Printer Friendly

The train as word-image intertext in the films "Ballad of a Soldier" and "Thief".

W. J. T. Mitchell has argued that "the word-image threshold," together with the "ideology/nature" boundary that it encompasses, invariably acts as the site of culture's "fundamental conflicts and contradictions" (Mitchell 1986, 44). (1) Such an assertion is based on the assumption that verbal and visual texts can never be subsumed into one another, but rather that both are syncretic in nature, combining aspects of word and image in varying degrees of tension. Thus, as Mitchell writes:

There is the natural, mimetic image which ... "captures" what it represents, and its pictorial rival, the artificial, expressive image which cannot "look like" what it represents because that thing can only be conveyed in words. There is the word, which is a natural image of what it means (as in onomatopoeia), and the word as arbitrary signifier. (44)

We shall not therefore be looking for specific verbal-literary "influences" on the two films to which this article is devoted, Grigorii Chukrai's "Ballad of a Soldier" ('Ballada o soldate') and Pavel Chukrai's "Thief" ('Vor'), for this would be to ignore the syncretism of both narrative and film. We will instead consider ways in which the dialogue of word and image within and between them reflects certain key conflicts in the societies in which they were made. We shall focus on two distinct modes of intertextuality: that of verbal discourse within a visual medium, and that of one film within another. This essay will contribute to the scholarly study of the relationship between verbal narrative and the post-Soviet visual media.

An eschewal of the search for specific literary progenitors for the two films is dictated in any event by the fact that neither of them is adapted from a recognized literary source, nor even pitched as "high cultural" artifacts with literary affinities. (It is true, however, that the scenario for one of them was separately published and, typically of this genre in Soviet culture, is written in semi-literary, past tense mode). (2) The verbal dimensions of the films are fourfold: 1) they both exhibit structures reflecting paradigms drawn from the literary culture which so dominates Russian society, in particular the traditions of the picaresque and of radical sentimentalism; 2) they both employ instances of narrative voiceover curiously at odds with the imagic identification structures at work in them; 3) individually and as a unity they respond well to certain models of analysis formulated in a literary context, but modified for the cinematic medium; 4) the earlier of the films (to which, as we shall see, the later is a considered response) was produced under the still potent influence of socialist realism. This doctrine, which came to dominate all official Soviet art until the 1980s, accorded film a central role; Lenin famously characterized cinema as "the most important of all the arts" and Stalin was also convinced of its crucial role in propagating Soviet ideology. Socialist realism was nonetheless conceived within a strictly literary framework and based itself on literary models.

The purpose of our analysis is to explore via the word-image dimension social, ideological and psychoanalytic conflicts within the films. We will investigate the conflict between "Ballad of a Soldier" and "Thief" in terms of post-Soviet Russia's attempts to come to terms with the Soviet past, which it must simultaneously reject and embrace. This latter paradox is epitomized in the fact that the director of "Ballad" is the father of the director of "Thief"--a relationship which, as we shall find, has more than simply symbolic significance and which is itself grounded in the father-son paradigm so central to the nineteenth-century Russian literary canon. (3) These modes of conflict find cinematic expression in the image of the train journey, which again possesses a venerable literary heritage traceable to Dostoevskii, Tolstoy, to picaresque strands in the Russian literary tradition and ultimately, to Chaadaev's philosophical meditations on Russia's historical destiny. As well as providing narrative continuity f or the films, the image of the train forms the guiding theme in our analysis. We will analyze it chronotopically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to meld artistic time and space, and to provide a nexus for other thematic and ideological issues treated by the directors: familial dispossession, the special sense of collectivity embodied in the Russian concept of "communal spirit" (sobornost'), and shifts in the relationship of private and public space.

In the most literal sense, a generation separates "Ballad of a Soldier" (1959) and "Thief" (1997), (4) each of which was made at key transitional moments in Russian history. When Grigorii Chukrai's "Ballad"--winner of a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival in l960--was released, World War II was still being incorporated into Soviet mythology, and the liberalizing thaw that followed the denunciation of Stalin at the 1956 congress of the Soviet Communist Party was only just getting under way. Pavel Chukrai's "Thief" appeared amidst post-communist Russia's struggle to break free from the Soviet legacy. Yet the parallels linking the films across this historical chasm form a web so dense that "Thief" demands to be read as a point-by-point subversion of "Ballad." In Harold Bloom's terms, the son, the junior film director, performs a "misreading" of the father's work by producing his own "strong reading" of that cinematic text to establish his own original relation to truth (Bloom 1975, 3-4). The network o f deconstructive links is held together by the chronotopic image of the train, which also mediates the experiences of war, displacement, and homelessness, providing essential narrative and thematic cohesion in the films and enabling them to articulate their respective positions in the post-Stailnist, post-communist ideological spectrum. The train can also be shown to be crucial to the interplay of the films' visual identification systems and the sentimentalism that characterizes them and that reorients, even "derails," their ideological thrust.

We will, in the concluding section of our analysis, draw the various aspects of our reading together by reference to the films' common use of the narrative voiceover, placing the phenomenon in the context of Slavoj Zizek's post-Lacanian film theory. Zizek's theory can also account for the father-son problematic underpinning the making of the second film, and of the unifying train chronotope. Ultimately our argument will be that each film, through the interplay of voice (word) and image in which it engages, ends up undermining the ideological project it is called upon to implement. First, though, we should establish the superficial parallels and contrasts in the plots of the two film narratives, which render the making of the second film a conscious exercise in filmic intertextuality.


"Ballad" opens with a single mother gazing down a road along which her fatherless son left. He will never return from World War II, which did so much to bolster the Soviet imperial myth. "Thief" begins with a pregnant woman walking along a path in a field where she is to give new life to a boy, also fatherless, who will eventually fight for the still imperial post-Soviet Russia. One looks in the direction of a heroic life now past, the other towards a degraded future still unfolding when the film ends. The young Chukrai "de-aestheticizes" his father's approach to war by extracting it from the epic past and projecting it into a "messy" contingent future, thereby responding implicitly to Jean-Luc Godard's objection to his father's film on the grounds that it turns war into "a somewhat positive experience (Brashinsky 1994, 84).

