The Last Bolshevik opens to an insightful and relevant excerpted passage from author and critical thinker George Steiner’s book, In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture: “It is not the literal past that rules us [save, possibly, in a biological sense]. It is images of the past.” Composed in the structure of montage (an homage to the characteristic editing and filmic language of pioneering Russian filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Alexander Dovzhenko, and Vsevolod Pudovkin), the film is a series of posthumous video letters (narrated by Michael Pennington) to film essayist Chris Marker’s personal friend, mentor, and fellow filmmaker Alexander Ivanovich Medvedkin, examines the trajectory of Medvedkin’s life and career from within the context of the evolution of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, and in the process, provides a broader, incisive meditation on the nature of reality, fiction, art, ideology, and history.
Born in 1900, Medvedkin was 17 during the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. A staunch believer in the communist ideology, he fought with the communist Bolsheviks against the tsarist White Guards during the subsequent Civil War (1918-1921) that led to the creation of the USSR under Vladimir Lenin. Commissioned with an agit-prop train (a post-revolution Soviet method for disseminating agitation and propaganda materials throughout the country for political education of the population), Medvedkin developed an in-house film production and development laboratory within the ‘film train’ in an attempt to provide a more direct and instantaneous conduit for chronicling real life and achieving documentary realism (an ideal similarly held by Vertov who envisioned the camera as a surrogate for the human eye, kinoeye). A politically suppressed artist whose reputation was ‘rehabilitated’ in post-Stalin Soviet Union, Medvedkin was re-discovered by a new generation of film students and cineastes both within the Soviet Union and internationally, most notably, by the activist Marker (whose own espousal of cinéma vérité was conducive to the Russian concept of kinoeye) for his excoriating (and idiosyncratic) carnivalesque peasant satire, Happiness (1932).
However, as writer and critic Viktor Dyomin comments, Medvedkin’s plight was “the tragedy of a pure communist in a world of would-be communists”, and it is in this innately irreconcilable dichotomy between personal ideology and state implementation of doctrine that Marker illustrates the systematic destruction of artistic creativity and ideology at the hands of insincere, political opportunism, state-sponsored information control and manipulation, and demagoguery. Citing fictional events in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin – specifically the heroic insurrection and subsequent massacre at the Odessa steps – whose dramatic images have become ingrained and preserved in Soviet society as historical truth, Marker provides a provocative chronicle on the role of film as a medium for social commentary. In illustrating the temporal metamorphosis of fiction into accepted cultural reality, Marker creates a compelling examination of the imperfection of memory and the transformation of myth.
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