Monthly Archives: April 2013

On Watching Werner Schroeter in Moscow.

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Werner Schroeter

If Schroeter’s early films are both playful high camp and searching experiments in film form, the mood of his work darkens by the late 1970s as the utopian aspirations of the previous decade came to naught, and Schroeter took up narrative and politics in reaction. From a celebration of art as a means of transcendence, Schroeter began to express an urgent and pointed concern about the endangered possibilities for freedom and justice. (from Harvard film Archive- its blurb for a Schroeder retrospective in 2012).

Werner Schroeter has been described as German cinema’s best kept secret by Fassbinder but the film I saw in Moscow the other day could also be described as one of Italian cinema’s best kept secrets. The venue- yet another well-kept secret- has organized some fascinating political art exhibitions and recently invited Franco-Brazilian Marxist and Benjamin scholar Michael Lowi to speak. The Presnya Museum has managed to become one of those places in Moscow where miracles can still happen in spite of cultural spaces either succumbing to the conservative reactionary ethos of Orthodoxy and nationalists or becoming elite and overpriced spaces of the liberal few. What better space to watch Werner Schroeter’s film then – an unreconstructed Soviet museum which celebrates the history of one of the most revolutionary of Moscow’s districts in the revolutions of early twentieth century Russia.

Red Presnya Museum

Schroeter’s film opus was one that I wasn’t aware of until very recently and so this won’t be a very scholarly post on what is surely one of the most fascinating major minor directors of the second half of the twentieth century. Apart that the fact that there should be nothing minor about him. Interviewed by Michel Foucault, Schroeter seemed to have been both recognised by those who really counted as well as being an extremely marginalized figure in the European film world.

Watching Nel Regno di Napoli one of Schroeter’s more narratively straight-forward films- a chronicle of a family in post-war Naples, it achieves some extraordinary successes in forming an aesthetic melange of Italian neo-realism with German expressionism. It’s almost as though Schroeter was a Visconti in reverse. In Italy Schroeter was travelling back from opera and Maria Callas, from the underground and the camp to a kind of neo-realism where all these previous aspects had planted their roots but were no longer as central as in his previous films.

Schroeter’s film – a Neapolitan Communist family chronicle – was also extraordinary for being made at that very moment in Italian history in which the Christian Democratic and Communist traditions were, in many ways, being challenged from within. This was the time of the compromesso storico and the assassination of Aldo Moro and, in a way, this moment was a most opportune one for Schroeter to add his extraordinary voice and vision of post-war Italy. His was a strange, dissonant, ironic and deeply amorphous voice but even nowadays it still has much to say about an Italy where elements of the grotesque portrayed in the film have only become yet more noticeable.

Schroeter’s unique melodramatic style (uniting high and low, kitsch and inspirational music) was wrapped up in a tale in which political and social liberation was strangely and grotesquely denied. It pictured something about the present moment which seems deeply prescient. It also emphasised how repression is psycho-sexual as much as it is social, economic and political being an important element of Schroeter’s vision here. In many ways this meeting of a master of queer cinema with an explicitly revolutionary and political thematic achieved something unique. That it was shown on an April 25th (Italy’s day of liberation from fascism) had a considerable resonance in a Moscow which seems teetering on the edge of rather repressive times.

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Lenin is Back (Statues)

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One of the earliest Lenin statues – built in Tashkent, opened in 1924.

Lenin’s 143rd birthday was marked by some opinion polls in which, according to RIA Novosti Russians were generally positive about Lenin’s legacy but according to the Moscow Times (http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/russians-relate-moderately-to-lenins-legacy-poll-says/479042.html) they were more luke-warm. According to Russia Today (http://rt.com/politics/bury-lenin-russians-majority-249/) they wanted him buried. Berezovsky was to sell off his Warhol print of Lenin briefly before his death and prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev cited Lenin to condemn the Cyprus bail-out plan. In January some Poles were up in arms about using Lenin to sell mobile phones and Orthodox ‘scholars’ want to censor Lenin’s works for extremism whereas in the southern Indian state of Kerala, even the hotels are festooned with red flags in honour of Lenin

LENIN STATUES

Statues of Lenin and stories surrounding them abound.

