Brothers in arms: The changing face of the soviet soldier in Stalinist cinema.
anger, but the blood he sheds will bring
bitterness to his heart.' (Sergei Eisenstein) (1)
In November 1934, an editorial appeared in Pravda that encapsulated the triumphal sloganeering of the new face of Soviet cinema: 'The whole country is watching Chapaev.' (2) Despite the fact that behind the scenes the film industry of the Soviet Union was being squeezed more and more tightly by restrictions on form and content, with both manpower and technical equipment in woefully short supply, and creative freedom subjected to increasingly dangerous and hysterical levels of censorship and praise, audiences were indeed flocking to the cinemas to see the Vasiliev brothers' greatest ever success, and only a year later the head of the Soviet film industry Boris Shumiatskii went as far as to label the film 'the real summit of Soviet film art' (Taylor and Christie, p. 358).
Given the very genuine popularity of the film, attested to not only by staggering ticket sales but also by the ensuing semi-legendary status accorded the figure of Chapaev himself, it is certainly worth inquiring into the reasons behind its apparent fascination: did the protagonist really strike a chord with the people of the Soviet Union, or were the authorities simply keen to profess him a hero in order to set an example for the young men of a nation that had only recently rediscovered a penchant for exemplary figures, following the mixed successes of the collective-oriented first Five Year Plan? It would appear that both factors were playing their distinct roles, but Chapaev's reputation was secured for two simple reasons: first, the film was canonized as a model of Socialist Realist cinema; secondly, in a state that had a very specific cultural plan for constructing the 'New Soviet Man', Chapaev himself, secure in his knowledge of the victory to come, is without doubt an excellent example of what Graham Dawson has termed 'the soldier hero [...] as a hegemonic form of masculinity'. (3)
If we too watch Chapaev-as-archetype, we can follow the progress of the Soviet soldier hero on screen from 1934, through the Great Patriotic War, and out the other side of Stalinism into the period of the 'thaw'. In many ways, Sergei Bondarchuk's 1959 film Sud'ba Cheloveka ('The Fate of a Man') is as typical of the cinema of this new era as Chapaev is of Socialist Realism: first, rather than being a Stalinist classic, the film is based on a story by the much more complex writer Sholokhov; its hero, Andrei Sokolov, is unkempt, alcoholic, and plagued by uncertainties, anxiety, and self-doubt; he is none the less a hero, and, most important of all, a survivor. However, unlike Chapaev, with his implicit and explicit faith in the glorious future he is helping to build, Sokolov yearns for what he sees as the golden years of his past. Furthermore, the story leaves us with nothing but loose ends, a lack of resolution that characterizes the new cultural myths of the 'thaw', and deliberately shuns the moralizing discourse of narrative closure: we are left pondering Sokolov's distinctly uncertain fate.
Is it possible to isolate a simple cause for this absolute volte face on the part of the Soviet soldier hero? Obviously, the acknowledgement of Stalin's 'reign of terror' made explicit in Khrushchev's so-called 'secret speech' plays its role in undermining the faith in leadership that constituted so much of Chapaev's heroic status, but that alone cannot account for the emotionally battered figure of Sokolov. Surely the 'thaw' was more than just an historical era. It was characterized more by a state of mind, a Zeitgeist that was physically and psychically at the end of its tether, and a huge factor involved for the figure of the soldier hero must be the experience of the Great Patriotic War. The horrors of the Nazi advance and occupation, coupled with the crippling sieges (especially of the symbolically named Leningrad and Stalingrad), famine, and devastation of both rural and urban land and industry, were enacted on a scale that is almost impossible for westerners to comprehend. Above all, there were also the estimated millions of dead, the majority of whom would certainly be young males, a factor that could hardly help but have a colossal impact on Soviet masculinity at large: as Untermenschen the Slavic peoples faced an onslaught of Nazi barbarity that left them no choice but to fight for the Motherland. The same applied to Soviet cinema, which was once again mobilized as a front-line propaganda tool, just as it had been in its heyday of the Revolution and Civil War.
This study explores some of the ways in which the experience of war on such a large scale may have affected the dominant myths of Stalinist masculinity on screen, and is underpinned by two theoretical strands. The first concerns representations of masculinity in films of the Stalin era: I mentioned earlier that Stalinist culture had a very specific plan for the construction of the 'New Soviet Man', so I shall need to examine the construction of this new man on screen. Secondly, I look at the masculine ego as a model for the bourgeois state, and suggest ways in which the defence of the state reflects patterns of the defence of the self in a characteristically masculine mode. It is widely acknowledged that Stalin's consolidation of power in the late 1920s heralded a virulent return of a semi-repressed patriarchy, but it is important to note too that patriarchal systems in general coerce men as well as women into all kinds of socially constructed positions. Stalinism, as an explicitly totalitarian form of patriarchy, proved no exception to the rule.