Both opening scenes are accompanied by a voiceover resumed only at the close. In "Ballad," the voice is that of a third-person narrator who introduces the film as the story of the actions preceding the son's martyrdom. In "Thief," an unidentified first-person narrator introduces the boy's life about to be presented as his own. It is only at the end of the film that we see the character to whom the voiceover belongs--the now middle-aged soldier whom the boy eventually becomes. (In the version available in North America, the important final section of "Thief" is missing. Thirty six years have passed since the episode which concludes the abbreviated version of the film and Sasha is now a hardened forty-eight-year-old, high-ranking army officer. At a railway station in a post-Soviet war-zone, by all probability in the Caucasus, the middle-aged Sasha recognizes Tolyan in a dying man. Ultimately, though, he leaves in uncertainty about the now dead man's identity because only one of the tattoos--Stalin's head--is on his body, over his heart: the jaguar's head that was tattooed to Tolyan's back is not visible.) The shift between "Ballad" and "Thief" from collective "we" to subjective "I," and from closed past to open present, is a predictable consequence of changing ideological paradigms, but we will need to revisit the role of the voiceovers.

"Ballad" proceeds from its opening shot by cutting to a battle scene in which the hero, Alyosha, demonstrates his bravery and is rewarded with two days' leave. The rest of the film, essentially one long flashback ending at the point at which it begins, is taken up with Alyosha's journey to his mother's home by train and his chance meeting with Tanya, an innocent young girl, with whom he falls in love. "Thief" cuts immediately from the birth scene to a train on which the mother and young son, Sasha, encounter a soldier, Tolyan, also supposedly on two days leave, but in the immediate postwar period. It, too, is conducted in flashback mode in the sense that it ends with Sasha's identity merging with that of the narrator. Crucially, however, there is here no visual closing of the circle, since the opening voiceover accompanies a shot not of Sasha but of his pregnant mother. The romance in "Ballad" develops via Alyosha's noble acts of self-sacrifice, but never reaches consummation owing to the fact that Tanya leav es the train before he can declare his feelings. The romance between mother and soldier in the cynical atmosphere pervading "Thief" is consummated immediately and in unseemly haste in a quiet corner of a crowded carriage with communal overnight accommodation. It is accompanied by Tolyan's numerous acts of theft, trickery and deception; his first act in the film is to rob an unsuspecting woman traveler, and then to feign dismay to divert attention from himself among his fellow passengers (including Sasha's mother).

In each film the characters have been displaced by war. There are, however, significant differences in the cause and function of the dislocation. Alyosha is traveling to, and fleetingly reaches, his mother's village. "Ballad" in fact utilizes the topos of pilgrimage, for the purpose of the journey is to arrive at a sacred place, the fatherless home of the mother. The mother in her turn unmistakably functions as a synecdochic symbol for Mother Russia; she is a vulnerable figure the roof of whose house needs repairing (Russia--the metaphorical home without which human well-being is inconceivable--needs its protector-sons). In "Thief," by contrast, Tolyan and family are in constant flight from authority and wander from temporary abode to temporary abode. Here, travel is a never-ending quest for "an elsewhere" whose objectification, the locus of the father, is "forever changing" (Gingras 1988, 1293). As in St. Augustine's Confessions, the ceaseless journey fails to lead the characters to a place of rest. Such a p lace can only be found beyond this life; it holds out the promise of a "meaning" and a "center" (the signified) which escapes its own signification.

The deep symbolism of the intricately patterned set of parallels and contrasts between the two films becomes apparent through the invisible narrator's dosing tribute to Alyosha in which he waxes lyrical about the model Soviet citizen that Alyosha, this "ordinary" (and thus, in a rhetorical paradox typical of Soviet ideology, "extra-ordinary") Russian soldier might have made if only he had lived:

He could have become a good father and a remarkable citizen. He could have become a worker, an engineer, a scientist. He could have grown wheat and beautified the earth with orchards. But he had time to become only a soldier. And he will remain a soldier forever in our memory. (Thompson et al., 99)

"Thief" picks up precisely where "Ballad" left off, postulating that the much-vaunted Soviet war hero did return from the battlefront after all, but with his false ideological camouflage removed. He thus appears in the form of the cynical anti-citizen and thereby undercuts the trinity of Soviet military myths celebrated in "Ballad": those of the brave military hero, the loving maternal home (the same as the mythologized "rodina") always available just beyond the horizon to the dedicated pilgrim-son, and the father-protector (Stalin).


Unlike the individualist car journey so prevalent in Hollywood cinema, which has its own very different ideological preoccupations, rail travel is passive and collective, rendering the railway a site of fateful encounters. Trains are represented frequently in Russian cinema as, for example, in Vasily Shuk-shin's "Bench by the Stove ("Pechki-Lavochki") of 1972 which contains a thief of its own, or B. Ryazanov's 1992 picture, "The Promised Land" ("Nebesa obetovannye"). In "Ballad" and "Thief," the train serves as the tragic vehicle of Soviet history. Indeed, in Russian cultural consciousness (though not of the early Soviet period when it was a symbol of momentous progress towards utopia) the train has traditionally been represented as a site of banefulness, danger and impending catastrophe, even apocalypse. In two significant works in Russian literature which feature trains, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Solzhenitsyn's Matryona's Home (Matryonin dvor), the vehicle is associated with the threatening impact of alie n technology on established, patriarchal Russian life; in both works the heroine is crushed to death under the wheels of a train. In Dostoevskii's The Idiot, the network of railways spreading across Europe is linked to the Wormwood star mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Appropriately, therefore, it is a train that carries Alyosha to his mother and back to the war, ensuring his tragic, untimely death (yet also, as with the death of Solzhenitsyn's Matryona, his entry into martyrdom). In "Thief," it is a broken sequence of train journeys that takes the hero ever closer to the "here and now" of Russia's doom-laden military involvement in the postcolonial Caucasus.

