The Cult of Personality

Long lost in Russia and never known in the US, The Fall of Berlin is the spellbinding artifact of a forgotten, unlamented moment in Soviet cinema.

Strapping factory foreman Aleksei Ivanov (Boris Andreyev, a model hero of this era) loves apple-cheeked schoolteacher Natasha (Marina Kovaleva). When he receives the Order of Lenin for setting productivity records, she delivers a speech in his honor before a huge picture of Stalin. Like a bobbysoxer confronted by Sinatra, she almost collapses orgasmically as she declares that she wishes the man responsible for all their happiness were here so she could tell him in person, “Long live Stalin!” The crowd roars.

Aleksei is whisked to Moscow to ramble through Stalin’s garden with the great man himself (Mikhail Gelovani). We’re not privileged to overhear their talk, but we learn later that Aleksei’s love life was discussed and Uncle Joe assured him that Natasha would marry him.

Alas, their nuptials are marred in the scene where, just as it seems they’re about to burst into song amid the fields of waving wheat, German planes deliver a Pearl Harbor-esque surprise attack. Explosions everywhere, then a rapid montage of invasions and atrocities. When Aleksei wakes in a hospital, he learns that Natasha has for some reason been taken prisoner and sent to Germany. He joins the army and fights his way across his homeland, through the battle of Stalingrad, until he marches into Germany in search of her.

But the plot doesn’t really follow that thread, although it pops up now and then. This movie has bigger fish to fry, namely the all-star parade of world leaders who do the moving and shaking. If Stalin is the all-wise, all-powerful Yoda, his Darth Vader is Hitler (V. Savelyov), by far the film’s most riveting character.

He moves through massive sets, sometimes with the camera peering down at him from above. He receives well-wishing emissaries from the Pope, berates his generals for doubting his plans to invade Moscow, pores over maps and globes, screams about setting America against Russia, and escalates his hysteria as defeat washes over him. In the most grotesque sequence, and that’s saying something, Eva Braun (M. Novakova) marries her man and indulges a poisonous wedding feast in the bunker.

But wait, you also get the Yalta Conference, where Stalin wisely, sagely, calmly, seemingly always in profile, holds his ground against the bloated Churchill (Victor Stanitsin) while Roosevelt (Oleg Froelich) looks on.

This is enough to make the American viewer goggle. Imagine a Hollywood propaganda film during WWII that depicted FDR or General Patton speaking to the soldiers played by John Wayne or Spencer Tracy. Imagine if Paul Greengrass’ United 93 or Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center included scenes where an actor played President Bush on Air Force One. Hollywood waits until our leaders die before mythologizing them.

There wasn’t a biopic of FDR until Sunrise at Campobello (1960), 15 years after his death. You could argue that Hollywood made a surrogate-FDR movie in Wilson (1944), about another Democratic president in wartime. As the type of granite monument erected by Hollywood to itself for the purpose of giving Oscars (it duly won Best Picture), Wilson manages almost entirely to avoid politics except for its sense of politics as spectacle. Lavish scenes of electioneering and conventions are virtual musical numbers with all decisions made backstage by political machines from whom Wilson is distanced. In its third hour, the movie finally brings out an issue — the resounding failure of Congress to endorse his League of Nations. From the middle of WWII, the movie puts a prophetic spin on this lost opportunity and warns against repeating the error, thus becoming an endorsement for the upcoming United Nations.

But no matter the movie’s displaced meanings, Wilson had been dead for 20 years. And even though movies of fictional depictions of presidents have been on the upswing in the last two administrations, we still resolutely avoid serious dramas about current leaders. Consider how Stephen Frears’ The Queen struck everyone as an unusual and daring idea. Whether this avoidance is good or bad may be arguable, but The Fall of Berlin is a continually astonishing example of what such a film may look like.

