Thursday, 10 February 2011

Georgi Vasilyev, Sergei Vasilyev: Chapaev - Чапаев (1934)

Chapaev (1934)

Directors: Georgi Vasilyev, Sergei Vasilyev
Writers: Anna Furmanov, Dimitri Furmanov (novel),
Stars: Boris Babochkin, Leonid Kmit, Varvara Myasnikova

The film was awarded as "Best Foreign Film" by US National Board of Review in 1935 and Grand-Prix of Paris World Affair in 1937. By poll of cinema critics (1978) the film is considered as one of the best 100 films in the world history. After the release of the film, Chapaev and his assistants Petka and Anka became Russian folklore characters. This trio, together with their political comissar Furmanov is present in high amount of Russian jokes.

"The whole country will watch Chapayev" thundered the Soviet daily Pravda on 21 November 1934 in its first editorial devoted to a single film. And indeed, a staggering proportion of the country did go and see it. The film's run-away success might seem a touch curious in retrospect. After all, the film was a paragon of Stalin's repressive credo for the arts, Socialist Realism. However, overwhelmingly in its favour, Chapayev was the first film to be made in the USSR to have a hero who was truly Russian and not Soviet. Now the film is on show again.

The October revolution was far from sufficient to deliver Russia into Bolshevik hands and the civil war which followed gave ample stories for the Party to rewrite the national book of myths and heroes with a new slant. One such hero was Vasiliy Ivanovich Chapayev and the legends which surrounded him were written up as a novel by Dmitri Furmanov, Chapayev's Political Commissar (the Party's man keeping an eye on what their commanders were up to).

The film Chapayev (1934) by the Vasiliev "brothers" (actually they weren't brothers at all) was based on the novel. Like the book, the film tells the tale of the changing relationship between Chapayev, or just plain Chapai to those who know him well - and the resented commissar sent to keep him "on-message". Whereas the book renames the commissar Klychkov, the film restores the name Furmanov to the character. Chapayev is almost everything a Party man could wish for in a hero: an illiterate carpenter with a fearsome willpower to see the Red Army to win and a raging thirst to educate himself. His men adore, respect and fear him - his enemies just respect and fear him. Although Chapayev's attitude toward Furmanov remains frosty, the legendary commander takes his message on board and when Furmanov gets transferred to another division, the farewell is a tearful and emotional one, such is the bond that has grown between the two men.

Finally, Chapayev's men are surprised at night by the monarchist "Whites" and Chapayev has to be dragged away wounded from his machine gun cursing in his particular way of referring to himself in the third person "Chapeyev never retreats". The hero meets his end swimming across a river and his faithful adjutant, Petka, dies giving him covering fire, both seconds before the cavalry arrives over the hill to drive the Whites back.

Some of the film's success stems from the unpopularity of the films which preceded it. Whilst masterpieces of form, style and technique such as Bronenosets Potemkim (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) and Chelovek s kinoaparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929) were recognised as such by international audiences with sophisticated comsopolitan tastes, semi-literate peasants and factory workers in the Soviet Union were less than impressed with these experiments in cinematic discourse. Not only did these films dispense with traditional plot structure in story-telling, they also disposed of the single named hero. Individual experiences were ignored and the plot was played out by groups of people rather than individuals. Although good Communist politics, this did not sit well with the populist side of Communist aesthetics and in the 1930s, heroes returned. Chapayev was so firmly rooted in the idea of a hero that he even gave the film its name.

Not that these new films with heroes were lacking in Communist politics, far from it. In Chapayev, the Reds are depicted in only the most glowing terms whilst the Whites are shown to be full-blown baddies. The Whites raid and loot the villages they liberate, whereas the Reds take severe action against officers who encourage stealing. Whilst Chapayev lounges around at ease with his men, the White commander deigns to see only one subordinate throughout the film, his bat man whom he treats with coolness. Indeed, when Petrovich's brother is sentenced to death, the unfeeling colonel commutes the sentence to 100 strokes with the ramrod, supposedly as a favour to his servant. In fact, the blows kill him all the same.

The compassion of the Reds is shown by Petka who is sent on a mission to capture a White soldier to interrogate him about the enemies plans. Petka runs across the forlorn Petrovich who is out angling so he can make fish soup for his dying brother. Moved by the man's tear-jerking story of White cruelty, Petka lets the hapless Petrovich go so he might save his brother from death. This is no small sacrifice; aside from the court martial he faces as a result of his actions, he gives up an opportunity to show Anna, the girl he has fallen for, that he is a hero in real life and not "just with the girls." Dedicated fans of Russian cinema will instantly recognise this story device. Such demonstrations of the importance of social duty above such petty personal agendas as true love were de rigueur in Soviet films from the 1930s onwards.

Chapayev himself shares several interesting features in common with Stalin. He sports a dashing moustache in a style not dissimilar to the one the great dictator would wear in later years. He also stays up all night planning and thinking, a supposed habit of Stalin's which led to the officially encouraged belief that the country need not worry, because there would always be a light on in the Kremlin, since Comrade Stalin was up working late for the good of the country.

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