CHAPAEV (Sergei and Georgy Vasiliev, 1934)

The Soviet films we cherish most are masterpieces by Eisenstein, Vertov, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin; but most deeply affecting Russian hearts was Donskoi’s Gorky trilogy (1938-9), and most decisively entering the popular culture (as Birth of a Nation and Star Wars did ours) is Chapaev. An example of Socialist Realism (instituted in 1932, the set of requirements imposed on writers and artists that their work demonstrate “the truthful, historically concrete [translation: literal] representation of reality in its revolutionary development” [in other words, political correctness], Chapaev was also Stalin’s favorite film.
     It is a blend of full-blown folksiness and spare classicism that achieves especial brilliance in battle scenes, where Chapaev’s raggedy band of comrades confronts the machine-like Tsarist army. (Think Henry V.) Set during the 1919 post-Bolshevik Revolution Civil War, the film somewhat alternates between the Reds and the Whites; the hero, among the former, is Vasili Chapaev, who in one comical interlude explains military strategy by moving about potatoes on a table, and, declaring himself serious, threatens the cavalry men—peasants, like himself—under his command with execution should they continue their marauding ways. Certain scenes tap into an irresistible depth of Russian folk feeling. Songs and backgroud music assist in this endeavor. Ultimately, the film records Chapaev’s passage into legend, further begging the question whether John Ford saw Chapaev and absorbed it.
     Chapaev is based on the biography by Furmanov, who also is portrayed in the film. Commissar Furmanov’s task was to harness Chapaev’s near anarchism to the Soviet cause. Thus was the film able to consign a highly individualistic hero to the discipline of the collective ideal. It has been reported that Stalin identified with the film’s Chapaev.
     Who knows? Perhaps the writing-directing Vasiliev “brothers”—actually, Sergei and Georgy were unrelated—angled for just such an outcome.

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