This documentary tells the story of film director Aleksandr Medvedkin, throughout his life a sincere believer in communism, whose films were repeatedly banned in the Soviet Union. Modern ... See full summary »
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This documentary tells the story of film director Aleksandr Medvedkin, throughout his life a sincere believer in communism, whose films were repeatedly banned in the Soviet Union. Modern Russian film students express their excitement at seeing his film HAPPINESS for the first time, and his contemporaries shed light on his life and work. Written by
George S. Davis <email@example.com>
A terrifying and brilliantly cinematic denunciation of cinema.
As a genre, the documentary is closely related to the detective story. Often the documentary seeks to find a truth in modern life, to show life as it really is, to expose reality from under official appearance. Sometimes it is even more specific - why did General Motors close down in Flint, Michigan and what effects did it have on the inhabitants in ROGER AND ME; what has happened to the memory of Jews in the Europe where they were virtually wiped out in A SMALL TOWN IN POLAND.
Marker's THE LAST BOLSHEVIK is a mystery. Alexandre Medvedkin was a genius Soviet filmmaker from the 1920s, whose films were at least the equal of Eisenstein or Pudovkin. Unlike these, they combined avant-garde rigour with surrealism, folklore and humour. Although Medvedkin was a devout Communist (he had fought in the Civil War), and saw his work providing a valuable function in the new State, their very inventiveness was seen as ambiguous and possibly subversive. His films were always put on the shelf, his name wiped out of official histories, never mentioned in film schools - the few students who were lucky enough to witness his films clandestinely were shocked at and thrilled by the lack of uniformity in his work.
The mystery is, how could such a film-maker, who persisted in making difficult, awkward films, whose very sincere communism was a stumbling-block for opportunist Stalinism, whose revolutionary train-studios (where he would travel throughout Russia, film the people and process the material straight away) actually unwittingly exposed the failings of the Revolution - how did such a man survive the great Stalinist purges of the 1930s, indeed live until the grand old age of 89, especially when men like the writer Isaac Babel and the theatre director Meyerhold (whose only 'crime' was to find his artisitic methods out of tune with Stalinist decrees) were imprisoned in concentration camps and murdered?
Marker the detective interviews witnesses (Medvedkin's daugther, former colleagues, Babel's wife), analysts (the young students who so fell in love with his work they determined to resurrect it, film critics), as well as investigating the archives. His researches are surprising and depressing.
Because this is not really just a film about Medvedkin. Born in 1900, his story is used to illustrate the Russian century, the failure of Communism, the betrayal of cinema. It is also a personal quest for Marker, whose first viewing Medvedkin's HAPPINESS was life-changing, who became a friend of the director, and introduced his work to the West, whose leftist idealism in the 1960s was soon disillusioned.
The quiet catalogue of terror and murder under Stalin is repulsive, abetted by a cinema, which, though technically innovative and exciting, was founded on lies. Films tacitly or literally glorified Stalin. Eisenstein's OCTOBER, celebrating the 1917 Revolution, had to be reedited when Trotsky, so crucial in that event, became a Stalinist persona non grata. We see films with black strips indicating that someone just fallen out of favour has been wiped out. Cinema, said Lenin, would be the Bolsheviks' greatest weopon, and its systematic collusion with tyranny is heartbreaking. Gorky, who introduced cinema (invented by Frenchmen) to Russia (and therefore an inverse Marker), proclaimed it a play of shadows, and in Russia it never became more than this, became even less, despite Vertov's desire for 'cinema truth'. Tragically, Medvedkin's truth-telling was fatal - his filming of what he thought was Kulak (the peasant landowning class) indolence, led to their slaughter, by Stalin. Marker never directly accuses him of anything - this is a film about a society and an artform where truth has been rigorously wiped out; to express this, Marker must distort his own 'real' images, which have lost their value as truth - but the intimations are horrifying and shaming.
But never finger-wagging. Marker is too melancholy, too much, in spite himself, the romantic. This is a strangely beautiful film, as all Marker documentaries are, a kind of riposte to totalitarian anti-humanism, and full of wonderful, compromised Russian cinema (and lots of Marker cats too!). Framed as letters to the deceased Medvedkin, they initiate a dialogue in which no statement can be taken for granted, where plurality and contradiction is the norm, the very opposite of tyrannical art. Some people have compared this latter to Hollywood conformity - the latter is undoubtedly culturally damaging, but it's rather insulting to suggest that the generic and unimaginative kills.
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