Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

The Last Bolshevik by Chris Marker


Last Updated on August 11, 2019 by Сталкг

Alexandr Medvedkin, The Last Bolshevik

It all began in Brussels’ Film Library (“Cinémathèque Royale”) when my friend Jacques Ledoux, the flamboyant conservator, received a package of brand new prints from Moscow. In it, classics like Eisenstein, connoisseurs choice like Barnet, and one totally unknown: Schastye (Happiness) by A.I. Medvedkin. Ledoux hadn’t ordered it, he didn’t even know the man’s name. Apparently, one hidden hand had thrown that bottle to the sea of Cinémathèques, hoping for a welcoming creek.

Alexander Medvedkin

I happened to see Schastye almost at once. Ledoux invited me often to watch his new discoveries. Both of us were flabbergasted, as were to be all who would discover the film after us, by an unique mixture of humor, lyricism and cinematographic mastery. Plus the mystery of the date : 1934 – and yet a silent picture. Plus the fact that film and filmmaker were completely forgotten by the historians of Soviet Cinema, starting with our respected Sadoul. Only in Jay Leyda’s monumental KINO (History of Russian Film) did I find one page – only to arouse my curiosity even more. It mentioned, besides Schastye and another feature film, an incredible experiment in the thirties: a Kinopoezd, a film-train, carrying cameras, lab, editing tables, screening material and even actors, to produce the first rail-movies, films made on the spot, in collaboration with the local people (workers in factories, peasants in kolkhozs), shot in one day, processed during the night, edited the following day and screened in front of the very people who had participated to its making… Contrarily to the agit-prop trains which carried official propaganda from the studios to the people, here the people was his own studio. And at the very moment bureaucracy was spreading all over, a film unit could go and produce uncensored material around the country. And it lasted one year (1932)! Curtain.

Jay Leyda, Kino

Act two: Leipzig Festival, 1967. Jay Leyda is there. I haven’t seen him for a while (he doesn’t know anything about my daydreaming around his page) and the first thing he says is “There is one man in the Soviet delegation you absolutely must meet: Alexander Medvedkin”. He could as well have said “Sergei Mikhailovich” – for me, there wasn’t the slighest doubt that Medvedkin was dead. (Later on, Medvedkin himself would be enchanted by the anecdote, he would roar to any benevolent ear “And Chris said : that man couldn’t be Medvedkin – he’s dead !”) Hence a double bewilderment: me, to be face to face with a man who ten minutes earlier belonged to the history of forgotten geniuses of the past – he, to listen to an unknown Frenchman who seemed to know more about his best film and his railway adventures than most of his countrymen… The commotion was resolved the Russian way, that is with a considerable amount of vodka, amidst a cheering choir of dissident East-Germans (Wolf Biermann was there) and outspoken Cubans (that was 1967, remember). At dawn, all of us were severely stoned, but for Alexander Ivanovich and Chris Krazykatovich it was the beginning of a friendship which would last until the death of the former, in 1989.

From that day on, I had the project of doing justice to Medvedkin’s personality and works through a film. Needless to say, there were soberer days during the Festival, and I learned a lot about Schastye (that it was banned for a while, distributed with difficulty, that S.M.Eisenstein came to the rescue…), about the Train (that the actors embarked in the adventure belonged to the troop of – guess who – Meyerhold, that they made cartoons along the way, that they had pre-written titles to intercut in their on-the-spot inquiries, and that the most widely used was “Comrades, this cannot last !”), and also about the origins of Alexander’s passion for showbiz: during the civil war, he was a horseman in Budionny’s First Cav, and immediately created a “Horse Theater”, a satirical performance where, between two battles, cavalrymen disguised as horses criticized the company’s daily deeds (Example: the horse of a womanizing commander complained loudly about having to stay all night under the rain while the boss enjoyed himself. And the commander was in the audience! Shades of Isaac Babel…) Now Medvedkin was apparently confined to small documentaries, the type nobody else would care for – about China for instance… And there was a wide “blank” in his biography, between the second film, Chudesnitsa in 1936, and 1942 when, like others in the same category, he would be sent to the front. Leipzig was his first mission abroad.

There were the blossoming years of the political cinema in France. I derive a certain pride to be able to date the beginning of our film experiments with factory workers from 1967, not 1968. Medvedkin’s anecdotes were so typical of the spirit we all wished to share, that very soon they became legendary among our little groups, and that Groupe Medvedkine came quite naturally to christen the first one, in Besançon, during a long strike in December ’67. A rumor started to grow, about a long-forgotten Russian director who had done strange things under Stalin… I kept Medvedkin informed, but to be frank, I was slightly apprehensive about the response in USSR: a nation doesn’t obligatorily appreciate that its rebuked artists be rediscovered abroad. However, times were ripe apparently for a happier ending. In a session of the Filmmakers Union in Moscow, Sergei Yutkevich himself invited his colleagues to applaud “our comrade Medvedkin, whose name has become the banner of the working class in France, fighting capitalism with the weapon of cinema”. A clear overstatement, considering our small proletarian troop which never exceeded twelve people, but a blessing for Alexander Ivanovich. It was for him the turn of the tide, suddenly he was remembered, honored, with all the material advantages that accompanied official favour in USSR. The climax came when he was awarded a Lenin Prize (in ’70, I guess). The bottle to the sea had been picked up, after all.

