Autocrat as Messiah: The Fall of Berlin
Padenie Berlina (The Fall of Berlin, Mikheil Chiaurelli, 1950) is the epitome of the politically correct film. No national cinema before or since geared itself to expressly transmit the vision of a single, ruling individual, but this epic deification of Josef Stalin does precisely that. In fact, if it had failed to toe a precise ideological path, it would have meant liquidation for its creators.
The battles of political faiths in the 20th century were similar to Europe’s post-Reformation religious wars, only larger, writ across continents. In this time of demagogues, Stalin’s sway over his countrymen was the most complete, lasting even down to today for Russia’s Soviet nostalgists. A large part of this was due to his absolute control over the means of propagandistic production, of which cinema was the keystone.
Stalin had long conflated the Soviet cause with himself. The Russian leader, uncharismatic but brutally efficient and savvy, recognised the need to establish a cult of personality to help maintain control over the populace. (Wielded alongside his perpetually waged campaign of mistrust and murder among his underlings, it undercut, stupefied, and suppressed any potential opposition.) Using the Soviet Union’s centrally-planned and -controlled media system, he rewrote his past and Russia’s as well, crafting a new and glorious mythos into which the people could invest feelings formerly directed toward now-banned religious institutions in the U.S.S.R. Like some power-mad novelist, he created a new universe – the elements of which only served to reinforce his dominance. Stalin became literally a stand-in for God, or God 2.0, more accurately.
As the Soviet bureaucracy established its sway over its film industry in the early 1930s, the work of more vibrant and experimental Russian filmmakers such as Eisenstein, Vertov, Dovzhenko, and Pudovkin was suppressed, and rigorously vetted productions took their place. For once, the screenwriter was now the primary creative force in filmmaking – directors were reconceived of as technicians whose job was to embody scripts as slavishly as possible. Indeed, it was not directors who were “disappeared” during Stalin’s time as much as it was insufficiently enthusiastic scenarists.
The tenets of this new ideologically-dictated “socialist realism” style were presented through genres such as hero-tales in the mold of the immensely influential film Chapaev (Sergey and Gregori Vasilev, 1934), “common-folk” collective sagas, and frothy musical comedies. In all these films, “revolutionary” values are moral values, and prominently include discipline, self-sacrifice, unquestioning obedience, and fervid nationalistic tenderness and affection.
The heroic representation of Soviet political figures had started with portrayals of Lenin in films such as Moskva v oktyabre (Moscow in October, Boris Barnet, 1927) and Lenin v oktyabre (Lenin in October, Mikhail Romm/Dmitriy Vasilev, 1937). From 1938 on, Stalin edged Lenin out of the public consciousness on screen. Lenin’s persona changed into that of founder/thinker, a prophetic precursor who prepared the way for his messianic and effective protégé who would make manifest the Communist Manifesto. (That Stalin was one among many fighting for supreme power after Lenin’s death in 1924 is, of course, never admitted.)
No fewer than four actors wound up as the key cinematic Stalins during his reign – Mikheil Gelovani, Andro Kobaladze, Aleksei Dikji, and Semyon Goldshtab (the last being that most peculiar of oxymorons, a Jewish Stalin). Their performances in wartime propaganda films such as Valeriy Chkalov (Wings of Victory, Mikhail Kalatozov, 1941) and Oborona Tsaritsyna. 1 seria: Pokhod Vooshilova (Fortress on the Volga, Sergey and Gregori Vasilev , 1942) are uniform – they were of necessity idealised, blandly consistent portraits of the great leader, without a breath of idiosyncrasy, lacking blemish or breath.
There were no alternative perspectives to be obtained inside the Soviet Union. With rare exceptions, foreign films were banned. As doctrinal control increased, the number of releases decreased. In 1948, a resolution crafted by the Soviet Council of Ministers mandated that any film made be staunchly propagandistic. Any given “message” film, hamstrung by censorship, second-guessing, and micromanagement, built on a mountain of trepidation, ultimately waited on the supreme leader’s input before achieving approval. The result was a sparse but pure repertory of films, played over and over again by entertainment-starved audiences until the celluloid became scratch-scarred and the splices fell apart. Indoctrination was all their minds had to feed upon.
The Fall of Berlin is a masterful piece of propaganda, complete fantasy packaged as documentary truth. With red-faced, awkward enthusiasm, puppeteering two-dimensional figures across a Manichean landscape, it unites concepts of personal fulfillment, national integrity, and the benevolent omniscience of Stalin.
Director Chiaurelli’s visual strategy is doggedly naturalistic, which gives even the most egregious departures from historical fact a sense of plausibility. The rich “Sovcolor” filmstock (derived from captured German Agfacolor) provides a mellower range of tones than the Technicolor of the day, but also lends crisp outline to individual figures, giving them a sharper sense of pop, a more vivid near-dimensionality. It freely mixes studio-lit shots, outdoor photography, and not-so-convincing miniature work together, without much regard for tonal continuity.
