The End of the Typical Hero: Aleksei Batalov in the films of Iosif Kheifits

Marina Madorskaya, University of Michigan

In 1954 Soviet film community welcomed a new hero personified by Aleksei Batalov in the film of Iosif Kheifits The Big Family. Batalov’s boy next door offered a fresh alternative to the monumental superman and the schematic everyman of Stalinist cinema. But under the soft exterior the hero retained the steel core of his predecessors – the un-reflexive loyalty to the Soviet cause however it was packaged at the moment. The actor managed to temporarily ease the progressive ailment of Soviet culture diagnosed by Katerina Clark as the modal schizophrenia of Socialist Realism: the necessity to represent life at once as it is and as it ought to be (Clark 2000: 36-45). Batalov gave the country its last typical hero, defined no less paradoxically as someone highly exceptional representing something extremely widespread. Our paper will examine the evolution of this hero in six films of Iosif Kheifits, starring Batalov: from The Big Family (1954) to In the Town of S (1966). The paper will 1) situate these films and their protagonist within the broader framework of post-Stalinist cinema, and 2) provide an analysis of the narrative and character structures of Kheifits’ films.

With the gradual reintroduction of private life as a legitimate theme, Thaw filmmakers had to negotiate it within the framework of the dominant theme of social life. The goal was to represent “the big in the small,” the private as manifestation of the public. To put it broadly, this problem was solved in two major ways. On the one hand, the filmmakers turned to extreme situations, in which the hero had to subjugate the “natural” side of his personality to the “ideological” one. But, as Vitalii Troianovskii convincingly shows in his pioneering essay “The Man of the Thaw: the 1950s,” such films presented their heroes as martyrs. Although such films as Pavel Korchagin or The Forty First may be credited with the introduction of the fatal split within the hero, the audiences could not relate to the hero or his problem. The other kind of film, much more popular, presented social duty as a natural need of good Soviet people. The films of Kheifits may be situated between these two tendencies. Devoted to contemporary themes, Kheifits did not seek extreme situations. Yet, even though Batalov’s hero in his films always makes the right choice never doubting his faith in the social cause, from film to film this choice is increasingly harder to make until it is displaced altogether along with the hero who makes it. This peculiarity is largely due to the fact that Kheifits attempted to follow the latest vogue while firmly holding on to his hero. The increasing complexity of the siuzhet entered into a conflict with the highly conventional fabula of his films. The diachronic progression of Batalov’s hero through Kheifits’ films uncovers some of the practical mechanisms leading to the ultimate replacement of Stalinist typical hero with the “superfluous man,” dominant in Soviet cinema from 1966 until Perestroika.