Monday, 11 April 2011

AFED #100: Padeniye Berlina [The Fall of Berlin] (USSR, 1950); Dir. Mikheil Chiaureli

Day 100, and what better way to celebrate my centenary than with some more Soviet cinema? Well, there are numerous better ways but just recently it's been a real strain to keep this thing going at all, so this will just have to do.


I actually learnt of The Fall of Berlin courtesy of the use of brief extracts in another film I've viewed this year, Diary for My Children (AFED #83) and it's precisely the kind of full-blown propaganda cinema I've been keen to track down for a while. By their very nature these films tend to be forgotten when the winds of change sweep in and are sometimes lost forever, but as historical documents they're invaluable.

The Fall of Berlin is an epic account of the Soviet Union's war against the Nazis; detailing in particular their invasion of the German capital at the climax of WWII. It's notorious for the romanticised depiction of Stalin (as portrayal by Mikheil Gelovani), whose wise and benevolent rule as shown here was somewhat different from the reality.

After Stalin's death the film was re-cut so that some of the scenes glorifying him were removed and I suspect that may be the version I've just seen, as his involvement is mainly restricted to a handful of key scenes. The notional protagonist in this dramatisation is Aliosha (Boris Andreyev), an industrious steel worker who falls in love with Natasha, a schoolteacher, only for the pair to be torn apart when the Nazis invade.

Natasha is taken way by the Germans for internment at a prison camp in Germany, while Aliosha joins the army as the Soviets set about repelling their assailants. The film then begins to take a broader view of events, depicting key moments as the Nazis are gradually forced into retreat by the Russian winter and the tide begins to turn.

Not unlike Tolstoy's War and Peace it mixes fictitious characters embroiled in events with actual figures. There's a lengthy scene depicting the Yalta Conference, where the virtuous Stalin thrashes a plan of action with Roosevelt and a pugnacious Churchill.

But the real star of the second half of the film is Hitler (Vladimir Sevaliev), with much time given over to his frustrations, oscillating between panic, madness and despair as the Soviets close in on Berlin. It culminates with the infamous flooding of the Berlin metro juxtaposed with the Führer's marriage to Eva Braun in one of the most striking sequences. I've still yet to see Downfall, but the contrasting depictions of those final days would make for an interesting comparison.

Shot in garish full colour, this was clearly a costly production that made full use of the state's resources with some very grandiose depictions of the battle scenes and of war-ravaged Berlin. It doesn't perhaps have the slickness of a Hollywood production, and none of the innovation found in Eisenstein, but the scope is very impressive, it's just tempered by a blinkered ideology that subordinates verisimilitude to the glorification of Soviet values.

Ultimately of course the Russians are victorious and Aliosha and Natasha are tearfully reunited - the young lady is even granted permission to kiss Stalin at the end! By the accepted standards of western cinema this couldn't be considered a classic, yet as an insight into the Soviet perspective it's fascinating.

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