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Dwight Macdonald

Off the Record

(21 February 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 9, 21 February 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The trouble with lying is that, as Gainsborough remarked of Mrs. Siddon’s nose, there’s no end to it. What begins as a simple, unassuming frame-up is likely to end up by requiring a wholesale revision of history and art. Having successfully used the Moscow trials to destroy all potential leaders of an opposition, the Kremlin now finds itself committed to the extraordinary thesis that all the great leaders of 1917, except Lenin and Stalin, were even then traitors and spies. This campaign of falsification, probably the most ambitious in all history, has corrupted every sphere of Soviet life. The cinema, above all has been pressed into service to document the trials in celluloid. A year ago the first of such films, Lenin in October, arrived over here. And now two more are being shown in the little cinemas: Ermler’s The Great Citizen and Tutkevitch’s The Man With the Gun. These are two of the leading directors in the so-called “Stalin School” which has come to dominate the Soviet cinema in recent years. In 1932 they worked together on Counterplan, a monumentally dull and now forgotten film which was the first major effort to introduce “Socialist Realism” into the cinema. There is no point in analyzing their films from a cinematic point of view: there is nothing in either of them that will get their creators into trouble with the authorities, which is to say they are the tamest, flattest, most banal sort of Hollywood realism. But they are more interesting from a political standpoint.

Down with Tractors!

Ermler’s film shows us the struggle of “The Great Citizen” – evidently intended to be Kirov – against a sinister clique of saboteurs, evidently meant to represent the Bukharinist right-wing opposition to the first Five Year Plan. The plots and counterplots revolve around what would seem to be a simple enough question: whether it was desirable that the level of production should be raised. The Great Citizen takes a firm stand for industrialization, and also comes out strongly in favor of more tractors. The Bukharinists, motivated by that paranoiacal malignancy which seems to afflict the opponents of Stalin, try to persuade the workers that tractors are evil and industrialization a curse. It is never made clear why they take this position, nor, for that matter, why they are willing to gamble, and as it chances to lose, their high governmental posts in this campaign for a lower productive level. It seems to be a matter of art for art’s sake.

Everything comes to a head in a mass meeting, at which the Bukharinists are sandbagged with everything from mother love to the theory of socialism in one country, and are finally driven from the platform in deep and well-merited disgrace. After that, there is only one course left. The film ends with their first meeting with the emissary of an unnamed foreign power. As they plot, loud bursts of band music come in the windows from a passing demonstration of workers (who are celebrating the birth of a tractor), drowning out their talk. This is supposed to symbolize the ultimate triumph of the healthy masses. But I could not but remember that this music, the cheapest sort of Sousa brass band stuff, was advertised as by Dimitri Shostakovitch, the once-brilliant young composer who was admonished by Stalin several years ago to “write tunes the workers can whistle.” And the offstage music seemed to be a symbol, in its noisy triviality, of something else again.

Those Men Are Here Again

In Yutkevitch’s The Man With the Gun we see once more those twin demigods, Lenin and Stalin, pulling off the 1917 revolution practically single-handed. Their first appearance was in Lenin in October. Here once more, they steer the revolution to safe harbor in the teeth of treacherous opposition from their closest collaborators. “Never mind Zinoviev and Kamenev,” Lenin tells Stalin on the phone. “They are fleas which will always irritate us.” (He fails to explain why he didn’t crush these “fleas” then and there.) He takes Trotsky more seriously, however. “Keep a close watch on Trotsky!” he counsels Stalin. But later on it appears that Trotsky has escaped from his keepers long enough to see to it that the wrong calibre shells are sent to a crucial sector of the battle front. When the news is brought to Lenin, he makes it clear that he suspects the fine Italian hand of the commander-in-chief of his army. Stalin bustles off to repair the damage at once.

By now such films have worked out a formula for portraying Lenin. On the one hand, he is shown as a simple, homey sort of old fellow – in the memorable phrase of Robert Forsythe in the New Masses: “a man who might easily have played third base for the Brooklyn Dodgers.” He is constantly slapping people (usually Stalin) on the back, sharing their joys and sorrows, munching apples or cold boiled potatoes in democratic fashion, and otherwise demonstrating that he’s a regular fellow. But this unprepossessing old gentleman has the most extraordinary effect on all who come into contact with him. Their awe and reverence approaches the mystical; their faith in him is the complete, touching faith of little children. When the simple soldier who is the hero of The Man With the Gun learns that he has been talking, quite unsuspecting, to Lenin, he rushes back to his comrades, assembles them around him and stammers out, “I have just talked to ... LENIN!” Quick fadeout on his crazed, ecstatic face. Later on, he persuades a whole company of enemy soldiers to join the Reds simply by telling them he has talked to Lenin and that Lenin is O.K. and has their interests at heart. Thus on the one hand, Lenin is made human, all too human – to the point of vulgarization; and on the other, he is elevated to a living ikon, a leader whose mere presence, whose very name indeed, has magical powers. Both sides of the contradiction serve well the interests of the Kremlin today.

Uncomfortable Posts

I don’t envy the actors who have to play “Lenin” and “Stalin” in these tableaux. In this film, both parts are taken by different performers from those who played in Lenin in October. This Lenin is Comrade Shtraukh (Honored Artist of the Republic), and he has evidently taken to heart Krupskaya’s criticism of his predecessor’s ever-expansive gesturing. He seems none too easy in his part. Nor does Comrade Gelovani, who plays Stalin, seem to be having a good time. These are posts uncomfortably close to the lightning. What has happened to Comrade Gelovani’s predecessor I do not know, but the Times recently reported that Comrade Schushkin, who played “Lenin” in the earlier film, has been placed under arrest. Perhaps he took a Leninist line off as well as on the stage.

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