For a start, the wholesale introduction of women into the traditionally male workplace called into question the hitherto accepted notion of male physical superiority, but this is by no means the end of the story. A close examination of representations of Soviet masculinity in literature, cinema, and art of the 1930s yields startling evidence concerning the planned nature of homo sovieticus. A prime example for the purposes of this study is how a psychoanalytic approach to films of the Stalin era can probe beneath the overt heroics of their leading men, and demonstrate not only what Katerina Clark has explained in the field of the Soviet novel (that 'the distance between them and the father of fathers [Stalin] is so great that the acme of self-realization for them is to become his model sons') (4) but also that on screen, sexual activity is repeatedly sublimated and subordinated to the demands of labour and the construction of socialism. In fact, a sure sign of an enemy of the people in the so-called 'conflictless' collective farm comedies of Ivan Pyr'ev, is a blatantly sexualized interest in the heroine!
Even the most supremely hegemonic forms of masculinity (soldiers and Stakhanovites) were represented, on a subliminal level, in what was effectively a state of arrested development and sexual impotence: with one single father to the nation (witness the proliferation of orphan heroes adopted by the great family of the Soviet state), and no mother figure for whom to challenge this father (not to mention the sheer impossibility of challenging such a powerful being on a purely physical level), the New Soviet Man was to remain in perfect passivity to the law of his one true father. Furthermore, it must never be forgotten that in such a ruthlessly monoglot culture, there was very little room for questioning these available representations: dominant ideologies, propaganda, and in particular patriarchy, are all at their most powerful when they are allowed to remain invisible to the subject, or simply pass themselves off as 'common-sense' values. Put simply, the 'New Soviet Man' of the 1930s was in a state of crisis.
The second of my theoretical strands, as I said earlier, concentrates on the model of the male ego as a prototype for the bourgeois state. The first point that needs to be made here is that the ego is not a unified whole, always already there, but is in fact a complex interplay of drives, all bound together into an apparent unity, and indeed misrecognized as such at the Lacanian 'mirror stage', as Antony Easthope points out:
The human ego identifies its unity above all in an image of the body as a unified whole [...]. Since the ego was never there in the first place, it has been organized out of fragments bound together by force to make up a unity. The energy that binds it is always likely to be released against anything that tends to pull it to pieces again. That is why for psychoanalysis aggression is an effect of the ego and the ego's struggle to maintain itself. (5)
Resonances with discourses of nationhood abound here: the nation state very rarely comprises a single homogeneous group of pure-blooded and like-minded individuals, but must be bound together by centripetal forces, which will in turn lash out at any real or perceived threat to its own assumed unified national subjectivity. The connection between dominant notions of masculinity and the concept of nationhood has been made not only by Graham Dawson, who opens his study of the soldier hero by pointing out that heroic military deeds are 'intimately bound up with the foundation and preservation of a national territory' (Dawson, p. 1), but also by Easthope himself, who concludes that 'defence of the realm means defence of the masculine ego' (Easthope, p. 57). In this light, it is interesting to note that threats to national security, threats of penetration and fragmentation, are often figured by forms of masculinity presumed defective: the body politic becomes aggressively heterosexual. (6)
To sum up, then, if the concepts of aggression as a characteristic self-defence mechanism of the ego and man as the sex socially permitted (more or less) to display and use it are accepted, it is possible return to the question of whether the Great Patriotic War (war being the 'most complete social expression' of male aggression (Easthope, p. 68)) did indeed bring to the surface the crisis of masculinity that had been bubbling under throughout the 1930s. To judge by the stark contrasts between the figures of Chapaev and Sokolov, the answer must surely be that it did.
The remainder of this article charts the path of the Soviet soldier hero from Chapaev to Sokolov by way of two more films made during and, to a greater or lesser extent, about the Great Patriotic War, both with important ramifications for gender studies. Following on from Chapaev, I look at Mark Donskoi's Raduga ('The Rainbow', 1944), an acknowledged classic example of a particular genre of Soviet war films featuring women as fighters (and often avenging angels), which marks a return to the Soviet screen of not only an extreme typology of women as the touchstones of social class and behaviour but also an explicit inclusion of bodily sensuality. The ways in which these aspects of the film relate to the cultural climate the Soviet Union at war are explored, alongside the specifically masculine responses they elicit, both on and off screen.
I shall also be taking a close look at Eisenstein's wartime masterpiece Ivan Groznyi Ivan the Terrible', 1944-45) as a unique portrayal of a form of masculinity that is not absolved from such self-analysis, and may even be described as at war with itself. Although set four hundred years in the past, it is widely acknowledged that the film says a great deal about its own times, and the figure of Ivan clearly marks a crisis point along the path to the self-awareness and spiritual collapse that characterized Sokolov more than a decade later. I also mention Eisenstein's Aleksander Nevskii ('Alexander Nevskii', 1938) as a kind of precursor to Ivan, although still very much more in the mould of a Chapaev than a Sokolov. Without wishing to get bogged down too much in the debate surrounding Eisenstein's real or perceived selling out', I examine the changes in the type of hero portrayed by the director, in particular his extreme homing-in on one individual's psychic topography, paving the way for 'thaw' heroes such as Sokolov.
As the rave reviews and enthusiastic critical plaudits poured in for the Vasil'ev brothers' 1934 classic Chapaev, the new 'single method' of Socialist Realism in art clearly felt that it had got off to a flying start. The marriage of action and ideology proved to be a match made if not in heaven, then at least in the Socialist Utopia foreseen by the hero, a point that did not go unnoticed by the Pravda editorial quoted at the head of this study, which continues: 'The Party has been given a new and powerful means of educating the class consciousness of the young [...]. Chapaev will be shown in every corner of our immense country' (Taylor and Christie, p. 335).
