The Last Bolshevik

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May 7, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

Short of Jean-Luc Godard, no filmmaker has devoted so much time to examining the failure of the ’60s and radical leftism than Chris Marker. Like his politically and philosophically motivated counterpart, Marker participated in collective filmmaking during the late-‘60s, but his involvement with activist causes began back in World War II, in which he fought for the Maquis. After the war, he toured socialist nations and documented his observations and thoughts, which eventually led to him picking up a camera. That personal involvement with leftism offsets Marker’s essay films from Godard’s own: though the New Wave master does not receive nearly enough credit for the emotion and yearning behind even his most intellectual exercise, Marker’s montages and ruminations reveal not only a keen intelligence but emotional tethers to events to which he has a genuine, tangible connection.

Exemplifying this is The Last Bolshevik, a look at the economic and ideological failure of the Soviet Union by way of an elegy for one of its many suppressed artists. Marker introduces his late friend, Alexander Medvedkin, via the recollections not of those who knew him but of the current generation of Russian film students who reveal they’d never even heard his name until they attended art schools and discovered Happiness, a film almost sarcastically described as the director’s most well-known.

Marker’s personal connection to Medvedkin gives the director interview footage to work with and emotional content to complement his philosophical ruminations, but the Russian’s life makes him the perfect choice for an artistic embodiment of the Soviet Union. Born in 1900, Medvedkin came of age in time for the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent civil war, and he died in 1989 as coups in various Soviet states signaled the end of an era. In-between, he tried with all his might to serve the Communist cause, only to be censored at every turn. An old friend of Medvedkin’s describes this bitter irony as “the tragedy of a true Communist in a world of would-be Communists.”

For such a slight running time — only 120 minutes — The Last Bolshevik covers a great deal of ground: Marker devotes space to admiring Medvedkin’s style, which combined avant-garde intellectualism on the order of Dziga Vertov with a penchant for folk culture ingrained by siring generations of peasantry. Footage of Medvedkin’s films1, all of them censored and banned by Soviet authorities in his lifetime, reveals a formidable talent unworthy of the anonymity forced upon him by the same damaging collectivist push against individual talent he so fervently touted in his films2.

Marker uses the tale of the propaganda artist censored by the government he supports as a launching point for his larger view of the failure of Bolshevik Communism. Using not only Medvedkin’s films but the works of such filmmakers as Vertov and Eisenstein, Marker contrasts the idealized, intellectualized images of the movies with the rather more banal truths of actual events. The “Odessa Steps” sequence of Potemkin gets a particularly close inspection as Marker swaps back and forth from the drawn-out masterpiece of Eisenstein’s editing to the placid idyll of the area today, as well as pointing out that the director staged his storming of the White Palace in October not on the actual attack but the far more outlandish re-staging in 1920 to honor Lenin.

Marker opens with film with a George Steiner quote — “It is not the past that dominates us. It is images of the past” — that mirrors the curious arc of Soviet cinema, how film made by filmmakers who idolized truth to the point of fetishism ultimately became the basis for “official” truth for bureaucratic history3. Directors like Medvedkin and Vertov ran afoul of other intellectuals for using obvious studio lighting and actors amid documentary shots, yet by the time Stalin’s purging trials arose in the ’30s, courtrooms subtly boasted cinematic lighting ready made for shooting. Through bureaucratic pressure, Stalin inserted subplots of sabotaged tractors in films in the ’20s and ’30s, blame in every case laid at the feet of the oppositionist figure Bukharin; this preceded Bukharin’s arrest and trial, art preemptively and deliberately imitating life. Only in the tangled web of Stalinist logic could reality itself be seemingly altered to match films that the dictator actively suppressed.

After a time, any film that depicted the Soviet Union as it was got banned even though these starker films were made in response to earlier, more experimental films being banned for formalist exhibitionism. Medvedkin spent the ’20s and ’30s touring Russia in a train he converted into a giant film studio that allowed him to shoot and edit sights of the real USSR in its ideological glory, only to see the realities of Stalin’s collectivist policies, of under-equipped workers starving out in the country. Naturally, this footage got buried so quickly even Medvedkin did not know what happened to it.

