|Photo: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow|
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
Viewed at Teatro Verdi, with e-subtitles in English and Russian, grand piano: John Sweeney, 8 Oct 2015
Peter Bagrov (GCM catalog and website): "Watching or writing about the films of Ivan Pyriev (1901–1968) – one of the most popular and controversial directors of Soviet cinema – is as if you are dealing with two directors who couldn’t possibly have anything in common. There are carnivalesque “kolkhoz comedies” – or should we say “idylls” – the standard for socialist realism in cinema: Tractor Drivers (Traktoristy, 1939), The Swine Girl and the Shepherd (Svinarka i pastukh, 1941), Kuban Cossacks (Kubanskie kazaki, 1949). And there are grim, colourful, hysterical adaptations of Dostoevsky: The Idiot (Idiot, 1958) and The Brothers Karamazov (Bratia Karamazovy, 1968) – preceded by The Party Card (Partiinyi bilet, 1936), a truly Dostoevskian drama of “a man from the underground” – diplomatically disguised as a typical Stalinist spy story.
His first two comedies – the now-lost Strange Woman (Postoronniaia zhenschina, 1929) and the rarely seen The State Official might be the “missing links”. The State Official is a witty eccentric comedy – and anything but an idyll. Pyriev wanted to achieve an Expressionist feeling, as is evident not only in some of the sets and camerawork (for instance, a Russian Orthodox church proved an excellent subject for Expressionist lighting), but also in the film’s casting. Two sinister actors discovered by Abram Room – Naum Rogozhin, “a Soviet Nosferatu”, and Leonid Yurenev, a massive creature with no neck – were rarely given an opportunity to play comedy, but are here shown off to their best advantage. Not to mention Maksim Shtraukh, who was soon to become one of the screen’s famous Lenins (he played the part in five pictures, including Sergei Yutkevich’s “nouvelle vague” film Lenin in Poland [Lenin v Polshe, 1966]). At this time, though, Shtraukh was a leading actor in Meyerhold’s theatre, an ambitious intellectual with a taste for the pathological and a talent for extracting charm from these pathologies. Eisenstein was dreaming of making a comedy with Shtraukh; and Pyriev – Eisenstein’s former pupil and constant green-eyed competitor – must have been proud to win at least in this little field.
Initially The State Official was intended to have no protagonists whatsoever – all the characters were to be either crooks of various breeds or idiots. And it is important to point out that the story was not set in the “bourgeois western world”, nor in the “doomed tsarist past”: everyone was working in a typical Soviet state-run office.
The main character, Apollon Fokin, is a humble cashier. He is law-abiding, and works honestly and dutifully for the Soviet powers which he secretly despises. While carrying a huge sum of public money, he is robbed by a crook defined in the intertitles as a “true Russian man”. During their fight the bag of money falls down a flight of stairs. Later Fokin discovers the bag again and embarks on a double life. After work, together with his wife, they play with the money, arranging it in varying stacks as they plan how they are going to spend it “when better times come”. Meanwhile, during work he is acclaimed as the hero who tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to save the property of the state. The clandestine millionaire is about to enjoy a big Party career. He is even elected a deputy of the Mossovet (Moscow Soviet of People’s Deputies). Late at night he approaches a statue of Lenin with a question: “What a career you’ve made for yourself! And for me? A free fare in the city tram?” After that he tears up his deputy mandate – and wakes up. He is no deputy, just a cashier who stole state money and is now about to be punished for the crime.
This version of the film was immediately banned – the first and last time Pyriev experienced such a blow.
“Pyriev and ideology” might be an exciting topic for a novel, let alone a big research study. Member of the Communist Party, Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, laureate of every prize and order a Soviet artist could get, and later on the artistic director of Mosfilm and the founder and head of the Union of Filmmakers (an organization that could both control and defend), he was nevertheless capable of saying (and doing!) the most unexpected things. In 1947, walking through the corridors of the Ministry of Cinema after an official meeting, he suddenly exclaimed: “I am of Meyerholdian descent, after all! I’d rather play tricks!” It took a lot of risk and bravado to mention in public the name of Meyerhold, an “enemy of the state”, executed in 1940. Pyriev’s apparent anti-Semitism was common knowledge. Yet, during the anti-Semitic campaign of 1949 he instructed his Jewish colleagues how to behave in the face of the authorities in order to escape further persecution. In his own accusatory speech he refrained from mentioning a single name of a living person. Finally, he assigned one of the campaign’s victims, the celebrated composer Isaak Dunayevsky, to write the music for his Kuban Cossacks: it turned out to be one of the most famous scores in the history of Soviet cinema.
In the case of The State Official, finding himself in a difficult situation, Pyriev did not try to struggle. He waited several months, until he got permission to re-edit his film. He had to insert a storyline involving enemies of the Soviet government who are organizing sabotage on the railroad (a new, political purpose for robbing the cashier); he excluded the wonderful sequence with Lenin’s monument. But luckily the overall atmosphere did not change. Yes, he had to sacrifice a few delicious intertitles, as when Apollon Fokin’s little daughter asked, “Daddy, what is Lenin?”, to which he replied, “Lenin is a good boy who never disturbed grown-ups.” That went, to be replaced with a less elegant but finally even more risky exchange: “Daddy, what is a saboteur?” – “Saboteurs, honey, are bolshevist fables.” What’s more, the ill-fated and now exposed Apollon arouses nothing but sympathy – he is another in the long succession of “little men” immortalized by classic Russian literature. No wonder Pyriev ended up making Dostoevsky." – Peter Bagrov
AA: Ivan Pyriev was a towering phenomenon in Soviet cinema, and I have a hard time in relating to him. Six O'Clock In the Evening After the War and The Tale of the Siberian Land I can understand, but the Stalinist model operas I find impossible to stomach, although I find the deep currents of unrest intriguing in a film such as The Cossacks of the Kuban. I love Dostoyevsky, and a true Dostoyevsky spirit for me means full insight in characters whose feet are deep in the mud yet whose souls are pursuing heaven, with a gentle sense of humour in the approach to the outlandish narratives. In Pyriev's adaptations so much of the substance is missing that I do not recognize Dostoyevsky in them.
In his program note above Peter Bagrov reveals the devilish circumstances in which The State Official was made. Stemming from a great tradition of Russian satire of bureaucracy, Pyriev's approach to the grotesque tale reminds me a little bit of Skvernyy anekdot / [A Nasty Story] (1966), the Dostoyevsky adaptation by Aleksandr Alov and Vladimir Naumov, and Zvanyy uzhin / [Dinner Party] (1953) by Friedrich Ermler, both of which were initially shelved. Associations run even to Vadim Abdrashitov's Ostanovilsya poyezd / [The Train Has Stopped] (1982), a metaphor of the stagnation era of the USSR.
Whereas the heavy-handed satire on the Church is reminiscent of Eisenstein and Prazdnik svyatogo Yorgena / [The Feast of St. Jorgen] (1930) directed by Yakov Protazanov.
The montage sequences (the railway, the city, the office, the coins) are striking. In the film's dealing with the first five year plan and the celebration of work it is sometimes difficult to tell where the satire ends and the political message begins.
The eccentric performances have an affinity with the FEKS school. The State Official is a difficult film to digest, and after a long day which had started with the almost four-hour German epic Helena I confess I was no longer alert enough to truly appreciate it. Undoubtedly it's a film worth revisiting.
A good print.