The key to Chapaev's success clearly lies in the film's simplicity and directness: a good story with a message, about an ordinary man made extraordinary by force of circumstances and the inexorable march of history. Like his civilian counterpart Maksim in the trilogy by Kozintsev and Trauberg, Chapaev's status as a positive hero is guaranteed not only by his lowly origins but also by his rising to the challenges thrown up along the road to political consciousness. In line with the basic principles of Socialist Realism's 'master plot,' Chapaev re-enacts the resolution of the consciousness/spontaneity dialectic through the figure of its hero, a peasant commander of the Civil War, who is guided towards tempering his wilful side the better to serve the needs of the nascent Soviet Union.
Chapaev's mentor is the Commissar Furmanov, on whose equally classic autobiography the film is based. It is he who provides the series of 'lessons' on such subjects as personal behaviour, leadership, strategy, and (needless to say) politics, which add elements of consciousness to Chapaev's natural or spontaneous qualities (not to mention his seemingly 'innate' Communism) to produce a fully rounded version of the New Soviet Man, ready to make the ultimate Christ-like sacrifice in the name of the shining future that he predicts on the eve of what is to be his final battle. The relationship between the commander and the Commissar lies at the heart of Chapaev, the initial mistrust turning gradually into friendship, until, by the end of the film, as Furmanov is called away, the parting handshake between the pair becomes a manly embrace, and the male bond is legitimized. This legitimization also performs the function of bestowing the Party's blessing on the men of the camp as a microcosm of the Great Soviet Family: the spiritual (and, of course, physically absent) father-figure of Lenin, the avuncular Furmanov, and finally Chapaev himself, who, as the eldest and most boisterous of the brothers, is very much the first among equals.
Chapaev, then, could even be said to contain certain elements of the classic 'buddy' movie: two men with 'their own way of doing things' are paired in a fight against a common enemy. However, unlike its modern-day Hollywood counterparts, in Chapaev it is the voice of reason that triumphs, in perfect accordance with the Leninist resolution of the consciousness/spontaneity dialectic, in which the conscious side 'tames' the elemental to its own ends. I have already indicated how the taming of the elements was a central theme of Socialist Realism: whether to conform to basic formal principles of the genre, or to portray a masculinity able to overcome certain primal urges in the name of the building of Socialism. Chapaev was to be no exception on either level.
First of all, the wild, quasi-elemental ambiguities of visual art are downgraded in the film to allow centre stage to a more straightforward, plot-driven narrative. One example of this is the acclaimed 'subtle' portrayal of the enemy, in the form of the White Colonel Borozdin, who, despite his shaved head, monocle, and love of bourgeois music, is none the less a far cry indeed from the extreme grotesqueries of 1920s cinema, not least because his atrocities are generally performed off-camera. On a deeper level, however, we can even see ways in which the apparently 'folksy' elements of Chapaev themselves defer to a more 'reasoned' approach to revolutionary cinema.
There is certainly a strong case for ranking the figure of Chapaev alongside such legendary Russian folk heroes as Stepan Razin, Pugachev, and others, and indeed this particular peasant leader does fit squarely into the long tradition of buntari: a golden boy with a dream, in close contact with both the land and the people who work it, is gifted with a feisty spirit, and the ability to inspire the narod to the point of self-sacrifice in the name of revolution against aristocratic oppressors. In fact, both the film and its star, Boris Babochkin, became an intrinsic part of the Soviet collective unconscious, with references to Chapaev long outlasting the shelf-life of either. More important, in terms of Soviet men at war, Richard Taylor points out:
The character of Chapayev penetrated into popular culture and everyday life in a way that few other screen characters have done, even if only as a butt for schoolchildren's jokes. Babochkin was even recalled from theatre work in 1941 to recreate his Chapayev role in a little-known wartime morale-booster called Chapaev Is with Us ['Chapaev s nami']. (Taylor and Spring, p. 77)
In fact, folk elements abound in the film, but in an interesting combination with what are clearly motifs from contemporary Hollywood Westerns: with scenes of the brigade sitting on the steps of what might as well be a Soviet ranch-house, the images of rolling plains, guns and horses, and the use of collective song, Chapaev is without question a film about a modern-day bogatyr', but also one implicitly dedicated to the cowboy ideal of forging a new life in the land of the free.
The action elements of the film, then, represent a fairly sophisticated marriage of Russian epic history with what are widely acknowledged as legitimizing 'frontier' narratives, apologia for bloody and brutal wars waged in the name of a cause higher than the rights or wrongs of human suffering. More important for me here, however, this cowboy ideal also entails a 'conquering of nature' in the names of both a great future and a symbolic father figure. In the framework of Socialist Realism, and the publicistic discourse so rife at the time, this ideal must surely be connected to those of the Arctic fliers ('the fledgling children of Stalin' (Clark, p. 127)) and the champion Stakhanovites of both urban and rural industry who feature so prominently in the films of Aleksandrov and Pyr'ev. As I have stated, a conquering of nature, in Stalinist cinema at least, entails more than a simple re-enactment of the materialist philosophy of history: it also involves an extreme degree of self-denial, especially in terms of male sexuality.
