Based on Nikolai Ostrovskii's novel.
Directed by Aleksandr Alov, Vladimir Naumov.
Starring Vasili Lanovoy, Elza Lezhdey, Tatyana Stradina
Pavel Korchagin is a cinematic rendition of Nikolai Ostrovskii’s socialist-realist classic, How the Steel Was Tempered (1934). The entire narrative of the film is delivered as a flashback of the blind and paralyzed hero—identified with both Ostrovskii and his fictional image—who has recently completed his novel-memoir about the Revolution and who has just learnt that the only manuscript of the book has been lost in the mail. Thus, the meta-diegetic frame opens with despair and, after the mnemonic journey of the film’s main part, closes at the end with Korchagin-Ostrovskii’s resolution to begin writing the novel anew. The addition of the Ostrovskii plot to the Korchagin plot of the novel produces a completely new textual structure—a circular line of a potentially eternal return: the reenactment of Pavel’s life narrative in memory (and on screen) justifies and triggers a return to writing, so that after Pavel’s story ends on the screen, it begins on the page (but when all pages are written, they will be lost again, and the reel of reminiscence will have to be spun anew). The relation between past and present is one in which the past restores identity that, in the present, is threatened by disintegration (this is a relation essential to Thaw culture as a whole). But this operation would have been impossible if the past told a story of how Pavel came to be what he is, if it offered him nothing but a succession of earlier, transcended “selves” (as do the vitae of all typical socialist-realist heroes). Instead, Pavel searches in the past for one constant self that needs to be reaffirmed in the present, and it is this fixity of self—not its dialectic historicity—that unites the two temporal planes.
Lodged within the hero’s personal past, the Revolution loses its status as a socio-political event, a kernel in an ongoing historical narrative. It designates, rather, a plateau of experience that displays the highest manifestations of human self, a realm of ultimate being. There is nothing historical about this realm, nothing in it that is subject to “pastness.” The panorama of social change, the antagonism of classes and ideologies characteristic of a given stage of historical development are marginalized in Alov and Naumov’s film. The Revolution is deliberately “localized” in a singular, isolated enterprise: the building of a narrow railroad siding to a storage area for firewood somewhere in the Ukrainian countryside. This construction project has no connection whatsoever to the main course of events associated with the Revolution; it does not participate in a larger, overarching social project. The railroad that is its result is also its emblem: after it fulfills its singular mission, it becomes obsolete; once the supply of wood is exhausted, the road ceases to lead anywhere; it remains suspended in emptiness, outside the organized traffic of society and history. But it is precisely this dead-end road that leads Pavel Korchagin back to himself. Returning home, where, within a year, complete paralysis and blindness await him, Pavel gets off the train intent on putting an end to his life. It turns out that the place he has chosen for his suicide is none other than the Boiarka train station—the site of that same railroad construction in which Pavel had taken an active part and which is, to a large extent, responsible for his present physical decrepitude. The encounter with the landmarks of the past has the effect of spiritual rebirth (thus duplicating the narrative movement of the film as a whole): it is a return to a former, yet perennially valid, sense of self.
It is precisely the traditional Marxist reading of history that had led Pavel to disorientation and thoughts of suicide: minutes earlier (while still on the train), he had seen himself as an outsider, an obsolete presence in the new society engendered by the Revolution. His interrupted train ride is, in this sense, a symbolic act: Pavel steps aside from the future-oriented movement of history, acknowledging his inability to be a part of it. But in Alov and Naumov’s film, the main railroad, on which the train of historical events takes the individual and society through time, moving according to a (supposedly) reliable schedule, is the road that leads to confusion.[ii] The real road of history in the Thaw is the road that does not move toward any destination: it is a blind alley that, instead of leading man to ever higher forms of social consciousness and interaction, displays to him the ever same essentials of his existence. ...