Chapaev (1934) – Review

When contemplating writing about Soviet cinema, I really had no clue where to start.  Luckily, that decision was made for me by my professor Serhy who knows a lot more about the subject than I do (that’s why he is the professor…).  His selection was Chapaev, a film made in 1934 that deals with the story of Vasily Chapaev, a real-life Red soldier in the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920.  This film portrays the story of Chapaev and his relationship with the Bolshevik commissar Furmanov who is attached to his troops.  Furmanov teaches him the ways of being a good commander and helps him reach victory against the Whites (portrayed as cultured yet isolated figures collaborating with foreign armies).  The film is based on the novel by Furmanov, but was significantly altered by both Furmanov’s wife and the Vasiliev Brothers who directed the film.

Chapaev’s 1934 Poster – credit: University of Iowa

In an era of the first Soviet “talkies” (movies with sound), and a time when cinemas were just becoming popular and common, this film became an instant success and over 30 million people in the USSR alone saw the film.  Chapaev also saw the rise to stardom of the first true Soviet film star, Boris Babochkin, who plays the title character.  His perfectly groomed moustache made me think at first 1800’s England, but his spirited portrayal of the sometimes naive commander was phenomenal.  The character of Chapaev was transformed for the movie to become the idol of Communist thinking.  He changes in the film from uneducated peasant to motivational leader with a curiosity for history and a passion for his men.  This transformation was not the true story of Chapaev who died in 1919 as an unchanged man.  Nonetheless, the film’s portrayal of him, and of the Commissar, fit perfectly with the Socialist Realism directive that was released the same year.

Boris Babochkin, the first Soviet movie star, as Chapaev, 1934

The other main characters are Petka and Anka played by Leonid Kmit and Varvara Myasnikova, respectively.  These two provide most of the humour in the film, especially the scene where Petka attempts to teach Anka how to use a machine gun.  Secretly he is trying to woo her or impress her as he is one of the famed Chapaev men.  I had been told of this scene in advance, but I was not ready for the abruptness of his advances, first making a sexually suggestive reference to a certain machine gun part then moving straight to kissing her and attempting to grope her!  She quickly throws him off and states that he and the other men are only “heroes with the ladies.”  The two do fall in love by the end of the film.

Petka and Anka working on their Maxim Gun

Chapaev’s directors were the famous Vasiliev Brothers, who were not actually brothers, who were part of the new era of young Soviet directors and editors.  These directors were taking over from the famed silent film directors like Eisenstein and while they continued the avant-garde nature of the films from the 1920’s, the new directors were young and influenced by foreign cinema so they knew that they must also appeal to the entertainment of the masses.  These directors were also thrust onto the cinematic scene because of the escape of many of Russia’s best cinematographers with the Whites to Western Europe.  The Brothers’ use of long shots close to a character’s face and their choice of including old folk songs made Chapaev stand out, and their grand scale battle scenes gave the film the needed action to attract the crowds.  Not only did the character of Chapaev relate to the commoners, the film also filled their need for action and a simple storyline.

There are many memorable scenes in Chapaev.  My favourites included the largest scenes in terms of scale (the battle scenes) especially where Anka is seen out of ammunition and awaiting Chapaev’s saving forces.  The facial expressions so well filmed are obviously a holdover from silent films as no dialogue was needed and they were incredibly over exaggerated.  I also enjoyed the comedic scenes, like when Chapaev confronts the Commissar and breaks a stool against the floor in a fit of rage (he was possibly drunk, so says Serhy).  The Commissar then tells Chapaev that “Alexander the Great was a great military commander too, but why break the stool?”  There are also scenes involving large groups of people or big action that seem to be shot on a different film type.  Like many silent films the actions seem to be sped up in these scenes meaning the horses are running faster or the men are moving in fast-forward.  This adds a comedic effect when the soldiers mutiny, start running away, then are told to run back to the line and they do so without a fight.  It creates a comedic visual effect of sudden change of heart.  The only scene which does not follow this is the advance of the White soldiers when they are filmed from the side advancing “aristocratically” towards the Reds in regular speed.

The leader of the Whites seen advancing on the Red troops was in fact one of the Vasily Brothers making a cameo in his own film!

Perhaps the most memorable scene for me was the final scene, after Chapaev’s death, where the White army has been forced to the edge of a cliff by the Red reinforcements.  As the men stand atop the cliff face, suddenly there is a film cut (edit) and an explosion occurs where the men were just standing.  Living in an age where special effects are so common and perhaps over-used means this scene shows its 76-year-old age, but the interesting part was that it was shown again from an angle below the cliff just seconds after the first explosion.  This was obviously the big budget finale, but strangely the explosion was brought about by a cannon across the river when the reinforcements were coming from behind the cliff.

Chapaev is a film worth seeing.  A classic of the Soviet cinema and a Russian cultural icon, this film is well made and well acted.  I was drawn more towards the character of Anka, however, as she displayed the truest emotion in the film and she is the one who must live with the consequences of the war.  She can easily be forgotten among the revolutionary fervour of the film, but it is her who demonstrates the most human character.

Image sources: University of IowaMovies Over Matter.

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