History Delivered in Frames, and How One Thing Led To Another (Web Exclusive)
by Louis Menashe

The Teutonic Knights in hedgehog formation facing the Russians in the "Battle on the Ice" from Sergei Eisenstein's patriotic Alexander Nevsky

Back in the late 1960s, I had the idea to introduce films as learning adjuncts to “Main Themes in Contemporary World History,” the course required of all students at Brooklyn Polytechnic. “Contemporary” meant the twentieth century, a large chunk of time to cover, not to mention taking in the entire globe for study. Things were narrowed down by highlighting certain overarching “Main Themes”—War, Revolution, Capitalism, Imperialism, the Cold War, the Third World—instead of delving into chronologically detailed historical surveys. Students of course loved the idea—faculty did, too!—but we made it clear that the movies we watched were but one “source,” alongside texts, documents, lectures, and the exchange of opinions in order to explore a historical subject.

Films came naturally to me. There were always films in the family. I can still see and smell—was it cedar?—my Aunt Mary and Uncle Marc’s attic in Mount Vernon, New York, where I watched in wonder as Chaplin and Keaton silents flickered on a big white bed sheet. I was just a boy of elementary-school age. Later, my mother, a film aficionada herself, especially when romance was involved, yanked me away from junior-high homework in the evenings to accompany her to the latest Greer Garson or Bette Davis opus at one of the many theaters dotting our prehipster Williamsburg streets in Brooklyn. My father worked in the restaurant and nightclub trades, hence not available evenings, so mom tapped me as her film-date escort. An amusing memory stands out. On the way to the Commodore or Republic, I don’t remember which, she told me what we were going to see. What I heard from her Ladino-Hispanic flavored English was Tweechie Zone. Some South Sea island romance with the likes of Jon Hall and Maria Montez, I figured. Not; we saw a weepy romantic melodrama starring Olivia de Havilland and John Lund, To Each His Own.

The RKO-Republic was one of the splashier neighborhood movie theaters, with its grand, faux opera-house lobby. (Other places were less imposing, like the theater under the Broadway El line known affectionately by locals as “The Dump.”) At the Republic I had my first political encounter when a picket line met me and my friend going in for Henry Hathaway’s The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951). “Why are they honoring this fascist general?” yelled one of the pickets. We walked in, but I never crossed a picket line again; in the future I would walk in them, and often organize them for one cause or another. 

I’ve always associated that movie-house encounter with my later political activity. Another theme in my adult life, Russian studies, had film sources, too. As a youngster I watched on television George Nicholls, Jr.’s Michael Strogoff (1956), based on the Jules Verne novel. The story of the Tsar’s courier against the Tatars enchanted me. (It was also my first experience of Akim Tamiroff!) Once, after I graduated from Williamsburg venues to the art- and foreign-film houses across the river in Manhattan, I walked in on Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) at the old Stanley Theatre. Was it the Teutonic Knights terrorizing the people of Pskov? Or preparations for the “battle on the ice”?  Oh, those sinister masks, and those heroic Russians, and the dazzling Prokofiev score. I had never seen or heard anything like that before. That helped settle it: I would mark out Russian—and Soviet—studies for my professional career. (Chekhov and Lenin had something to do with that as well.) 