It spoils no surprise to reveal that Berlin falls, but that’s not the capper. While celebrating in front of the ruins of the Reichstag, the crowds suddenly look to the sky. Is it a bird? It’s a plane! They step a few yards over to an airfield where, as the movie officially crosses into the science fiction of alternate reality, the deus comes down from his machina and beams benevolently upon the international throng, who all call in their own language “Long live Stalin!”

Finally getting her wish, Natasha gets to tell him just what she thinks of him. Oh yeah, she’s also reunited with Aleksei under their leader’s benevolent eye.

This movie is more than a chilling exercise in camp. It touches on many issues that can’t be fully addressed here, such as the multi-ethnicity of the Soviet army and the avenging rationale for military atrocities. As critic Mark R. Hasan has pointed out, the ending out a clear blue sky evokes Hitler’s aerial descent to Earth at the beginning of Triumph of the Will, and another scene inverts the m.o. of another of that film’s sequences. A comparison between historical reality and this film’s version of same would fill another essay, as would the issues this film calculatedly avoids.

With its huge cast and sets, its model work and pyrotechnics, this is a genuinely impressive spectacle on a scale that Hollywood didn’t really reach for until the ’50s. The makeup is deliberately grotesque on the historical figures and less deliberately so on Stalin; he looks like a wax effigy whose hair changes shade with each sequence. Even one astonishing gaffe, when we see the shadow of the director’s hand signalling to Gelovani, seems to lend metaphysical meaning to the image.

It would seem the Soviet Union could ill afford all this, and indeed they didn’t make a lot of features annually during this period, but director Chiaureli had a lot of resources at his disposal. Apparently the Berlin sequences were really shot there amid the ruins, and there’s a genuine cast of hundreds if not thousands. It was also one of several films made in Agfacolor, a film stock confiscated from Germany’s UFA studios. Dmitri Shostakovich composed the heroic score.

It’s one of the Stalin movies, a series of overweening epics that included Chiaureli’s The Vow (1946) and The Unforgettable Year 1919 (1952) and Vladimir Petrov’s The Battle of Stalingrad (1950). These movies typically received the Stalin Prize, unsurprisingly, and were seen by millions of moviegoers.

Then a funny thing happened called history. Stalin died in 1953. In 1956, Nikita Kruschev famously denounced his late boss and his “cult of personality”. In Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (1960), Russian emigre Jay Leyda quotes from Kruschev’s report : “Let us recall the film ‘Fall of Berlin’. In it only Stalin acts, issuing orders from a hall in which there are many empty chairs. . . . And where is the Military Command? Where is the Political Bureau? Where is the Government? What are they doing, what keeps them busy? There is nothing about them in the film. Stalin acts for everybody. . . . Everything is shown to the nation in this false light. Why? In order to surround Stalin with glory, contrary to the facts and contrary to historical truth.”

This was undoubtedly the first negative review the film received, and then it became policy. In the process of de-Stalinization, Stalin films were pulled from circulation and airbrushed from official history. Take The Phenomenon of the Soviet Cinema (1980), a solidly Marxist-Leninist tome by Yuri Vorontsov and Igor Rachuk. As it announces the wonderful strides of Soviet cinema onward and upward in the postwar era, not one of the Stalin films is mentioned. Yet the authors pause to acknowledge vaguely on page 229:

However, during this same period, although Soviet cinema achieved indisputable successes that have become a part of history, there were also certain drawbacks that cannot be ignored. One of these deficiences was the one-sidedness of many historical films and films about the Second World War which depicted the people–the true creators of history — as a faceless mass, while one outstanding personality occupied the forefront position.

The authors refuse to elaborate, but they imply a whole unwritten volume.

International Historic Films, a website devoted to preserving voices of propaganda, has come out with a DVD “painstakingly restored from the original negative.” Their notes say the print was borrowed from the Munich Film Museum and then digitally restored by Screen Time Images. The “before” and “after” clips are impressive, and the colors look vibrant and gaudy. You have the option of playing the film in its original two parts with credits or as one film. The only real extra is a somewhat superficial slideshow about these movies and the men who made them.

