Ninotchka

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And the Winner Is . . . 

Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, two movies that turn 75 this year, are being celebrated all over the place. We give the laurels instead to Ninotchka as the best film made in the great filmmaking year of 1939. Ernst Lubitsch directed Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas (whom we’ve discussed before) in this brilliant MGM comedy created from an original story by Melchior Lengyel.

Lengyel (born Menyhert Lebovics) and Lubitsch were Europeans, and knew the most subtly clever ways of making fun of the Russian Revolution. Stalin is perpetually short of cash, so he dispatches three Soviet officials to Paris to hock some jewels that the regime confiscated from a grand duchess. The trio is waylaid in Paris by the duchess’ charming aide, Melvyn Douglas, who is trying to get the jewels back. When Moscow sends a stern comrade (Garbo) after the delegation to put the mission back on track, Douglas wears her ideological commitment down, too.

Reviewing the movie for Time magazine was none other than Whittaker Chambers who wrote: “Unlike most pictures about Russian Reds, this one is neither crude clowning nor crude prejudice, but a literate and knowingly directed satire.” Garbo, he said, “succeeds in the difficult task of making her tight-lipped fanaticism funny without making it ridiculous. Even her change of heart is winning and plausible.” But, Chambers added, “why she should change under the impact of Melvyn Douglas is one of those things even the genius of Karl Marx could not explain.”

That Lubitsch and Lengyel were anti-communist and anti-fascist in equal measure became clear during the war. Their weird but daring and interesting 1942 movie, To Be or Not to Be, was set in Nazi-occupied Poland. It starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as Polish actors whose troupe pretends to be a pack of Nazis, in an effort to expose a fellow Pole who is spying for the Germans.

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Tretyakov

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Sex, eugenics, and gender battles in early Soviet Russia! That’s the cheery blurb on the handbill of Swarthmore College’s 2002 production of I Want a Baby by Sergei Tretyakov.

Tretyakov (1892-1937) wrote the play in 1926. It’s about Milda, a young Latvian woman of humble origins “who is helping to build a new, communist way of life in the Soviet Union,” according to the scholar Eric Naiman. “Her virtually non-existent libido notwithstanding, Milda wants to contribute a healthy child to Soviet society, so she sets about hunting for a short-term sexual partner with impeccable class and biological credentials.”

The main theme is the taming of nature on behalf of the state. One means toward that end is artificial insemination. A character endorses it, saying: “Scientific control must be established not only during a child’s upbringing, not only during childbirth, but also during conception.” A drama at once so politicized and so explicit – it touches on rape, masturbation, one-night stands, and “the intrauterine rinse most useful for facilitating conception” (Naiman) — was bound to shock conventional opinion.

It did, as was the playwright’s intention. Tretyakov wrote that I Want a Baby was “meant to be a discussion piece.” There were “didactic-propagandistic elements” in it, but audience members were supposed to draw their own conclusions. He did not like theatrical works, he said, that “conclude with an approved maxim.”

Introducing the 1995 translation of I Want a Baby, Robert Leach wrote that Tretyakov’s aim was “not to undermine the regime, which he wholeheartedly supported.” Rather, he sought “to open unmentionable topics for discussion. He believed that Communism required an unblinking recognition of the truth and an absolutely open and democratic debate about the truth.”

Sergei Tretyakov was arrested in Moscow by the Soviet secret police in 1937 on a charge of spying. Accounts differ as to whether he was executed or committed suicide after being tortured. His friend Bertolt Brecht protested Tretyakov’s innocence in a poem of commemoration entitled “Are the People Infallible?” This tribute to his friend was, however, written “for an audience consisting of himself alone,” said Robert Conquest. Not only that, the poem initially had Tretyakov’s name in its first line but Brecht later crossed it out. (See “The Fourth Door: Difficulties with the Truth in the Svendborg Poems,” essay by Joyce Crick in Brecht’s Poetry of Political Exile.)

The Drama of Galileo — and of Losey, Eisler, and Brecht

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“I believe in the gentle force of reason; in the long run, no one can resist it. Nobody can watch me drop a pebble and say it doesn’t fall. Nobody can do that. The seduction of truth is too strong.”

So says Galileo Galilei in Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. The staged biography by the famed East German poet and dramatist pitted science (truth) against religion (rigorously enforced falsehood) and placed intellectuals on the side of the former.

Brecht’s work went through several versions beginning in the late 1930s, all of them featuring incidental music by the German/Austrian composer Hanns Eisler. In America, it played on Broadway in 1947 in a production directed by Joseph Losey. Losey’s conception of the play is still with us, in the form of the Losey-directed movie from 1974 that has the Israeli actor Topol in the lead role.

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Topol expressed admiration for the director but said that he was a man preoccupied “22 out of 24 hours of the day” with his own persecution by the U.S. government. Losey had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. After being blacklisted, he exiled himself to Europe (where he made Galileo, among other pictures).

If the theme of the creative mind under pressure from the Inquisition was relevant for Losey, it was more so for his longtime friend, Eisler, and his role model, Brecht. Both had run-ins with HUAC. Much more dedicated Reds than Losey (the American’s membership in the Party had been brief), they got deported as the communist controversy in America neared its height.

After deportation came the attempt to live in East Germany, “the land of real and existing socialism.” It was dicey; the truth was superintended by the scientific and cultural commissars of the Soviet bloc.

Hanns Eisler’s most ambitious project, an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, was condemned by East German academicians. They were enforcing the policy of Andrei Zhdanov, the Russian tasked with patrolling music and the arts behind the Iron Curtain and stopping any imperialist influences from creeping in. Eisler was denied authorization for his interpretation of Goethe and gave up writing the opera in 1952.

As Staatsdichter (state poet) of the German Democratic Republic, Bertolt Brecht fared better. He minded his p’s and q’s and was given the use of the grand Schiffbauerdamm theater for productions by his Berliner Ensemble, which became East Germany’s most distinguished institution. Aware that the theater could be taken away from his ensemble if he stepped out of line, he paid lip service to the theories of the Russian dramatist Stanislavsky and the socialist realism demanded by Zhdanov.

Brecht also doffed his hat to Trofim Lysenko, the truth-arbiter in the field of biology. “Lysenkoism” held that Mendelian genetics were a capitalist hoax; agronomists and horticulturalists in Russia and its satellite nations were to eschew Mendel and build upon Soviet theories exclusively.

He may be one of the few who, while being subjected to Zhdanovism, also dabbled in Lysenkoism. Die Erziehung der Hirse, a children’s ballad that Brecht wrote in 1950, about how to grow millet, highlights the wonders emanating from “Lysenko’s greenhouse in distant Moscow.” Stalin, “the Soviet peoples’ great harvest leader,” appears in a cameo role.

Brecht won the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.