But most important (for me, at least) : he was allowed to travel. With typical muzhik ingenuity, he persuaded the Documentary Studio that the source of stockshots for his next picture (on ecology) could only be – Paris. And so we saw ol’man Medvedkin among us, in 1971, ebullient and strong as the bear whose name his contains (medved). With stolen film stock, borrowed editing table, friendly technicians and – last, not least – an Iranian cameraman, I managed to build up a short documentary called LE TRAIN EN MARCHE (The Train Rolls On) in which, for the first time, Alexander Ivanovich told in his own words the whole story of the Kinopoezd. He had brought us the only remnants – in ’71, that is – of the Train adventure: some twenty photographs, which I used gladly. But the film, moving as it is with that unique testimony (and which we used as an introduction to Happiness – for, taking advantage of our sudden honeymoon with Russian officialdom, we had obtained the rights of distribution for France) remained for me a kind of trailer, the first draft of the real film I still longed to do – in an undefined future. So many things would have to change in USSR to make such a project possible…

Well, many things have changed. Medvedkin is dead, for one. Sad as it is, I dare say he died on time. I met him on my way back from Tbilisi in ’88 – both of us knew it was the last encounter – and he was beaming in the euphoria of pristine perestroika. “Telling the truth, asking people to participate, criticizing without fear, that’s what we always wanted, that’s what we tried to do in the days of the Train…”. He belonged to that rarest breed who had kept unspoiled the faith of his youth: the tragedy of all these bloodstained years was just the sort of tricks History plays – but now the clouds had been wiped out, and perestroika was the way to achieve real, pure socialism… In a sense, he was the last Bolshevik. He played Majakovsky’s Klop in reverse: a genuine revolutionary artificially preserved to be shown “as it was” to an incredulous audience. One year more, and he would have watched the ruin of his hopes.

Another thing has changed: people talk. Many episodes of Medvedkin’s life (and their social and political context) can be approached bluntly today, while not so long ago we had to satisfy ourselves with hints and hushes. These six years of silence, for instance, at the peak of Stalin’s reign before the war : he was very cagey about it, and I never wanted to use our friendship as a key to open doors he so clearly wanted to keep shut. In 1990 I found witnesses, starting with his daughter who took care of him during the last years, after the death of his wife. It is at that point, brooding over that exemplary life span, that I started to conceive a new approach to this long-borne project: a Citizen Kane-like inquest whose purpose would be not so much to achieve a biography, however fascinating, but to draw the portrait of an era through the portrait of a man.

And finally, something exceptional happened : pieces of the Train film material were found. The discovery itself is part of the story, because it is after Medvedkin’s new fame that a student of VGIK, Kolia Izvolov, decided to use his first professional years, not to start his own film career, but to dedicate himself to the research of these reputedly lost vestiges. They deliver only a partial view of the Train Saga, but nevertheless this is fresh material coming to us straight from 1932, never seen before, bringing traces of these years of collectivization which we knew only, cinematographically speaking, through the lyrical bias of Old and New, or the satirical treat of Schastye.

I am left with many questions concerning Medvedkin : as exceptional as his freedom of action was on the Train, how was his team perceived by the people at the bottom ? Weren’t they also, willy nilly, symbols of a hated central authority? Weren’t they even manipulated by some, to hide the Party line in a democratic shroud? When and how did he have to compromise? I grasp, around his trials, this typical wellesian theme (from Kane to Macbeth): how far can one go along with Evil? All these questions, if they were only mine, would be futile, but I am sure they are shared by many who are not content with the present manicheism about Soviet history – as if between the Nomenklatura and the Dissidents, there were nothing but a shapeless crowd…

Kino Train graphic

In an interview by Pascal Aubier, at one moment Medvedkin turns to the camera and addresses me: “Chris, you lazy bastard, why don’t you ever write to me, send me a letter, even that short…” and with two fingers he makes the gesture meaning “a little bit”. I froze the image there, and blew it up until only the fingertips were visible, and said “Dear Alexander Ivanovich, I couldn’t tell you then all I wanted to. Now I can. And all I have to say about you and Russia will be much more than this little space embraces, but let’s go…” That’s my opening scene, and then follows the story of that time and of that man, the Citizen Kane-like inquest into the life of the Last Bolshevik whose Rosebud was a red flag.

Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
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