USSR, Rosfilm, 1933
B&W, in Russian with Russian intertitles, 80 minutes
Directors: Aleksandr Zarkhi and Iosif Kheifits
Screenplay: Mikhail Blaiman with Zarkh and Kheifits
Cinematography: Mikhail Kaplan
Sound: Aleksandr Shargorodskii
Art direction: Nikolai Suvorov
Music: Gavriil Popov
Cast: Bari Khaidarov, Aleksandr Melnikov, Ianina Zheimo, Gennadii Michurin, Konstantin Nazarenko, Oleg Zhakov, Iui Fa-Shou
|My Motherland is the first film in Soviet cinema history to be banned personally by Stalin. After a private screening, the Great Leader reportedly uttered: "This film was not made by Soviet people." On 3 April 1933, Pravda included in its "khronika" section the brief official announcement: "The screening of the picture My Motherland is forbidden in all of the USSR as harmful."
One review, attacking the film's use of caricature, reveals in greater detail why the film was deemed to be inappropriate for Soviet people. Within the genre defined by Zarkhi and Kheifits as "historical realism," caricature was too low-brow for the more serious matter at hand: to portray properly and realistically on screen an important moment of the Soviet past. Chinese and Red Army soldiers alike are depicted as ridiculous: they maintain poor hygiene, their clothes are ill-fitting, and they speak and behave without a sense of political consciousness. In a Soviet rising-to-consciousness narrative set during the Soviet campaign in Manchuria, it is problematic for the imperial center to be shown as achieving consciousness simultaneously with the "uncivilized" Chinese ragamuffins it seeks to colonize. To add insult to injury, the film's opening credits make a dedication to the 15th anniversary of the Peasant-Worker Red Army.
Apart from meddling with the order of imperial relationships and destabilizing the strong Soviet center, another major—then unspoken—element would have made the film unpalatable to Stalin and the film's lesser critics. My Motherland is rife with eroticism. The first Russian-speaking characters to appear on screen are prostitutes and expatriates. At one point early in the film, the Chinese hero Van the Tramp returns from work late at night. The only other person awake is a Russian prostitute. Van lies in bed watching her as she stands scantily clad and eats a piece of fruit. Then, in a surprising reversal, the woman suddenly tosses Van the fruit and buttons her blouse. Still prostrate, Van now takes a bite of the fruit, and becomes the object of the erotic gaze. Van's character remains eroticized and becomes increasingly feminized throughout the film.
Though Van is recruited to serve in the army, he is an atypical soldier and far from a masculine ideal. He is physically slight and afraid of battle. He often wears hats that appear like a long mane of hair. In one scene, he primps in front of a mirror trying on distinctly feminine objects as accessories, before engaging in a wild, dance-like spectacle before the camera. Van literally becomes Edward Said's "Other," the exotic "Oriental," feminized and performing on a stage for a Soviet audience.
Later, in a camp of prisoners, the cook selects Van to serve the rest of the men their dinners. He accepts this feminine-coded labor and stands in front of an enormous pot of soup with a ladle when he recognizes his former captain among the men. Van unites himself with this figure, at once authoritative, familiar, parental, and erotic. In the following un-translated segment, Van seems to lie on the older man's knee as the captain narrates something. The captain is logos; Van is silent, picking his nose and further reinforcing his inferiority as he gazes with admiration at his leader. His face is shrouded by ambiguous smoke or haze, which is unidentifiable within the diegesis, but which apparently indicates the men's stealthy escape from the prison camp. The next shot confirms their newly-weddedness: the pair is shown sleeping in each other's arms. The men live together only a short time: Van kills the captain in the first moments of his political awakening, which directly follow his literal awakening.
A giant Georgian soldier, a member of the Red Army—and a symbolic extension of the Soviet Union, of the masculine ideal, and of the fellow colonized—replaces the Chinese captain, carrying Van to safety in his strong arms. He attempts to communicate with Van. Language, communication, and miscommunication are central to the play of the film. An early Soviet sound film, My Motherland incorporates recorded dialog and song in addition to title cards. No subtitles accompany the Chinese dialogs; scenes shot in Chinese rely purely on the visual to convey meaning. Russian intertitles are used only at the beginnings of "chapters" to summarize action. So, while Van and the captain share a language, the content of their conversation is a mystery to the non-Chinese-speaking viewer. The Georgian tries to speak to Van in both Russian and Georgian, but since Van does not know these languages, verbal communication results in a different failure. Vas'ka, the foolish Soviet soldier who also comes to consciousness during the film, tries to repeat a Chinese phrase from his army training, and nearly allows Van to escape in the process.
The fact that the film makes no attempt to translate the Chinese is significant. Essentially, the film reproduces the problem facing the real empire. Multiple cultures and languages exist within one contiguous territory governed by the Soviets. Russian as an official language is established for other ethnicities only after that group undergoes full assimilation and a certain degree of institutional reform. The Georgian tries to speak with Van in Russian before trying Georgian because he is a fully assimilated Soviet citizen. Conversely, although Van finally comes to desire socialism, he never becomes integrated through language. He asks Vas'ka for his rifle in order to kill other captains only through a translator. Vas'ka cannot give it to him, stating that it is state property, for which he is responsible. Van remains an outsider—linguistically, ethnically, and as a feminized male. What does Vas'ka give him instead of a rifle? A spoon. Van awakens politically, but cannot transcend the language barrier or de-feminize himself. The Red Army returns Van to his motherland as a person fit for the colonies, but not yet for war, full-fledged citizen-hood, or travel to the Russian center.
Aleksandr Zarkhi (1908-1997) and Iosif Kheifits (1905-1995)
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