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Humanist Cinema--Dismantling the Soviet Union's Fairy Tales
By Starling Root
In the United States, many films, especially those from the Golden Age of Hollywood, serve as pleasant, romantic escapes from a less-than-ideal reality. The Russian films, The Cranes Are Flying(1957), Little Vera (1988), Brother (1997), The Thief (1998), and Prisoner of the Mountains (1996), all achieve the opposite effect, however. They force the audience to examine reality and all its faults as a means of enacting social change. These five humanist films dismantle the official Soviet Union's fairy tales. They all exhibit negative attitudes toward the Soviet government's ideology by focusing on how the Communist system affects harms and corrupts people.
Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying portrays how people back home, those not directly fighting in World War II, suffered. As evidenced by how Veronika's plans for marriage abruptly shatter when her boyfriend dies, the film shows how the war broke young people's dreams and destroyed entire lives. After her boyfriend's death, Veronika goes insane thanks to her obsessive nostalgia for pre-war days. The war effectively forces her to marry a man she does not love and live in dismal conditions with him. Veronika understandably grows bitter because of it. The director makes it clear, however, that World War II did not just affect this one young lady. During the scene when the soldiers depart for battle, the director depicts all kinds of people-men and women, children and senior citizens-in the waving, hugging, and crying crowd. This choice in extras alludes to how the war will affect everyone. Families of all ages and sizes will fret for the weeks, months, and years that their men are at war. Many of them will also lose those same men and, thus, family dignity, economic support, and marriage prospects.
Pichul's Little Vera demonstrates how the Socialist structure trapped young people by limiting their opportunities. Little Vera behaves in a rebellious, self-destructive manner because she has no positive role models and pre-destined life choices. Vera's father is an alcoholic, her mother a submissive housewife, and even her intellectual boyfriend cannot manage to find a place of his own. Her only constructive life choice is to attend the local community college and work as a telephone operator; otherwise, she can embrace the bohemian lifestyle that she does. When her lover asks her about her life goals as they lounge on the beach, she sarcastically replies, "In our country, we have but one goal: communism." Vera therefore implies that the communist system therefore dictates what she is and is not allowed to do. Ultimately the film presents anti-Soviet ideology in a negative light because it shows how the system restricts young, restless individuals instead of letting them fulfill their potential.
Balabanov's Brother also highlights the problems of the Soviet system and how these problems persist even after the Soviet Union's collapse. In order to live comfortably in the late '90s, this film shows the need for a gangster lifestyle, one of crime and violence. All of the adults of that time grew up with the government supposedly providing everything for them, so it is hard for them to function in a society where that government no longer exists. The Soviet government, therefore, has emasculated its people. The only way they can re-claim that masculinity is if, again, they follow Danila's example. It is not only out of need but also principal that Danila becomes a killer. The Soviet ideology that Russia is always right forced him to participate in the Chechen war, where he undoubtedly learned how to build weapons and kill as efficiently as he does. The film is staunchly anti-Soviet Union government because it illustrates how poorly prepared for normal work its people are following its collapse.
Chukhrai's The Thief communicates an anti-Soviet government stance, as well. It accomplishes this message by employing Tolyan as the representative Stalin and government while also showing the abominable living conditions this makeshift "family" must endure in order to survive. Tolyan disguises himself as a noble soldier and charms Katya and her son Sanya, but quickly proves to be a poor lover and father figure. He pretends to befriend decent-seeming people by buying them tickets to the circus. Then while they enjoy themselves at the event, he returns to the building and breaks into all of their rooms to steal their valuables. This is similar, in the screenwriter's and director's view, to Stalin's reeling in the Russian people with the idea of communism being a utopia full of equality. Then Stalin robbed the Russians of this dream when they realized how communism in reality functioned. The fact that Tolyan refers to himself as Stalin's son and even wears a tattoo of the politician on his chest cements the connection between the two men. Furthermore, the film shows how difficult it is for the Tolyan, Katya, and Sanya to find a home. When they are lucky enough to stumble upon a vacant room, it is always too small for them. Sanya, after all, has to sleep on a wooden dining room style chair instead of an actual bed. The family also lacks privacy; everywhere they move, they end up living in very close quarters with nosy neighbors who tell Tolyan and Katya how to raise Sanya. Like Brother, the film therefore shows that the Soviet Union does not adequately provide for its people and almost forces them into lying, cheating, and stealing in order to build more comfortable lives for themselves. By making Tolyan out to be such a slimy character in the end, the film exemplifies strong disapproval of the official Soviet government ideology.
Bodrov's Prisoner of the Mountains conveys its outrage toward the Soviet government by showing how both the Chechens and the Russians committed evil, aggressive acts during the Chechen war. The director goes to great lengths to portray the Chechens are likeable people with a rich culture. It makes it much more heartwrenching for the audience to see the Russian helicopters descend upon village at the end of the film because they have already formed a connection with this rural, Muslim community. The Russians were not completely innocent. The scene where Vanya, the young prisoner, tells the little Chechen girl that he would marry her alludes to a desire for peace. Perhaps once day Chechenya and Russia will form a happy, prosperous union. The fact that the Chechen father spares the young soldier in the end demonstrates that he no longer wishes to contribute to this miserable cycle of killing after killing. His son may be dead thanks to the Russian army but exchanging "an eye for an eye " will not resurrect him and only result in one more tragic death. Vanya, the Chechen must reason, is innocent; after all, it was Russian that murdered his son, not him. Sasha dies because he is unable to transcend his cynical views of war in general and, therefore, cannot fathom a peaceful solution for the Chechen/Russian conflict. If he had retained a more optimistic stance and attempted to befriend the Chechens, like Vanya, perhaps he would have survived. The screenwriter and director therefore imply that, during wartime, people must cling to hope to bring forth change. Given these symbols, the film exemplifies dislike and distrust of official Soviet ideology, which mandates that Russia is always right because Russia is supreme. The film shows, however, that the Soviet government can be wrong-such as when they commit mass murder by bombing a Chechen mountain town at the end of the film.
These five films all comment upon the Soviet Union government in an unflattering, revealing way. By concentrating on the poignant stories of everyday people instead of the epic heroes of Russian folklore, the directors deviate from the Stalinist tradition of storytelling. This in and of itself is a political choice that speaks volumes about how the directors feel toward Soviet ideologies. The Cranes Are Flying, Little Vera, Brother, The Thief, and Prisoner of the Mountains lend real power to the people, not just proclaimed power, by accurately expressing their oppositional sentiments.