Watching The Last Bolshevik and Happiness had Judge Ben Saylor seeing red.
Our review of Happiness, published July 15th, 2003, is also available.
"Every man is seeking happiness. Some see it in wealth, but the Russian peasant, who struggled in poverty, dreamt of it in his own view."—Alexander Medvedkin, director of Happiness and subject of The Last Bolshevik.
Icarus Films is releasing DVDs of several films by experimental director Chris Marker (who made La Jetée, the short film that inspired 12 Monkeys). Included among the titles is Marker's 1993 work The Last Bolshevik, a documentary about filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin. Using clips from Medvedkin's movies, the most prominent of them being 1934's silent satire Happiness (which is also included in this set on a separate disc), along with photographs, archival footage and interviews with those who knew the director (along with interviews with Medvedkin himself), Marker fashions an engrossing—if sometimes hard to follow—portrait of the filmmaker.
Marker structures his film in six portions, which he describes as "letters" to the director. Most of the voiceover narration is performed in the second person, addressing Medvedkin by "you," which is a little jarring sometimes, but the overall effect is to add a degree of intimacy to the film, as if we, the audience, are eavesdropping on private correspondence. The letters are broken up near the halfway point in the movie by an entr'acte featuring a cat listening to music. (This movie probably isn't for everyone.)
While watching The Last Bolshevik, I found myself fascinated by the portions of the film dealing with Medvedkin working within the Soviet film system. At one point, Medvedkin worked on a "ciné-train," a traveling instrument of Soviet propaganda. Among the films made during this period was "For Your Health," (included as an extra on the Happiness disc), a short work that implored Red Army soldiers to, "Get ready for combat with intensive cleanliness training!" The film contains several nuggets of wisdom, such as "Don't fear the water" and my favorite, "Sweat and grease impregnate underwear."
Medvedkin's controversial nature (and that of his contemporaries, such as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein) is also covered in detail in The Last Bolshevik. Medvedkin was a fervent Bolshevik who nonetheless could clearly see the reality of Soviet life, and he wasn't afraid to depict it in his works, which inevitably landed him in trouble with the authorities. In The Last Bolshevik, interviewee Nikolai Izvolov describes the reaction of himself and some peers upon watching Happiness for the first time: "We were convinced of two things: that he was a genius, and that he must have been shot."
But Medvedkin managed to survive, with his life ending just a few years before communism in Russia did. And Marker's film, in the end, is not just about Medvedkin, but also about the regime he lived under and both supported and critiqued in his life and work. More than a mere biopic or tribute film, The Last Bolshevik is an indelible look at the history of the Soviet Union.
Beyond the quality of the DVD presentation itself (to be discussed later), my biggest complaint about The Last Bolshevik is that Marker rarely explains who the interview subjects are and what their relationship was to Medvedkin. For some, there is an explanation, but by and large, interviewees are identified by name only.
Icarus Films helps provide some crucial context to The Last Bolshevik by including Happiness in this set. I hadn't even heard of Medvedkin before receiving these DVDs to review, so being able to see this movie was really helpful. Happiness is a frequently amusing satire of life in the Soviet Union. Our hero, Khymr (Piotr Zinoviev), is sent out by his wife Anna (Elena Egorova) to find happiness. When he is leaving, she tells him, "Don't come back empty-handed." He finds money, which temporarily grants happiness, but tax collectors and others promptly take it all away. When a group of thieves break into where Khymr has secreted his now-empty purse, they're incensed to find nothing there, but eventually give Khymr a little money out of pity. Despondent, Khymr tries to kill himself, which draws the ire of the government, who won't allow him to die because the nation needs his labor. Instead of death, he is punished with lashes and made to transport water in a kolkhoz, or collective farm.
Eventually, Khymr does seem to achieve happiness, but this doesn't dull the satirical edge of Medvedkin's film in the slightest. Overall, Happiness manages to be both funny and bleak in its look at Soviet life for peasants in the 1930s.
The DVD presentation for Happiness is about what one might expect from a silent film from that period; there is plenty of damage to the print, but it also could be worse. The sound quality is better if somewhat uneven. Ironically, Happiness contains more special features than The Last Bolshevik. There are four short films included from Medvedkin's ciné-train days, which last approximately 40 minutes combined. In addition, there are two "reconstructions" of lost films of Medvedkin by Nikolai Izvolov, who is an interviewee on The Last Bolshevik. Best of all, however, is a 17-minute segment with Medvedkin in which he talks about his experience with the ciné-train. This is a great companion piece to the discussion of the ciné-train in The Last Bolshevik, and anyone who watches Marker's film should watch this extra.
The image quality for The Last Bolshevik is generally quite poor, but I'm not sure how much to attribute to the DVD and how much to attribute to how different parts of the film were shot. Dark colors (blacks especially) fare especially poorly. As in Happiness, the sound is better. For extras, there is only an interview segment with Izvolov where he discusses Vertov and Medvedkin. It's interesting enough, but I was a little disappointed that it was the only feature for that film.
All in all, works like The Last Bolshevik and Happiness may not appeal to a broad audience, but those who are interested in Soviet-era filmmaking (and the history of the USSR itself) should really do themselves a favor and see these films. Not guilty.
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