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Films and Communism

After returning from Bulgaria I became interested in the popular history of communism in films from both the West and the East. Communist culture was both far worse than I imagined, and, in some respects (notably, its educational system), far more sophisticated and enlightened than I imagined. The present list does not do justice to the many wonderful and pleasant aspects of European culture that survived under communism.

There is one truth that communists seemed to recognize, if only in words: better systems make better people. Unfortunately, they used this slogan as a device to indoctrinate and terrorize people into believing their system was morally superior. Today, I believe we can see that people who have been fortunate enough to live in the West are not better intrinsically, i.e., as human beings, but we do have a better "system." But this is not so much because a superior "system" was invented at all. It was, rather, that the belief in a "system" -- in the sense of an absolutely fixed political, moral and intellectual architecture, was actually given up. The "system" of Western democracy accommodates change, including the adoption of many socialist reforms. To a much greater degree than the East, the West succeeded in maintaining a constant revolutionary spirit.

There is more than historical interest here, since communism is not dead and gone. Its style of thinking, and the people who supported it, remain within a huge segment of the world's population.

Citizen X
True story of a serial killer in Soviet Union, who, because he was a party member, and because serial killers could "only exist in degenerate capitalist societies,"was allowed to continue his murders for many years.  Lessons for all forms of institutionalized denial, whether in the East or the West.

One, Two, Three
Zany comedy featuring James Cagney at his best. Coca-Cola Co. wants to open Russia as a market, but this plot is swamped by overriding human concerns: Coke's rep (Cagney) has a daughter who wants to marry the enemy. Shades of Romeo and Juliet -- with plot twists, comedy, and lessons in human nature worthy of the master himself, all at a breakneck pace with snappy dialogue throughout.  Comedy in the vein of The Front Page.    Made at the beginning of the cold war (1950s), this film takes an extraordinarily light-hearted approach to the whole subject of Soviet/US relations.   The suggestion seems to be: they are only people, just like we are. How bad can they really be?

The Amazing Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks
Talk about irony.  This film has it all.  Produced in Russia in 1924 this silent film was apparently intended to serve as propaganda piece, informing both the Russians and Americans that Russia is really not the lawless, unscrupulous, cruel, and morally depraved place people in the West seem to think it is.  Mr. West, the president of a YMCA in the USA, undertakes a trip to Russia in order to find out whether the Bolsheviks are really as frightening as they appear in the pages of Life magazine (source of capitalist lies and symbol of capitalist decadence).  First event on arrival: his briefcase is stolen.   (Irony: things haven't changed much.  You can expect the pretty much the same treatment today when visiting "former" communist countries.)  Next event: Mr. West's side kick, a cowboy in full dress uniform, shoots up Moscow with his revolver.  Friendly Moscow police understand that American cowboys run on instinct and can easily forget where they are, so they let him go.  Always the friendly KGB, at your service.   Next: We see that the incredibly stupid Mr. West is fond of walking around with thousands of dollars in cash on his person -- just like all capitalist pigs.  Street criminals hatch a plot to relieve him of his spare cash, while preventing him from encountering the "real" Bolsheviks.  (Besides, Americans neither deserve nor need the spare thousands they have, so no real harm done.)   And so on....  Deepest irony: when Mr. West is introduced to "real" Bolsheviks...well, I won't spoil it for you, but this display of what Russians assume speaks well of their culture sends a chill down the spine.  The same can be said for Mr. West's final revelation, in which he expresses his admiration for one of the most infamous mass murderers of all time.

October
Another Eisenstein masterpiece -- and still another propaganda film commissioned by the Soviet government.  Produced in 1928, and intended as part of series that would document the history of the glorious revolution, it was regarded by many as one of the best films in the world at the time. The principle contribution of this film really has nothing to do with its subject matter, but with film-making art.  Viewed from the perspective of the post cold war era, however, I can not convince myself that Eisenstein really believed in the revolution.  The "characters" from the various factions, including the victorious side, appear to be unwitting fools acting out parts in play they do not understand. This, of course, is one of the points of Marxist ideology. We are the pawns of historical forces, so the character of individuals is unimportant. As in Potemkin, there are no real characters, in the contemporary sense, that rise above the swelter of history and through who's eyes we see it unfold. Nevertheless, characters from all the groups exhibit a mixture of pure and impure motives.  In the final analysis, I believe Eisenstein shows that human foibles are just as much a part of the "good" as the "bad."  Of particular interest is the scene in which one of the "good" Russian soldiers is momentarily "spooked" by the fancy accouterments of the Queen's boudoir.

Burnt By the Sun
Excellent film by any standard. Shows how official aims of secret police could be subverted by need for personal revenge -- a need which was itself engendered by the paranoia of life under Stalin. Secret identities, guilt, dominance and submission, the festering sores of envy, the endless cycle of crime and punishment.

The Inner Circle
Good film. Hollywood ending in which hero comes to his senses, but chilling story, based on truth, about how institutionalized hero worship (fascism) can destroy the capacity for love.

"Death Camp Dad film"
Not the real title, of course. Saw it many years ago at the Lincoln Center, and lost the production notes. Produced around 1988-1992 in Russia. Tells of a son's journey to Siberia to claim the body of, and handle the funeral arrangements for his father, who was a guard at one of the Soviet death camps.  Torn between guilt and the duties of making arrangements, the son's journey becomes a metaphor for the nightmare of communism, visited upon a whole nation for 72 gruesome years.  I interpret the "bus scene" as a metaphor for the inexplicable, fantasy-like, self-imposed mortification of the nation under communism.  Stark, brutal, intense, unforgiving realism.  One of the finest films I have seen, regardless of subject matter.   Beautiful cinematography in black and white makes the film all the more compelling.    Anyone with production notes and/or availability information on this film, please contact mindtools.