Seattle’s Lenin

Seattle’s Lenin and the story of how Lewis E. Carpenter tried to rescue and ship a monument of Lenin from Slovakia to the US is an extraordinary one. Victim of a considerable local scandal due to this plan, Carpenter died in a car accident in the middle of the furore but finally the Lenin statue was to be placed in the city near a felafel and ice cream store in the artistic Freemont district of the city. According to wikipedia, its place in the artistic life of the area is now firmly rooted:

Fremont was considered a quirky artistic community, and like other statues in the neighborhood (such as Waiting for the Interurban), the Lenin statue is often the victim of various artistic projects, endorsed or not. A glowing red star and sometimes Christmas lights have been added to the statue for Christmas since 2004. For the 2004 Solstice Parade, the statue was made to look like John Lennon. During Gay Pride Week, the statue is dressed in drag. Other appropriations of the statue have included painting it as a clown, and clothing it in a custom-fitted red dress by the Seattle Hash House Harriers for their annual Red Dress Run.

Another Lenin statue which was to find itself at the centre of a news story was the one in the small central Italian town of Cavriago. On April 1st 1995 the statue of Lenin was found to emit tears for several hours proving that the Virgin Mary or San Gennaro were not the only statues to be capable of this feat. According to the report by Andrew Gumbel in the Independent on April 3 1995 this is how things went:

Miracle or fraud? At noon on Saturday, a statue of Lenin began weeping in the small town of Cavriago in the heart of the “Red belt” of central Italy. A small crowd gathered in the main square to gaze at the founder of the Russian revolution’s image as it emitted thick white tears for several hours.
Was this Communism’s answer to the epidemic of Madonnas reported to be weeping blood and other substances all over Italy? Actually, it was an April Fool’s joke, but it was convincing enough to take in quite a few of the crowd

Cavriago’s weeping Lenin

Another Lenin statue adorns The Kremlin which is, according to the venues banner outside, Europe’s hottest gay venue. (And since Lenin did decriminalise homosexuality in Russia- five decades before Britain- Lenin as gay icon is not altogether unthinkable).

Belfast’s Kremlin and accompanying Lenin statue

Some Lenin statues have been the victims of bombs like the one in Saint Petersburg:

St Petersburg statue after it was bombed

Others have been decapitated. Some through design but others simply because people tried to adorn them with some accoutrements such as a scarf as happened a few days ago in Kostroma:

beheaded Kostroma Lenin

In another case in Poltava both Lenin and Kruspskaya were decapitated:

Decapitated Lenin and Krupskaya in Poltava

Some Lenin statues may be found lurking in the most unlikely of places like this one in the Lake of Baikhal:

Andrew Moore photo of Mishka and Ilich

A look at the news section of a Russian-language site devoted to Lenin statues suggests that at least as many Lenin statues are being restored as those vandalised or beheaded.

Here are a few more statues (statues to the Lenin lamp or a statue of Lenin made of sugar, rice and chocolate which was erected in Bucharest:


The Lenin Lamp

Lenin in Dudinka

Russia’s Critics of Thatcher: The Noble Few.

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Margaret Thatcher Matryoshka

It is, after all, rather late to return to the Thatcher story. Yet reading about her death in Russia while trying to follow the events in the UK (the celebrations, the funeral and the hectoring attempts by Tories to canonise her, the banning of the song from Wizard of Oz) there was a strange feeling of disconnect. As someone whose adolescence was spent in the shadow of Thatcher I couldn’t help recalling those years of disgust at her authoritarian reign. Her visit to Pinochet a decade after her political demise meant that her poisonous legacy lasted well past her resignation. Yet Thatcher’s death also came with a reminder of the kind of disconnect that Russia’s intelligentsia can immerse itself in. Yet there were thankfully a few exceptions.