In each case, train travel is also a journey through time; the railway transports us, the viewers, and the heroes to the present. The present in "Ballad" is that of the mythological time from which the narrator speaks. This is why Grigorii Chukrai comes close to observing the classical unity of time and place. Opening and closing shots aside, the action occurs around a single location (a train) and in an unbroken temporal sequence covering two days. Thus the events can be better assimilated to the Eternal Present by which, through the intervention of the anonymous voiceover, they are framed and in which, in the narrator's own words, Alyosha's memory "will live for ever." The fragmented journeys in "Thief" by contrast, unfold over forty years, from the Stalinist past to the post-communist present. A pre-lap-sarian temporality outside time is replaced by the "fallen" temporality of history. This is not, however, the organic history of progress and development in which each stage encompasses and builds upon its predecessor, but the history of directionless (and traceless) movement without end that the nineteenth-century philosopher, Chaadaev, saw as peculiar to Russia:

Look around you; do we not all have one foot in the air? We all look as though we are traveling. No one has a definite sphere of existence; no one has proper habits; there are no rules for anything; there is no home base, everything passes, leaving no trace either outside us or within us. In our homes we are like visitors, among our families we are like strangers, in our cities we are like nomads, more nomadic than those whose animals graze on our steppes for they are more attached to their deserts than we are to our cities (Chaadaev 1969, 28).

In "Ballad," too, the journey is periodically interrupted. The virtuous Alyosha and Tanya alight at stations to carry out various errands on behalf of others and even become temporarily stranded, cut off from the train. In an ideologically slanted illustration of the Formalist account of narrative's tendency to retard progress towards its conclusion, these delays stall Alyosha's inexorable progress towards the present, and his tragic end. They therefore encourage the empathizing Soviet implied viewer to adopt a curiously ambiguous attitude towards Alyosha's duty-driven desire to make it home and back to the front in good time, causing him/her subversively to half-wish for the hero to miss his train-ride to death altogether. Such subversive potential is, as we shall see, bolstered through the treatment of Alyosha's relations with Tanya.

The journey in "Thief" is interrupted by the periods that Tolyan and family spend in each provincial stop-off, and by the years that intervene between the traumas marking Sasha's life, each of which occurs around the railway: the first and last imaginary glances at Sasha's dead father waving from a departing military train which flashes in front of the boy's (and our) eyes periodically throughout the film; the initial meeting with Tolyan in a train compartment; a chance re-encounter with Tolyan by a railway line years after his separation from Sasha and his mother, and after serving a long prison sentence for his crimes; the teenaged Sasha's consequent attempt to exact revenge for his blighted childhood by shooting Tolyan as he departs on a train; the final

(mis-)sighting of Tolyan near a railway in the war-ravaged Caucasus. Here the train is associated with the cycle of repression and reenactment which leads the son to murder the figure that he himself is eventually to become, then to repeat the murde r over and over. The adult post-Soviet soldier we finally see at the end of the film has tattooed his arm in imitation of Tolyan, who bore an identical mark; yet, in the final words spoken by Sasha in his adult voiceover persona, he motivates his urge to kill on behalf of the post-Soviet Russian army through his unsated desire to murder his father. The temporality of train travel has two aspects to it. First, it is endlessly repetitious (the same journeys are made over and over according to the regularities of the timetable). Second, it is momentously future-oriented (the sheer scale of the train-as-machine, and the connotations of modernity and progress that it acquired from the nineteenth century onwards mean that it is inevitably associated with the future). This dualism lends it perfectly to the function of symbolically representing both Sasha's repressed desire endlessly to reenact his Stalinist past, and his unstoppable trajectory into the post-Stalinist, post-Soviet future.

The way in which the two films marry railway space with particular narrative temporalities allows us to speak of a train chronotope. Bakhtin initially defines the chronotope in formal terms:

We will give the name chronotope ... to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature. ... In the ... chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time ... thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history (Bakhtin 1981, 84).

But he also makes clear that chronotopes are representative strategies with an ideological-evaluative dimension. (5) In both Chukrai films, the train chronotope is deployed to represent the changing relationship between private and public spheres in the post-war period. "Ballad" was one of several Soviet films of the 1950s that, in varying degrees, eroded the power exerted by the official sphere over the private. (6) Despite its status as a Soviet classic, "Ballad" promotes the demands of individual desire alongside, if not above, the call of duty. It has, indeed, been argued recently that "Ballad" modifies the socialist realist norm prevailing in Soviet war films in that historical circumstances are secondary in importance to the unexceptional, personal circumstances of the main character; even Alyosha's heroic feat at the battle front is motivated by fear (Woll 2000, 96-97, 99). (7) In a train, discreet personal and family space is brought face-to-face with official protocol. Accordingly, Alyosha must strug gle against the excesses of official bureaucracy in order to maintain his liaison with Tanya who, it is important to note, is actually traveling illegally. At one point Alyosha even resorts to bribing an officious and corrupt guard not to report his misdemeanor. In their brush with the minor pawns of authority, Tanya and Alyosha represent the voice of heroic innocence struggling against the rigid crust of officialdom. In order for "Ballad" to stay within the remits of prevailing ideological dictates, it is--as in all officially sanctioned artistic representations of deviations from normative behavior--personal inadequacy and not the Soviet system at large that generates flawed actions, such as that of the corrupt guard who is eventually punished by an officer superior in rank and, therefore, moral authority (Woll 2000, 33). Resistance to the system is ultimately transformed into validation of the system. Similarly, the tension between romance and duty is resolved in the interests of the latter through Alyosha 's return to the front. Public duty expands to incorporate private romance within a single martyr-figure, thus renewing its own authority. Nonetheless, the fact that these tensions and resistances appear at all is in itself evidence of a fissure within the Socialist Realist monolith which had begun earlier in the 1950s with the emergence of objections to the principle of "non-conflictuality" (bezkonfliktnost') in Soviet literature. (8)

In "Thief," Sasha's mother also makes a failed attempt at bribery to gain the release of Tolyan whom the authorities finally apprehend. Tolyan and family are, like Alyosha and Tanya, exposed to public scrutiny each time they enter a train. The private truth that Tolyan submits to the public gaze, is, however, that of the swindler passing himself off as war hero. If Tanya and Alyosha are the true family in potentia, Tolyan and Sasha represent the false family in actuality: doubts are raised about Tolyan's status as a soldier (it remains unclear whether he actually fought in the war); he usurps and abuses the role of father (Sasha is cynically exploited as his unwitting accomplice in a burglary) and besmirches that of husband (he reneges on his responsibilities towards Sasha's mother, and is even unfaithful to her). From the first moment when we realize that Tolyan is a thief we literally "see" him for what he is; the voyeuristic space of the train compartment becomes a model for cinematic vision.