So why did Medvedkin remain committed to Communism his whole life? How is it that he could keep the faith every time the censors refused to let a movie be shown to anyone other than a few of his friends? Medvedkin’s gluttony for punishment symbolizes the complacency of the Soviet populace at large in its own destruction. One of the better interview subjects calls Dziga Vertov a “stupid man” for not seeing the purges in the ’30s and maintaining his loyalty until finally broken near his death, and the same applies to Medvedkin4.

With his editing techniques, Marker freezes and layers images to open up new interpretations5, but occasionally he lets something pass without comment that reveals as much about the issues of Communism as his deeper audiovisual analysis: the aforementioned peasant lineage Medvedkin so proudly touted in an interview shows how ingrained class status remained after a supposedly Marxist revolution. That Medvedkin and other kulaks and muzhiks continued to identify as peasants might explain why he and others submitted to Stalinist rule: they were already used to dictatorial rule, so why should things be any different just because the tsars started using different titles?

And so Marker traces Medvedkin’s path, learning editing as head of propaganda for the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, joining the intellectual and experimental quest to find a Soviet image during the ’20s, then succumbing to pressures to make less daring films. Following Stalin’s death, he drifted without purpose until Perestroika rejuvenated him just in time to die. For all the contrasts, juxtapositions, superimposed images and philosophical dialogue, nothing speaks to Marker’s aims of illustrating the fall of the USSR like a simple recounting of his pal’s life.

And yet, one must marvel at Marker’s skills. I find myself surprised that I love his films so, as an essay film runs counter to my firm belief that the viewer’s reading of the film matters more than the artist’s intent. An essay film is nothing but the artist’s intent, assembled through text and image, and Marker certainly discusses his opinions on Medvedkin and Communism in precise detail. The Last Bolshevik opens with a portrait of Felix Yusupov, the Russian prince and co-conspirator in Rasputin’s murder. Marker makes clear the comparison with the director by noting their revolutionary importance: Yusupov would grow up to shoot Rasputin, while Medvedkin would grow up to shoot films. Further emphasizing the split between the real and fictive in Soviet life, Marker tacitly equates the staging of action for filmmaking with action itself in terms of social importance.

The flip-side of an essay film is that, by displaying the artist’s intent so fully and clearly, it gives the viewer a unique opportunity to identify less with the film than with the filmmaker6. An omnipresent sadness hangs over the film, not only in the radical Marker’s dejection with Communism fighting and conflicted feelings over the official end of the Communist union but in his nagging feelings of guilt of not contacting his friend before his death in ’89. Marker actually structures the film as six letters to Medvedkin, all of which contain hints of apology for not delivering them when the man could read them. Marker’s low-quality film stock makes the hand-held footage he collects in the former states of the USSR in ’92 all the more wistful, the video blurring in movement and leaving behind ghostly, lingering images of flames and faces swirling in the frame.

Within nostalgia is bitterness, and The Last Bolshevik teems with political and artistic criticism. Marker notes how movies like Potemkin flopped among Russian audiences, comparing them to the insipid masses of modern America, linking them under the slogan “Morons of the World Unite.” It’s a riotous aside in a high-minded film, and one that reveals how off-the-cuff this intellectual exercise can be. Breaking down a shot in Medvedkin’s Happiness, Marker peers into the lead actor’s face to dig for truths buried in the film’s propagandic nature and the director’s overriding love of Communism. Marker wonders if he’s reading too much into the shot, only to offer up this self-defense: “My work is to question images. And in spite of the obligatory happy end, we see here what was in the muzhik’s eyes when he faced authority. And it was terror.”

