Monday, September 20, 2010

Age, Identity, and War in Russia: The Last Command (1928) and Ivan's Childhood (1962)

The films I watched this weekend turned out overlap pretty significantly... both were films about the human cost of war in early 20th-century Russia, and both are lesser-appreciated films from great masters of cinema. Also, they were both in black and white. They were Tarkovsky's first feature film, Ivan's Childhood, and Von Sternberg's monumental production The Last Command, chronicling a great Russian general's descent into obscurity after the Bolshevik Revolution. Both are excellent films, and I would recommend them as a double-bill. There is a lot of insight in the space between them, in their similarities and reflections and contradictions; they are mirrors of one another, built on the same framework, reflecting and refracting the Russian legacy of violence in the formative moments of the modern age.

In Tarkovsky's film, Ivan is an orphan of war, and he lives his memories as fantasies, suffused into his grim life as a Russian scout. These visions of the past skirt reality without fully obeying its laws; there is water and flight, descent into a well, and non-linear repetitions of faces and voices. Memory becomes a stage for symbolism and sensation, a lived experience of lost contentment and orderly nature. A shot of a truck loaded with apples, driving along a beach where horses linger and leaving a trail of the fruit, is one of the most beautiful shots I remember seeing in cinema. It's a pure, singular snapshot of harmony and promise.

It says a lot about Ivan's psychological state that his childhood memories are constantly shattered by visions of trauma... he keeps remembering his mother, and then at the height of his fugue, he keeps experiencing her death at the hands of an unseen enemy. War has already subverted his journey, even in its formative moments; yet, in each of these memories -- and especially in the film's final flashback -- we see that Ivan is only whole in these fragments of the past.

Von Sternberg's Russian general, Sergius Alexander, has also left his glory behind... but for him, this is at the height of the war, and with peace, he has found only debasement. During the war, he was proud -- a pride bordering on hubris -- the pride of a showman, tasked with protecting his men and impressing the czar. Whether he's a Hollywood extra or a Grand Duke, Sergius Alexander is always putting on a show. The difference is that during the war, he was a loved, respected performer, and perhaps a soldier to boot (we never actually see him active in combat operations), but after its over and he's exiled, he is merely a ghost, an anonymous symbol of an historical myth.

With all the similarities between these films, there are also extensive inversions between them: where Ivan is a symbol of youth and poverty, the fodder on the front lines, so Sergius Alexander is age and prestige, the ruling class that represents the old social order. The drunken partisans in Von Sternberg's revolution become the gritty soldiers on the front lines, holding back the Nazi advance. The sting of loss and betrayal becomes the bitter victory against the invading force. Pogroms become concentration camps. The complexities of romantic love become the simplicities of familial affection, and both are shattered by the cruelties of conflict.

Coming from a time when the cinematic art was still young, still exploratory and theatrical, one of The Last Command's greatest merits is its carefully-conserved ambivalence: its ambivalence toward heroism and authenticity, its delicate treatment of the rivalry between Sergius Alexander and the revolutionary Andreyev, its mixed feelings about the virtue of the Russian aristocracy. It certainly has no remorse for the revolutionaries, who are basically depicted as a bloodthirsty drunken mob, but in the Russian Czarists, we see a petty, deceptive upper class, questionably redeemed by its desperation as it clings to dignity and tradition. Sergius is often contemptible, and when he takes his position for granted, or humiliates his rivals, he seems deserving of his eventual downfall. However, like any protagonist, he also elicits sympathy... even as we look in from outside and judge him, so we also see out from within, and feel the stumbles and blows of his long fall from grace.

There is a moment in The Last Command that has almost as strong an effect on me as the shot of the truck and the apples in Ivan's Childhood. This is the momentary shot of Sergius stepping out of the train car and facing a mob of revolutionaries, who seem to cringe, just for a moment, before his show of strength. It's a compelling moment, a visualization of the whole geography of the conflict: Sergius stepping forward, a representative of his cause, unwilling to pass quietly into their hands even at the edge of defeat. They are the mob, endless and unyielding, faceless, crude, vicious, the vast proletarian counterpoint to the glory of the aristocracy.

And Sergius's strength at this moment seems to parallel another shot in Ivan's Childhood, when bombs are raining down on the Russian base and one of Ivan's commander-caretakers comes into the bunker where Ivan is staying -- the bunker where he has just confronted his traumas of violence and hate and loss -- and tells Ivan not to be afraid. This cuts to a shot of Ivan, standing on something in the dark, looking as weathered and self-assured as any czarist general. Ivan's response to the soldier is clear and confident: "I'm not afraid."

These lessons in Russian history, accounts of the human costs, bear remarkable resemblances to one another: each is sublime and unflinching, and together, they scan as long-lost twin tales of how war both elevates man and destroys him.

Further reading: here's a pretty great Criterion Current essay on The Last Command.

1 comment:

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