The train version of the journey chronotope is particularly well suited to conveying the true nature of the Stalinist reality of which Tolyan is the embodiment, for Tolyan's deceit-laden wanderings by rail are those of the archetypal picaro-swindler (Wicks 1988, 974-83). The most famous representative of this archetype in the Russian literary tradition is Chichikov of Gogol's Dead Souls, whose respectable appearance and superficially bona fide credentials enable him to travel the Russian provinces, swindling unsuspecting greedy landowners into selling to him their deceased serfs, which he in turn sells to the government for a profit. As opposed to the sense of integration among the characters in "Ballad" in their morally righteous struggle against an enemy which comes to kill and destroy life, in "Thief" we have in the center a Gogolian criminal whose ceaseless flight from authority leaves him outside the stratified social structure both of the privileged few and the poor Soviet masses. Moreover, Tolyan's (an d subsequently Sasha's) attachment to Stalin depicts the outsider's (picaro's) partial desire to be integrated; Tolyan gains public approval when he proposes to drink a toast to Stalin during a party arranged at his expense as part of a ploy to burglarize his neighbors' apartments while they are out at the circus, with tickets supplied courtesy of Tolyan's calculated, false generosity. (The episode is itself a synecdoche of the confidence trick played by Stalin on the entire Soviet population, who became his unwitting accomplices in crime.) Just as Gogol's Chichikov fosters all manner of popular speculation about his identity (he is linked both to Napoleon and the Devil), so Tolyan convinces Sasha that he is the son of Stalin himself, encouraging the child to become his unwilling partner in breaking into a flat by telling him that it is "for the sake of Stalin" (58). In this post-socialist-realist film, characters occupy a world of all-pervading mendacity. The film appears to opine that, in a society where pe ople desperately crave the false security offered by a strong, father-like leader, the immoral and unlawful behavior of the false father, the "pretender," will be condoned as long as the image of the strong center is sustained. Anger and vengeance--of the duped Soviet people, or of Sasha the duped son--will follow denial only after the false father's failure to protect his offspring has been revealed.

In the picaresque situation, the constant pattern of train travel leads Tolyan, the outsider to Soviet normality, to chance encounters that enable him to exploit his environment for personal gain. But just as the geographically (and axiologically) "centralized" mother figure in 'Ballad' represents Russia itself, so the marginalized picaro-as-false-father's symbolic identification with Stalin reinserts him at the very heart of Soviet reality-as-illusion. His ability as marginal outsider to take advantage of the supposedly communal modes of living at the center of Soviet society (he steals from people on crowded trains and burglarizes communal flats) exposes the fallacy on which the Soviet myth of the loving father of a cohesive, family-like commune is founded, turning center into margin and margin into center.

The train is located at the intersection of private and public. In "Ballad" it is the vehicle by which Alyosha is transported between the realms of public duty and private emotion. But whereas "Ballad" deals with the tension by using private truth to cleanse and reinforce public image (the private railway romance, nipped in the bud, ultimately enhances Alyosha's devotion to the higher calling of public duty), "Thief" exposes private truth as the worm of corruption buried beneath the deceptive public image (the officer's uniform proudly displayed amidst the tawdry surroundings of the railway carriage is metaphorically removed to reveal the secret mendacity of the charlatan hidden beneath it). Oleg Khakhordin describes the characteristic Soviet mode of public existence as "dissimulation," presenting a face of conformity when in official spaces and engaging in a "counter-culture" at home (Khakhordin 1999, 270). Tolyan's picaresque, Chichlkov-like travels by train develop the two poles of dissimulation to an extr eme; he is a dashing soldier in public, a hardened trickster in private.

Train encounters are inevitably transitory meetings with people presenting their "public faces" who are therefore subsumed into such typecast categories as, for instance, "the single mother" or "the soldier on leave." It is this which enables the train chronotope to deal in the representative, and thus to "represent." Indeed, within the communal space of the train and the communal value system embraced in "Ballad," Alyosha, despite his individualistic concern with his feelings for Tanya, is himself a type. The anonymous voiceover commentator refers to him variously as an "ordinary Russian soldier" (riadovoi russkii soldat) and an unexceptional "Soviet man" (sovetskii chelovek). Furthermore, during their sallies forth into the space around the stations, Alyosha and Tanya encounter the typical bombed-out blocks of flats, and vulnerable, homeless people, the archetypal anxious parents and the like. Meanwhile, in their flight across provincial Russia, Tolyan and Sasha meet the representative bereaved widows, the standard war invalid, and the average residents of communal flats. Significantly, both film titles feature the terms "soldier" and "thief' respectively, the typifying labels they use to signal to their audiences the generalized significance of their themes. In this way the films confirm metatextually that the public, yet transient, nature of the train encounter provides the code of reading for our cinematic experience of the heroes.


In addition to the train journey's tendency to afford the opportunity to objectify and generalize about others, it also fosters in the individual traveler a capacity for solipsistic, subjective reverie (staring pensively out of windows, peering furtively at, and fantasizing about, fellow passengers is part and parcel of the train experience). This subject-object switching is embodied in one of the formal cliches of films structured around train journeys, the way they frequently intersperse subjective shots of the heroes taken inside a compartment with external close-ups of the revolving wheels of the train as it carries them towards their destination. In "Ballad," intimate montage sequences within the carriage encouraging us to adopt Alyosha's subject position with regard to Tanya are periodically juxtaposed with close-ups of the train carrying the vehicle ever onwards. In "Thief' we first meet Sasha as a small boy in the intimate surroundings of a train sleeping berth, gazing longingly out of the window at h is imaginary father. Later, by contrast, and following their dramatic reunion, the teenaged Sasha shoots the now down-and-out, middle-aged Tolyan on a train which we, along with Sasha, watch and objectify as it departs into the distance. (Our uncertainty over whether Tolyan is dead is shared by Sasha who, even when fighting many years later in the post-communist Caucasus, maintains the vain hope that he may finally rediscover the false father who failed him, just as he continues to be deluded by the image of the real father he never knew.) The way these subject-object switches (train as locus of subject-to-be-identified-with/train as object of our vision) are incorporated into the rail chronotope helps generate the sentimental effect common to both films. The power of "Ballad" to affect its viewers resides in its capacity to bring tears to their eyes when Alyosha, empathetic subject of identification and pathetic object of pity, leaves his mother for the last time. "Thief," too, is a melodrama designed to lea ve a lump in the throat. Here, the effect resides in the disparity between the child's conflicted idealization of Tolyan as a substitute father and our own knowledge that he is a fraudster, a disparity echoed in the chasm separating the Soviet people's naive capitulation to the personality cult from our own post-communist position of hindsight. (9)

The Sentimentalist tradition often employed knowledge gaps with their capacity to turn characters from subjects of identification into pathetic objects of pity as a tool for radical criticism of societal ills (e.g. Radishchev's Journey From St. Petersburg to Moscow). (10) The highly attenuated radicalism of "Ballad" is tied directly to the train chronotope. Every meter covered on the journey towards Alyosha's maternal home, each step he takes towards declaring his feelings for Tanya confirm the futility of his romance and point to his untimely martyrdom. The pathos of the situation reflects the implied viewer's helplessness at being unable to turn back the course either of the train, or of history. Such a viewer's vicarious desire for Alyosha to deviate from his fateful journey is a potentially seditious desire for him to deviate from the civic duty that compels him to return to the front. Indeed, paradoxically, the film's ability to affect the audience with the bravery of Alyosha's sacrifice for his motherla nd and the collective relies upon the viewers' identifying momentarily with the instinct to pursue an individual love which he suppresses. (11) These vague viewerly stirrings of revolt are paralleled in Alyosha's and Tanya's miniature act of rebellion against the regulations forbidding Tanya to travel with Alyosha which would, had they nor been breached, have prevented their encounter from ever taking place.

The knowledge gap, too, is repeated diegetically within the plot. When Alyosha delivers a parcel to the wife of a soldier at the front he is dismayed to find that she is having an affair with another man. This places him with respect to his comrade in the same position of knowledge which we occupy in relation to his own impending death, transforming him into a crucial, authenticating mirror for our own subject positions. Sentimental effects are often associated with tragic losses. (12) Also duplicated within the film is the key loss around which the film, like many Sentimentalist works, is structured. For Alyosha's fateful return to the front (the loss suffered by his mother and, through her, by the external viewers) is presaged in a fantasized subjective image of Tanya telling him she loves him, superimposed onto an image of birch trees rushing past the window of the train that separates them forever (the internal loss suffered by Alyosha). The pathos generated externally in us is thus "naturalized" from wit hin through a diegetic loss marked, inevitably, by the relentless forward movement of the train. (13)

Sentimentalist heroes have traditionally been defenseless children or naive young women (for example, Karamzin's Poor Liza). (14) The knowledge gap in "Thief" relies equally on Sasha's status as an innocent child who, unlike the adult viewers with their worldly experience, cannot identify Tolyan for the false father that he is, and on an awareness of the true consequences of Stalinism which comes with our position of hindsight. As in "Ballad," the sentimental effect is structured around a fundamental loss external to the plot (that of Sasha's real father) naturalized through a series of losses inside the plot: Sasha loses Tolyan to Stalin's prison camps, then his mother to a botched abortion. The final loss is that experienced by the viewer. One by one the characters through whose subject positions we have viewed the film disappear, never to be seen again: the mother, Tolyan, the child, the youth, played by a different actor and replaced by the adult, played by a third actor, with whose image the film ends. ( 15) The viewing experience is thus akin to a journey through history in which characters board and alight never to be seen again. The melodrama is thus associated both with the tears we weep for Sasha, and with the tears we weep from within Sasha's subject position. That the role of Tolyan is played by one of contemporary Russia's most appealing male actors reinforces this viewerly "regression" and, through it, the seductive hold that Stalinism continues to exert over Russia, a hold perhaps even greater than that intended by the director. (16) It is to this that we must return in our conclusion.


How, then, can we draw together the separate strands of our analysis, (i) the network of parallels and contrasts between the films, (ii) their common exploitation of a train chronotope, (iii) the verbal-literary paradigms upon which they draw, (iv) the father-son axis underlying the respective plots of the two films and the relationship between them, (v) the ideological tensions with which they engage, (vi) the sentimental tradition into which they can both be inserted? A tentative answer lies in a return to the final parallel we noted, the use of voiceover narration that both Chukrais exploit at the beginning and end of their films. Voiceover narration in Soviet film is relatively common by comparison with other national cinematic traditions and this is a reflection of the continuing influence of verbal (and particularly literary) paradigms on modern Russian visual culture. In "Ballad," the return of the voiceover coincides with a reprise of the opening shot of the country road and a reintegration of the tem porality of the flashback into that of the present. But, whilst at the beginning, the shot is constructed from the viewpoint of an objectified mother who appears in front of the camera, the closing shot depicts the road without the mother in frame, thus constructing the scene from our own perspective. Via our acquaintance during the long flashback with the now absent Alyosha, we assume the subject position of the grieving mother. However, we also see what she cannot -- the events leading to Alyosha's final departure, and his equally poignant loss of Tanya. Thus, our dual viewing position is embodied in separate characters in the film, Alyosha and his mother.