It is important to note, therefore, that whilst Chapaev's self-assurance and his apparent dealings only in certainties (his catch-phrase 'I am Chapaev!' represents nothing if not an assumption of an integrated, unified subjectivity) fit him squarely into the canon of Socialist Realist positive heroes, obvious gaps open up right across this surface cast-iron personality. Although, for example, Chapaev clearly feels an instinctive certainty that Communism is a generally good cause, his profession of faith is embedded in a scene that makes clear his complete lack of knowledge about politics. On the surface, the humour may help to make the political message more palatable, but cracks are already appearing in the subjective armour of the Soviet soldier hero.
Chapaev's 'I am Chapaev!' mantra, repeated especially at points in the film where the commander's personality, or authority, is called into question, represents what can be seen as a pathological compulsion to re-enact the Lacanian 'mirror stage', and it should come as no surprise by now that this bolstering-up of the male ego, and its concomitant self-mythologizing, is complemented by a natural flair for battle strategies.
This enforced self-assurance on the part of male positive heroes is also a major feature of Mark Donskoi's The Rainbow. Although the Red male partisans make only a belated and somewhat marginal appearance in the film, when they do finally arrive on the scene, their certain knowledge of what they must do puts a sudden end to all kinds of uncertainties arising in the main body of the picture. The decisive actions taken go to the extreme of their leader's summary execution of his own wife Pusia for her collaboration, a public disloyalty mirrored by her sexual infidelity with the Nazi Commandant Kurt.
The Rainbow is just one of a number of Soviet war films concerned with female partisan heroines, a genre that includes, amongst others, Fridrikh Ermler's Ona zashchishchaet rodinu ('She Defends the Motherland', 1943), Lev Arnshtam's Zoia (1944), and Vera Stroeva's Marite (1947). All of them follow the wartime trend in Soviet cinema towards an emphasis on realism accompanied by graphic portrayals of horrific violence on the part of the invaders, and the (usually female) victims crying out for vengeance. The overt ideological charge of these films appears to be fairly straightforward, and Peter Kenez points out: 'By showing the courage and suffering of women, these works aroused hatred for the cruel enemy and at the same time taught that men could do no less than these women.' (7)
This reading holds true, up to a point: there is quite clearly nothing new in Soviet cinema using female characters to gain the sympathy of the audience. On a deeper level, however, Kenez's analysis can be seen as a gross over-simplification of the roles of the partisan heroines. For beneath the graphic realism are layers of symbolism, and, more specifically, the portrayal of instantly recognizable types. This is most particularly obvious in The Rainbow's representation of women: the film's realism is in fact countered (some would even say marred) by its typology of women who, in spite of their carefully drawn characters, would not have been out of place in Eisenstein's October as touchstones of the best and worst in human nature.
The Rainbow tells the story of a woman partisan, Olena Kostiukh, who returns to her occupied home village to give birth. She is captured by the Nazis, and unsuccessfully tortured, in gruesome detail, for the names of her resistance comrades, until first her new-born baby, and finally Olena herself, are executed. The sacrifice of the baby in the name of the Motherland is a common device in films of the Great Patriotic War, and Olena mirrors Lev Arnshtam's Zoia, in that, as Lynne Attwood points out: 'The character was not offered merely as a product of her country. Rather, she was her country.' (8) Not wishing to get too involved in a discussion of this image of the Motherland sacrificing her babies for the cause of Socialism, I shall simply suggest that Olena is a descendant of a line of Soviet female heroines representing the rodina-mat', who are rallied in times of crisis to elicit a strong emotional response. As such, she figures the Freudian 'good mother', an object of love, but again not of sensuality.
At this point, it is interesting to note that in the darkest hours of the War, Stalin had made an uneasy alliance with that other great propagandizer of patriarchy, the Orthodox Church. The theme of the earthly and heavenly Tsars will come up in my discussion of Ivan the Terrible, but for the moment I look more at the return of the age-old Madonna/whore split in iconography of women, a tradition largely submerged in the 1930s beneath idealized Socialist competition between good and better. If Olena represents the Madonna, then her counterpart is clearly figured by the character of Pusia: despite being the wife of the partisan leader, she none the less sets herself up as the mistress of the Nazi Commandant Kurt, readily accepting luxurious gifts of chocolates and stockings very early on in the picture. Furthermore, she represents the return of a repressed predatory, appetitive female: the chocolate is accompanied by a passionate kiss, and the stockings provide ample opportunity for her to flash her legs at the camera, displaying, in the manner of a Hollywood noir femme fatale, the attractiveness of evil. Put simply, the lady is a tramp.
I have already mentioned the power of the female figure to bring out an emotional reaction in the cinema-going public, and now the question arises: if we are to feel sympathy for Olena (not least on seeing her new-born baby put to death) then what are we to feel for Pusia? Quite apart from being unmistakably wicked, Pusia is the embodiment of sensual pleasures: her self-indulgence in the luxuries of chocolate, silk, and kisses provide the spectator with a true scopophilic feast. In spite of the obvious equation of sensuality and evil, her appearances on screen lull the viewer into voyeuristic and fetishistic pleasures that arguably make her sudden execution even more shocking than those of Olena or her baby.