I recall how after Pinochet’s death in 2006, Alexei Pankin wrote a piece for the Moscow Times entitled Pinochet Junta in High regard. In the article he stated: “Augusto Pinochet has died. He was the old idol of Russia’s democrats and liberals.” Alas, with a few noble exceptions, the story repeated itself with Thatcher. Miriam Elder, the Guardian journalist, was to tweet “Quite amazing. Have not been able to find one Russian critical of Thatcher. Anyone? Алло?”.

Here, however, are a few names she missed. Eduard Limonov was to write, quoting Danny Morrison that Thatcher “was the greatest bastard we’ve ever known” and giving examples from her rule which ended in bloodshed (the Maze hunger strikes and the sinking of the Belgrano) to back up his assertion. The poet Olga Sedakova also recalled how as a Russian poet in residence at Keele University in the 1990s no-one she spoke with at the university had a good word to say about Thatcher.

Olga Sedakova

Boris Kagarlitsky wrote a more balanced (but very critical) account for rabkor Here Kagarlitsky tries to explain the way that Thatcher destroyed a certain kind of working class culture that he saw personified in a character from Charles Dickens, namely Sam Weller and went on to state that:

Surpressing the miners strike and other union activity in the early 1980s, she destroyed something in mass consciousness, deprived millions of a belief in themselves, self- respect and a confidence in their own strengths He explained how this transformation of millions of people from organised workers into various types of service personnel, salespeople in the best of cases or in petty bureaucrats, clerks and security personnel in order to create a “post-industrial economy” signified not merely a change of profession but a massive and intended moral and cultural degradation, the tragic scale of which is only now becoming clear to European (and Russian) society .

Boris Kagarlitsky

Another journalist who was equally critical of Thatcher was Dmitry Olshansky whose comments on his Facebook wall were quoted in an article yesterday by one of Russia’s more commercially minded newspaper ‘Kommersant’. His comment was terse but to the point:

“I find the fans of Thatcher, Pinochet and Ann Rand in the best of cases unpleasant lunatics and in the worst of cases- should they come to power – a phenomenon similar to the plague, anthrax or atomic war”

Dmitry Olshansky

In short, in Russia the number of commentators who ‘get things right’ when it comes to writing about Britain (and especially Thatcher) maybe few and far between. But thankfully they do exist.

On April 8th 2013 as a day of mourning.

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On 8th April 2013 a heroic figure died. One who should be mourned and remembered but who, more than likely, will be forgotten while those who should be forgotten will be remembered. This is the kind of historic injustice that still go on. Just as March 5th 1953 will be remembered for the death of Stalin and not of Prokofiev; April 8th 2013 will alas go down in history as the day that Margaret Thatcher died and not the tragic day that Mikhail Beketov died. Even in his native Russia his death was somewhat overshadowed by that of Margaret Thatcher. Let alone elsewhere.

Why should we all mourn him? Because in many ways he represented a fight to preserve in his locality everything that Thatcher did her best to destroy in her country. He was the Russian Antigone to Thatcher’s Creon and tirelessly fought the real politik of contemporary capitalism. To mourn Beketov is to mourn those who have tried find us all an alternative. To mourn Beketov instead of Thatcher is to celebrate those whose value is life and not death, those who celebrate common joys instead of greed and egotism. To mourn Beketov is to celebrate those who believe profit comes last and joy comes first. Beketov didn’t rejoice at the deaths of hundreds of conscript sailors in icy South American waters, didn’t allow hunger strikers to die, didn’t condemn thousands to lives on the streets, didn’t willfully destroy people’s livelihoods, didn’t consort with and abet mass murderers from Pinochet to the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. He simply campaigned against the destruction of a local forest. For that he was so badly beaten (after having his dog killed as a warning shot) that he lost four fingers, his right leg and suffered brain damage. Five years later as a result of these injuries he died. He died on the same day as that figure who would sacrifice people’s lives for profit, who was willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of conscript sailors to ensure her political survival, who would use the police as an instrument to beat and bludgeon those who fought for their livelihoods or stoke racist sentiments to get elected and who would intervene to save the careers of police commissioners imbued with the values of Westboro Baptist Church.

So let’s not mourn Thatcher. Mourn Beketov instead. Let’s remember those who fought, however faraway, against those very values which Thatcher represented.

Mikhail Beketov