  Little wonder, then, that the idea of cinema made its way into my academic life. For that “Main Themes” course, three superlative films—Viva Zapata! (1952), The Grand Illusion (1937), and Dr. Strangelove (1964)—became mainstays, not only because they had a place in classical world cinema, but also because they so well meshed with the topics we sought to explore: Zapata!, for multiple themes: a traditional society in Latin America convulsed by revolution; revolutionary leadership and the masses; liberal and other ideologies confronting authoritarian rule; the corrupting effects of political power; and more. The Grand Illusion, for what it told us of Europeans in the First World War, their class differences, their attitudes about the war, their divided loyalties to each other and to their flags. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, for its black-humored imagining of thermonuclear conflict between the superpowers during the Cold War. These masterpieces by Elia Kazan, Jean Renoir, and Stanley Kubrick could not be held up to close historiographic scrutiny without uncovering major and minor factual errors in their treatment of historical subjects. The point wasn’t factual accuracy—that was my job and the function of the texts students were reading or papers they were researching. The idea was to introduce the subjects in an appealing way, and to identify the director’s point of view as a legitimate (or illegitimate) interpretation of particular historical issues. We were also, incidentally, acquainting Polytechnic students, not normally very culturally sophisticated, with some of the finest examples of film production, and with film as art. We hoped to look at films not just for what appeared on screen, but for what was behind them, the full context—when they were made, the animating issues of the time, the controversies they reflected and confronted. T. S. Eliot put it accurately when he described a work of historical fiction as “much more a document on its own time than on the time portrayed.”

The same might be said of historical films. In the words of the critic Manny Farber, “Every movie transmits the DNA of its time.” The selected films could, in the language of historians, serve as both primary and secondary sources. Zapata!, for example, had to be understood as a “document” of its time if we understood how the political views of director Kazan and screenplay writer John Steinbeck affected the personalities and the storylines of the film. Hence, the work as a primary source for politics and ideology in the United States in the 1950s. As for the facts of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 as presented in the film, well, that’s up for analysis and discussion. Hence, the work as a secondary source for the Mexican Revolution.

The films were so successful that we used them repeatedly for the “Main Themes” course, offered every semester. It got so that several of us in the department could re-enact scenes and mouth dialogue from the films, from Dr. Strangelove, especially. Well, he went a little funny in the head….and he went and did a silly thing…he ordered his planes to attack your country….Don’t say that you’re more sorry than I am, Dimitri! There was something else about those three films, though I hadn’t chosen them for that reason: Each had some connection to several currents in my specialty, Russian/Soviet history. The overt themes of Zapata! were easy to spot in this regard—revolution and civil war, the revolutionaries in power, the roles of leaders and their mass followers, peasants in revolution. As Mexican themes, they all had their Russian parallels.

The revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando) recognizes how power corrupts, as  the political opportunist Fernando (Joseph Wiseman) looks on in Elia Kazan's dramatized version of the Mexican Revolution, Viva Zapata!.

Less visible, certainly not to students, who tended to understand the film as a tribute to the Mexican Revolution and one of its martyred heroes—it helped that Marlon Brando played Zapata, supported by a terrific performance by Anthony Quinn as his brother—were several of the film’s subtexts. Kazan and Steinbeck intended the film as a celluloid polemic against communists and communist-led revolutions. Don’t follow leaders, they are corruptible, Zapata instructs his followers. And in the role of an opportunistic intellectual attracted to political power, played by Joseph Wiseman with blood lust and the same wicked intensity he later brought to Dr. No, Kazan and Steinbeck were caricaturing a Communist Party militant, or Soviet commissar. “This is so disorganized…,” he complains after a first meeting with Zapata.

A kind of portrait in miniature of the Russian Revolution appears in passing in Renoir’s Grand Illusion. The multinational group of officers from the Entente side who are interned in the German prisoner-of-war camp during WWI are permitted parcels from home. The French officer, Rosenthal, gets and shares elaborate foodstuffs sent from his wealthy family. When word comes that a big crate has arrived for the Russian officers, everyone expects contents like vodka and caviar, especially since the crate —marked with a big letter “A”—was sent by the Tsaritsa Alexandra herself. The Russians merrily pry the lid off the crate only to confront an odd assortment of…knigi (“books,” the Russians mutter). Just what they needed. The Russians are so enraged by the thoughtless gift that they set fire to the crate and its contents. What Renoir had done here, by design or by inspired accident, is distill the Russian Revolution down to some of its main ingredients—a disconnect between mass aspirations and Tsarist rule results in a firestorm of rebellion that brings down the Romanov monarchy. Renoir’s essentially pacifist film of 1937—banned in Nazi Germany—was released when war clouds hung over Europe and an aggressive Germany might have to be confronted again. Or appeased, as did happen. Would another anti-German alliance include Imperial Russia’s successor state, the Soviet Union? See what lines of historical probing and discussion Renoir’s brilliant study could open up in the classroom?