This execution carries with it a number of overt and tacit messages for the spectator. First of all, as in the case of Olena's baby, blood ties are downgraded in favour of the great family of the State: the ghost of Pavlik Morozov is still haunting the Soviet screen with, quite literally, a vengeance. On a symbolic level, Pusia must be shot to avenge the death of Olena and her child, and in fact the action of the film tries to make it clear that her death comes as a direct result only of her collaboration, and not her philandering. This is achieved, with some degree of success, by the portrayal of a typical masculine clarity of thought and decision on the part of her husband, who makes no mention of her infidelity: once again, the male ego mirrors the State by lashing out against an external threat to its unity.
This threat, of course, is figured by Pusia, who, quite apart from her being an unfaithful wife, is clearly associated with death by her collaboration with the Germans. Furthermore, in case the message was not already crystal clear to the viewers, she is mirrored throughout the bulk of the picture by the weak, cowardly, and decidedly non-virile figure of the old collaborator Gaplik, who is also executed by the returning partisans. The motives behind Pusia's death cannot possibly be as clear-cut as the film would have us believe: identified with both Gaplik and the Nazis, she represents a threat to her husband's sense of masculinity, and, ultimately, to his life: a twin onslaught the husband can master only by killing its signifiers.
There is clearly more to Pusia's death than meets the eye, but the story does not end here: I have already noted the implicit rejection of sensuality in comedies of the 1930s, and it is possible to isolate perhaps the most important subtextual reason behind the return to the screen of an explicit female sexuality. If the sublimation of the sexual drive into labour had been a feature of musical comedies, the need to deny sensual appeal and bodily sexuality had become even more pressing within the context of waging a bloody and brutal war. The fact that this call was now made visibly explicit, and the extreme measures undertaken to follow it, clearly demonstrate the rising to the surface of the crisis of masculinity under Stalin.
Whatever the implications of Pusia's execution, it is necessary to note only that the film itself makes absolutely no reference to her husband's internal dilemmas: like Chapaev, the partisan leader is barely aware that he is following either external or internal laws, and yet, of course, he is. As such, both positive heroes play the classic masculine card of failing to analyse their own discourse. This characteristic lack of self-awareness on the part of men allows patriarchy to flourish (it is also possibly responsible for the failure to establish a 'women's cinema' in the Soviet Union of the 1920s): as long as men are able to feel privileged, they will never question the workings of the patriarchal order that positions and, to a degree, oppresses them. This brings me to Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, an excellent and unique example of an explicit treatment of the inner traumas of a masculinity that by the end of the war was reaching critical mass. The film abounds with uncertainties, self-doubt, and interior monologues, and the fact that Eisenstein elected to project these crises onto the figure of a patriarch is just one feature that makes the history of the film every bit as twisted and compelling as the final product itself. (9)
Originally commissioned as one of a series of historical biopics, Ivan the Terrible may be seen as a natural successor to films of the 1920s, such as Esfir Shub's Padenie dinastii Romanovykh ('Fall of the Romanov Dynasty', 1927), or Eisenstein's own Oktiabr' and Bronenosets 'Potemkin' ('October', 1928, and 'Battleship "Potemkin"', 1926), which sought to justify the Revolution, and thus provide legitimizing narratives for the Bolshevik government. This trend continued into the 1930s, as I have described with Chapaev, but there was also a shift backwards to events and characters dating from long before the Revolution, and with little apparent significance to it: Peter I, Stepan Razin, and Aleksandr Nevskii to name but three.
Whether or not this upsurge of heroes of patriotic nationalism unconsciously acknowledged both the Nazi threat and the failure to kindle world-wide revolution, many great exemplary patriarchal figures from the pages of history appear, all acting as popular leaders, standing out alone from the masses, defending Russia so courageously in the past, and having their logical present-day heir in Stalin. The re-establishment of patriarchal family values in the 1930s entailed an anthropological shift from 'horizontal' to 'vertical' kinship axis, from the 'massist' ideals of the first Five Year Plan to an emphasis on individual leaders, and cultural myth necessarily followed suit. Furthermore, the patrilineal nature of the vertical kinship axis is evident in the cinema too: there was never a film made about Catherine the Great.
The plan for Ivan the Terrible, then, was to vindicate by historical parallel Stalin's autocracy, reign of terror, and 'iron ring' as a progressive force against disunity and elitist exploitation: Stalin evidently identified with the sixteenth-century autocrat; perhaps they were both misunderstood. The epic that finally emerged from the cutting room, however, turned around and completely subverted this ideological basis: shamelessly stylized, thematically abstract, and littered with ambiguities, the two parts of Ivan the Terrible represent what is now widely acknowledged as a brilliant work of art in a time of simple presentation of images, and a celebration of form in an industry obsessed only with content.
Before I turn to the film itself, however, it is worth taking a quick look at Eisenstein's previous feature, Alexander Nevskii (1938) both as a precursor to Ivan and as the film that may or may not have saved its director's career, if not his life. The historical parallels of Nevskii and Stalin are plain for all to see: a great and charismatic individual leader from the masses, with the ability to inspire his people and, rather topically, defend his beloved homeland from invading Germanic knights, Nevskii is clearly modelled in part on Stalin's rather idealized self-image. The film also has the linear plot line and exemplary self-confident positive hero demanded by the constraints of Socialist Realism, and so at first glance seems out of keeping with Eisenstein's previous works, all of which focused on the collective as the prime force behind historical progress.
