This is the penultimate post in my movie capsule of the Russian Empire. Let me begin with two movies that make a bridge between the time before the Revolution of 1917 and the present.

Anastasia  (1956)

Ingrid Bergman plays a poor young woman who may or may not believe that she is actually the Grand Duchess of Russia, youngest daughter of Nicholas II, named Anastasia. Modern history tells us that the very young Anastasia died with her family in 1918, murdered by the Bolsheviks. The rumors of her survival are pure romantic fantasy. The linchpin of historical interest that can be taken from this film comes from the role of the Dowager Empress, Maria Feodorovna (played by Helen Hayes) who had escaped the Bolsheviks and ultimately taken refuge with royal relatives in Copenhagen. She was the mother of Nicholas II and the grandmother of Anastasia. She was revered by Russian émigrés in Denmark who often came to her door seeking comfort and assistance. In the movie, Bergman is brought to see the Empress at her residence and there is a touching scene of reunion between the two. Such a meeting never took place.

If you will allow, here is a further anecdote on the ignorance of my youth. About five or six years after this movie was released, I came to know Helen Hayes quite well and she was like a grandmother to me. She was appearing at the time in a demanding piece of theater for which I was the stage manager. I was nineteen at the time and had no idea why she was famous, except that part of my job was to help her navigate through crowds of admirers at the stage door. During rehearsals, she invited me to accompany her to her stately home on the Hudson River in Nyack, New York. We would sit on her veranda overlooking the Hudson or by the fireplace in her basement trophy room going over her lines. If I had possessed the slightest presence of mind, I might have asked about the awards that lined the mantelpiece and about the historical roles that she had played, but it was enough for me to have a lovely grandmother who appreciated my company.

The Assassination of Trotsky (1972)

The third turning point for Russia (see Overview) came with the tumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent dismantling of the USSR. It is worth noting that the two most recent turning points came within the 20th century while the ten to eleven centuries before 1917 were defined by the the absolute power of tsars. The tone for the Government of Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and the triumph of the proletariat was set by the iron-fisted rule of Joseph Stalin, 1922 to 1950. He was best-known for his systematic efforts to eliminate any who did not agree with his policies. It was a tragedy for the working-class and a life-changing disappointment for progressives who believed that socialist government would put the world back on track. The most famous of Stalin’s eliminations was Leon Trotsky who was exiled from Russia in 1929.

Starring Richard Burton as Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), it opens in 1940 with Trotsky and his wife, Natasha (Natalia), settled in a pleasant and well-guarded house in Coyoacán on the outskirts of Mexico City. He has already quarreled with Diego Rivera, though the artist is shown in brief flashes hard at work on his famous mural at the Presidential Palace. There is a scene at a bullring where the unhappy bull is subjected to a ritual death for the roaring crowd and takes a very long time to die. This, I suppose, is meant to set the scene for the ending of the film. Alain Delon plays a cold and inscrutable assassin in a toxic relationship with Romy Schneider. He has been directed by agents of Stalin to kill Trotsky. In the end, Delon enters Trotsky’s authentically re-created study and drives a pick into his skull. He takes a long time to die. This film was not well received. Richard Burton, despite his core competence and good make up, was seen as a poor choice for the role. He sounds exactly like Richard Burton no matter what part he is playing. The trailer is available only in French and is grotesque. A more satisfying view of Trotsky, played by Geoffrey Rush, earlier in his Mexico City stay, can be seen in Frida (2002). See Movies of Modern Mexico.

Enemy at the Gates  (2001)

Set in 1942, this is a fictionalized tale of an episode in the battle for Stalingrad, which Wikipedia calls the most devastating battle in the history of warfare. Not to be confused with Leningrad, this city is in southwest Russia. It was an early target for Hitler’s invading forces partly owing to the Fuhrer’s hatred for Stalin. Jude Law plays a former shepherd boy now on a troop train to the south. Along with hundreds of other Russian recruits, he crosses the Volga on requisitioned boats, and joins in the pitched battle for the already ruined city. The Russian forces are directed by Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), a political commissar in the Red Army. This casting choice highlights one of the weaknesses in this otherwise finely crafted movie. Hoskins plays Khrushchev with a cockney accent. Most of the key characters have refined British speech patterns, except for the Americans who sound American. Law’s character is based on the real-life Vasily Zaytsev, who is recognized on the battlefield for his natural talent as a sniper and becomes a legend of the Russian opposition to the German invasion. There is an invented love story featuring Rachel Weisz as a local resistance fighter. Some improbabilities arise here, but it is an excellent representation of a woman involved in modern warfare. The plot turns on the concerted efforts of an elite German sniper (Ed Harris) to neutralize Zaytsev. Most of the major characters die in the end.

