Essay

No More Soviet Heroes

2 weeks ago
I Am Twenty

Appearing in the midnight streets of early 60s Moscow are three Revolution-era soldiers. We see close-ups of their faces as they walk past the camera. The credits roll as they head down the road, where a hidden cut transforms them into three modern youths, a playful girl guiding two boys through the night. An accordion plays “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the soundtrack, and we pan back over that patrolled street to see more young friends going about their evening. The camera glides up an overpass, following a pair of quarrelling lovers. Atop this bridge is a modern soldier, one of our heroes, who as the morning begins to dawn, we will soon find out is returning from his military duty, now home for good, ready to begin his life proper.

The poetic opening of Marlen Khutsiev’s I Am Twenty (1965) is staggering not only in its beauty but also its thematic complexity. In less than five minutes we understand not just the framework from which Khutsiev wishes us to view his contemporary world — through the lens that this place exists on the sacrifices of those before — but also on which people are imperative to move it forward — the youths, who now patrol the street for fun, but still defend it in times of trouble. In other words, it explicates what the title I Am Twenty should mean to us in the context of the film. However, I Am Twenty was not the title Khutsiev intended for the film, nor is this version the one he intended to make. Originally being called Zastava Il’icha (1962), a title with a dual meaning — most literally being Il’ich’s Gate, a reference to the district in which the film takes place; it can also be translated to Il’ich’s Guard, a reference to Vladimir Lenin’s patronym, invoking the idea of those who are symbolically guarding his principals and those that guard his tomb. However, Soviet leaderships from censors all the way up to Nikita Khrushchev himself took issue with the film’s portrayal of disillusioned youth, and shelved the film before demanding cuts and reshoots.

I Am Twenty

I Am Twenty

The irony of the film was that it did embody the spirit of Khrushchev’s Thaw following the death of Stalin — a time when the live-by-fear days of Stalinism were actively fought against, at least until the Party felt its grip on power loosening. Even de-Stalinization had its limits, and for Khrushchev, in particular, this ended up falling the hardest on artists. While their newfound freedom to express themselves and the horrors they had been through was liberating, the moment they turned their gaze to the present they ran into problems. The thesis of Il’ich’s Gate is that many of the problems under Stalinism have yet to be resolved, and the only way forward is with the Soviet youth. Khrushchev damned Il’ich’s Gate for thinking “that young people ought to decide for themselves how to live, without asking their elders for counsel and help.” And while many higher-ups within the Soviet film industry defended Il’ich’s Gate tooth and nail, cuts and reshoots were still forced. Even after significantly taming the film, I Am Twenty was not allowed off the shelf until after Khrushchev had lost power, by which time, many of its stylistic innovations had become commonplace in Soviet cinema.

In parallel to its opening (and repeated throughout), the film follows three Moscow youths as they navigate their comings of age. Sergei (Valentin Popov) is the one we see at the beginning returning from military service, where now he’ll reconnect with his friends and factory and pursue a factory job. His two childhood friends, Nikolai (Nikolai Gubenko) and Slavka (Stanislav Lyubshin), still act like teenagers when they’re all together, but both are struggling with their new responsibilities — Nikolai has to grow out of his poetry-writing and become more serious about his engineering career, and Slavka is a recent father, the burden of which weighs down on him so hard that he occasionally longs for escape. None of the three boys will fully learn to overcome their struggles, as they are realities of their lives, but instead learn to live with them.

I Am Twenty

I Am Twenty

The friends’ personal issues ultimately stem from the systemic, most notably how Sergei feels disillusioned with his generation, feeling a rebellious spirit but can’t quite channel it. He wants to be an ideal Soviet man, but feels that he is being held back by that very society. Late in the film, when him and his girlfriend, Anya (Marianna Vertinskaya), propose to her father that they get their own apartment, he berates Anya and argues with them for being so foolish as to rush into decisions without consulting or accepting the advise of their elders first (Khrushchev’s very criticism). Anya’s father, coming himself from a Stalinist upbringing, which Seryozha has little memory of, lectures him on how he was taught to keep his head down and do as he was told. Il’ich’s Gate originally left this scene at a complete impasse, while I Am Twenty’s reshoots make it a bit lighter and has the characters almost come to an understanding, although the point still stands — the irreconcilable nature of these two world views.

The boys at the centre of I Am Twenty in many ways embody the heroes of socialist realism, the once a state-mandated aesthetic. Sergei, Slavka, and Nikolai all battle with their modern day in search of a better, more communist vision of the world, but they are continually thwarted by their peers, leaders, and the system around them. Their anti-authority goals could be acceptable depending on who the authority is — if it’s the tsarists or counterrevolutionaries, fine; if it’s the modern Soviet Union, not so much. At one point, Nikolai is asked by his superior to rat on a coworker whom he doesn’t even like very much, yet refuses and is horrified by this prospect — he thought the days of fear were over. This world that they inherited is not as free as what was promised, merely an iteration of what already was.