(available from International Historic Films)

I Worked for Stalin is a salutary companion piece. A documentary made by Semyon Aranovich (The Anna Akhmatova File) just after the Soviet Union’s collapse, it interviews an old man named Dmitry Sukhanov, for many years a secretary to Malenkov of Stalin’s inner circle. After Stalin’s death, he was imprisoned for years over a stolen bank note. Also interviewed are his wife Marfa, Malenkov’s son Andrei, and the widow and son of another apparatchik, Andrei Zhdanov. Zhdanov had been in charge of cultural policy, and therefore of hassling people like Shostakovich over “formalism”.

Their stories are limited by what they can remember and what they’re willing to say. Even now they don’t really spread vitriol against Stalin, the man who employed and empowered them, whom they feared and who feared them, but they’re perfectly willing to undercut each other and assign blame, all illustrated by old photos and newsreels.

For example, interviewee Yuri Zhdanov was married to Stalin’s daughter. He doesn’t discuss it but Sukhanov does, describing how she had many affairs and inherited her father’s strong will. His report on the divorce of Malenkov’s daughter earns a flat contradiction from her brother. The offspring of Malenkov and Zhdanov paint each other’s fathers as criminals. They may be stingy with facts (on Zhdanov’s death, for example), but what emerges is a circus of paranoia and back-stabbing that leaves you wondering how anyone survived. Clearly they’re not unscarred.

Alexander Sokurov’s slow, serene documentaries are more like journeys through his own soul, no matter the subject matter. In the four parts of Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, totaling three hours, his subject is ostensibly the Nobel-winning novelist and martyr to Soviet politics who suffered from WWII until his exile to the US in the early ’70s. He and his wife Natalia returned to Russia in 1994 and Sokurov made this project in 1998.

Solzhenitsyn doesn’t really talk about himself or his work. After an opening in which Sokurov goes through a few basic facts over some photos, occasionally glancing at the clouds as is his wont, we see a couple of fascinating interviews with Natalia in which she discusses their activities contacting survivors of the Gulag in order to document their histories and sometimes offer aid. Her husband walks through a forest with Sokurov in the first episode, providing some visual activity while they talk mostly about what interests Sokurov, namely the problem of evil. They don’t say anything very profound after all, but Sokurov discusses the perfection of a tree.

For the last two episodes, they talk almost exclusively on Russian literature; Dostoyevsky, Karamzin, Gogol, Chekhov, Platonov. To help them sound like a couple of old fogeys, Sokurov asks, What’s the central problem with literature today? and Solzhenitsyn rises to the bait.

“I think it is the writer’s lack of a responsibility towards a higher power. That is the main reason of the decline of literature,” he answers. He says writers didn’t used to want to “express themselves” but felt an inner duty. “It’s kind of a sacred relation to writing. I’m fulfilling some kind of obligation. It is the decline of their responsibility before God. Even if some do not refer to Him, but to some higher power or duty, something greater than oneself. . . This decline comes from the general spiritual decline of humanity.”

Of course, some writers did it for money and amusement while there must even be writers today who think of duty, but let’s throw this out as an index of where the man’s thoughts are. He also says that suffering is a gift from God if you can take it, a punishment if you can’t.

For virtually the entire final 45-minute episode, in a typical Sokurovian conceit, the video camera spends most of its time trained at the writer’s face as he thinks and speaks, and almost always in profile — not unlike Stalin! In his restrained, contemplative modernism, Sokurov re-invents his country’s aesthetic of monumentalism as the camera stamps the viewer with the image of a great man. Cult of personality, indeed.

Irritatingly, the subtitler of Sokurov’s film sometimes forgets to translate what is said or else it’s dropped out, such as a portion about the writer’s first wife. Neither of the docs come with extras.