In this context, however, it is vital to note that Nevskii employs a number of subtle devices to counteract this apparent submission to State-sponsored restrictions on film art. In particular, the heavily stylized acting demanded of Nikolai Cherkasov in the lead role results in a far from naturalistic portrayal of the hero, and this signification of the figure, rather than the personality, does diminish the specifically heroic role of Nevskii. Furthermore, by far the most impressive scenes of the feature remain the great battles, where it is the masses, faceless and undifferentiated beneath their helmets, who are seen as very much the driving force behind history. In combination with its privileging of a majestic, almost operatic form, we can see how Nevskii rebuffs Socialist Realism from the inside, and as such mirrors Eisenstein's notorious self-criticism over the failure of his projected Bezhin Meadow feature, in which he claims:
[My] mistake is rooted in one deep-seated intellectual and individualist illusion, an illusion which, beginning with small things, can subsequently lead to big mistakes and tragic outcomes. It is an illusion which Lenin constantly decried, an illusion which Stalin tirelessly exposes--the illusion that one may accomplish truly revolutionary work 'on one's own', outside the fold of the collective. (10)
More important, Nevskii does in fact mark a break with Eisenstein's earlier work in several interesting ways: for example, the use of non-actors for their looks ('typage') was replaced by an acknowledged star of the red screen, Nikolai Cherkasov; furthermore, although the heroic character of Nevskii himself remains more of a generalized type, we are introduced to two of his acolytes, Gavrilo Oleksich and Vasilii Buslai, and the film's exploration of their rivalry marks a shift in the director's focus on psychology, from that of the spectator to that of his own creations. As Taylor points out: 'For the first time in an Eisenstein film we see characters who display signs of individual human emotion and motivation.' (11) In opposition to the previously impenetrable ego of earlier positive heroes, Eisenstein is already beginning to probe beneath the surface of the male psyche, and, with characteristic directness, he homes in on men's emotional dealings with love and war. The figures of Gavrilo and Vasilii provide an opening into masculinity that the great director was to tear wide open in his final films about Tsar Ivan.
The phenomenal success of Nevskii resulted not only in critical acclaim and the Stalin Prize but also, and most important for Eisenstein, in his being granted what amounted to creative carte blanche for the production of what the director quite possibly knew would be his last and greatest work: sole command of his subject with no other scenarist, and certainly no trace of the shadowy 'second unit cameraman'/ Party agent who had dogged his progress throughout the production of Nevskii. This solitary work produced what may be seen as an intensely introspective film, which abounds with references to Eisenstein's own personal life as well as his times.
First and foremost, Ivan the Terrible really is a film about an individual and his immediate circle: from very early on, Eisenstein even makes a point of keeping off-screen the Moscow fire and riots that interrupt the wedding banquet, scenes that a younger Eisenstein would have relished committing to celluloid; Cherkasov's stylized acting, as in Nevskii, again downgrades the heroic role of the Tsar, but on this occasion the director is more than willing to compensate with lingering close-ups, and even a lengthy 'internal monologue'. The masses may still be present in the siege of Kazan' and the march to call Ivan back to the capital, but, especially in the latter instance, they now serve quite literally only to emphasize the outline of the Tsar's personal features, and underscore the fact that, as Kenez remarks: 'Unlike other products at the time, this one is fiercely individualistic [...]. Unlike any other director of a Soviet historical film, Eisenstein created a complex and interesting character' (Kenez, p. 203).
Furthermore, the switch from mass-centred to individualistic narrative is reflected in the film's composition: Eisenstein has almost completely abandoned conflictual montage (the juxtaposition of two shots to produce a third image in the mind of the spectator) in favour of 'internal' montage, involving complex mise-en-scene to produce an instantaneous mental suggestion. Internal montage was not only better suited to the needs of a faster, synchronized sound picture but it also allowed the focus to remain on the inner workings of the character's mind, as he struggles to come to terms with his destiny as a man. Eisenstein's avowed intent was to make a film about a 'difficult personality', and for the first time in Stalinist cinema, a genuinely self-reflexive male hero emerged.
This hero was clearly intended to be identified with Stalin, and yet there are all sorts of reasons to identify the Tsar with Eisenstein himself too. In fact, the director is stamped all over the film: psychological trauma, religious angst, questions of power and impotence, and of course the good and bad mother figures of Ivan's wife Anastasiia, and his wicked aunt Yefrosin'ia Staritskaia, who dominates much of the film's action and psychological drama. Ivan's oft-repeated question, 'To whom can I turn?', is a world away from the self-affirming cry of 'I am Chapaev!', and indeed, it seems that the Tsar can only turn inwards upon himself. In terms of masculinity, and masculinity in crisis, this is where the figure of Ivan makes a radical departure from earlier positive heroes of Socialist Realism: rather than ignoring the tension in his psyche, both he, and the film itself, tackle it head-on.
