Part of the Stalin Film genre, The Fall of Berlin is regarded as the ultimate glorification of the Soviet dictator on celluloid, pretty much deifying him as a benevolent peacemaker who likes to tend to his little garden, and glad-handing the country's award-winning workers when not single-handedly rescuing the nation from whatever trauma pops up on the horizon.
After Joseph Stalin's death, the film was buried by the Khruschev regime as part of the government's de-Stalinzation policy; all copies were either locked up or destroyed, and the movie remained a footnote in the minds of aging millions that flocked to the cinemas in 1950 and made Fall a major blockbuster during its original theatrical engagement.
The narrated slide show on IHF's excellent DVD expertly contextualizes the film as an important media tool in Stalin's hands-on control of the film industry. Additional stills from the Mosfilm archives illustrate how Fall was designed to re-write history and reposition Stalin as Lenin's only natural successor; that meant bending a bit of history here and there, showing a more idyllic life than the average Soviet enjoyed, and sticking to the party-approved concept of social realism.
Not unlike Veit Harlan's position as one of Adolph Hitler's favoured directors, Mikheil Chiaureli had long enjoyed the support of Stalin, and had already made a few films featuring the dictator as a supporting character. The end of WWII gave Stalin the perfect opportunity to tweak history and imprint a more favourable chronology of events - the biggie being Stalin's perfectly timed landing in Berlin soon after the seizure of the Reichstag, and the thousands of acolytes (plus a few token Brits and Americans, carrying their native flags, perfectly centered in key shots) who swarmed the tarmac and listened as the master peacemaker gave a lecture on good global policy. ("Let's keep peace for the future. Peace and happiness to all of you, my friends!" he declared to planet Earth in shots never interrupted by any editorial cross-cutting or inter-cutting.)
In Kolberg, the 1945 Goebbels'-supervised historical drama, the purpose was to reinforce the German nation of its strength, invincibility against aggressors; recall its long history of solving its own problems through individual acts benefitting the nation; and a favourable nod to the somewhat ethereal position of the royal family when all seemed lost (largely because the Prussian monarchy represented sexy ties to Aryan roots and a chic culture).
The French were the villains that put Kolberg under siege, although the brief scenes with a foaming, pale-and-pasty Napoleon in his war room were the only rare moments where the film cut away from the German scenes; the villains could easily have been from another neighbouring country, or planet Pluto for that matter. The point was simply to band together, never give up, and fulfill a great prophecy.
The alliances with Great Britain and America presented a more complex problem in the Fall screenplay: Stalin didn't win the war all by himself (much as he'd wished), so the tactic was to show a gratingly hesitant Churchill as complaining monarchist who insists on a toast to the king of England after the trio map out the division of a conquered Germany, and Roosevelt as a like-minded fellow who offers a toast to M.I. Kalinin because America, like Soviet Russia, shared a distaste for kings and queens; he may be a capitalist, but Franklin and his countrymen are sympatico when it comes to those holier than us rulers.
Each of the historical figures - including Hitler and his ministers - are portrayed by lookalikes with sculpted makeup, and while effective from distances, their close-ups reveal the dense padding and extensions which, while still very clever, sometimes restricted the actors to stiff poses - as when Mikheil Gelovani delivers Stalin's peace-and-luv speech on the Berlin tarmac.
Because Stalin is the savior of the Soviet nation, there cannot be any examples of individual bravery, so while Aleksei (also called Alyosha at times) gets a medal pinned on his uniform, his heroism is implied as some marvelous off-screen act in the past tense. (Asks the new war hero, "The rumor says Comrade Stalin is here," to which he's spiritually assuaged by Commander Chuikov: "Was there any time when we were fighting without Stalin? Stalin is always with us." "That's true," replies Aleksei . "Of course," confirms buddy Kostya, ensuring the audience never forgets Stalin's persona when he's not onscreen.)
Aleksei does lead his pair of buddies through enemy lines, but it's mostly as a flag-bearer or group leader; following orders with the weight of a nation on his shoulders, the men are seen in occasional snapshots of a collective force always on the move.