When Stalin died in 1953, there was a power struggle as to who the new general secretary would be, although almost all parties involved were in agreement that it was the time for reform and redemption. Khrushchev, who had recently consolidated his power in 1956, gave his famous “secret” speech at the 20th Party Congress denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality and authoritarian rule over the Soviet people. The Thaw had officially begun. For artists, this meant freedom of expression, and the first target they had were the two biggies that were rarely touched on under the previous regime — the devastation that Stalin had caused and the war left behind. All of a sudden war films didn’t have to have happy endings — where The Fall of Berlin (1950) ended with the Nazis defeated and the soldiers of the world cheering for Stalin, The Ballad of a Soldier (1959) ended with a mother’s son returning to the front, never to come home again. Western literary classics were deemed acceptable for adaptation once again, and Sergei Yutkevitch’s Othello (1955) resonated at home with its themes of backdoor politicking and deception, and abroad where it won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Two years later, Cannes would give the Soviet Union its only Palme d’Or, with Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957). Kalatozov did not only subvert Stalinist themes with his movie, but the filmmaking techniques themselves. Whereas the films of socialist realism tended to lack artistic flare in favour of more direct ways to communicate with audiences, cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky unleashed Kalatozov’s camera. It whips and pans, cranes and dollies through a scene, usually working to reflect the way a character experiences it — whether that be a spinning view of the sky as a dying soldier grips a tree, or a dizzying and complex long take going in, out, and over a crowd as a woman searches for her lover. The Thaw was a time of innovation and excitement in both theme and aesthetic.

After so long, however, the cameras did eventually turn their gaze back onto the modern day. The film that Grigori Chukhrai would go on to make after Ballad of a Soldier was Clear Skies (1961), a love story spanning past WWII and into the Thaw, juxtaposing the devastation of the past with Khrushchev’s promise of a future. But this was propaganda as much as anything produced under Stalin’s rule — whereas it used to be the devastation of tsarism towards the promise of revolution, now it became Stalin’s oppression versus a new optimism. Khutsiev did not agree with this viewpoint, seeing this future not as a given, but still something to be fought for. For Khutsiev, the lip service played by the government wasn’t enough, and with Il’ich’s Gate he tried to point out that if there was to be a future, it was no longer in the old ways (or old people, for that matter).

I Am Twenty

I Am Twenty

Khrushchev represented the last of the old guard — he would be the final Soviet premier to have fought in the Revolution, not to mention a long-serving member of Stalin’s politburo. All future leaders of the USSR would be increasingly detached from the Revolution, the purges, and the war, instead inheriting a world that was turbulently trying to move on and, in some cases, forget the past. This, perhaps, is why the triumvirate that led the Union after Khrushchev took less offence to the new cut of Khutsiev’s film, they too believed that the young should replace the old who have failed them. Unfortunately for I Am Twenty, the technical innovations that made it such a fresh and striking film in 1962 had become almost banal by 1965.

The lighter handheld cameras and faster film stocks that opened the door for the likes of the French New Wave and cinema verité came to the Soviets as well, and with Il’ich’s Gate, Khutsiev tried to bring a distinctly “new wave” aesthetic to Russian screens. We know the day that he began shooting the film, because him, a small crew, and a few cast members headed to Moscow’s 1962 May Day parade to mix in with the actual crowd, creating an almost Godardian docu-fiction that the entire film would live in. This was exciting in 1962 — Soviet film had always existed in strict camps: Eisenstein fought for complete control in every aspect of the filmmaking process, Vertov believed in documentary as the ultimate truth, and Stalinist filmmakers used genre as means of propaganda. While art films coming from the likes of Kalatozov had sequences designed to feel like a documentary, they were still highly staged, very similar to Eisenstein’s approach but updated for modern audiences. Khutsiev sought to make a film completely in the present, and while he obviously employed staging, he’d often sequence things to take place within a real event — like with the May Day parade — or stage an event and let the real world take over, which was the approach of a sequence that became a cultural milestone for the real Soviet youth. Khutsiev gathered together some of the Soviet Union’s brightest young poets for a multi-day symposium of readings and performances at the Polytechnic Museum on the same stage that Mayakovsky once broke ground with his poetry. This event transcended the film itself and became, as Viktoria Paranyuk in Senses of Cinema calls it, the “Who’s Who in Contemporary Soviet Poetry.” Moscow’s youths really did flow out of the auditorium and into the halls and streets, vying to catch a glimpse of some of the great artists of their time. Khutisev and his DP, Margarita Pilikhina, shot the symposium like a documentary of the event, with their actors having to shove their way through the crowd like everybody else — this level of genre fluidity was not seen in Soviet cinema before this.

