Monday, 24 February 2014

Stalingrad and Dostoyevsky at the Cinema

The 10th Glasgow Film Festival is town this week.
As well as a lot of well loved classics there are a smattering of new releases on show. As I am a big fan of the writing of Fyodor Dostoyevsky I took the chance to see The Double, a few weeks ahead of its general release. The film, directed by Richard Ayoade, is based (loosely) upon the novella by Dostoyevsky of the same name. I have written here before of the lengths I went to in St Petersburg tracking down Dostoyevsky releated spots, so I grabbed the chance to see one of his stories being told on screen at the GFT.
The Double was written in 1846, a story of a put upon government clerk who starts to see a doppleganger of himself, but a doppleganger who is more confident, brash and pushy. The double begins to take over from him, and succeed where he has failed, driving him mad in the process. It is a recurrent and appealing idea in literature, even Scottish literature (written 20 years after James Hogg's "Confessions of a Justified Sinnner" and 40 years before Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Nobel prize winner Jose Saramango also re-wrote "The Double" for modern times.
It was a full house in the GFT's main screen for this showing, with a heavy presence of beards amongst the audience (I think suggesting an appeal to the hipster movie goer crowd). The film stars Jesse Eisenberg in the title role, more noted recently for portraying characters leading the vanguard of capitilism's onward march (Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and LexCorp's Lex Luther). The film is highly stylised and set in a dystopian world with steampunk overtones. Jesse Eisenberg is excellent in both his roles and there are a couple of entertainingly weird cameos from Paddy Consadine and comedian Chris Morris. The film plays with the same ideas that Dostoyevsky did; is it really happening or is he going mad? I suspect that ultimately he is an author whose ideas work better where there is the room to explore them in books, rather than onscreen, but I really enjoyed the film on its own merits. Far superior to William Shatner as "the saintly Alexey Karazamov" (the movie trailer for this is a classic in itself). 
When I had a couple of hours to kill this morning whilst my car was in for an MOT I decided to pass on the opportunity to see "Goodbye, Mr Chips" (again) at the film festival and took the chance to see Stalingrad (trailer here). This is Russia's highest ever grossing film, and also a huge success in China, Poland and the Ukraine, the first film shot entirely in 3D and for IMAX outside north America. 
Russian cinema has been an innovative and dynamic art form ever since the Lumiere brothers first put on shows in St Petersburg. Sergei Eisenstein used editing techniques and montage in new ways to tell the stories in his silent films such as Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Nevsky and Battleship Potemkin. The latter, telling the story of the warship crew's role in the 1905 revolution has found new life with recent performances with a live score by the Pet Shop Boys and I saw French electronic act Zombie Zombie do the same at the Glasgow Film Festival 3 years ago at the Arches. If you don't think you know Eisenstein's film you might recognise his scene of a pram falling through the gun shots down the Odessa steps when Brian De Palma recreated it in The Untouchables. Whilst I like the graphic design that Socialist Realism produced in painting in the post-war years, it had a rather more stultifying effect on post-war Soviet cinema. Then along came Andrei Tarkovsky with films such as Solaris and Stalker which showed a whole new way to make film (usually leaving you with a pleasant feeling of confusion). More recently there has been the excellent Russian Ark by Alexander Sukurov, telling hundreds of years of Russian history in one continuous rolling shot through the rooms of the Hermitage Museum and the blockbuster vampiresque films of Timur Bekmambetov, NightWatch and DayWatch.

The movie, Stalingrad, had a huge budget and the director is a supporter of Putin so I wasn't going into the cinema expecting to see something revolutionary. However the battle of Stalingrad is a phenomenal and horrendous story and is often described as the turning point in the second World War, where despite tremendous losses the Russians won out and for the first time the German advances were halted and turned to retreat. I don't think that this film captures the breadth or import of the battle of Stalingrad. It has been captured before in the stunning episode of The World at War documentary series narrated by Laurence Olivier, and in the Peter Blackman poem featured as a B-side on a Robert Wyatt single.

I'm not sure that the scale of it can be crammed into a film such as this. What this film brings it down to is a handful of soldiers and one woman (a not so subtle metaphor for Mother Russia), holding out for 3 days in a single building in November 1942 in the city. It seems to rely heavily on the action remembered within "Pavlov's house" which has even, bizarrely, featured as a mission in the Call of Duty video game. Some newspaper reviews have dismissed the film as overtly pro-Russian (What? A film about the battle in Stalingrad, crazy, eh?). I think that the nearest comparison I could make is to a patriotic, chest-thumping, American war movie, where a small band of American soldiers (probably amongst them John Wayne) holds out against impossible odds on a Pacific island. If you want to dismiss those as pro-America propaganda, then go ahead. If you want to enjoy a modern version of one of these films, with spectucular 3D shots of bullets careering through walls then Stalingrad's your film. Personally I rather enjoyed it (despite having to dash out twice to answer calls about my failed MOT).

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