The special features on the DVD include documentation of the devoted efforts of the filmmakers to fabricate the setting of Stalingrad in 1942. The recovered city is now called Volgograd, but there is talk of restoring the name of Stalingrad in recognition of its World War II fame. There is controversy around whether the German sniper, Erwin König, really existed or was the stuff of legend. It was a disappointment to learn that this film did not do well at the box office or with the critics. The Russians disliked it because they felt it trivialized their heroic battle. The Germans were miffed because they felt it put them in a bad light. Roger Ebert admired the movie for all the right reasons but felt that the love story took the movie off-track. I felt that this was one of the best historical background movies I have ever seen. IMDb provides an extensive Trivia section on this movie.

1964: In the Eye of the Cold War

There is not time or space in this first edition of MovieJourneys to do full justice to all of the motion pictures that looked at Russia from one side or the other of the wall that defined the Cold War, and what came after. However, I would like to mention a few of the movies that lept off the page at me when I perused my archive for relevant entries from the history of film.  I began by searching for The Manchurian Candidate (1962) because it was the first movie that came to my mind in association with the Cold War. There were many fears that drove this time of retrenchment in the industrial West and “brainwashing” was near the top of the list. The triple paradox of suburban heaven, rock’n roll rebellion, and our perceived Asian enemies gave us the cocktail of 1950s oblivion and paranoia. As some of us remember, the ultimate fear that drove this decade was the near certainty of nuclear holocaust. In 1964, as Hollywood began to gain some perspective on the situation, there were two films that engaged this apprehension through a now familiar plot device. They were Fail-Safe and Seven Days in May. Something goes terribly wrong within the staunchly conservative U.S. military and bombers are dispatched, carrying nuclear payloads toward Moscow. Nothing can be done to stop them. In that same year, perspective gave birth to parody and Stanley Kubrick gave us his classic, Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. More will be found in MovieJourneys – Part II.

Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb   (1964)


The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!  (1966)

By the mid 1960s, the West had found a way to laugh at the absurdity of its predicament, which is not to say that it was any less dangerous. Norman Jewison made this Cold War send-up in a time when fears of Russian attack  were still very real and his light touch and warm humanity went beyond Dr. Strangelove (1964) in defusing the irrationality of the moment.  Alan Arkin, in his first film lead, gives full value to his role as an exasperated Russian officer of a beached submarine off the coast of Massachusetts (prefiguring Yosarian in Catch-22).  The Russian Army Chorus plays on the soundtrack as they come warily ashore.  Carl Reiner and Eva Marie Saint make a very believable vacationing New York couple, who first encounter the invaders.  Jonathon Winters is a local policeman.  The film draws heavily on the broad vaudevillian traditions of American comedy.

The Hunt for Red October  (1990)

Sean Connery applies his inextinguishable accent to the role of a Russian submarine commander in this Cold War drama.  It is set in 1984, six years before the end of the undeclared war in 1990.  This is a latter-day Ship of State movie, where the state-of-the-art craft under Connery’s command is a microcosm of Russia in the 1980s. He is a rogue who has conspired to capture the sub and take it to America, seeking asylum for himself and his officers.  The Americans are alarmed at the idea that the sub might be making an attack on their country.  The Russians, meanwhile, have sent a second sub to stop Connery.  Alec Baldwin is sent as a civilian agent to neutralize the situation. It’s a convoluted plot but in the end Baldwin and Connery sail into Maine’s Penobscot Bay, with Connery relishing the idea of a new life as an American.  Scenes onboard Russian and American submarines are well researched and very convincing.  So too are scenes in American government offices at Washington, DC.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, a new generation of films began to emerge from Russia that put an emphasis on the common humanity of the Russian people, shared with other cultures around the world. The Hollywood stereotypes of submarine captains and nefarious secret agents gave way to Russian self-portraits of people in quest of normalization of their lives despite crushing memories of the devastations of war. In Moscow today, a new generation can be seen strolling Red Square in rock’n roll T-shirts, pretty dresses, and even business suits.

It’s easy to get swept away in Russia’s fertile Soviet era (before 1989-90), but Aleksey Balabanov proved with his 1997 crime film Brother that contemporary Russian cinema shouldn’t be ignored. The film sets us in disillusioned, post-Cold War Russia and the city of St. Petersburg. We meet Danila (Sergey Bodrov) who wants to start a new life, but becomes lost in a criminal ring as the country experiences a national identity crisis and the uncertainty further alienates its citizens. For many, Brother‘s gritty, moral struggle felt all too real.

Brother  (1997)

Generally, I am not partial to movies about thugs beating up on each other, and I don’t like stories that are set in trash-filled back alleys or empty warehouses. But this one is different. Its the story of a young man who gets in minor trouble with local police in his Russian town. His exasperated mother sends him to St. Petersburg to join his successful older brother. It turns out that the brother is involved in the urban crime world and the younger brother discovers that he has an aptitude for the business. There is a girl who drives a strange looking cargo-carrying streetcar. She has an abusive husband and there are violent episodes that arise from that situation. All in all, he faces a grim life but he has a rough likability that increases the empathy level in the movie. In the end he hitchhikes to Moscow on snowy roads to make another new start. 

The Cranes are Flying  (1957)

Dersu Uzala  (1975)

Come and See  (1985)


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