by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky)
translated by G. S. Smith
Fun facts: Obviously the ‘certain person’ was Stalin and his era of terror where indeed there was order, compared to the era of thaw, but I was surprised to find actually ‘The Happy Fellas’ actually does exist! It is the 1934 film Веселые ребята a.k.a. ‘Jolly Fellows’ or ‘Funny Boys’ depending on how you choose to translate the title.
Jolly Fellows (Russian: Весёлые ребятаVesyolye rebyata), also translated as Happy-Go-Lucky Guys, Moscow Laughs and Jazz Comedy, is a 1934 Soviet musical film, directed by Grigori Aleksandrov and starring his wife Lyubov Orlova, a gifted singer and the first recognized star of Soviet cinema.
The script was written by Aleksandrov, Vladimir Mass, and Nikolai Erdman (whose father briefly appears on screen as a German music teacher). It features several songs which instantly became classics across the Soviet Union. The most famous song — “Kak mnogo devushek khoroshikh” (Such a lot of nice girls) — enjoyed international fame, covered as “Serdtse” (Heart) by Pyotr Leshchenko. Music was by Isaak Dunayevsky, the lyrics were written by the Soviet poet Vasily Lebedev-Kumach.
Both Orlova and her co-star, the jazz singer and comic actor Leonid Utyosov, were propelled to stardom after this movie.
Slutsky, of course, is mocking how the film is sacchrine, state sanctioned, sanitised humorous entertainment with no challenging elements or anything that might make the audience think about their social hardships they are living through during Stalin’s era of non-conforming people being made to ‘disappear’ for speaking or acting out, gulags and starvation. Everything is fine citizen, watch the film and feel good about life… everything is in order. No one deviates, no one transgresses, no one thinks or acts differently. There is order – or else!
Fun fact: Here Akhmatova refutes a comparison being made of herself to an oracle when saying she is not a Sibyl. In doing so she is challenging any suggestion she speaks a bluntly stated truth about their society, as many of her close friends had in their works and suffered for it, through her poetry during the Soviet era – specifically the era this was written under Stalin’s reign. At the same time in this denial she acknowledges a certain level of cowardice, by in a way ‘going with the flow’, knowing she behaves as such to avoid imprisonment or exile – again as many of her contemporaries and loved ones were fated to suffer during this era.
The sibyls were women that the ancient Greeks believed were oracles. The earliest sibyls, according to legend, prophesied at holy sites. Their prophecies were influenced by divine inspiration from a deity; originally at Delphi and Pessinos, the deities were chthonic deities. In Late Antiquity, various writers attested to the existence of sibyls in Greece, Italy, the Levant, and Asia Minor.
The English word sibyl (/ˈsɪbəl/ or /ˈsɪbɪl/) comes — via the Old French sibile and the Latin sibylla — from the ancient Greek Σίβυλλα (Sibulla). Varro derived the name from theobule (“divine counsel”), but modern philologists mostly propose an Old Italic or alternatively a Semitic etymology.
During Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, disgraced Ministry of State Security (MGB) Agent Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) uncovers a strange and brutal series of child murders by a serial killer who everyone claims does not exist because it is Soviet doctrine that capitalism creates serial killers, not communism.
I saw this film because Soviet Russia is not a topic often represented sympathetically in Western made films. They are the default ‘enemy’ in many spy films e.g. James Bond’s S.P.E.C.T.R.E. /SMERSH, movies and books respectively (though the latter did exist in real life briefly), where they are just cannon fodder decrying the evils of Capitalism while their leaders inevitably are corrupt hypocrites accruing as much wealth as they can. If the villain isn’t a Nazi during the early to mid twentieth century it can be assured Russian Communists are somewhere nearby listening through planted bugs. I hoped we would see individuals, flawed but rounded, dealing with events with a range of emotional responses befitting the situation but what we got was the usual ‘Russians feel only anger or nothing’ stereotypes but this time set within the frame work of a very weakly implimented murder mystery which seems to be forgotten about most of the time so it can be reitterated, for the hundredth time, how bad Communism was as if it wasn’t obvious already.
Cast: A selection of good actors with a poorly implemented adaption of the novel’s labyrinthine narrative to portray. Tom Hardy, as Leo Demidov, is very good in the leading role and proves he is a versatile actor but the script doesn’t give him much emotional range beyond anger and remorseful resignation to his situation. Gary Oldman, as General Nesterov, is serviceable but his role is limited during the film with his character going for a vindictive superior to being a steadfast ally with no real middle ground to explain his shift in behaviour. Noomi Rapace, as Raisa Demidov, was miscast. She has a face that I couldn’t get used to throughout the film. Maybe it’s that her eyes and nose looked very small for her face yet I have seen her in other films and had no issue with her appearance but there was something off about her here… if I am honest I have watched quite a few actual Russian films and so I must admit that her face is not at all appropriate and, if I am honest, her character felt very much dependant as being a foil to protray Leo either positively or negatively whenever the story required it thus leading her to come across as very opportunistic. However she was not as badly miscast as Fares Fares as Alexi Andreyey who just seems terribly out of placein his acting ability although it may have been due to his character being quite two dimensional as Leo’s friend, who inevitably is going to die at some point to increase the drama stakes of the narrative, so there was little to work with. They both give good performances with what they have to work with but do not fit the setting although you might argue no one here does.
I should note that there don’t seem to be any Russian actors involved. There is one Polish actress, Agnieszka Grochowska as Nina Adreeva, in a minor role but, aside from Josef Altin playing Alexander, who is of Turkish descent, everyone is a mix of Western European ethnicities especially it seems Swedish which is the ‘go to’ nationality for people playing Russians in Western films e.g. Rocky IV as they most often fit the propagandist image of the New Soviet man Stalin endorsed and Western propaganda, up until the fall of the Soviet Union, used often in films i.e. blonde haired, blue eyed and usually tall and physically imposing though that is not as much the case here. All the supporting actors, especially Joel Kinnaman as ‘evil team mate’ and antagonist Vasili Nikitin, do well in their roles but the main cast seem to be pressured into using the Russian accent which I felt hampered their performances as they had to juggle maintaining it and thus were unable to focus on giving the best performance possible.
Technical aspects: The film is really bogged down by certain style choices such as having everyone (apart from one actor with a single line of dialogue towards the end which is very jarring once you are used to the accent and hear his crystal clear elocution) speaking in very pronounced Russian accents. In contrast we have only Ron Perlman, as a comic relief caricature of Hollywood’s usual depiction of Russian soldiers, doing a hockey ‘Rooshian Akksent’ in 2001’s ‘Enemy At The Gate’ so all the dialogue is otherwise perfectly audible without having to over focus on it.
The colour palate of the film is of course very much geared towards earthy tones with some harsh contrasts in key scenes. The red of the uniform epaulletes, rich browns and greens of Leo’s Moscow apartment, the steely blues of the industrial areas and luscious greens and browns of the forest scenery. Ultimately the film could have been better served by being desaturated as the eye acknowledges the colour scale used and it is not aesthetically pleasing. There is an overt focus on showing the grimness of Soviet life but in doing so they forget to make the scenery interesting to maintain the audience’s attention believing the dry, expositional, dialogue alone will do this for them.
The cinematography is very standard which in a film like this, with so much dialogue and half-hearted efforts towards world building, really fails to maintain the audience’s interest. It is one of the only films where I have been uncomfortably shifting in my seat and looking at my watch within 40 minutes of the start. If they had panning shots of the scenery during conversations or mixed up close and long shots during events it would not be such a tired, dragging, experience. Perhaps this was intentional to further indicate to the audience how life was in the Soviet Union however this could easily have been done through showing the run down scenery, having the actors move with no great sense of urgency when moving – ultimately there are any number of techniques which could have been used to express this rather than sopping all movement of screen dead and have talking heads. Imagine if you went to the theatre and the actors just walked to the front of stage and recited their lines then returned to the side when it was the next persons turn to speak or you read a comic where all the artists depicted was talking heads. This is a technique that you are constantly made aware is exceptionally lazy when learning about these narrative styles yet this film relies on this flawed technique far too much when the dialogue itself is plodding and dull. Contrast the imagery of this film with A Driver For Vera, Водитель для Веры, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Driver_for_Vera ) set in 1962 and the contrast in the looks of the scenery are immense. One has an agenda for making every single moment of existence a grim, claustrophobically harrowing experience, while the other has an appreciation of the scenery and landscape.
It is worth watching and there are plenty of channels with the full film on them with English subtitles should you go look.
Life in the Soviet Union was brutal, the authorities were corrupt, people in authority abused their position while average citizens lived in fear of being persecuted based on unfounded allegations!
This is the overriding and heavy-handedly delivered message of the film. It is the same message you get in any films set in the Soviet Era when done by non-Russians (though for them it was a given and no doubt the older generations have reiterated their own first hand experiences of the Soviet era to them at every family gathering so it is a given). I would assume it was a given to anyone nowadays but there you go…
Who is this film for? The murder mystery is not the real focus but Leo’s conflict with the corrupt authority figures he encounters and the social ambivalence and apathy he encounters. The depiction of the Stalinist era is generic and has been seen time and time again in other films giving no new insight into people’s daily concerns. Everyone is a character archetype not a fully rounded individual. It seems like the multi-facetted novel has been unflatteringly adapted when the multiple threads would be better suited to a mini-series perhaps or even if they stripped the narrative bear ad only focused on one or two threads and omitted others?
So now onto a few points I noted during my viewing of the film in the cinema i.e. the ranting bit of the review:
Yevgeny Khaldei’s ‘Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag: After a close quarters gun battle Leo Demidov and his friend, Alexei, were the ones to put the flag over the Reichstag building. Alexei had a large number of watches he had taken off the dead and the photographer (is it meant to be Khaldei?) told him to take them off so the photo can be better used for propaganda purposes thus referring to the historical issues people had with the real photo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_a_flag_over_the_Reichstag ). I don’t know if this is actually meant to suggest it is the real life event or a sort of pseudo-real equivalent of the event. It was like someone making a film set during the Nixon administration of the USA and you got a sequence where the main character was one of the body guards present at JFK’s assassination. It felt a lazy attempt to make the audience feel the character is historically significant though an artificial construct.
The issue of Russia’s views on homosexuality are addressed: At one point, after Leo has left Moscow as he would not denounce his wife; there is a station master who was witness to a murder. It is revealed he is a homosexual and he is then persecuted. He is interrogated by Gary Oldman’s character, General Nesterov, and the names of other homosexuals are taken from him as they are, by default of being homosexuals, considered to be suspects in the murder of the children. These men are then rounded up and the last scene we see of the station master is him walking up to the unbarred train track and throwing himself under the train. Very Anna Karenina… It was a common issue worldwide during this period to assume homosexuals were also by default paedophiles in the tradition of Ancient Greek ‘boy love’. It is one of the more shameful prejudices that doesn’t get mentioned much nowadays, in more enlightened times, so at least the novel, and by extension the film, notes it and shows how arbitrary the assumption is when made and its tragic consequences. Let us not forget that this was well within the living memory of the generation that refused to acknowledge Alan Turing’s achievements due to his homosexuality for which he was convicted of indecency in January 1952. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing ). The film unfortunately seems to imply this was an exclusively Russian perception of homosexuality and not a generational one globally.
Russians are misogynistic: The film begins with a dinner party where Leo recounts how he met his wife and she had given him a false name. Once there are exiled from Moscow into a run down, backwaters, industrial town she reveals that not only did she lie about being pregnant, in order to save her own life thus damning them both, but also married him out of fear as he was part of the authorities and would have done something to her had she refused. After this they suddenly become far closer which to me was jarring and especially at the end when they decide to adopt the orphaned farmer’s daughters. There felt no development in their relationship but sudden leaps from one step to the next in order to progress the narrative. The film criticises how she feared him as a man and yet she ultimately becomes just a tool in his investigations by then end so the film seems to want its cake and eat it too. Whenever women appear in this film they are very maginalised, not due to the film’s subject, but the film makers maintaining the status quo for big budget American thrillers where men deal with serious issues while women are window dressing unless they are a vicitm. If you see how they do the ‘I married you out of fear’ scene you will understand how it could have been done far better and lost what was going to be quite a powerful scene where Leo would have to confront his own position in society as one of the MGB who citizens intrinsically feared. Instead we got a scene that made me feel like she was an ungrateful, self centred, coward who damned both of them which was definitely not the intention when originally written.
