Happiness (Soviet Union, Alexander Medvedkin)
When we think of Soviet cinema of the 1930s comedy rarely jumps to mind. We tend to privilege the cinematic heavies who trumpeted the glories and promises of Communism like Eisenstein, Vertov, Dovzhenko, and Pudovkin. But most of these directors made their mark in the 1920s; Soviet cinema in the 1930s largely served as an escape for Soviet citizens, especially after 1933 when the first of the purges began and after 1936 when Stalin’s Great Purge sent almost two million Soviet citizens to prison or death. In the midst of massive political and social upheaval Stalin and the Soviet film industry pushed escapist fare like musicals, epics and comedies to calm an unnerved populace. However, Alexander Medvedkin’s social satire Happiness was probably not the kind of picture that would have served that purpose.
Medvedkin’s sharp and witty comedy lampooned both repressive tsarist corporatism and the new hypocritical Bolshevik order. In Medvedkin’s view both were antithetical to the nature of the peasant farmer, both were ill-suited to the hopes and desires of people who have worked and slaved for other people all their lives with nothing to show for themselves and their families. In Happiness, a rural peasant Khmyr dreams of an easy life without lecherous taxmen, clergy, and nobles who plunder his harvest every season leaving him with exactly what he had before he started planting: nothing. Pushed to go out and find “happiness” by his sturdy wife Anna he blunders into one mishap after another, always with the dream of living an easier life. At one point he finds a stash of cash and buys a horse to help plow his land, but the horse turns out to be pretty useless in front of the plow and his wife has to takes its place pulling the plow through their arid and absurdly hilly (almost vertical) fields. These are the sort of calamities that dominate Khmyr’s life under Tsarist rule.
There is, however, no clear break in the film when communism arrives. The only clue we get is the sudden usage of the word comrade but little else seems to be different except that they now work on a collective farm but are just as hungry. Though communism purported to be the savior for men like Khmyr, the poor man still slaves for little or no benefit. At one point he is left in charge of guarding the grain storehouse with a gun he is untrained to use and, through another series of mishaps, he ends up being locked inside while thieves pull the building off its pillars and make off with it. The village is outraged that he failed so massively and decide he isn’t cut out for communal life and work, expelling him for his transgression. Such is the fate of a poor farmer who only wants to get ahead a little in life in both pre- and post-revolutionary Russia. Neither system takes his desires into consideration; they both ask him to sacrifice for others without giving him much in return.
The comedy is bittersweet. Early on in the Tsarist half of the picture Khmyr decides to kill himself, but the authorities of the village and church leaders are outraged. How dare he decide something that only God can decide, though it is clear that they only fear the loss of the income they get from him. In an absurd turn of events, the village leaders pull him from his self-made coffin to whip him, as though that will convince him to live and continue working for them. We do laugh at some truly creative situations (including a clever horse who moves his entire stable to get to food but has to be carried around at all other times, ungrateful burglars, and a contentious rivalry between an itinerant bishop and nun), but we know desperate lives like this were only too real and despite the promises of Lenin and Stalin, the Soviet Union did nothing to remedy them. It is for this reason that Happiness was banned in the Soviet Union for 40 years; Medvedkin’s critique hit too close to the truth and, probably worse, he did it entertainingly, making the movie potentially accessible and appealing to the common filmgoer. (Though it should be said that Medvedkin’s depiction of the collective farms was not entirely negative; Khmyr’s wife Anna and others in the village thrive there.) Luckily the picture survives and, minus some sketchy technical matters and a somewhat uneven narrative, it holds up well 75 years later.
For a thorough analysis of Happiness visit The Seventh Art. It’s a much more thoughtful and better written take on the picture than what I was able to do here.