From ‘Dr. Zhivago’ to ‘Cold War,’ it doesn’t look so promising
Apparently, we’re actually having a conversation in 2020 about whether or not socialism is good. I have my suspicions, but will leave the more extreme opinion-mongering to Twitter. Instead, I thought we could turn our attention to what the movies have to say about socialism. So let’s proceed, comrades.
Most of our chronicles of life behind the Red Curtain don’t come from inside the house. The Soviet Union mostly made absurd propaganda movies, China censors its artists very heavily, and other countries that have gone way to the left generally haven’t had the resources to support a thriving film industry. Occasionally something controversial and scathing popped up, like Interrogation, which the Polish government suppressed until the great thaw of 1989. But the golden age of socialist art tended toward the tro lo lo guy, not toward grit.
Interrogation aside, because I haven’t seen it, both independent filmmakers and mainstream Hollywood studios have made many excellent movies about life under socialism. For the purposes of this roundup, I’m leaving out great recent TV shows like The Americans and Chernobyl, both of which featured many sympathetic Russian characters but didn’t soft-pedal the grimly brutal reality of Soviet life. I’m also leaving out Red Dawn, which provided me with a lot of pleasure as a dumb 13-year-old but in reality is probably a lot closer to The Turner Diaries in its politics than the excellent movies featured here.
Dr. Zhivago (1965)
David Lean’s epic of the Russian Revolution, based on the classic novel by Boris Pasternak, is one of the most beautiful and humane movies ever made. Our government considered Dr. Zhivago (the novel) such a damning indictment of the Soviet Union that they actually used it for anti-Russian CIA propaganda. In reality, the film provides a melodramatic but still nuanced vision of Russian life. The Romanovs brutally oppress the working class in the film’s first third. But after the Revolution, the workers take cruel revenge as they become bigger monsters than those they replaced. In this key scene, Tom Courtenay as Strelnikov, a sensitive young student who transforms into a slaughtering apparatchik, tells Dr. Zhivago that the revolution has no time for poetry, feelings, or “private life”. They did end up building some nice dams, though.
As a young journalist with lefty leanings, I idolized John Reed, the radical reporter that Warren Beatty portrays in this great epic of the early 1980s. In this montage set to the soaring music of The Internationale, Reed and his partner, Louise Brooks, played by Diane Keaton, experience the thrill of revolution, storm the White Palace with the people, and get to see Lenin speak when Lenin was still cool. Later in the movie, the revolution betrays Reed and he dies like a dog in a Soviet hospital.
The Killing Fields (1984)
A shocking genocide drama that pulled back the curtain on the evils of Pol Pot’s Maoist regime in Cambodia, The Killing Fields won an Oscar for Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who gives a beautiful performance as the interpreter for an American photographer played by Sam Waterston. Also featuring a young John Malkovich, The Killing Fields is a terrifying warning for anyone who thinks that a people’s revolution is a good idea.
The Last Emperor (1987)
Bernando Bertolucci’s Oscar-winning film captures the vast sweep of modern Chinese history, and serves as a kind of Chinese analog to the warnings of Dr. Zhivago. Though mostly remembers for its early scenes of court decadence before World War II, I’m partial to the film’s ending sequences, which show the Emperor as a gray-suited peasant, humbled by the Maoist revolution. In this quietly terrifying scene, he witnesses the public humiliation of the good man who taught him the principles of Communism.
Before Night Falls (2000)
I wonder what poet Reinaldo Arenas, the author of the memoir Before Night Falls and the subject of Julian Schabel’s beautifully lyrical film about forbidden gay love in revolutionary Cuba, thought of Fidel Castro’s “literacy program.” Featuring deeply emotional performances by Javier Bardem as Arenas, and by Johnny Depp, never looking lovelier than here in drag.
Goodbye, Lenin! (2003)
A high-concept comedy about the fall of Communism, this German film stars a very young Daniel Bruhl, Baron Zemo himself, as an East German teenager whose mother falls into a coma just before the Berlin Wall comes down. He and his sister give her the farcical impression that nothing has changed in the intervening years. Goodbye, Lenin! manages to draw the distinctions between socialism and capitalism and gently mocks both without descending into didactic messaging.
The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Walter Salles’ excellent adaptation of Che Guevara’s memoirs captures the youthful bourgeois idealism and shock at injustice that leads to socialism. Gael Garcia Bernal gives a signature performance as a young Che.
The Lives Of Others (2006)
This award-winning drama about the dehumanizing costs of totalitarian life follows an East German secret policeman as he trails the country’s “only non-subversive writer,” suspected of having an inappropriate relationship with an anti-Communist actress. The police officer gradually becomes disillusioned with the corrupt system he serves.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)
It was awfully hard to get an abortion in Communist Romania. This fantastic and thrilling art film captures the quiet injustices and indignities that ordinary people must endure under totalitarian repression. A rare private, feminist take on Communism, a cinematic topic that tends toward big battle scenes and cloak-and-dagger machinations.
The Death Of Stalin (2017)
Armando Iannucci’s black comedy about power struggles among the Soviet elite, The Death Of Stalin manages to get across the terrifying realities of life in Stalin’s Russia while also delivering delicious political insults in the style of Veep. Featuring a tremendous lead performance by Steve Buscemi as a high-ranking apparatchik with a shred, but just a shred, of conscience. Brutal, unrelenting, and hilarious.
Cold War (2018)
Last year’s winner of Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, Cold War charts the lives of two Polish musicians from the dawn of Communism to their pathetic suicide at the end of Communism. A brutal noir about how socialism grinds down individual initiative and free expression until there’s nothing left. In capitalist societies, we have to put up with The Masked Singer and the Eurovision contest, but at least there’s nothing like this.