Communism was corrupt: There is a heavy reiteration that the bureaucracy of Soviet Russia was corrupt and there were repeated efforts to get people to obey government views unquestionly. Early on, after a list of names is given by a, presumably innocent but nonetheless chased and interrogated, man Leo is expected to get a confession from his wife admitting she is a spy for the British government. He refuses to denounce her as there is no evidence and so is sent away from Moscow and demoted to the local militia. His wife tells him on the train it was nothing but an experiment in blind obedience. I think I could sum it up as the wife was very unlikeable and was meant to be the voice of reason but instead seemed to endorse every negative misogynistic stereotype the film seemed to want to challenge but instead seemed to take pleasure in depicting.
Killers are all the same one dimensional creatures: We really learn nothing about him throughout the film until the final monologue he does and even then it really comes across not as the justifications, understandable or not, for his actions but a massive amount of very sudden exposition poorly used to draw a parallel that Demidov could have become like him. Except the killer is a cannibal who was in a Nazi concentration camp and it is suggested it wasn’t that experience which made him become, out of a necessity for personal survival, a cannibal recently but he was one as far back as his childhood in the orphange though I personally took that line of dialogue metaphorically as a rephrasing of ‘its a dog eat dog world’ not literally as some other viewers apparently have. It felt very cliche to the point I can’t hel but feel if this was a better film this would be one of the major moments that would be parodied it seems so arbitrary and ridiculously melodramatic without any real set up e.g. maybe in the background seeing a boy who is very noticeable in the films introduction of Leo, when he was a child escaping the orphange, who it then remmebered in retrospect and is suspiciously similar to the man we later encounter in the film. When the killer is revealed properly he has a distinct limp though before we see his face he walks relatively normal – you can watch the trailer and see there is no overly pronounced limp present. He doesn’t have a limp early on when we see him luring children away from a distance so we must ask: was he meant to have a limp throughout? Was there perhaps a scene in the book but omitted from the film explaining it? This ‘physical fault equals moral fault’ is a very old narrative device which has been used for centurys, perhaps most famously with the fictionalised version of the titular Richard III in William Shakespeare’s play, and it appears here without much context except to visually indicate to the audience immediately who the killer is and to give an easy to see fault with him. Except this is already done as he is dressed distinctly from the rest of the cast in a clean black suit when everyone else is in uniform or mottled earthy tones. therefore, for me, this film more or less ignores the cardinal rule ‘show don’t tell’ by reiterating his impropriety with a few scenes of him acting psychotically while alone which have no real context except to show how he drowns the boys and seems to consider it a sort of slef flagulation when done to himself. ‘he is fucked up’ the film makers seem to want us to think but it left me wondering if he wasn’t some parody of serial killers in better films. There is one scene where he brings a boy back to his home from the train station to his wife and we are shown a panning shot stopping on the framed photo of a boy. Was the boy at the train station his son or just a ‘replacement goldfish’? We only see his wife in this one sequence and she is never involved in the narrative again. The film has an annoying habit of introducing things then abandoning them as if to offer red herrings and keep you the audience guessing. Yes the overriding story here is a murder mystery but that doesn’t mean that the narrative itself needs to be a mystery to us! It doesn’t present itself as that kind of film and shouldn’t have delusions of grandeur about what it is capable of. If you introduce something which is not directly involved in the case, but as part of the world building, then it shouldn’t be presented to the audience this way then dismissed immediately. It was if there were ‘easter eggs’ as seen in other films but, and it is important to note this, these are franchised which have ht a certain level of social osmosis so someone not intimately familiar will still notice a reference e.g. many thing in the Marvel films calling back to the comics though not everyone will get every reference – it helps world build but is never suggested as something you need to know to enjoy the film you are currently watching.
Repeat the tag line because the audience are stupid: ‘There is no murder in paradise’ is a phrase repeated a few times during the film. It got tedious as we are all too aware of the oppositon Demidov is facing in persuing his investigation.
