The Straight Line and the Circle: The Road and the Mastermind in Two (Post-)Stalinist Films

Nikita Nankov, Indiana University

The paper analyzes the link between the theme of the road and the notion of the mastermind in two Soviet films. The poorly known Tretij udar (The Third Blow, dir. Igor' Savchenko, 1948) is a masterpiece of socialist realism; it is one of the nine movies which, according to a decision of the Politburo from 1947, had to commemorate the greatest victories of the Red Army in World War II. The second is the acclaimed Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, director Grigorij Chukhraj, 1959), a masterpiece of the thaw era.

In The Third Blow, the road is treated as a straight line: in 1944, the Red Army recaptures the fortified Crimean Peninsula from the Nazis and their Turkish and Romanian allies. The maneuver from an initial to a final point is guided by a mastermind which, in the final analysis, is personified by Stalin. Here, the theme of the road glorifies the mastermind which constitutes the meaning of the diegetic world. In the Ballad, the road is represented as a circle: the Soviet soldier Alesha returns home to see his mother and goes back to the front. But now the final destination is indefinitely postponed and misplaced. The deferred or even annulled goal of the journey implies subversion of the concept of a mastermind.

Two theoretical ideas guide my analysis. First, the work of art and the real world are structurally homologous; the oeuvre speaks of reality not through what it says but by how it says it. I discuss some features of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist mentality and aesthetics through examining the poetics of two films of these times. Second, evolution in art "takes place not only through the invention of new forms but, most of all, through the use of old forms with new function" (Jurij Tynjanov). The post-Stalinist era utilizes some Stalinist artistic forms but with new function. Among them are the theme of the road and the concept of the mastermind.

The analysis of The Third Blow discusses the following questions: the redundant structure of the cinematographic genre of epic drama and how it is understood by the viewer; the identification of the viewer with the fictional Stalin; and the idealistic rationalism of Stalinist Marxism and its cinematographic interpretation as the mastermind as multifaceted simulacrum.

The discussion of the Ballad touches upon the following issues: the genre(s) of this film (ballad and picaresque journey); the reversibility of ballad temporality; and certain characteristics of the picaresque journey as guided by chance.

The paper concludes with some thoughts about the type of interpretation of films such as The Third Blow and the Ballad. The former is a nationalistic Kitsch and the viewer enjoys it in pleasure of redundancy. The latter film is better qualified as high art whose recipient is a co-author of the film's meaning.