Serving warring flags, but finding amity in their common aristocratic roots, the German Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) chats with his French prisoner, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), in Jean Renoir's anti-war drama, The Grand Illusion.

Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove was no less a stimulant. Obsessive anticommunism and loathing and fear of the U.S.S.R. fueled political and military policies in Cold War America. Those policies might be skewered satirically if they were personified in the form of a deranged officer, “Jack D. Ripper,” who exercises his self-appointed authority to launch a thermonuclear first strike at the Soviet Union. The attempt to stop him results in Kubrick’s filmic mayhem that has Americans and Russians outdueling each other for stereotypical personalities and behavior. Americans and Russians are skewered even by their names, which are both hilariously absurdist and loaded with double entendres. On the American side we are treated to Generals Ripper and Buck Turgidson, President Merkin Muffley, his national security specialist, Dr. Strangelove himself, and the pilot determined to unload his H-bombs, Major (King?) Kong. The Russians are Premier (Dimitri) Kissoff and Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski. Kissoff is drunk and a bit woolly headed, while his ambassador is elegantly dressed, has refined culinary tastes and a preference for Havana cigars. He also exercises furtive Soviet habits, taking pictures of the War Room’s “Big Board” with his hidden camera. Turgidson likens the Russians to “a bunch of peons” who couldn’t possibly understand the pride of U.S. aeronautical-military technology, the B-52 strategic bomber.

President Muffley (Peter Sellers) on the hotline phone with Premier Kissoff as Russian Ambassador de Sadesky (Peter Bull) listens in. From Stanley Kubrick's dark satire Dr. Strangelove.

The de Sadeski character is not a bad rendering of qualities associated with a member of the Soviet elite. As for the other clichés—the Russian penchant for alcohol and spying, and their technological inferiority to America—they are not so far-fetched. The point, however, is that they are matched by not so far-fetched caricatures and clichés on the American side. This equivalence also applies to having both sides doing their best to avert a nuclear catastrophe, which is the main lesson to be drawn from the film for students in the age of MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. They may not have fully made sense of all the sly references, even triple entendres, in the Kubrick-Terry Southern script, as in such passages as General Ripper not allowing “the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids,” though the message that we may be Cold War antagonists, but we’re all in this together when it comes to averting Armageddon, I hoped came across.

Not surprisingly, students enjoyed all the films—sometimes too much. A secretary from our department used to sit in on my classes and enjoyed the films, too. I told her once after class that I thought I smelled weed during the screening. “Oh sure,” she told me, “they always light up for your films.”

One thing led to another. Presenting those films Russo-Centrically, and looking at them from contemporary political angles segued smoothly into the idea for a new ensemble of history courses, on understanding Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union through film. I needed a special format to accommodate films running to two hours or more, and for introductions before, and discussion after, the screening. The “Minicourse” was the solution. A four-hour daily session that met mornings over a two-week period satisfied time requirements for a three-credit course. In the early days of the course much time was spent on unloading 16mm films from their cans, running them on department projectors, rewinding them, and returning them to their cans and to their distributors. Later, the advent of videocassettes, and later still, DVDs, made film purchasing and screening operations a lot easier. (But, yes, I know, neither matched film for image quality.)