The unrealistic happy ending: I felt the ending was a bit too ‘Hollywood Happy’. There is a rather brutal fight during which the protagonists are later shown to have survived serious stab wounds and serious concussions from having their heads hit against rocks repeatedly. During an early part of the film Leo and his team mates are involved in chasing an escaped suspect to a farm house. At the farm house are a farmer, his wife and their two daughters. In Leo’s absence ‘Evil team mate’, who they earlier mocked as he was incapable of firing his rifle when fighting inside the German embassy, kills the farmer and his wife execution style as they are bound and kneeling in front of him begging for their lives protesting their innocence. Leo rushes over and hits him telling everyone to stop this before the ‘evil team mate’ is about to execute the girls. My problem with this scene is that Leo’s friend and a number of other soldiers are stood around and allow the executions but they are never considered part of the moral issue of the killings here.
So how does this mean the ending is poor? The girls recognise Leo as having been involved in the killing of their parents and yet at the end of the film they choose to be adopted by him. Even if he was not directly involved it is highly unlikely they would choose to go with someone associated with their parent’s killing. Even though the film at the start and end depicts the orphanages as brutal places I still find it unlikely the girls would go with him.
Orphans: Another aspect of the film is the theme of orphans. Leo is introduced as a child in an orphanage which he runs away from before being adopted, and renamed, by a man. The killer, in a poorly implemented monologue, tells Leo he too was an orphan and so ‘they are not so different’… I will be honest you learn more or less everything about the killer during this monologue as the previous scenes of him are him pretending to be affable to draw the boys away to murder them, practising the killing technique he uses or doing ‘movie psychopath’ things we have seen a hundred times before in better films (e.g. Se7en, Silence of the Lambs, et al). So is Leo adopting the girls an act of redemption? Him making amends for the killing of their parents by his ‘evil team mate’ Vasili? Is it suggesting that the next generation will have a better life and by doing this and establishing the Homicide Department of the Russian Authorities, which involves him being compliant and agreeing murder is a bourgeois issue that doesn’t exist in Russia expect due to the evil effects of outside forces (the killer was in Germany for a time and was corrupted by them). So in the end Demidov has won a ‘battle’ to find a single killer but lost his moral ‘war’ in achieving it but the film seems to not want to end on this low note.
Use of actual Russian and the adopting of Russian Accents by the cast: During the opening credits there is a shifting from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. I think the Cyrillic is actually in Russian but it moved quicker than I could read it. The thing I found a bit odd was how everyone does Russian accents. While it assists emersion for some audience members I found it quickly became tedious as the quality of the accents was very inconsistent. In comparison ‘Enemy at the Gates’, set in Leningrad during World War 2, where there is no attempt to do this, except Ron Perlman who seems to be in a comedy relief role, and to be honest I would prefer that as it comes across a little awkward with the cast doing it throughout. One actor, who appears only during a very brief scene, doesn’t do the accent and it really takes you out of the film and feels intentionally done. Russian is however spoken in the background throughout the film but obviously not of the time you will not be able to hear it clearly and it is usually generic things such as someone t the train station shouting ‘all clear’ to the train driver.
Anton Chekov once said that you should ‘show not tell’ your narrative. This film ignores that advice and delights in exposition heavy dialogue and reiterating its message that life was brutal during the Stalinist regime. Therefore when you want this film it is more a process in checking off the checklist of Soviet Union tropes, occasionally entertaining the concept of Leo dealing with his seemingly unloving wife and the murder investigation when he can get around to it, rather than a taut thriller. I would have preferred a hatch job adaption where they expanded the murder investigation, especially with the things they kept hinting about without context about the killer and cut out all the other tertiary plots than this half-hearted effort to cover everything with none of it feeling to hold any weight.