The Lacanian theorist Slavoj Zizek has dealt with the under-analyzed phenomenon of the disembodied voice in cinema in the context of the notion that films operate in the field of the Imaginary -- those fantasmatic identifications and counter-identifications associated with the mirror stage in the development of human selfhood. Such infantile identifications, according to Lacan, precede our entry into the controlling Symbolic Order of language and thus the subsumption of the Imaginary by the abstract Law of the Father. (17) Zizek reminds us that in Lacan's later work, the emphasis shifted away from "the boundary separating the Imaginary from the Symbolic" to "those leftovers or remnants of the Real." This Real Order, the third and most elusive component of the Lacanian triad of Imaginary, Symbolic and Real upon which our sense of everyday reality depends, is defined by two of Lacan's commentators variously as "a hole in the Symbolic Order," "the domain outside the subject" which is simply "out there" for the s ubject to keep "bumping up against," and as "what has been expelled or foreclosed by the subject" (Benveniste and Kennedy 1986, 81-153). It is in this spirit that Zizek portrays the Real as the mysterious, unfathomable "ground" of both the Imaginary and the Symbolic which lies outside their respective structures yet subtends them and which "escapes symbolic mediation" (Zizek 1999, 18). Zizek interprets unembodied verbal narration in cinematic fiction as a symptom of the Real, seeing it as "the voice without bearer which cannot be attributed to a subject and hovers in some indescribable interspace . . . implacable because it cannot be properly located, being part neither of the diegetic 'reality' of the story, nor of the sound accompaniment" (15). This "fragment of the Real" is, for Zizek, who has uniquely adapted Lacan for the analysis of political ideologies, liable in totalitarian cinema to "transform itself into a subversive element capable of bursting free from the very ideological apparatus by which it i s propagated" (17). Thus, the sudden re-intervention in "Ballad" of the grave, unlocatable, paternal, male voice of official Soviet discourse is, despite (or even because of) the ideological weight it carries, thoroughly unintegrated with the imaginary identifications of the film, and in particular with the specular position of the maternal female from which we view the film's final shot. The voice hovers precisely in the disturbing, "indescribable interspace" which marks its affinity with the dark recesses of the Real. This causes a momentary jolt in the viewer, a temporary, irrational barrier to official discourse's conscious, rational desire that we should assimilate everything to the Symbolic order which the words spoken within the verbal narration are intended to legitimize. It provides us with an uncomfortable (though subconscious) reminder of the existence of the inassimilable realm of the Real. This split-second moment of resistance, we might argue, allied to the earlier revolt against Alyosha's impul se to follow the call of duty rather than the call of love, precipitates the jarring, yet spontaneous and uncontrollable effect responsible for the lump in the throat with which even the most rationally unsentimental, ideologically sound viewer is left. (18)

The sentimental tradition is, as we have suggested, capable of being put to work in thoroughly rational ways, in the service of civic society. While it is underpinned by the spirit of the Enlightenment and rationalism, however, sentimentalism cannot for long deny its reliance on the irrational. Such is the price paid by Socialist Realist film in the Soviet Union in its (otherwise largely successful) efforts to exploit popular cinematic modes, like the musical and the sentimental melodrama, in order to maintain a mass audience for its campaign of ideological persuasion. (19)

Through its unwitting Lacanian (Zizekian) turn, "Ballad" confirms W. J. T. Mitchell's assertion that the word-image boundary furnishes the site at which a culture's major ideological tensions are worked Out. Our analysis accords this insight a peculiarly Russian dimension. That dimension is deepened and modified in "Thief." In keeping with Pavel Chukrai's attempts to deconstruct and invert the work of his father, the later film closes its narrative circle not with the sound of the authoritative word of official ideology, but with that of the subjectivized voice of one of its victims - the hardened, "damaged" soldier, Sasha. Each film is, as we have established, concerned with the "Absent Father," Stalin--the deified leader-cum-invisible signified--of which even the lofty image of the motherland (rodina) is but a signifier. He is the "meaning" behind the desperate war effort which cripples the individual in "Ballad" and he is the figure whose image propels the search for the father in "Thief"; in common with o ther literary works about the identification by the son of a missing father, like the story of Telemachus and Odysseus, Stalin's face tattooed onto the body provides a visual token which creates the opportunity for recognition (Barta 1988, 1142). Furthermore, with his film's anonymous third-person voiceover, Grigorii Chukrai silences any overt challenge to the Law of the Father (Stalin, the party, the Soviet state, etc.) and thus asserts his own phallic authority (both as father and as director). Via the subjective first-person voiceover which is nonetheless articulated from the locus of paternal power, Pavel Chukrai's "Thief" interrogates his father's assertion in order to establish his own independence and post-Soviet, post-communist voice of authority. (20)

However, the half-hearted, insubstantial nature of Pavel Chukrai's act of ventriloquy (he speaks his subjective "I" through the voice of his father's "He" without ever fully assuming the father's body) is confirmed in a final sweeping aside of word by image. For the re-intervention of the stoically wearied voice of the soldier is succeeded by the unexpected return of the naive, imaginary figure of Sasha's real father on a train moving ever away from him (and from us). This scene had haunted the boy until, in the words of the adult soldier's own commentary, he "betrayed" his father when he finally accepted the pretender Tolyan by calling him "Papa," thus brutally exorcising the hallucination from his memory. The image we viewers see, therefore, can only be an anachronistic reoccurrence of the boy's hallucination. Indeed, in a telling echo of "Ballad," this final lingering shot follows a flashback to the child gazing from the train window without the image of the adult Sasha in frame. Like the shot of the long, empty road along which the bereaved mother(land) now gazes in "Ballad," the disappearing, imaginary father also becomes "our" image since, in accordance with the series of losses we have experienced, we too regress to occupy the position of the child Sasha (and of the orphaned Soviet people). Any assumption that this regression is only momentary and that, with the help of the train chronotopes's subject-object switches, we oscillate swiftly back from infantile Soviet identification with the boy's tragic fate to paternalistic post-Soviet pity for it, is, as we shall see, misplaced.

