|Vladimir Korsh-Sablin's comedic melodrama Seekers of Happiness tells the story of a migrant American family trying to build a new life in the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan. With a score by the popular composer Isaak Dunaevskii and featuring prominent actors such as the Moscow State Yiddish Theater's Veniamin Zuskin (Pinia), the film was an immediate success upon its release. Seekers of Happiness brought Jewish themes to a mass audience that included Russian, Ukrainian, Moldavian, and German admirers. A restored version of the film, released in 1987, drew similar acclaim.
Dvoira (Marina Bliumental'-Tamarina), the head of the family voyaging to Birobidzhan, represents the stereotypical Jewish mother, with her overprotective love and willingness to sacrifice everything for her relatives. She travels with her daughters Roza and Basia, her son Leva, and Basia's husband Pinia to the recently founded region in the Soviet Far East, near the Amur River. Despite the initial difficulties of settling into their new home, everyone—except Pinia—seems to find their place in the workers' collective "Royte Feld." Pinia, with his shifty eyes and overly exaggerated gestures, clearly characterizes both the selfish capitalist and the entrepreneurial Jew. Consistently portrayed as materially obsessed, Pinia asks how much the boat they are sailing on costs (simply "out of interest") and greedily grabs all the newspapers in the train station when he finds out they are free. Pinia's key material preoccupation, however, is his fervent desire to find gold after he reads in a newspaper that the precious metal has been discovered not far from the "Royte Feld" location. After collecting a substantial amount of what he believes to be gold, he dreams of creating a suspender company, with his trademark consisting of a crown and the words "Pinia Kopman—King of Suspenders." The comic aspect of this business scheme is accentuated by Pinia's constant need to pull up his pants, a gesture he makes immediately after the fervent declaration of his entrepreneurial vision. As the political climate of the time demands, however, Pinia's search for material wealth and his desire to be the owner of the means of production can only lead to tragedy. In the end, the workers' collective must come first.
Parallel to the tale of Pinia's "discovery" of gold and the eventual crime he commits in the name of preserving it, is the love story between Roza and Kornei, a local Russian fisherman. Their affair is significant not only as an emotional counterpoint to Pinia's scheming, but also because it represents key issues of ethnicity and identity. Kornei is promptly accused of the crime that Pinia committed—a clear indication that his Russian-ness somehow makes him immediately susceptible to distrust. Dvoira, at first troubled by her daughter's fondness for the non-Jewish Kornei, eventually comes to accept their relationship, claiming she does not know who is better, "a Jewish Pinia or a Russian Kornei." In the end, it seems an honest heart bears more importance than religious affiliation; Pinia is ex-communicated from the family for his misdeeds, whereas Kornei is welcomed into Dvoira's family with open arms. The film ends happily with Roza and Kornei's wedding ceremony, a joyful feast punctuated with lively music and many gifts. In the final shot, Dvoira cries happily, noting how much her life has changed since moving to Birobidzhan. While she once had to cut herring into nine servings, she is now celebrating merrily with her relatives, Jewish and non-Jewish. And all of this joy, as she claims, is thanks to her country.
Given its 1936 release date—during the beginning of the Great Terror and the prominence of socialist realist films such as Chapaev—it may seem obvious to interpret Seekers of Happiness as an ideologically saturated film intended to attract Jewish settlers to, and publicize the creation of, Birobidzhan. There are many elements of the film that substantiate such a claim: the chairman of the worker's collective "Royte Feld" (which means "Red Field" in Yiddish) reminds everyone that only hard work leads to a happy life; Roza toils with her fellow workers on a roof underneath an enormous Soviet star; and the ethical and moral satisfaction of working in a collective is privileged over Pinia's capitalist mindset, which leads to his downfall. Nevertheless, analyzing the film simply in its Soviet context would be inadequate. Not only is the film surprisingly honest about the difficulties of life in Birobidzhan, it is also striking in bringing such realistic Jewish characters onto the big screen in major roles. While Pinia's Chaplin-esque gestures and continuous humming may seem overdone, the role comes straight from the Jewish literary tradition. Indeed, the character is reminiscent of the creations of some of the most famous Jewish authors writing in Yiddish, such as Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, and Mendele Mocher-Sforim. In addition, the film presents important Jewish concerns and characteristics: whom to ask for advice when there is no rabbi available; the perennial dilemma of marriage with gentiles; the Jewish trait to ask endlessly "why"; the significance of Israel as a homeland; and the importance of family togetherness. While perhaps initially intending to convince audience members of the correctness of Soviet ideology and the equality that socialism offers Jews, the film remains a moving story of the trials of one Jewish family.
Russian by descent, Vladimir Korsh-Sablin (1900-1974) is recognized as one of the founders of Belarusian cinema. Korsh-Sablin worked in Moscow with Goskino as an assistant director and actor until 1925. In 1926, he began working with the Belgoskino and Belarus'fil'm studios. He was a national artist of the Soviet Union and a recipient of the State Laureate Prize. His grandfather, Fedor Adamovich Korsh, was a famous entrepreneur of Russian dramatic theater.
1927 Bulat-Batyr (co-director Iurii Tarich)
1929 Until Tomorrow (co-director Iurii Tarich)
1930 Born in the Flames
1936 Seekers of Happiness
1937 Daughter of the Motherland
1939 The Fiery Years (co-director Sigizmund Navrotskii)
1940 My Love
1947 The New House
1949 Konstantin Zaslonov (co-director Aleksandr Faintsimmer)
1958 Beautiful Leaves
1967 Let Us Remember this Day
1970 Collapse of an Empire