Bezhin Meadow/Бежин луг (Sergei Eisenstein, 1937) Reading about this unfinished (and mostly lost) propaganda film by Eisenstein, it occurs to me this sounds an awful lot like the later Nazi propaganda film HITLER YOUTH QUEX. And both descend from an old Catholic legend about a boy who, despite being beaten to death by a bunch of non-Christians, refuses to say "There is no God." (I don't know if that tale has a name, but Jay Lynch once adapted it, I believe) And it recurs with slight differences throughout history, including this example from the 20th century. It's usually built on a scaffolding of truth but with huge, purple, sentimental flourishes, as melodramatic appeals to emotion will be. In this case, it's the story of Pavlik Morozov, the boy who had a statue built to him as a Soviet hero, for informing on his father for anti-Soviet words and deeds. So the story went, Pavlik was stabbed to death for it. In HITLER YOUTH QUEX, Quex (yes, that's his name) is killed by a group of communist agitators for distributing pro-Nazi literature.
In both cases the young child hero character has an abusive father. Here it's a peasant who, at the start of the film has beaten the protagonist's mother to death and plans to set fire to the wheat crop to deny it to the state. In QUEX it's a lumpenproletariat who resents and beats his son and wife, and refuses to join the Nazis (after an attempt at recruitment by a young and dashing SA man who speaks enthusiastically of Nazism as patriotism and adventure) while his son becomes a dedicated Hitler Youth member, against his wishes. In this case the child is a Young Pioneer, which you can tell by his neck scarf. Both refuse to accept the state, which is literalized here as an actual mother suckling a baby of the peasants, replacing the mother lost. The beatific dead mother being the only attractive adult in his family, all the rest grizzled or old and haggardly; the past is ugly and primitive, while the future is largely pretty and clean-shaven, as represented in the characters' appearances. And of course, this film is part of the campaign against the "Kulaks," part of the same campaign as EARTH. (which was also criticized for "formalism")
The intended audience here would have been the rural youth in areas of collectivization, who indeed were often abused by their drunken parents. A usual aspect of this in other Soviet propaganda aimed at this audience was the promise that they could better themselves and escape their grip. Again, a scaffolding of truth.
This is a fairly common propaganda narrative, and has even been showing up lately in Uganda to be used against gays, as it has been against Jews, pagans, communists, and others. Propaganda tropes never really change; they're just repurposed and customized. The purpose of this one is to combine a shaming example (look how dedicated even this small boy was to the cause! Are you more a coward than a small boy?) with a motivation for revenge a la the blood libel stories of medieval times In case you're wondering, the story of Morozov is false. Your first clue might be this official portrait of him.
An interesting thread of propaganda history, because Goebbels in fact stole propaganda techniques from the Soviets every chance he got, much as the red in the Nazi banner was originally incorporated to fool workers into thinking they were in some way socialist. (A number of German workers thought Nazism was socialism, but one that would be exclusively German rather than in any way connected to Moscow, as the Spartacists had been before Stalin abandoned them)
Considering its roots in a tale of a
child that refuses to say there was no God, it's worth pointing out that it's a refusal to
say there's a God that does him in here. Religion here is used as a means of abuse, the Bible literally pushed in his face. The film got Eisenstein in considerable trouble with Stalin, for "formalism." Eisenstein recanted it before completion. The film was not finished, but here is a reconstruction based upon existing stills.
I'm surprised the late Dr. Richard DeCordova didn't bring this film up in my Soviet film class at DePaul, but that was 1988, and long before the days not only of the fall of the USSR, but before Youtube, so there was nothing to really show the class.
"Eternity with Beelzebub, and all his hellish instruments of death, will be a picnic compared to five minutes with me and this pencil." - E. Blackadder, 1791 Questionable
words & pictures from John Linton Roberson SUPPORT US AT PATREON!