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A hapless loser (with the surname of Loser) undergoes misadventures with avaracious clergy, a tired horse, and a walking granary (among other things) on his road to collectivized happiness. Written by
Erik Gregersen <email@example.com>
The First Bolshevik / Saint Epiphanius in the bottom of the river
Happiness as labor, sure enough. A farmer sent by his wife to find it, finds instead a wholly absurd Tsarist Russia where a saint in name would sooner drown than let go a bundle of rubles to the bottom of a river. But does he find it, you would think at long last, when a more subtly absurd Revolution sweeps the countryside?
What a strange, uplifting joy to be able to see this silent Soviet comedy about a hapless schmuck caught in the wheels of a callous world. The filmmaker could have gone for a harmless Chaplin effect, assuming for a moment Stalin's censors stayed their hand, benevolent fates setting up pratfalls all the while taking care of life. The schmuck triumphs because he's pure inside, or a natural performer. But Chaplin was not honest with us. He was a hard worker, a staunch Marxist, but hard work is never a value in his films; no, he made his fortunes by selling people the Dream.
The inspiration here is Buster Keaton, the stone face mute in the face of unfathomable mishap. Dogged effort.
Let's unpack this a little. The wife is strong and resolute to the end, a hard worker, and it pays off for her. But this is not one of those amazingly farcical works dubbed socialist realist at the time and favored by Stalin, celebrating the flipside of that Dream as robust heroes of labor triumph in the fields in the name of the people. These fields are barren, dusty, crops are nowhere. Members of the commune are not all of them content worker bees, they are also cruel, weak, suspicious, human. Filthy brigands stalk the perimeters, the first true revolutionaries for Bakhunin let's not forget. The workers attack them with watermelons, the fruits of labor wasted on a squabble.
But this is not simple criticism or direct confrontation with the regime, which sure enough would have earned Medvedkin a swift execution. Our gain is that this man was forced to find ways to dream further than the state-sponsored Dream had imagination to apprehend him.
So what does he do? He envisions images with enough weight and shadow so that we fill the shape. He sketches dreamlike edges only. Anxious air. The man whipping his wife as she plows the field, otherwise they starve. A shaggy horse towing on its back a wooden cabin as it staggers to grab a meagre bite of hay. A grain storage room absconding on human feet. The man tasked to guard it mystified by the over-sized rifle he's given to guard it with. The same man later hidden in a chest and discovered by authorities by his sicle protruding from the chest.
Make no mistake, the film is speaking about Soviet life in the fields. Its realism is the restless dream, the artifice, the world a size it doesn't fit the people.
Curiously enough, it got past the censors but was mostly panned by the press. His next film didn't, a major loss for us. Soon after, he was rebuked by Party sycophants for daring to speak in favor of Eisenstein's Bezhin Meadow, then in production and soon to be likewise axed and destroyed. By then, the late 30's, it was all over for everyone, the film trains permanently derailed. On the other side, Buster Keaton had missed his own place in a revolution and was on his way to become a weary, beaten old man like the protagonist here.
See if you can find Chris Marker's Last Bolshevik, a documentary where Medvedkin in his old age reminisces on all this.
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