In "Thief," the final integration of the viewer into the film's network of imagic identifications resonates with the apparently de-ideologized, distinctively subjective voice of an individual character (that of the adult Sasha). In a revelatory moment of great significance, however, we now see that the entire film has paralleled Sasha's angst-ridden search for his father by enacting metatextually the drama of our own search for the embodied identity of the first-person voiceover which introduces the film. Zizek writes of "the tension created by the errant voice in search of its body," the voice which, until it is identified with the image of a specific body, can emanate only from the unfathomable Real. He argues that in many films, we therefore experience a moment of relief when we pin the voice to a character with whom we are familiar, thus suppressing the disturbing, uncanny effect of the Real (Zizek 1999, 16). In "Thief," however, the figure with whom the voiceover must finally be identified is not a famil iar character but an unfamiliar intruder into the now dispersed network of identifications, the jarringly unfamiliar frame of the middle-aged Sasha. It is surely no coincidence that the sanitized version of "Thief" on general release in the United States ends before the appearance of Sasha-as-soldier, thus avoiding the disturbing effects he produces. Before the soldier's arrival on screen, and as in "Ballad," we have, in the full version of "Thief," been all but seduced into cinema's Imaginary realm of identifications. Yet what causes us to halt the seduction process is not, as with "Ballad," the return of the disembodied paternal word whose wistfully reassuring tones introduce the narrative, but, in one final filial subversion of the equivalent moment in the father's film, that word's jolting embodiment in the concrete image of the adult Sasha. The new, inverted variant on the clash of word and image once more produces the uncomfortable, disorienting effect, which we associate with the sudden intrusion of th e Real. And again this effect contributes to a sentimental lump in the throat, which acts as an emotional mask for a deep ideological contradiction.

Pavel Chukrai's attempt to extricate us (and himself) from the infantile identifications of the Soviet era by representing the destructive effects of those identifications within the objectified image, and through the dislocated subjective voice of the permanently traumatized post-Soviet soldier, founders at the very moment when voice is embodied as image. This is when the son's (Pavel's) efforts to expose to us, and thus liberate us from, the father's (Grigorii's) Stalinist past fold back into that same past. For like the child Sasha, like post-Soviet Russia, we are ill-prepared for the rude intrusion of the Real of which the word-image translation is the catalyst, remaining as we do in thrall to the seductive figure of the symbolic father (Tolyan, Stalin) from whom we struggle vainly to free ourselves. It is fitting, therefore, that the final shot of "Thief" should be that of the boy's (and now our) last fleeting glance of the train that carries the imaginary vision of the paternal father into the infinite recurrences of the cinematic future (the image with which any film ends is inevitably projected forward to form the viewer's sense of how the world it has created will now always be). Our (post-Soviet Russia's) final regression into childlike self-pity is thus finally and irrevocably assured. In this most logocentric of cultures, image and word again repel one another like opposite poles of a magnet. The gap which the mutual repulsion opens up--the chasm at the heart of post-Soviet ideology--yawns as wide as that of the Soviet ideology it claims to have supplanted.


* Stephen Hutchings wishes to acknowledge the generous support of the United Kingdom's Arts and Humanities Research Board, which funded his contribution to the article.

(1.) Mitchell writes, "The history of culture is in part the story of a protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs, each claiming for itself certain proprietary rights on a 'nature' to which only it has access" (43).

(2.) The edition of the filmscript published in the USA by Thompson, Konick and Gross refers to the script's original publication in a Soviet film journal (Thompson et al., ix).

(3.) Turgenev's novel, Fathers and Sons (1861), is the most celebrated Russian literary treatment of the theme of generation conflict. Dostoevskii's The Devils (1871) also engages with the theme.

(4.) This is true in a quite literal sense. "Ballad," directed by Grigorii Chukrai, came out in 1959. "Thief," directed by Grigorii's son, Pavel, was released in 1998.

(5.) Writing of the novelistic chronotope, Bakhtin states that "[a]ll. . . abstract elements--philosophical and social generalizations--gravitate towards the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood.... Every entry into the sphere of meaning is accomplished only through the gates of the chronotope" (Bakhtin 1981, 250,258).

(6.) The most extreme example is El'dar Riazanov's "Carnival Night" ["Karnaval'naia noch"] (1956) in which a group of workers overturn the official plans for a staid, partyline office party in favor of a carnival of informal, satirical laughter and romance.

(7.) From its inception, the Soviet war film grappled with this contradiction. In the classic 1948 film, "Son of the Regiment" ['Syn Polka'], a soldier adopts an orphaned boy to replace his own son, killed by the Nazis, encouraging his regiment likewise to adopt the boy as its fighting mascot, just as the Soviet fatherland adopts each loyal citizen. Individual and collective concerns are thus integrated in a clumsy, uneasy overlapping structure. At the other end of the temporal spectrum, Tarkovskii's first film, "Ivan's Childhood" ['Ivanovo detstvo'] is shot largely from the highly subjective (and so ultra-individualized) viewpoint of another boy orphaned by the war. (The father/orphan relationship is clearly another intertext with which Pavel Chukrai's "Thief" engages critically.)

(8.) For an account of the beskonfliktnost' theme, see Geller.

(9.) This phenomenon suggests that the sentimental mode is inherent in the post-communist sensibility. It is certainly in evidence in many films which treat the Stalinist past, such as Nikita Mikhalkov's "Burnt By the Sun" ['Utomlennye solntsem'].

(10.) In his account of sentimentalism, Bakhtin writes that "the sentimental hero is much more appropriate [than the classical hero] for tendentious works, for the arousal of ... social sympathy or hostility. The author's position of outsidedness [vnenakhodimost] ... approaches the condition of the outsidedness of an ethical person to someone close to him [svoim blizhnim]" (Bakhtin 1986, 167; translation ours).

(11.) It is now a commonplace of film theory that, in John Ellis's words, "the particular conditions of cinema ... provoke a series of identifications on the part of the spectator: identification with the cinematic apparatus itself; narcissistic identifications with all figures (to some degree) who are presented on the screen; identifications across filmic narratives with the various phantasy positions that these narratives invoke" (Ellis 1982, 44). It is in light of these conditions that Soviet film ideology begins to reveal the internal contradictions that are its eventual undoing.