The minicourses and their films were really pleasurable and very rewarding exercises for me and my students. The courses generated buzz. The “coolest course at Polytechnic,” a young graduating senior wrote me. And when the Russian émigrés from the U.S.S.R. arrived, the courses got additional vigor. I made it a habit to bring refreshments and beverages, vodka included, at the end of the minisession. Some of the Russians got the idea and brought assorted zakusky. A Polytechnic Dean attended one of those sessions. He appreciated the film and our discussion, but left the classroom, shaking his head, the moment I introduced the vodka. He was right to walk out. It signaled that I was committing a thoughtless misstep, born of celebratory intentions that also featured a staple of Russian culture. Hey, it was part of the course curriculum, I could have offered in defense of the vodka. “Professor Brings Alcohol to Class for Students!”—so might the headline have read in the Polytechnic Reporter or in a New York City tabloid. Scandalous! After the dean’s walkout, I continued last-session refreshments, but washed down with soft drinks, not vodka. The Russians were disappointed. There was always someone among them who was eager to imbibe and demonstrate—“This is how it’s done, professor!”—as he gulped down a shot in one swallow.

The title for the first minicourse I ran in the years-long series was “Russia in Revolution and Civil War.” Introductions always included my reminder that, Yes, we’ll be seeing lots of films, but this isn’t a “film course.” Always remember, This is a course in Soviet history. Attention to camera work, acting, soundtracks, narrative qualities, etc., is unavoidable, I allowed. I even conducted an “Academy Awards” session at the end of each course. The class voted Oscars or the Russian equivalents, Nikas, for “Best Picture,” “Best Actor,” and so on. Usually, my picks differed from theirs. Why, an émigré wanted to know, did I like Elem Klimov’s Farewell (1983), based on Valentin Rasputin’s novella, Farewell to Matyora, about what happens when a Siberian island-village is flooded to make way for a hydroelectric dam: the customary Soviet pattern of bulldozing anything in the path of industrial modernization. I explained to Elena, a computer-science major who was positively indignant about my choice, that it was in keeping with the themes of the course titled, “The Last Years of Soviet Russia.” Without citing some of the cinematic brilliance of Klimov’s work, I pointed out how it showed part of the reason for the Soviet collapse, the unbridgeable distance between the Party-State apparatus and the people it purported to represent. She may have accepted that, but like others in the Russian-student cohort who uniformly disliked the film, the reaction was stubbornly negative. Was it the indefinite and dark ending that turned them off? Soviet film bosses held up releasing the film because of its “gloom.” My anti-Soviet students’ “Soviet” attitudes? We don’t know what was happening in that fog-enshrouded night of the evacuation deadline. Was the island flooded as Darya and other villagers huddled there, virtual suicides, clinging to their beloved Matyora? My preference, like Klimov’s, was let the viewer decide.

A "minicourse" class at Brooklyn Poly, 1995. Note the bottles of Stoli held by a couple of students. The author appears in the 2nd row, 3rd from left.

That same semester the whole class agreed about Rolan Bykov’s Chuchelo (Scarecrow, 1984), awarding all film honors to the imaginatively recounted story by a schoolgirl of her unjust victimization by cruel classmates, a mean girl leading the charge. Scarecrow offers many insights into Soviet life in provincial Russia, even as it hints of a somber time when innocents were victimized by a merciless terror apparatus. For the Russian students, the schoolroom setting was familiar territory, adding to the film’s appeal.

Another of my favorites, not theirs, was Georgi Danelia’s Autumn Marathon (1979), a “sad comedy”—a common Russian film trope—about a Leningrad academic whose inability to say no, ties him and others in his life into knots. After the film, the Leningrader Sofiya agreed, on my invitation, to tell the class about her beautiful city and its often painful history. Sofiya, like all her female émigrée compatriots, always dressed stylishly, and she, a handsome blonde, filled out her miniskirt and blouse particularly well. She held the rapt attention of all the young men in the class, not only for what she was describing, you understand. As she walked out at the end of the class, I said, “Thank you, Sofiya.” Several young men followed and turned to me, “Thank you, Professor Menashe.”