The opening shot gives us happy children in a field – they are gathering poppies, foreshadowing symbols of imminent, soldierly sacrifice. Our female protagonist, Natasha, is a schoolteacher; the male lead, Alyosha, is a champion smelter in the mighty steelworks nearby. Natasha and Alyosha are, of course, meant for each other. She is portrayed as intelligent, frank, and fearless, even as she parrots party-line banter. He is rough, humble, and ornery. Shy and chaste with each other, they stroll, discussing poetry and music, exhibiting standard-issue melancholy and wistful Russian soulfulness.
Alyosha’s achievement wins his work group the Order of the Red Banner, and for this Alyosha is summoned to meet Stalin himself. (As the orders move through various offices, we first see a portrait of Lenin on a wall in the background; next, an iconic photo of Lenin and Stalin together; and finally, a huge photo of Stalin alone, his chin tilted up in hearty socialist optimism, watching over the widowed mother of the noble steelworker – a smooth iconographic hand-off from the old to the new.)
Stalin is, of course, portrayed as a benign gardener, clad in white, in love with nature, possessed not only of supreme power but of supreme wisdom, and kindness as well – Yoda with a walrus moustache. His disarming approachability overcomes Alyosha’s tongue-tied awe and soon Alyosha is getting relationship advice from him. “I told Stalin I’m in love with you,” he sheepishly confesses later to Natasha.
Of course, the consummation of their love is interrupted by an overflight of invading German bombers, who promptly drop their loads on the wheat field they are traversing, as if out deliberately to spoil their day. Nazi ground troops pull in, Shostakovich’s obedient score does its patriotic duty, and we’re off to the races.
The Natasha/Alyosha narrative fades away at this point, save when needed for plot advancement. We move on to the contemplation of “history”. Fortunately, Stalin is not only a sage, but a master general as well, superior to any man in the room. Despite the invasion, Stalin insists on marking the anniversary of the Revolution, and gives a stirring speech atop footage of Alyosha and Company bumping off Germans by the score.
Making the positive characters in the film paper-thin has the inadvertent effect of making Hitler and his underlings by far the most fascinating and watchable characters on screen. The storytelling rule that villains are inherently more textured and interesting than heroes holds true here. Vladimir Savelev’s Hitler is gleefully, scene-chewingly evil. He is a raging, sputtering, comic-opera bungler, immersed in overblown, decadent, ornate and gilded surroundings that are redolent of the taste of America’s current demagogue-in-chief.
We get ideologically-inflected snapshots of the major players. Churchill is portrayed as a drunken schemer, Roosevelt as an oblivious patrician. (At one point, Hitler boasts, “American business interests are on my side!”) By film’s end, Hitler is almost a tragic figure whose every presumption is flung back in his pale, creased, and baggy face. Ironically, the most filmically beautiful moment in Fall occurs when Hitler and his minions are forced to abandon his command suite for his underground shelter. As they troop out of the room, the lights go out and gusts of papers fly across the room, eddying about their ankles, evoking a sense of futility that is reminiscent of that found in the scenes of tribal bickering in a darkened, collapsing, captured Damascus at the end of Lawrence of Arabia.
“Stalin is always with us,” says Alyosha, reverently, as he receives another Order of the Red Banner on the battlefield. As he and his comrades finally counterattack, take Berlin, free Natasha, and raise the Red banner over the Reichstag, a suitably ethnically diverse crowd of soldiers celebrates. Stalin is triumphant. Like a deus ex machina, Stalin descends from the sky in a silver transport plane and consecrates both the victory and the union of Natasha of Alyosha. And there is great rejoicing. Thus Stalin has reshaped the zeitgeist to his will and emerges as the guiding spirit of the age.
No wonder his adherents have persisted. (Word comes that Armando Iannucci’s forthcoming dark film comedy The Death of Stalin may be banned in Russia – deputy cultural minister Pavel Pozhigailo stated publicly on September 20 that it was a “planned provocation” and that the Culture Ministry would review the film in advance before deciding on its release.) The Fall of Berlin remains powerful, despite its platitudes. It resembles the stained-glass windows in medieval churches that taught the unlettered moral lessons, an illuminated text for the propagation of the faithful. It is a textbook example of what happens to aesthetics when they are bent under the force and heat of ideology.
Stalin’s cult of personality would be identified and rejected by Khrushchev in 1956, and soon Soviet war films would begin to show more signs of nuance, in stronger, more equivocal, and more complex works such as Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, Mikahail Kalatozov, 1957) and Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, Grigoriy Chukrau, 1959). Still, dreams die hard. Even oppressive ones.