Of all the psychoanalytical issues raised by the film, however, the most important within my theoretical framework must be represented by the figure of Vladimir Staritskii. Ivan's cousin clearly figures a suppressed side of the Tsar's own character, and his portrayal as immature, camp, and impotent has been interpreted as more than a hint at Eisenstein's own potential homosexuality, a side of himself that according to Marie Seton he considered as leading 'to a dead end, to creative death' (Seton, p. 437). Could this be a reason behind Ivan's persecution mania? If the Tsar does have clear echoes of Freud's 'Rat Man', (12) then we should also note that the Rat Man's own persecution mania stemmed in large part from the threat of his own homosexual side, in much the same way as Vladimir is the most significant threat to Ivan's power and the stability of his State. On top of this, and of particular relevance to a study of the male soldier hero, is the almost suffocating military background to the Rat Man's upbringing, and, perhaps most important, the idea that he felt that he had failed to live up to the ideal represented by his father, who had enjoyed a distinguished military career.
In fact, Ivan fits very neatly into the earlier discussion of dominant notions of masculinity and statehood: unlike Chapaev, his frantic attempts to secure a unified State/ego are constantly under threat of penetration. Again unlike Chapaev or the partisan hero in The Rainbow, his relation to inner and outer law is explicitly acknowledged in his relations with God, again reflecting Freud's ratty patient: 'Some masculine inward gazes will see a hero created by the transgression of the law. Others like the Rat Man's are directed at laws which cannot be broken with impunity.' (13) Finally, he is also bereft of a good object by the murder of his wife (a murder that he himself unwittingly (unconsciously?) perpetrates), paving the way for bouts of raging depression and unconscious sexual confusion figured by the threat of his cousin, the effete Vladimir. The logical conclusion of all this, and in fact the climax of Part II of the film, is that Vladimir must be killed off as the enemy within, a killing that is displaced onto the 'bad mother' Yefrosin'ia. Despite Vladimir being a fairly minor character in comparison to his mother, his murder's privileging by the film in terms of suspense, mise-en-scene, and of course its climactic position, gives a clear indication of the importance the director attaches to the event that crushes the focal point of the Boyar's plot, a plot that threatens to render Ivan impotent.
There can be little doubt that Eisenstein pulled out all the stops to make Ivan the Terrible a subtle yet blindingly effective rejection of the strictures of Socialist Realism on form and content: quite apart from presenting an introspective 'positive' hero, the linear plot is continually side-tracked and complicated by the war with Sigismund, the betrayal of Kurbskii, and in particular the conflict with the heavenly tsar, and all set in fresco-like scenes and strained acting, an atmosphere of dark expressionism that is a far cry indeed from the single method's requisite 'shining future'. Especially by the second part, psychology had almost completely displaced action. The tension is unbearable, and what narrative there is amongst all the spectacle is hinged explicitly on confusion of identity, pointing up even further Ivan's own inner crisis, which is resolved, if at all, only by murder.
With the two parts put together, the atmosphere of confusion, paranoia, and real and perceived threats combine to make up the most artistically satisfying Soviet film of the War. It is not only a film that succeeds, against heavy odds, in producing a rounded and lasting impression of masculinity under Stalinism and the shadow of war but also an exquisite parable of a man at war, masculinity at war, and ultimately masculinity at war with itself. In these terms, surely Eisenstein's real masterstroke was the depiction of a complex masculinity through the figure of the great patriarch himself. If nothing else, this may be read as a clear sign that critical mass had been reached and breached, and that the crisis of Soviet masculinity had finally been forced out into the open.
So how exactly did masculinity on screen come to terms with this? The answer, as may be expected, is that it did not. The second part of Ivan the Terrible was committed to the shelf, and, with characteristic irony, work on the third part, featuring Ivan's eventual triumphant access to the sea, was halted. The conditions of the war, it seemed, had allowed for a certain, almost paradoxical liberation for the directors and screenwriters of the Soviet Union:
Films once again expressed genuine feeling and real pathos: the hatred for the enemy, the call for sacrifice and heroism, and the sorrow for the abused Soviet people were real and heartfelt. The directors believed in what they were saying. The period of the war was a small oasis of freedom in the film history of the Stalinist years. (Kenez, p. 204)
I shall be exploring the reasons behind the establishment of this 'small oasis of freedom' in my concluding remarks. Meanwhile, however, it should come as no surprise that the years following the Great Patriotic War were marked by what became known as a 'film-hunger': as the Soviet State began once again to clamp down ruthlessly on anyone intent on exploiting this new-found sense of liberation, numerous monologizing campaigns were launched against 'deviant' cultural trends, including of course any representations of self-reflexive masculinities. As such, Part II, of Ivan the Terrible was not released until 1958, well into the Khrushchev 'thaw' period, by which time other films were also able to explore more openly the theme of quite what it means to be a man.
One such film dealing specifically with the Soviet soldier hero, as I have mentioned, was Sergei Bondarchuk's Sud'ba Cheloveka. Although withdrawn from distribution soon after its release, official disapproval of the film was most probably directed primarily at its overtly negative treatment of the Stalin era and the Great Patriotic War, rather than its engagement with the subject of masculinity per se. Based on a novella by Sholokhov, the film recounts the exploits of Andrei Sokolov, whose apparently idyllic life in the 1930s was torn apart by his experiences of the War: his imprisonment in a Nazi prisoner of war camp and his subsequent escape, the loss of his family, and his adoption of an orphan boy.