Those courses generated good, relaxed feelings. They were ideal, if slightly unorthodox roads to teaching and understanding Russian and Soviet history. After I warned students that these were history, not film, courses, I always emphasized that the films were only one set—for us an important set—of “documents,” but that others had a place as well, including readings in conventional history. I also justified smuggling in some classics of Russian literature along similar lines. There were, I argued, different “languages” for grasping historical events and textures of past life. For one course on “Imperial Russia Before the Revolution,” we read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, for another it was Chekhov’s Lady with a Dog. The latter enriched by Iosif Kheifitz’s pitch-perfect film adaptation. For the course, “The Soviet Experience,” Andrei Konchalovsky’s epic Siberiade (1979) was an obvious choice, as was Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. His One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970) I reserved for the course on “Stalin and Stalinism,” which also featured HBO’s Stalin (1992), with Robert Duvall in the title role. He did a commendable job translating the Georgian tyrant for the screen. Others in the film, as in some other Western, non-Russian productions, led the émigrés to complain that the actors “didn’t look Russian.” But when the film is high caliber and its actors are stars—David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago (1965), for the course on “Russia in Revolution and Civil War,” for example—who cares? In such cases the émigrés had the good taste not to complain. No one minded that Julie Christie’s accent was more Cockney than Russian. And maybe her good looking Lara could even get a pass as a Russian woman.

Vera (Natalya Negoda) and her husband Sergei (Andrei Sokolov) in Vasily Pichul's Little Vera, a  bleak portrait of working-class life in the director's native Mariupol.  

For that “Stalin and Stalinism” course we also watched Tengiz Abuladze’s Soviet box-office smash, Repentance (1984), which served a couple of purposes. The film’s artfully allusive indictment of tyranny, all tyranny—its main villainous character amalgamates several figures, Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s repulsive boss of the secret police (NKVD), plus Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini—is filled with references to Soviet political and other practices. The work was also the flagship for the new freedoms in cinema and the arts in general associated with Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, important topics for discussion by the late 1980s. Many films made before then were brought off the shelves where Soviet film officials had placed them out of public view. They became available on VHS, were marketed in the United States and made their way into my courses. My students and I welcomed Alexander Askoldov’s Commissar (1967) and Klimov’s Rasputin (1981), which became regular features of “Russia in Revolution and Civil War.” Another box-office hit of the period, and popular with my students as well—it captured several of their “Oscars”—was Vassily Pichul’s Malenkaya Vera (Little Vera, 1988), set in the director’s home city, Mariupol, a southern Ukrainian port formerly known by its Soviet tag, Zhdanov, and now threatened by Putin-backed breakaway Russians. It wasn’t just the graphic sex—a novelty for Soviet cinema—that attracted audiences and rocketed the film to fame. Sex in film was no novelty for my students, the Americanized émigrés included. Rather, the work was a brutally frank description of the cultural poverty and moral degradation that filled ordinary working-class lives in late Soviet Russia. In 1989 I once asked a young Communist official in Yaroslavl, several hundred miles east of Moscow, if he thought Little Vera’s portrait was accurate. “One-hundred-and-ten percent!” he replied. The times were certainly changing. No communist fudging, hypocrisy, or defensiveness; he didn’t snap back, as his forebears might have, “What about unemployment in America or civil rights for blacks?”

Soviet war films were always a hit in those classes. I called them “peace films” because their messages were always implicitly anti-war. World War II—“The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union”—held a special place in the Soviet film canon. With a ghastly close-to-thirty-million dead, the war continued to resonate powerfully, long after its end, and Soviet directors continuously made features out of a sense of patriotic and moral duty. Their works account for some of the most successful entries in the Soviet film catalogue. During the war, directors brought out memorable films like Zoya (1944, Leo Arnshtam) and The Rainbow (1944, Mark Donskoy); after the war there was Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1957) and Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (1959). The latter two were important byproducts of the post-Stalin cultural “Thaw,” and were very popular with audiences in the U.S.S.R. and abroad. With fine acting and accessible storylines, they were certainly popular with my students as well. Not so was their reaction to Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Andrei Rublev (1966), which I included in the war-films ensemble for showing the unsettled conditions in fifteenth-century Russia and for its searing picture of Tatar violence. Not even the synopsis I distributed in advance could help students find their way in Tarkovsky’s narrative labyrinth. (Some of my friends and colleagues have the same trouble with the film.) The hands-down winner for battle films in the several “Russia at War” courses was Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), which also stands at the top of global, not just Russian, cinema for depicting the ferocity of war and the Nazi manner of waging it.