I Am Twenty

I Am Twenty

Later that same year, Khrushchev stormed out of “Thirty Years of Moscow Art” exhibition, confused and frustrated by the paintings produced by the Soviet avant-garde. The Party spokesman would later issue a statement claiming there was to be a reexamination of policy regarding the liberalization of the arts. Many prominent artists of all varieties signed a letter to Khrushchev protesting this renewed conservatism, but it fell on deaf ears. The completion of Il’ich’s Gate timed almost perfectly with this crackdown, with the poets symposium being hit some of the hardest with the cuts to the film, and the whole thing ended up on the shelf for almost three years — hardly the worst fate considering some films got banned until perestroika in the late ‘80s. But it’s that cold, bureaucratic removal its original context that left it to obscurity. What was being praised in early screenings as something that “justified [Khutsiev’s] existence” was left a curiosity who’s timely messages were now grossly out-of-date even just a couple years later, and its technical innovations were eclipsed by the films that were directly inspired by it. Whatever messages Il’ich’s Gate had for the general population, I Am Twenty was a thing left for academics to discuss.

Near the end of the film, Sergei goes to a party with some of Anya’s young socialite friends. Their insubstantial musings bore Sergei, and makes him feel further disillusioned. There is a moment when exchange students show up with potatoes for everyone, something that is taken granted now, but it reminds Sergei of his mother who, during the war, would labour all day in the fields and walk back to the city every night with a bag for her and her son — it was only thing that got them through it. When things calm down and turn pensive, a belligerent party-goer, played by a young Andrei Tarkovsky, proposes a toast to get everyone drinking again. Sergei wants to toast to potatoes. “Why not turnips?” Tarkovsky jokingly replies. The derision bothers Sergei, and one of the young intellectuals chimes in and asks if such a silly thing as potatoes can really be taken seriously. “If there’s nothing you can talk seriously about, why live then?” Sergei responds. “I take seriously the Revolution, the ‘Internationale’ anthem, the year of 1937 [the year he was born], the war, the soldiers, the fact that almost all of us have no fathers, and the potatoes, too, which have saved us during the hunger and which…” “And what do you think of turnips?” Tarkovsky interrupts before being slapped by another partygoer. Khutsiev did not have much faith in the academics taking seriously his overtly patriotic work.

Sergei leaves the party after this confrontation, and what follows is the most surreal sequence in the entire film. Under candlelight in his room, Sergei’s father appears like a ghost, dressed in his combat uniform. As they speak, the room turns into a fortification, and his father asks for low voices as to not wake the men. Seryozha wonders if they are dead, but his father can only point out the ones who had died before him. He asks his father for advice, only to have his father point out that young Seryozha is 23 while himself only 22 when he died — Sergei could only be wiser at this point. Putting on his coat and helmet, he departs his son telling him how he wishes he could walk the streets of Moscow just one last time. In the next sequence, we see, in parallel to the opening, three WWII-era soldiers walking out from an underpass. The camera cranes up, gazing at the sleeping city, and a car zooms by the men.

I Am Twenty

I Am Twenty

This ties us back to the opening — these streets are paved in the blood of their fathers. People know this, it’s all too clear in the demographics of the time, but it is not talked about. One of the casualties of de-Stalinization is that sacrifice. Those were the bad times, people were punished without sense or reason. Stalinism was internally justified by this continued sacrifice to the Revolution: yes, people are dying in famine, but they will soon have food; yes, people are dying in war, but they will soon have socialism; etc. That continued sacrifice was still a part of a Khrushchev’s ideology, and his government made bold promises about the future, but the overall feeling was that things were inherently better than they were before. Most of the programs under his tenure pushing them towards true communism were quixotic failures. It is easy to see how Khrushchev felt personally attacked by the film — here, in Sergei especially, is the embodiment of the serious Soviet man that the state wished to create, although his drive is predicated on him being let down by those above and around him, forcing himself (and by extension, his generation) to be the catalyst for a better society against his own, just as the revolutionaries once were.

The final two sequences emerge from the soldiers walking the streets of Moscow — a few city-symphony like shots briefly shows dirt roads transforming into the modern city, out of which our heroes go through their morning commute, briefly passing each other, lighting a cigarette and passing off the camera’s focus. “You fear nothing when you’re not alone and have something to believe in, and, waking up in the morning you know it’s worth starting a new day,” one of the characters speaks, detached from the moment implying a conversation they’re having at another time. The film cuts to Red Square, where three modern Russian soldiers are marching below the palisade towards Lenin’s tomb. They halt, and exchange the guard. Cut again to a shot above the city, the bells are ringing. A narrator speaks for the first time in the film, “It is Monday, the first working day of the week.”

'No More Soviet Heroes' was written by and posted on Thursday May 9, 2019
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