Apparently this film was banned in Russia. It was banned as they are about to celebrate the 70th anniversary over the Nazis and so having such a film decrying the failings of the Stalinist era would seem in ill taste at the moment. Perhaps if they delayed it a few years, as many other films tend to be between filming and distribution, it would find a more favourable view but at the moment to release it and criticise the Government for taking into consideration civilian’s sense of national pride during this anniversary seems to be distorted in Western reports of the ban. To be honest they haven’t missed anything due to the ban and more than likely anyone who wants to see it will do so despite the ban. That is the history of banned cinema with examples like Nosferatu, A Clockwork Orange, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, The Party and the People , etc so it definitely isn’t going to change now in the age of digital distribution. This ban is hardly similar to that of the Czech film The Party and The People which was made during the Soviet era and openly challenged it. This is a 2014 adaption of a novel written by a Western author criticising Stalinism. It was just poor timing and if there was a film released criticising Churchill or Thatcher on a significant anniversary I am certain it would receive criticism and be poorly received though admittedly not banned by the government though such acts are not beyond them.
On an aside regarding the act of banning in Britain: I do remember the British government outright banning the Playstation 2 game ‘Rule of Rose’ because of it contained ‘lesbian overtones amongst underage school girls and sequences of intense, brutal, torture’. The lesbian overtones were mostly the innocent infatuation of children with an individual having a one sided obsession towards the protagonist and the torture sequences are always implied to be the embellished, warped, memories of the protagonist having suffered trauma at an unknown point. The overriding indication the player discovers during the game is that the protagonist was remembering her traumatic experiences at the orphanage and what was implied and imagined in childhood is made literal as we are playing through the mindscape of the character remembering her past not a physically real, in context, world where the events of the game are happening as we see them. The game begins after her parents die in an air ship fire after which she is sent to the orphanage. While there a girl, leader of a secret club of girls there who makes them do degrading things and offer her things in order to be members of this special club, becomes obsessed with the protagonist. We learn the stories of each of the girls throughout the game and it is slowly revealed or suggested than some bad things were happening at the orphanage like the head of the school was sexually abusing one girl. A key figure encountered during the game is the grounds keeper who is severely traumatised over the loss of his son. During the game the player is accompanied by a dog who helps you deal with the monsters that attack you but it is revealed towards the end of the game you are playing through the protagonists memories which have, if not become warped due to trauma, are being depicted very literally. The dog at the end of the game is revealed to have just been a soft toy she had been very attached to during her childhood at the orphanage. The tragic ‘final boss’ turns out to be the traumatised, mentally ill, grounds keeper who has dressed up as a dog to please his son having been manipulated by the obsessive girl pretending to be this son. Events take a turn for the tragic as he has already killed all the other girls you have grown to know at the orphanage throughout the game. Upon defeating him the player is given two choices: shoot him or let him commit suicide. There is a short sequence after this where we play the protagonist not as the adult we have known throughout the game but as her age during the real events as she wanders the empty orphanage and comes to terms with what happened. The game ends with her cathartically leaving the orphanage grounds at peace with her past. Why this long explanation of its plot? Because the government had a knee jerk reaction and just took others word for it that it was a game with no redeeming features rather than a darkly psychological game where we literally play through the protagonist’s memories which have become warded over the passage of time where the rumours of childhood and the later emotional maturity make her perception of events warp what we the player see literally portrayed on screen. No as far as the government are concerned it was a game about underage lesbian school girls and torture. Governments either enforce their views or try to stop controversy by ‘protecting’ people even if it is means it has to be based on reactionary, ill informed, information they are provided with instead of a full honest account. Regarding Child 44 I think the Russian Cultural Ministry were doing the latter despite what the media would like to think of them trying to force a state agenda.
If Soviet Russia interests you and you want to see Child 44 wait until you can get it cheap on DVD or can watch it on television while doing something else to ease the dragging nature of the slower scenes. Story telling is about light and dark yet this just keeps drilling down hard on the serious side of the scale and ends up alienating the audience through its insistence on trying to make everything seem so unremittingly dark. If you want Stalinist era films recommended go watch the following:
TL;DR: Child 44 had great potential with such a skilled cast but dropped the ball badly andwas a real bore with its narrative and messages.
I’m sure everyone missed these long winded posts… It is done now. For those of you who read it all here is a small reward: Elena Vaenga and company singing the World War 2 era (or ‘The Patriotic War’ as Russians know it) songs ‘Holy War’ and ‘Katyusha’ 🙂