The young partisan Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko) forced at gunpoint for a photo by the German invaders in Elem Klimov's searing Come and See.

All of those “film and history” courses on diverse subjects drew large enrollments. The Russians in those classes were full of advice and commentary—why didn’t I show such-and-such, or why did I show such-and such, they wanted to know. One student had an interesting comment after watching Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), Franklin Schaffner’s epic production with its sympathy for the last Romanov and his family. “This film was made by the capitalists,” he said, “know what I mean, professor?” Wink-wink. Several students recommended a film I hadn’t known for the “Russia in Revolution and Civil War” course, Vladimir Motyl’s wonderful White Sun of the Desert (1970), a sophisticated work that folds comedy into the Civil War adventure genre, a kind of lighthearted Soviet Western. It was also a welcome and revealing contrast to the older, and old-fashioned comedy adventure set during the Civil War, the Vasiliev brothers’ Chapayev (1934), a favorite of the public in the Stalin years, and of the Chief himself, a film buff who had final cut on all Soviet film productions.

I usually posted announcements about courses that were coming for the minisessions. For advertising the “Russia at War” course, I once designed a flyer featuring the famous WW II Soviet poster which has the exhortation, “The Motherland Calls!,” and pictures a serious, square-jawed woman looking at you, one arm raised, the other holding “The Soldier’s Oath.” Mother Russia herself. Across one of those flyers someone, maybe one of my students, couldn’t resist responding to Mother Russia’s call by scrawling in Cyrillic a favorite imprecation of theirs, Yob tvoyu mat (“Fuck Your Mother!”). Ah, those Russians. Was it just an inviting target of opportunity that prompted a spontaneous, irresistible graffito impulse? Or was it some kind of political statement expressive of the scrawler’s and the émigres’ opinion of the Motherland?

All those courses with their film screenings had important side effects for me. They certainly kept me in the Russia business when, by the 1980s, I was continuing to have twinges of buyer’s remorse about my decision to go into professional Russian studies. Why not carve out a new niche and write about those Russian films? I couldn’t write as a film critic, I didn’t have the training or inclination for that, but I could buffer discussions of a movie with political context or historical background. Soviet filmmakers operated in treacherous territory, subject to the changing political winds of the day. The themes they chose, and how they handled them had to be carefully vetted by the party/state cinema bureaucrats. What subjects directors didn’t or couldn’t choose, or what they left out of their films, were as important to grasp as what finally appeared in Soviet theaters. The intelligentsia and even blue-collar moviegoers among Soviet viewing audiences understood such things. I could help American audiences discover these between-the-lines matters in Soviet films.

My first ventures in film writing appeared on the pages of the socialist weekly, In These Times. I did short reviews of Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oblomov (1980) and Vladimir Menshov’s Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears (1980), praising the former (nostalgia for the pre-Soviet past), and panning the latter (Soviet working-class life lacquered with some rose color). I was impressed by Andrei Konchalovsky’s grand historical saga, Siberiade, and heard he was in town to promote the film and to seek Hollywood’s interest in some of his ideas for films. I interviewed him—charming, friendly fellow, with the easy manners of a member of the Soviet cultural elite—and wrote up the discussion for In These Times. A colleague recommended I knock at the door of Cineaste, for placing film writings. I did, with my review of Abuladze’s Repentance. It was accepted, and it started a long and fruitful relationship with the publication heralding itself, justifiably, as “America’s Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema.”  One thing had led, with my gratitude, to another.

Louis Menashe is professor emeritus at Polytechnic Institute of New York University and author of Moscow Believes in Tears: Russians and Their Movies.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4