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TSPDT 2013: The Last Bolshevik

Posted by martinteller on April 21, 2013

Chris Marker’s documentary about Soviet director Aleksandr Medvedkin is told in an unusual style.  It is structured as a series of six letters written to the man — Marker’s friend — after his death.  The narration is told in the second person: “And then you did this” and so on.  Thus the film puts the viewer in the shoes of its subject.  I wouldn’t say it’s particularly effective (the mind tends to automatically substitute “he” for “you” after a few minutes of this) but it’s an intriguing twist.

Medvedkin is best known for Happiness, silent slapstick comedy with a propagandistic bent.  I quite liked the film (the only one by him I’ve seen), though not as much as the interviewees here, who are quite rhapshodic about it.  But I’m not a film student.  Marker doesn’t do much to explain what makes Medvedkin’s work so special.  I’m not saying he ignores the topic (he doesn’t) but he’s more interested in Medvedkin’s life as a reflection of the Soviet Union he lived in.

Medvedkin was “a pure communist in a world of would-be communists”.  He fervently believed in the promise of communism, but was crushed again and again by a party less interested in ideology than they were in control, order and bureaucracy.  One of the most fascinating things the director did was institute a “cine-train”.  This was an actual train that would roll around the country.  On board were a full editing station and a truck that could take them to any location.  They would film workers and be able to cut and present a film within a day, showing it to the same people he had just filmed.  The films, however, were too critical of the workers and the system that didn’t maximize their potential, and were suppressed.  They languished in archives for decades before a handful of them were discovered.

Eventually, Medvedkin was beaten down and made movies that toed the party line… communist fantasies not communist reality, free of satire and critique.  As in his earlier A Grin Without a Cat, Marker is very interested in what makes a revolution break down.  Medvenkin died just as perestroika was beginning, and wouldn’t live to see the ultimate failure of the Soviet Union.  As one of his colleagues notes, this was probably for the best.

One curious sidenote: the film features an intermission titled “Cat listening to music”.  It’s exactly what it sounds like.  Adorable, and the cat looks just like my own Lucy.  Rating: Very Good (80)


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