Sylvie Dallet has described Bondarchuk as 'brave enough to create an unhappy hero', (14) which would suggest that Sokolov is atypical as a thaw hero. Meanwhile, Graham Roberts has put forward the idea that 'the kind of masculinity which Sokolov represents can be read as a sign of the Soviet Union's new-found self-confidence under Khrushchev'. (15) In the context of this study, I would suggest that Sokolov is a fairly typical thaw hero, but not necessarily in the way Roberts suggests. Whilst it is true to say that he possesses all the attributes of a 'real' Soviet man (Roberts mentions his courage, sense of comradeship, patriotism and 'ability to drink like a fish' (p. 75)), these are all qualities that he has learned under Stalinism, and not really new at all. Most notable is his drinking prowess, but again he has always been a hard drinker, first of all to celebrate his life, then, paradoxically, to save it, and ultimately just to forget, and get through it.
Certainly, by the end of the War, Sokolov is plagued by anxiety and self-doubt. At best, he is resigned to his fate, or else revels in happy memories of an idyllic past that looks suspiciously reminiscent of a scene from a Pyr'ev comedy. Such nostalgia can only serve to diminish the optimism provided by the constancy of the Soviet male's most praiseworthy attributes, but, in the final analysis, whether the future turns out to be bright or not, Sokolov as a survivor knows he has to face more uncertain times ahead, and will never be able to answer his initial question of why life should be the way it is.
Such a lack of resolution, then, means that the film does in fact raise many more questions than it cares to answer, and looks forward to, if anything, the so-called 'slice of life' (bytovoi) genre that was to come to prominence particularly under Brezhnev. A good example of this is the theme of orphanhood, an obvious reference to the dichotomy of the Stalin era between the promotion of the family unit as the cell of society and the downgrading of blood ties in favour of the great family of the Soviet State. Sokolov was himself an orphan brought up by the Soviet family, under the paternal eye of his symbolic father Stalin. Now, however, it is Sokolov himself who must take on the uncertain parenting of the next generation: the film's optimism, then, lies in the idea that the model sons of the country are at last able to assume the self-image of a father.
Although the death of Stalin signalled the end of a very specific and virulent form of patriarchy, it was the experiential crucible of war that furnished the first opportunity to question, amongst other things, the type of hegemonic masculinity figured by the soldier hero. How did this relative freedom come about during one of the most bloody and brutal military campaigns in history? To answer this question, we must once again look at the way in which the patriarchal state uses its discursive methods of self-defence. I have already mentioned the drafting-in of Orthodox Christianity during the Great Patriotic War, but it also appears that Stalinist Moscow-centric monoglossia was temporarily suspended in favour of a re-emergence of pan-Slavism. In an effort to stall German attempts to profit from Slavonic internecine feuding, as Kenez points out, the 'friendship of peoples' was emphasized even in their filmic deaths: with 'the name of Stalin and the motherland on their lips, not that of the Communist Party' (Kenez, p. 201). If Moscow's role as centre of world-wide revolution was indeed downgraded during the War, then this relaxation of centripetal forces, the very fact of their being pushed outwards toward the periphery, would account for the emergence of a space within which to explore new meanings, and confront real issues. As I have shown in this study of the cinema, the unleashing of these binding forces against the invaders is mirrored in representations of a more fragmented male subjectivity. Self-assurance, a cover for a multitude of internal anxieties, has given way to self-awareness, and a more honest treatment of the internal workings not only of the male psyche but of the country as a whole.
(1) Quoted by Leonid Kozlov, 'The Artist and the Shadow of Ivan', in Stalinism and Soviet Cinema, ed. by Richard Taylor and Derek Spring (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 109-30 (p. 130).
(2) The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896-1939, ed. by Richard Taylor and Ian Christie (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 334-35.
(3) Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 24.
(4) The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 128.
(5) What A Man's Gotta Do: The Masculine Myth in Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 41.
(6) See, for example, the Daily Telegraph story 'Homosexual Orgies "Spawn Spy Ring"', quoted in Easthope, p. 103.
(7) Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 198.
(8) Red Women on the Silver Screen: Soviet Women and Cinema from the Beginning to the End of the Communist Era (London: Pandora Press, 1993), p. 68.
(9) For a full history of the making of Ivan the Terrible, see Kozlov, 'The Artist'.
(10) Marie Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein: A Biography, revised edn (London: Dobson, 1978), pp. 372-73 (my italics).
(11) Richard Taylor, Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, 2nd edn (London: Tauris, 1998), p. 87.
(12) Sigmund Freud, 'Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis', in Case Histories II, ed. by Angela Richards, Penguin Freud Library, 9 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), pp. 31-128
(13) Peter Middleton, The Inward Gaze: Masculinity and Subjectivity in Modern Culture (London: Routledge, 1992), 9, p. 81.
(14) 'Historical Time in Russian, Armenian, Georgian and Kirghiz Cinema', in The Red Screen: Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema, ed. by Anna Lawton (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 305.
(15) 'From Comrade to Comatose: Men and Masculinity in Soviet Cinema', Cinema and Ideology: Strathclyde Modern Language Studies, New Series, 1 (1996), 70-84 (p. 76).
<ADD> JOHN HAYNES UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER </ADD>
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2000|
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