(12.) In her articulation of a sentimentalist rhetoric, Winfried Herget points out that the typical sentimental victim "undeservedly suffers some loss: the loss or feared loss of an object of affection, or the mourning thereof ... Scenes of parting and reunion are prominent structural devices of the sentimental text" (Herget 1991, 5, 7). Both of these features are clearly displayed in both our films.

(13.) The notion that a sentimentalist text requires both the generation of an effect of pathos in the reader, and the representation of such effects in the characters, is recognized by theorists of sentimentalism such as Herget who argues: "In order to be fully effective, the [sentimentalist] author has to employ textual strategies which enhance the sentimental potential inherent in the plot. A German encyclopedia of the late eighteenth century advises the author first to be moved himself if he wants to move the reader" (Herget 1991, 6).

(14.) Herget points out that sentimentalist suffering "is borne by a victim who is powerless, helpless, innocent, gentle, perhaps homeless.... Favorite characters ... are children, or better still a girl child" (Herget 1991, 5). The correspondence with "Thief" is remarkable.

(15.) Misha Filipchuk plays the six-year old Sasha. The twelve-year old Sasha is played by Dima Chigarev, and the forty-eight-year old Sasha by Yurii Belyaev.

(16.) Vladimir Mashkov, something of a male "sex symbol" in 1990s Russia, plays Tolyan.

(17.) A comprehensive elaboration of these theories is to be found in Lacan 1966.

(18.) Even mainstream U.S. commentators on "Ballad" identified the film's heart wrenching, throat-catching ability to move its audience to tears. The Saturday Review claimed that it "brings back that old catch in the throat movies used to achieve occasionally." Time magazine called it "the best Russian movie made since World War II--a vehemently original, beautiful, humorous, patriotic, sentimental journey through war-churned Russia" (quoted in Thompson et al. 1966, ix).

(19.) For more on Soviet cinema's response to the need for mass popularity and its corresponding shift towards light-entertainment genres, see Taylor.

(20.) Pavel Chukrai's film is driven by desire to establish his stamp of originality, to reobtain the "phallus" of which Tolyan/Stalin's (Grigory Chukrai's) son, Sasha (Pavel Chukrai), is deprived. The very first thing that the boy Sasha notices when he meets Tolyan on the train is the phallus-like revolver hanging from his trousers. When Tolyan gives him the revolver for safekeeping, Sasha hides it protectively under his pillow. The symbolic castration that he suffers later when Tolyan robs the child of his mother by excluding him as he and Katya are having sex is thus all the more painful. We should also note the scene in the bathhouse where Sasha is looking at Tolyan's penis only to realize with dismay that he is lacking the adult man's fully developed reproductive organ. He never lives down this early trauma, which results in his inability ever to be properly socialized: both as a teenager and as an adult, he is a homeless wanderer without any ability to engage in fulfilling relationships.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Milthail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Hoiquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

-----. Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1986.

Barta, Peter I. "Search for Father." Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs. Vol. 2. Ed. Jean-Charles Seigneuret. Greenwood Press: New York, 1988, 1141-48.

Benveniste, Bice and Roger Kennedy. The Works of Jacques Lacan: An Introduction. London: Free Association Books, 1986.

Bloom, Harold. A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.

Brashinsky, Michael and Andrew Horton. Russian Critics and the Cinema of Glasnost. New York: Cambridge U. P., 1994.

Chaadaev, P.I. The Major Works. Trans. R. McNelly. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.

Ellis, John. Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video. London and New York: Routledge, 1982.

Geller, Leonid. "Esteticheskie kategorii i ikh mesto v sotsrealizme zhdanovskoi epokhi." Sotsrealisticheskii kanon. Ed. H. Gunter and E. Dobrenko. St Petersburg: Gumanitarnoe agenstvo "Akademicheskii proekt," 2000. 434-68.

Gingras, George E. "Travel." Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs. Vol. 2. Ed. Jean-Charles Seigneuret. Greenwood Press: Westport CT, 1988, 1292-331.

Herget, Winfried. Sentimentality in Modern Literature and Popular Culture. Tubingen: Gunther Narr, 1991.

Khakhordin, Oleg. The Collective and the Individual in Russia: A Study of Practices. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1999.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Taylor, Richard. "Boris Shumyatsky and Soviet Cinema in the 30s: Ideology as Mass Entertainment." Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema. Ed. Taylor and Ian Christie. London and New York: Routledge, 1991. 193-216.

Thompson, Laurence C., Willis Konick and Vladimir Gross (eds.). Ballada o Soldate: Scenario of 'Ballad of a Soldier'. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World Inc., 1966.

Wicks, Ulrich. "Picaresque." Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs. Vol. 2. Ed. Jean-Charles Seigneuret. Greenwood Press: Westport CT, 1988. 975-983.

Woll, Josephine. Real Images. Soviet Cinema and the Thaw. London: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 2000.

Zizek, Slavoj. "The Undergrowth of Enjoyment: How Popular Culture Can Serve as an Introduction to Lacan." The Zizek Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. 11-37.

Peter I. Barta is professor of Russian and Cultural Studies and Head of the Department of Linguistic, Cultural and International Studies at the University of Surrey, England. His most important publications include Bely, Joyce and Doblin: Peripatetics in the City Novel (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996) and the edited volumes Metamorphoses in Russian Modernism (New York: Central European University Press, 2000) and Gender and Sexuality in Russian Civilisation (London: Routledge, 2001). He is co-president of the British-French Association for the Study of Russian Culture.

Stephen Hutchings is reader in Russian Studies at the University of Surrey, England and coordinator of the Literature and the Visual Media Research Group, which is based at Surrey. His most important publications include A Semiotic Analysis of the Short Stories of Leonid Andreev, 1900-1909 (London: MHRA, 1990) and Russian Modernism: The Transfiguration of the Everyday (Cambridge: CUP, 1997). He is currently writing a monograph treating the relationship between Russian literature and the camera media.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Texas Tech University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Barta, Peter I.; Hutchings, Stephen
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Sep 22, 2002
Previous Article:From discipline to insecurity in work: Illegible technologies of the self in "the new economy".
Next Article:Narration vs. description in Georg Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters