Happiness

In Volume 2 of War and Peace, after Pierre has gained his inheritance, become a wealthy aristocrat, and joined the freemasons, in an attempt to be morally benevolent he frees his serfs. But his kindness backfires when he realizes that his serfs don’t leave, and even continue to work after being informed they don’t have to. Puzzled, Pierre has a long talk with Prince Andrei who informs Pierre that some are born into a certain life and simply don’t know how to live another way, so it is actually immoral to attempt to force people into another state of being in which the only result could be confusion and uncomfortableness. While the political landscape of Russia has radically changed between the Tsarist one portrayed in War and Peace and the Soviet communism circa 1935, the idea of happiness being related to freedom, wealth, and ownership hadn’t changed.

But when Aleksandr Medvedkin released Happiness in 1934, the Russian government didn’t take kindly to what they perceived as being anti-Bolshevik humor and satire pervasive in the film. Medvedkin saw it differently, stating that: “I’ve never managed to ensure that people understood the real meaning of this film which is as follows… the peasant himself dreams of ownership. He wants a prosperous life to set himself apart from his thousands and millions of neighbors; he wants to creep ahead and have his own barn, his own horses, his own grain. In short he wants to be his own boss. Of course, for every 1,000, only one will manage it; the other 999 will remain farm-hands and starve, but this dream lives on among the peasants. So Happiness is a satirical picture. I made it as the nail in the coffin of this rosy dream. I ridiculed that dream because it’s unrealistic…”

The story doesn’t disguise its nature from the beginning; it opens with Khmyr (Pyotr Zinovyev), an “ill-fated mujik” (Russian peasant), his “horsed-faced wife”, Anna (yelena Yegorova”, and his grand-father peering into the yard of a wealthy Russian landowner. The landowner is able to sit idly, only opening his mouth allowing for food to magically fly into it (thanks to the magic of animation). Khmyr exclaims that that must be happiness. His grandfather decides that since he’s never had such food in his entire life, he simply must before he dies. He climbs over the fence in an attempt to go and steal the food, but is soon struck immediately dead. This event prompts Anna to tell Khmyr to set out on his own to find happiness, and not to return until he gets back. It’s not long before Khmyr comes to a bridge where a monk and a priest begin to fight over a merchant’s dropped wallet. Khmyr ends up picking it up, and attains his dream of being wealthy and independent.

The opening, and what immediately follows, takes on an almost Bunuelian sense of socio-surrealism to it. I call it socio-surrealism because while Bunuel was known for his surrealism, in his later films he largely achieved that surrealism by inserting it into films that were, otherwise, quite realistic. One might call it magical realism, but unlike the mystical interruptions of the books of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or a film like El Norte, those of Bunuel usually used the surrealism as a satirical device. Medvedkin does the same here, and even uses Bunuel’s sense of biting comedy. What’s surprising, though, is that Happiness preceded all of Bunuel’s films except his “pure” surrealist pieces, Un chien andalou and L’age D’or. The other unmistakable element is the slapstick comedy. Although it’s not as prevalent as in, say, a Chaplin, Keaton, or Laurel and Hardy film, it is frequently present.

But despite the touches of realism, surrealism, and slapstick comedy, Happiness doesn’t fit easily or neatly into any of these genres. Perhaps, most accurately, the film is an allegorical satire, that uses both the realism, surrealism, and comedy as a means to an end. But if it allegorical it is not didactically so, or overt and obnoxious about its themes. In retrospect, it’s a bit difficult to understand why it so angered the Russian government, as Medvedkin’s parodying of the unrealistic dreams of ambition seem to fit well into the Communist creed. Beyond aall of these elements what stands out the most is Medvedkin’s cinematic inventiveness and tonal ambiguity which frequently manages to mix everything—comedy, surrealism, absurdity, satire, realism, and even some tragedy—at once. The result is a film of miraculous complexity that is continually shape shifting from scene to scene where one is delightful as the next.

The film is most easily read through Khmyr’s frequently unsuccessful attempts to find happiness. Immediately after finding the wallet he buys a spotted horse, but the horse in omnivorous and frequently decides to go on strike and not move. In one scene, the horse even climbs on top of Khmyr and Anna’s house and begins eating the hay there. Subsequently, Khmyr finds his wealth eaten away by the tax collectors, who practically leave him with nothing. Frustrated, Khmyr decides to kill himself, but is immediately stopped by the authorities who inform him that suicide’s a crime and, after all, where would they get their crops if the peasants killed themselves? His arrest and imprisonment is carried out by a group of soldiers in masks that is bound to remind many of the faceless children in Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

The soundtrack is almost as avant-garde and original as the film itself; it was also an instance of me being surprised by a correct guess. In watching the film I remember making a mental note that I should compare the music to Modest Mussorgsky in how it modulated between that sense of Russian grandeur and stateliness—such as the pensive and evocative piano piece—but with a great sense for more earthy folk-music—like the more energetic dance pieces—and a great sense of modernistic harmonic and rhythmic experimentation—like the lone drum pieces. After noting this, I discovered at the end that the music WAS by Mussorgsky himself! Mussorgsky wasn’t a prolific a composer, partly because he died so young, but I was surprised to hear so many pieces I hadn’t heard from him. Nonetheless, it must be said that they make a tremendous compliment to Medvedkin’s film, showing once again the power of moving pictures combined with the right music.

The film isn’t without its flaws—most particularly it’s hurt by an overt looseness that doesn’t really maintain a coherency over its runtime. If the film was more obviously a surrealist piece then this would be more excusable, but it does appear that Medvedkin is trying to maintain a story arch throughout. The story can, at times, get a bit opaque as to exactly what’s happening, and Medvedkin rarely takes the time to go into any exposition. The result is a film that seems to work in frequently disconnected scenes. But because those pieces are so good, the lack of narrative solidity is more forgivable. Ultimately, Happiness is a wonderfully inventive, startlingly original gem of Russian silent cinema that deserves to be seen as a terrific counterpoint to the occasionally over-seriousness that pervades Russian cinema.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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