is a defiant spirit to the RGFC’s choices for the best films from this decade.
Many of the titles are rebellious, optimistic, or were condemned at the time and reappraised decades later as masterpieces. It’s often said that people want escapism in times of hardship. That may be true, but I think the desire goes a little deeper than that. I think they want affirmation. They want to know that their values are worth fighting for, that humor and beauty can still exist, that everything they’re experiencing is not in isolation but is part of the bigger picture. They want to know that everything is under control. This is fertile ground for terrific drama, but presents an opportunity for dictators and conspiracy peddlers. That’s the paradox of Soviet films of the 1930s, and of making art in a totalitarian state that purports socialist values.
Road to Life (Путёвка в жизнь) 1931, dir. Nikolai Ekk (link)
Road to Life marks many firsts for Soviet film. It is the first sound film, the first to win an international award (1932 Venice International Film Festival), and the first feature film by Nikolai Ekk, who would later direct the first Soviet color film. Appropriately, it concerns the fates of the first generation of war orphans following Russia’s two revolutions and back-to-back wars – one with all of Europe, the other with itself.
Set in 1923, Road to Life tells the story of a program dedicated to combating recidivism of abandoned youth. Children that did have homes saw families torn apart by alcoholism and abuse. Those that did not were left to fend for themselves on the street, relying on gangs and a life of crime for stability. They were arrested, imprisoned, released or escape, then with nowhere else to go, return to the crimes that got them arrested in the first place.
Nikolai Sergeiev (Nikolai Batalov, charismatic as ever) proposes a commune: they can stay out of jail and off the streets if they take responsibility for its operation. That means working as carpenters, cooks, and shoemakers, maintaining order, looking out for one another, and contributing for the good of the group. The trust exercises begin small: Nikolai gives Mustafa (Yvan Kyrlya), a serial thief and proud escape artist, money to buy food for the train trip, and an itinerary for when the train leaves. There are no cops on his tail, he could pocket the money if he wants, but Mustafa catches the train at the last minute. From there, it’s a struggle for Nikolai to instill discipline without being just another cop, and for the children to shed their old survival instincts.
I know this is probably setting off people’s propaganda radar, but Road to Life is not an advertisement for communes. This is about the children first and foremost, and has more in common with Stand And Deliver or The Grapes of Wrath than it does with Bezhin Meadow. Ekk’s film is not about how everything became better once the youth embraced communism. It’s about trusting them to carry the torch of society, and not punishing them for our failures. It’s a lesson applicable to every society: if we create a flawed structure with a broken foundation, we can’t condemn them for falling through the cracks.
The metaphor of building a new society is established early, as the opening credits appear on an impressively constructivist spire. It’s a film perfectly suited to the new age of sound: dialogue is crucial to the interactions. In early scenes, while Nikolai makes his case to the children, they rally behind Mustafa, whose voice is essential to the tone of the film. Batalov, most noted for his no-nonsense face and characters (sometimes confident, sometimes foolhardy) in the silent era, makes the most of his new platform, conveying a man who believes what he says but whose face is always afraid the project might fail.
Outskirts (Окраина) 1933, dir. Boris Barnet
Boris Barnet is perhaps the most overlooked Soviet director on the world stage. Part Billy Wilder, part Clint Eastwood, part Coens, and very much a protege of Lev Kuleshov. I have yet to see a film from him that would be out of place on the RGFC’s list, but his condemnation of nationalism, Outskirts, is a perfect selection, highlighting the humor, sensitivity, knack for innovation, and muscular intellect of this boxer-turned-soldier-turned-actor-turned-director.
Outskirts takes place in a small Russian village at the beginning of World War I. Striking cobblers are encouraged to put their demonstration behind them and rally behind the war effort. German prisoners of war are housed in the village, and given the shortage of supplies and available labor, they are permitted to work during the day. One POW, Mueller (Hans Klering), makes shoes for Pyotr Kadkin, whose two sons Nikolai and Senkin (Nikolai Bogolyubov, Nikolai Kryuchkov) are in the trenches. Meanwhile, a previously cordial relationship between a Russian landlord and a German tenant is torn apart due to patriotic fervor, as anxieties in the town are taken out on Mueller.
The film is a thoughtful take on national division, making the case that average Germans and Russians have more in common with one another than they do with their bosses or political leaders. The epilogue is utterly fascinating, giving an accelerated overview of the period between the February and October Revolutions. The same leaders who told workers to support the war join the Provisional Government, and do not stop the war after gaining power, making common cause with war profiteers. Soldiers patiently wait for their orders to return home, hopeful that the Tsar’s overthrow will end the conflict, but they remain on the front lines.
Outskirts is an internationalist film made when Stalin was purging the internationalists from the Party, a condemnation of patriotism while the notion of a Soviet national identity was being built, and a pacifist parable in the time of military braggadocio. It has also been released under the name The Patriots, a name which reveals its intended message. The patriots are the ones that ordered workers to stop demanding their rights, to put progress aside, and to view the Germans as enemies. Patriotism caused unnecessary divisions that only benefited the ruthless. Those that succumbed to it did so out of desperation, and the gutter of negative emotions drained into a sewer of xenophobia.
Chapaev (Чапаев) 1934, dir. Sergei Vasliev, Georgi Vasiliev
Vasili Chapaev was a hero of the Russian Civil War, a peasant with no education who proved to be a brilliant tactician who died in battle. His legacy was strengthened in a 1923 novel by Dmitri Furmanov, who was a commissar stationed with Chapaev on the Eastern Front, then immortalized in Chapaev, directed by Sergei and Georgi Vasiliev (no relation, but they did call themselves the Vasiliev Brothers).
Chapaev and The Youth of Maxim may be the most obvious applications of socialist realist on the list (notably, the staging places Party functionary Furmanov in a more dominant position than Chapaev), but it is also a perfect example of how a great work can turn limitations into advantages, and that good storytelling can exist in any time and place. Chapaev does not treat the character as a legend, or suggest that his gift made him superhuman. It celebrates that which made him like any person, including his his lack of refinement and his love of singing with his comrades in arms.
Two scenes in particular highlight the film’s approach to his character. One is him explaining military strategy to a seasoned apparatchik using potatoes, while later he confesses to having never heard of Alexander the Great. The second shows him attempting to describe his allegiances to a crowd, but unable to differentiate between the socialists and the communists, or the First and Second International.
A Severe Young Man (Строгий юноша) 1934, dir. Abram Room
The original release of A Severe Young Man was canceled by Ukrainfilm for deviations from socialist realism. The fact that it was not embraced by the authorities when it was released shows that the censors truly had no idea what they were doing. This is a film about finding morality in a new social order, about creating societal templates when the old ones were broken, and presents no criticisms of the Soviet system. A Severe Young Man should have been a classic among the first generation to come of age in the USSR, a Rebel With a Cause, if you will. Though it did later find an audience in the 1960s, A Severe Young Man is a terrific film, and its cancellation shows the absurd and arbitrary nature of Stalinist censorship.
The titular severe (meaning strict) young man is Grisha Fokin, a rising star in the Komsomol, the Young Communist League. Grisha is admired for his sober thinking and forthright communication style, all of which is thrown into disarray when a mutual attraction develops between him and the wife of a respected doctor. What is an upstanding, dedicated YCL member to do? Does he deny his feelings and betray his stated values, which include honesty and directness? Does he pursue them and risk upsetting the social order? Is he prioritizing his own feelings over the needs of the community? And even if he finds the correct path, will the example he sets be applicable to all young people of different temperaments and intellects?
Room’s other film on the RGFC list, Bed and Sofa, also concerned morality in the new social order, and though the two are very different, there is the same sensitivity and humanity at work. We’ve heard how the revolution was good for workers, about equality, but what about emotion? The film concludes with a particularly sentimental work from Karl Marx, who was utterly devoted to his wife and wrote lengthy poetry in her honor.
Like Bed and Sofa, the metaphors are layered but designed to be understood; many of the conversations happen in the changing area of an Olympic-style sporting facility, complete with statues, discus throwers, and muscular athletes in improbable poses with strategically placed towels, in an allusion to ancient philosophers. The production design and film quality maximize the beauty of its scant resources. The speech patters of the characters demonstrate their views: the intellectual doctor waxes poetic, the YCL members speak bluntly, and the scoundrel enforcer of the old order snivels with a forked tongue.
My personal favorite is the impulsive Liza (Valentina Serova), and her catchphrase “Неужели ты не понимаешь?” (“Don’t you understand?”)
Jolly Fellows (Весёлые ребята) 1934, dir. Grigori Aleksandrov
Jolly Fellows is undoubtedly one of the greatest movies ever made. Grigori Aleksandrov, a longtime collaborator of Sergei Eisenstein, made the first Soviet musical, and it is a fucking riot. It’s the biggest and silliest damn thing you’ll ever see and you’ll want to watch it again and again, with its elastic faces, animated interludes, and bombastic musical numbers. It is the least cynical movie ever made. It solidified the star of crooner and Soviet jazz pioneer Leonid Utyosov, and propelled Lyubov Orlova into superstardom.
Never has a plot mattered less, but here it is anyway: Kostya (Utyosov) is a shepherd who spends his days singing with his herd along the Odessa shores. Anyuta (Orlova) is the maid for an aristocratic family, who is secretly a phenomenal singer. The family mistakes Kostya for a famous composer, then the plot is basically farm animals running amok in high society. Anyuta and Kostya fall in love. Then Kostya is again mistaken for a famous composer in a Moscow concert hall, then the plot is an orchestra trying to keep up with his improvised movements, Merrie Melodies style. Then, as leader of a musical ensemble, they rush to the Bolshoi in the rain, hitching a ride on a horse-drawn hearse. They can’t use their waterlogged instruments, so they mimic instruments a capella, and are joined by Anyuta, and all is well.
Probably the most amazing thing about it, other than literally everything about it, is Aleksandrov’s origins. He acted in Battleship Potemkin, co-directed October: Ten Days that Shook the World, then set about making documentaries and the occasional propaganda film. He joined Eisenstein’s disastrous trip to Hollywood and Mexico, and returned with the germ of a Hollywood musical done to Russian sensibilities. Its influence can be found all throughout the 1960s and ’70s, when virtually every comedy had songs, whether they were musicals or not.
Trust me, just watch it. You’ll feel better. Just don’t watched the colorized version. As a matter of fact, don’t watch the colorized version of anything.
Fun fact: If you saw Cold War, the 2018 Polish submission for the Academy Awards, you’ll likely recognize one of the signature songs from the audition scene.
The Youth of Maxim (Юность Максима) 1935, dir. Grigori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg
The Youth of Maxim is the first installment of a trilogy about a factory worker and Bolshevik and his journey through several key chapters in revolutionary history. As mentioned in the review for Chapaev above, it is perhaps the most typically socialist realist film selected by the RGFC, but its focus is on the values of the struggle and not the primacy of the Party.
The film is set in 1910. Maxim and his friends, all young factory workers, are secretly passing out anti-tsarist material. Several of his friends and comrades are killed in a strike, compelling Maxim to join the underground Bolshevik movement. Later installments – The Return of Maxim and The Vyborg Side – depict the competition between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the Tsarist Duma, and the building of the Soviet state post-1917.
It’s a very simple film, and does a great deal to humanize everyone involved without making the villains cartoonishly wicked and the heroes absurdly valiant. Credit for this goes to the performance by Boris Chirkov and the direction from Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, seen previously in this series for their work on The Overcoat.
There’s not much more to say about this film, but if you are interested in how the USSR mythologized its origins before the Cult of Personality fully took over, this is a good place to start.
Happines (Счастье) 1935, dir. Aleksandr Medvedkin
Here’s a wild one. Almost everything about Aleksandr Medvedkin’s Happiness is unlikely: a silent film years in 1935 after sound began to dominate, an absurdist fable in the age of socialist realism, and a satirical take on life in the kolkhoz (collective farms). The film wasn’t suppressed, and it went largely unnoticed for decades, when this oddity was rediscovered and embraced by critics.
If a person were shown Happiness with no context, they would be forgiven for thinking it had been made ten years earlier in the age of formalism. It is a film version of a lubok, a predecessor to the modern comic strip typically used to tell religious or folk tales. Our hero, Khmyr, a typical muzhik, on a series of misadventures involving clergy, thieves, his spotted horse, and the authorities who execute him for attempting suicide without permission (from which he recovers).
Much of the humor might be too specific for audiences not familiar with Russian archetypes or Soviet terminology, but whether you understand it or not, it’s a delightful romp through the shortsighted logic of bureaucracy.
Alexander Nevsky (Александр Невский) 1938, dir. Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein returned from the West without a Hollywood-backed project and unable to edit the footage he shot in Mexico. His next project, Bezhin Meadow, was halted and largely destroyed (fragments can be viewed on Criterion). He had retreated into teaching and theoretical writing, convinced he would never be able to direct again, until he warmed himself to the authorities and took on a great patriotic epic, Alexander Nevsky.
There is much about the film that is the result of political triangulation: Nevsky had defended Novgorod from invasion against the Teutonic Knights and the Holy Roman Empire. His co-director Dmitri Vasiliev and co-writer Pyotr Pavlenko were assigned to the film to ensure Eisenstein did not descend into “formalism.” The depiction of a great Russian hero defeating Germanic invaders in 1938 instilled confidence of a Soviet victory over the Nazis.
That is the backdrop, and the result is phenomenal. A tale of heroism, of bravery in the face of a wise and unrelenting foe, and the many victories and losses in battle. The contrast with Eisenstein’s earlier work proves his versatility and brilliance. His silent films are experimental and immersive, while the obviously constructed mattes and sets allow him to heighten the tension. Vast fields feel claustrophobic, as though danger might explode out of the horizon. Our heroes are brave but not infallible. The extended battle sequences, combined with the legendary score by Dmitri Shostakovich, elevate this to one of the greatest war movies set before the invention of guns. It is perhaps not one of his most personal works, but he brings everything he has to the project, and it shows.
It was also pretty great to hear my wife say “He’s cute” about a character, and realize it’s because he looks like me.