With Stalin as the only individualized character in the film's juvenile screenplay, all sequences function as dramatically timed modules in a propaganda play; with the exception of the Reichstag assault and Stalin's Berlin arrival, few scenes or sequences last longer than the other; it's as if the concept of an extended montage or action set-piece would draw too much attention to itself, and affect the balance of the film's collectivist message. The only counterbalances to the Soviet material are the Nazi scenes that portray the Germans as creatures pure evil.
As recounted in the narrated slide show on IHF's Kolberg DVD, director Harlan had constructed lengthy sequences to demonstrate the barbarism of the French in decimating a farm, or blowing to bits entire town blocks, but Goebbels had scenes trimmed and re-shot, resulting in a weirdly structured movie that obviously didn't share the collectivist overtones of Fall, but did give extra attention to endless monologues and arguments - authored or tweaked by Goebbels himself. The spectacular action scenes in turn have a truncated quality, and like Fall, they feel like vignettes in a high school play (albeit done grandly).
Similar to Harlan, director Mikheil Chiaureli (who also co-wrote Fall) clearly enjoyed the use of entire military divisions to craft grand action sequences, and some of them are absolute stunners: panoramic scenes of massing tanks and infantry are beautifully integrated with some realistic models to create the red Army's incendiary assault on Berlin, but these sequences are edited like transitional tableaus on a theatrical stage.
A key example involves Aleksei and his buddies who are seen weaving through a night assault on a Panzer division. The camera tracks with them as functional visual markers for the audience, but unlike director Harlan, Chiaureli isn't concerned with cutting in on detailed action; the result is a long shot with layers of background action ultimately punctuated by an extreme close-up of a determined Aleksei, with explosions, billowing fire, and reddening fumes brightening steadily from behind our People's Hero. Within the frame, the choreographed action is impressive, but it's a short action vignette set to another repetitive appropriation of a prior Shostakovich Symphony - a technique repeated in several Red Army battles.
Chiaureli's eye deals with movement within the frame: a singular shot of Red Army soldiers running to screen right while narrowly getting mowed down by a wave of their own tanks going screen left is harrowing, as are scenes where the actors were clearly too close to exploding pyrotechnics in confined locales; but any hand-to-hand combat is lazily left in the frame as distant slowed-down motions, as the actors push, shove, and tumble like sissies instead of men caught in the fury and fear of direct combat. Even a shot of a tank driving over a trench is held too long, allowing us to see the dummy dressed in a German uniform, standing erect in spite of the tank buzzing the helmet. (Another gaffe shows the shadow of a mike boom on Churchill's face, and on the wall in Stalin's office in a later scene.)
It's reflective of the script's diminutive positioning of all characters below Stalin: the wan archetypes who launch the film - productive and award-winning steelworker Aleksei who rapidly falls for idealistic teacher Natasha - don't really become functional until the Reichstag assault.
Natasha herself is a completely sexless creature - a notable parallel to Kolberg's speechifying heroine - and her clumsy purpose is beautifully captured in the film's pivotal scene where the lovey couple walk through a wheat field, go through the motions of a poorly conceived buildup to a sudden marriage proposal, and embrace with full symphonic backing. As they look upwards with innocent curiosity, planes rumble above, and suddenly the field spouts surging plumes of earth and debris as German bombs cascade over the idyllic town.
(A subsequent montage has Nazis traipsing through the ruined town like giddy gunslingers. One cutaway shows a child dangling from a noose while a Nazi commander declares the town's annexation from Communism to a fearful people, with horrified school teacher Natasha front and centre: "The order established by the German Army is a humane one. Russian people, Slavic people, cannot live on its own. We shall give you a new order. This order will be established throughout the world." Meanwhile, the kid kicks, the tanks roll in, and a twisted metal frame stands canted, like a disintegrating cross, on a burning street.)
Natasha then disappears amid the chaos, and later pops up in Germany, where she's now a slave laborer. Showing too much verbal spunk, she's dispatched off the screen again, furthering Aleksei's determination back in Russia to follow the sound of her still-beating heart, and rescue his beloved from clammy Nazi hands. He comes close, but misses her sightline in a bizarre sequence at the gates of a concentration camp.
Though he 'feels' she's alive inside, and she 'swears' she heard someone calling her name from the distance, Natasha collapses from too much joy when Russian soldier step out from their phallic tank that's just crashing through the barbed wire wall and liberated the camp's prisoners (which includes a man screaming, 'Tell them I'm an American! Tell them there's an American here!' when he's about to get mowed down by SS goons.)
In spite of her staunch posing, flaring eyes, and political orations, Natasha is basically the girl kidnapped by the killer, with her loyal beau trekking through hellish terrain on a classic rescue-and-revenge crusade.
The couple are ultimately reunited on the Berlin tarmac: first disbelief, then big eyes, open maws, a bear hug, and a perfunctory kiss are the key steps to their mandatory union. As symbolic citizens of a new world order, they freely approach Stalin so Natasha can kiss waxy Stalin's tunic in tribute, and fulfill the sublime wish she vocalized in her tribute to Aleksei at the film's opening awards ceremony - meet the Big Guy.
Their joy is given closure by fellow citizens, screaming 'Long live Stalin!' and a horrible choral work Shostakovich was forced to include in his largely uneven, heavy-handed score. (Read the lyrics HERE. For more info on the composer's unhappy and combative relationship with Stalin, read our review of Shostakovich and Stalin: The War Symphonies.)
And yet you can't help being compelled by the surreal and slick technique within Fall. The most obvious device director Chiaureli employs to infer an ever-encroaching Soviet presence is the use of the colour red - which comes off as a lurid pastel, because of Agfacolor's unique chemical design. Shades of red begin to appear within Hitler's prior algae-green war room and chancellery; and when the Red Army enters the pock-marked Reichstag and advances towards the roof with flag-bearer Aleksei, the German soldiers are surrounded by refracted and shadowy red, while all post-explosion clouds and fumes are similarly coloured.
Even more intriguing are two subsequent scenes involving surrender and suicide. As Goebbels' envoy arrives with a ceasefire agreement for the Red Army commander, the latter approaches a window, pulls back the opaque curtain, and lets the morning sun - now red - illuminate the room in an eerie glow that happens to coincide with May Day.
Hitler's suicide - dramatically enhanced as Eva Braun feeds Blondi the dog a poison pill in a pastry before the inner circle follows suit - ends as the camera rack-focuses from the faces of the doomed group to the up-front table candles, blazing a hard pastel red before a fadeout to deep crimson - and then blackness.
Just as heavy-handed is the film's acting styles: action friezes for the Soviet characters, and scene-chewing caricatures for the Germans. Hitler's extensive scenes - particularly those in the brilliantly recreated marble-lined chancellery with sympatico allies and fellow fascists gathering for support - are straight out of a Warner Bros. propaganda cartoon.
Actor V. Savelyev as Hitler indulges in exaggerated poses, laughter, and cackling, and when bad news from the Russian front becomes a consistently worrisome problem, Savelyev adopts a mask of exaggerated paranoia. (His mugging is so distinctive, one can't help wondering if Savelyev's performance somewhat inspired the characterization and design of the lead pig in the 1954 Joy Batchelor-John Halas animated version of Orwell's Animal Farm.)
From the Soviet angle, Stalin's movements are minimal, and while Gelovani deliberately mimics the famous still portraits of the dictator, the lack of broad movements characterize Stalin as a man of un-wasted, concentrated thought before a firm, decisive act. (Of course, it could also be more practical in that a sudden emotional head-turn might crack the makeup, and delay filming by a few hours. The Hitler makeup - amazingly sculpted - does prove how much effort went into creative prosthetics with a surprising level of pliability and texture, so close-ups and hard lighting wouldn't wholly reveal the seams.)
Aleksei is just a blue collar worker - a bulky Marty who lives with his Ma - but he lives for his work until he meets Natasha - a fervent Stalinist and dreamer - assigned to orally profile the country's most productive steel worker at the official awards ceremony. [Read the speech HERE.]
Natash'a relationship with Aleksei is guaranteed because a) he shares the same birthday as the Revolution; b) he actually meets the dictator in the aforementioned garden scene at Stalin's Dacha after winning the award for Most Steel Produced Among the Soviets; and c) he's just a big lovable goon, despite his meager appreciation of the fine arts.
Buddy Kostya, a co-worker and singer, forms a lame competitive thread early in the film, but he's quickly neutered after the couple's engagement, and he functions as Aleksei 's best buddy in combat. Kostya later dies during the Reichstag assault (he never did get to sing again, much like Vasily Bordin, in The Hunt for Red October, never 'got to see Montana') but he persuades fellow comrad Jusup to take his humble worker's flag and place it beside the Red Army flag Aleksei attempts to place on the skeletal remains of the giant dome.
Jusup doesn't make it, but in a sublime moment of bathos, he dies holding the blasted flag above his head, frozen in death on the dome after a startling case of instant rigor mortis. Aleksei has to pry the cadaver from the dome, and when Jusup 'loosens' up, his dead hand stays erect, and his face remains still with the peace that overwhelms a true hero.
Here, however, the editing creates a long sequence to showcase bravery and glory, while the rest of the film is essentially comprised of short, easy-to-digest chapters of history for the masses - like a grade school textbook even unsophisticated Martys like Aleksei can understand.
For war buffs, the sequence also makes use of authentic German Panzers and actual Berlin locations, including the battered Reichstag in close, medium, and stunning wide shots, with thousands of Red Army troops. It's a pity IHF wasn't able to unearth further production data, and the making of this film alone deserves its own film (if not a mordantly tongue-in-cheek TV mini-series with its own baroque characters).
One can only imagine the surreal elements at play in 1949: war-ravaged Berliners struggling to rebuild their lives and city; capitalist Allies watching for closet Nazis and anarchists; earnest local film efforts, like DEFA's The Murderers Among Us /
Die Mörder sind unter uns, tackling the postwar realities in gritty neo-realism dramas with just a handful of characters; and some crazy full-colour propaganda film being shot by the Soviets amid ruins, and Swastikas all over the place.
Another sequence given an unnatural extension is Hitler's command to flood the underground tunnels to foil Red Army incursions, drowning many Berliners seeking shelter. Director Chiaureli intercuts scenes from the bunker wedding of Hitler and Eva Braun (heavily tinted aquamarine) to the tunnels, where civilians are trapped as steel doors lock shut, and cry 'Damn you, Hitler' before contrition and flooding kills them.
Using Mendelssohn's Wedding March, the montage is elongated to form the ultimate act of a coward - a label used by a Red Army soldier when Hitler's death by poison is confirmed. A dismayed Stalin exclaims, "Like a gangster! Like a miserable gambler! He escaped from the people's justice." It's an interesting choice of words from the screenwriters, as Stalin's response feels like a clever reference to the gambling and world domination goals of German cinema's popular pre-WWII villain, Doctor Mabuse.
In spite of the obvious ridiculing of upper Nazi commanders, Fall is unique for dramatizing events, shams, and jealousies that didn't get much screen time until later years, as with TV biographies, TV movies, mini-series, and in more recent productions like Downfall.
Fall makes it quite clear that Goering, for example, had disagreements with Hitler and had his own selfish interests at play - like the massive art collection which clutters his home like an overblown nicknack shop.
Pompous, greedy, and sometimes asleep during Hitler's long-winded rants at the Chancellery, Goering also gets a surprisingly long (and well-written) scene in his home, in which he meets a conspiring industrial envoy named Bedstone in his home, and negotiates for the shipment of needed chromium and tungsten from Britain to ensure the defeat of the Soviet Union, and the eventual division of Europe between Germany, Britain, and America. It's a creepy scene alleging all prior negotiations between America, Britain, and the Soviets were mere insurance, in case Britain's back-dealings with Germany faltered.
Some of the speeches from that key meeting which close Part 1 of Fall are clearly designed to assuage fears of a menacing Soviet presence on an international scale. Alongside the division of Berlin, the group talks of Poland, to which Stalin clarifies his need to control his neighbour: "Poland played the role of 'war gates' against the Soviet Union twice. We must shut the gates by creating a strong Poland that is friendly to the Soviet Union."
And yet some of the tactics employed by director Chiaureli are clearly inspired by the greatest tribute to Fascism: Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Fall may have been designed to present Stalin as a peacemaker, but the effectiveness of Triumph's montages show up in Chiaureli's opus twice: whereas Triumph begins with Hitler's arrival from the celestial Heavens by plane, Fall closes with Stalin's flight and Berlin landing, borrowing Riefenstahl's images and montages, and re-aligning them to suit a new world figurehead in blazing Agfacolor.
The second effort borrows from the call-and-answer sequence in Nuremberg, where Hitler addresses the military masses and individual soldiers call out their provincial origins - like strong fibers in a tightly wound, Nazi volk. Chiaureli reverses the polarity by starting with a common soldier's call of victory and provincial roots - electrically kick-starting a flurry of I-am-from so-and-so overtures; instead of a dictator demanding servitude from his people, Fall has the people rallying their provinces, cities, and towns to join in a movement of strength and national virility with soldiers comprised of men and women.
Part cartoon, part archival document of a regime with several countries under its leaden yolks, Fall is a surreal artifact that never bores, and makes for fairly easy viewing as each part - originally released separately - runs under 80 mins. Director Chiaureli may have wanted to render his own Gone with the Wind epic, but political ideology ensured the film's overall running time was at the mercy of its pro-Stalin focus.
Although he wasn't a prolific director, Chiaureli's post-Stalin career was later restricted to low-budget and less grandiose productions, and like several major stars with close ties to specific and discredited regimes, his later work failed to achieve the same kind of immortality.
Co-writer Pyotr Pavlenko, who also co-wrote Pitsi / The Vow with director Chiaureli in 1946, died in 1951, although he's best remembered for co-writing with Sergei Eisenstain the immortal Alexander Nevsky, in 1938. Actor V. Savelyev, who played Hitler, later co-starred in Pavlenko's last produced screenplay, Kompozitor Glinka / Man of Music, in 1952, before disappearing from the map, much like Marina Kovalyova (Natasha), whose final credit was in Chiaureli's
Nezabyvaemyy god 1919 / The Unforgettable Year 1919. That 1952 production also co-starred Boris Andreyev (Aleksei) and Mikheil Gelovani reprising the role of Stalin - which made the actor's career, typecast him for more than a decade, and killed it once the dictator died, in 1953.
IHF's slide show merely whets the appetite for more info on the Stalin film genre, and hopefully this is the first major effort to bring these artifacts back into circulation in their original form - including those films in which Stalin, as a character, was snipped out or obfuscated in subsequent release versions during the de-Stalinization years.
IHF's new subtitles nicely evoke the tone and ideological language and metaphors of the period. The film transfer is fairly clean, and the label has also included a brief restoration comparison to illustrate Mosfilm's digital work, which removed a lot of dirt and scratches, colour corrected and balanced the unique pastel shades of Agfacolor, and stabilized some wobbly images.
(Note: about 55 mins. into Part 2, there's a brief scene in which Stalin receives news of Hitler's suicide. This was taken from a lesser grade print, and while the scene doesn't contain any unusual material, one gets the impression it was either snipped from prior prints, or was the only element in an otherwise decent print that had deteriorated beyond use, along with the soundtrack elements.)
For war buffs, this release is a major treat, and film fans curious about propaganda from behind the iron curtain will find The Fall of Berlin to be an unforgettable and provocative experience.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan