At first it looks like we’re in for a Soviet Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A group of Red Army soldiers and a young woman on a farm celebrate the end of the Civil War, clown around, laugh, dance, shout. The woman will not be seen again; the friends are Red Army veterans: romantic Shilov (Yuri Bogatyryov), conscientious Sarichev (Anatoly Solonitsyn), wary Kungorov (Aleksandr Porokhovshchikov), hot-headed Andrey (Sergey Shakurov) and the oldest, Lipyagin (Nikolai Pastukhov), playing with his pet mouse. At the end of this prologue, they push an old horse carriage down an incline, before gathering in a tired but happy group hug. The carriage is launched like a ship of hope into the future. It echoes the ship crafted by generations of a family that is the subject of the gorgeous, schmaltzy power ballad playing over the prologue. Emotionally, this song performs a similar function to Burt Bacharach’s ‘Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head’ in Butch Cassidy, yet addresses collective labour rather than individual freedom.
The overall mood is one of nostalgia, jubilation, utopia, recovered plenitude, hope. That the prologue is not all it seems is evident long before the next sequence, a shocking, jarring cut to a rural outpost of the Cheka, or Soviet secret police. Three of the prologue’s jubilant men now sit without talking within an oppressive, naturally lit, makeshift office: Sarichev, now the preoccupied leader, Kungorov, and Lipyagin. The sound of a ticking clock and the scratching of Sarichev’s nib writing urgent dispatches replaces the warm tones of the male singer1. The already static image, which contrasts with the joyous movement of the prologue, freezes every time one of the film’s credits is printed. The unbearable tension that results is only broken when Sarychev hurls an object to stop the clock, but this hardly lightens the mood, even if it varies the film’s theme of passing time. The harmony of action, place, style and mood of the prologue is replaced by stylistic and narrative disjunction – jolts from fixed compositions to hysterical camera movements shot with a distorting fish-eye lens; unaccountable segues from black-and-white to colour and back; tonal shifts from sentimentality to violence to burlesque; set-pieces staged to match the disorientation experienced by their participants. Often the black and white shots look like surveillance footage or police photographs.
The stagnation that is the keynote of the credits sequence is the opposite of the revolutionary energies seen in the prologue. Something has gone badly wrong. This ‘something’ was already present, if only subtly hinted at in the prologue. First of all, like much of At Home Among Strangers – and it is hard to tell whether this is deliberate or due to Mikhalkov’s inexperience in his debut feature – it is initially hard to know what is going on, and where, and when. According to a subtitle in the copy I saw, the man in the opening shots riding furiously on horseback in a vast plain is ‘returning from the [Russian] revolution’. He proclaims ‘brotherhood!’ and ‘peace!’ – keywords of the 1917 October Revolution that took place during a world war that was killing and maiming millions of Russians in the name of the Tsar. On a first viewing it seems as if the sequence on the farm is a celebration of the man’s return, as some of the characters seem to be looking at him, but on closer inspection, the rider does not actually appear in it – his scenes are intercut with those of the friends’ antics. Further, the context and subsequent narrative make it more likely that that the friends are veterans of the Red Army at the end of the Civil War, which broke out soon after the Revolution, with Bolsheviks fighting against domestic monarchists and democrats aided by foreign armies, and finally ended in 1923. Mikhalkov therefore appears to be intercutting two distinct periods, 1917 and 1923, the beginning and culmination of the revolutionary period. These chronological dislocations might be clearer to domestic audiences, but the subsequent narrative perplexities aren’t helped by the fact that four of the main characters are played by similar-looking blondes!
Furthermore, the prologue is shot in the sepia tones of old photographs, which implies an irretrievable past rather than something as dynamic and progressive as a permanent revolution. During the opening stanzas of the song, all the characters are filmed separately, as if locked in their own worlds looking out (this will become are recurring motif of the film, as people and places are separated by windows and doors). This fragmentation at a time of coming together is ominous. The images from the prologue will return as flash memories of a better time when the characters suffer disillusion or despair. What cannot be known on a first viewing is that this idyll (dare I say Garden of Eden?) bears the seeds of its own destruction – one of the celebrants will betray the group, another will be aggrieved at being mistrusted and wrongfully accused. These feelings, which result in a kind of emotional inertia throughout the main part of At Home Among Strangers, tinge the happiness of the film’s second reunion, when Shilov, accused of stealing gold, and having escaped custody and capital punishment to clear his name, recovers his old comrades. In this final sequence, images from the prologue are intercut, but the song addressed to a collective ‘we’ is replaced by a mournful trumpet solo. The idealism of the prologue has been tempered by realism and experience – and amnesia.
Judging by the critical literature, At Home Among Strangers is the least valued of Mikhalkov films – perhaps its rampant cinephilia doesn’t accord with the literary, and especially Chekhovian framework within which he is usually discussed; perhaps its evocation of the ‘Russian soul’ is too ambivalent. At Home Among Strangers was the latest of several Civil War films made in the previous half-decade, whose approached varied from late 1960s irreverence (the ‘Eastern’ White Sun of the Desert, Белое солнце пустыни, Vladimir Motyl, 1969) to sombre allegory (The Commissar, Комиссар, Alexander Askoldov, 1967/1988)2. For Mikhalkov, at least at this stage in his career, the Civil War had to be approached through cinephilia – his next film, A Slave of Love (Раба любви, 1976) is set in a film shoot during the same conflict. Mikhalkov acknowledges the cinematic history of the war – his epic patriotism is a riposte to the reactionary kitsch of Doctor Zhivago (David Lean, 1965); his close-up humanism rejects the anonymous war-as-infernal-machine approach of Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967). An internal critique is conducted on the most famous Soviet film on the subject, Chapaev (Чапаев, Georgi Vasilyev & Sergei Vasilyev, 1934), whose blustering and improbable super-prole hero is parodied in the figure of Andrey, a frantic chocolate soldier who fails to see the action he bawls for.
Butch Cassidy is not the only reference point for a film steeped in the American Western and its often-parodic Italian variant. The familiar iconography and set-pieces are all here, such as a train robbery, complete with dangerous roof climb; moody stand-offs and messy shoot-outs; the sound of cicadas, creaking wood, and distant train whistles; hats, duster coats, guns and boots; epic natural landscapes; campfire philosophy. Famous directors and their signature films are merrily lampooned, from Griffith to Peckinpah via Hawks and Anthony Mann. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966) is the most persistent intertext, with Mikhalkov playing Sergio Leone’s archetypal characters, also hunting for gold during a Civil War. The 1960s Italian Western, taking its cue from critical Hollywood Westerns such as High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) and Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray), began to inject popular Marxism into generic clichés, using the archetypal American form to attack American capitalism and imperialism.
At Home Among Strangers claims to run along those lines. The American Western may celebrate individual heroism, bringing the garden to the desert, but by the early 1920s, the frontier had long closed and daring pioneers were replaced by faceless corporations. This makes it possible for viewers to sympathise with charismatic outlaws who, as private capitalists, are only engaging in a left-handed form of socially sanctioned endeavour. The USSR, by contrast, paid lip service to a communal ideal – the gold that drives the film’s narrative is being sent to the League of Nations in exchange for supplies to feed the Civil-War-ravaged populace. Banditry here is an impious attack on the sacred collective, as noble Shilov explains to the exasperated rogue Lemke (Alexander Kaidanovsky), quoting dutifully from Marx. Unlike the disenchanted cynicism of the Italian Western, however, Mikhalkov retains an affectionate, even boyish affection for the genre, (not least in his own winning performance as a nomadic, cheerfully non-partisan, ‘fancy pants’ dandy who finds himself way out of his depth). This affection carries the viewer through the plot’s many confusions and longueurs.
. . .
At Home Among Strangers (1974 Soviet Union 92 mins)
Prod. Co: Mosfilm Dir: Nikita Mikhalkov Scr: Nikita Mikhalkov & Eduard Volodarskiy Phot: Pavel Lebeshev Ed: Lyudmila Yelyan Prod. Des: Aleksandr Adabashyan & Irina Shreter Mus.: Eduard Artemev
Cast: Yuri Bogatyryov, Anatoly Solonitsyn, Alexander Kaidanovsky, Nikita Mikhalkov, Aleksandr Porokhovshchikov, Sergey Shakurov, Nikolai Pastukhov
- Sarichev is played by Tarkovsky’s favourite actor Anatoly Solonitsyn, who would later star as the writer in Stalker (1979). It might be worth comparing the quest motif in that film with At Home Among Strangers. ↩
- See Louis Menashe, “Chapayev and company: films of the Russian Civil War”, Cineaste 30:4 (Fall 2005), pp. 18-22. ↩