Unlike a number of radicals involved in the politically turbulent and Marxist European movements of the ’60s, Marker does not deny the horrors and mass failure of the Soviet Union. But he also recognizes the troubled future of Russia and its splintering bloc states, and when he moves fully into the present at the end, leaving behind his dear Alexander, The Last Bolshevik becomes so moving it hurts. Shots of confused, directionless masses attempting to reestablish sovereignty despite famine and rampant poverty show how completely Communism robbed them, while elegiac sorrow for the millions lost through famine and purges comes out everywhere, even in screenings of Western films belatedly allowed into these nations. Films like Costa-Gavras’ The Confession, based on the Slánský Trial and starring disillusioned leftist Yves Montand, who was lambasted by the left for this movie only for Ukranians to weep with recognition of their struggle 20 years later. In the confusion, people look for targets to blame, seeking not to rebuild broken infrastructure but find those who collaborated with the Soviet government; Marker’s shots inside cathedrals reveal less a culture returning to worship after the fall of atheistic Communism than an attempt by the congregation to find out to what degree the bishops colluded with the KGB.

The Soviet Union, Marker explains, became “the amnesiac bearer of the hope it had long ceased to embody, but which strangely died with it,” and it died with Medvedkin and others of his generation. But in the tatters and rubble of the fallen empire are flecks of hope. The Last Bolshevik may be, in Marker’s words, a “Citizen Kane-like inquest into the life of the Last Bolshevik whose Rosebud was a red flag,” but by the end he’s moved beyond Kane to that Rosebud entirely. The most memorable, meaningful moment of the film, to me, comes almost at the end, as tourists and children play on the broken or tarnished statues of former Party leaders, a statue of Stalin covered up by innocent hands over the eyes and mouth of one of the most feared men in history. While the world may not be the same without a figure like Medvedkin, he could never have lived to see such a thing. But worry not, as Marker says: Medvedkin and his few still-living colleagues may be dinosaurs, but kids love dinosaurs.

1 I found it amusing that Marker included a shot from one of Medvedkin’s films where a bourgeois house in Moscow up and rolls out of the modern city to visualize the shift in social order. Given that Marker made La jetée, which Terry Gilliam mined for his 12 Monkeys, I laughed at seeing a shot so reminiscent of the bought-out insurance firm sailing out to sea in Gilliam’s segment “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

2 Marker’s gift for precise observation leads him to focus on seemingly inconsequential trinkets belonging to Medvedkin, such as a Chinese fisherman the director kept on his desk. Marker extrapolates from this carved doodad Medvedkin’s belief in the old adage “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” clearly a principle for his propaganda films.

3 The most prescient moment of the film concerns an experimental film Medvedkin made about the composer Honneger. Avant-garde superimposition brings Honegger’s symphony to life solely through the layering of images of the musicians, but the movie also condemns the symphony Medvedkin so clearly admires because of its formalism. “Despite [Honegger’s] talent,” Medvedkin’s film argues, “the author is guilty of fetishism of technique.” In that criticism, we can see the inevitable future awaiting such experimental and formally daring artists as Medvedkin and Vertov.

4 Apart from the woman who called Vertov a stupid man and offered up a sort of summary of the emotional belief in Communism near the end of the film, my favorite subject was Medvedkin’s old cameraman, Yakov Tolchan. Marker, aware of the man’s pride at being one of the first to use hand-held cameras, lets Tolchan play with his own camera, and the boyish enthusiasm that breaks out across the old man’s face is infectious. “His last gesture of propaganda will be for Sony,” Marker wryly notes, but his tone is affectionate, not sardonic.

5 One of my favorite moments of the film showed Marker creatively and elegantly finding a way to use his tape-recorded interview with Medvedkin from 1984 with some video without accompanying sound for the director accepting the Lenin Prize. He simply combines the two, and Medvedkin’s serious ruminations on the nature of art are so lovely they’re almost certainly better than whatever kowtowing speech he gave to authorities upon receiving the prize.

6 An unorthodox intermission featuring Marker’s cat lounging on a keyboard speaks as much to the personal drive behind this movie as its more touching moments addressed to Marker’s dead friend. It also recalls Marker’s seminal ’60s-summarizing film A Grin Without a Cat.

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