Stalin’s ghost in perestroika cinema: Mirror for the Hero

‘Stalin’s ghost in perestroika cinema’ is a series of articles that explores  the ways in which late Soviet cinema engaged with history and past, and in particular focuses on how the Stalinist years were portrayed in perestroika cinema.

>> Read the previous article My Friend Ivan Lapshin

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Like German’s film discussed in the previous article, Vladimir Khotinenko’s Zerkalo dlia geroia (Mirror for the Hero, 1987) also incorporates two timelines. But unlike Moi drug Ivan Lapshin, in which the second temporal plane is introduced through the narrator’s memory, Zerkalo links past and present by means of a fantastic device, employing a trope of time travel to revisit the post-Second World War period. The time travel trope that is integrated into a historical film is recurring in Russian cinema: usually in this subgenre, a hero or a group of characters are miraculously transported back in time and are forced to reconsider and come to terms with the past. This set-up is present in a number of recent Russian films, such as My iz budushchego (We Are From the Future, 2008), My iz budushchego-2 (We Are From the Future-2, 2010) and Tuman (The Fog, 2009). Zerkalo seems to be the precursor of this tendency.

The film starts in the present (the year 1987). The protagonist, Sergei, is paying a visit to his father Kirill, who lives in a small mining town in Donbass. Sergei wants to convince his father to move to the summerhouse close to Moscow that he rented for him. In the course of their conversation, the father disapproves of Sergei’s dissertation on psychology, claiming that the theme would be interesting only to specialists in the subject. In turn, the father reads out to Sergei the novel that he has written, which talks about the man-induced impact on nature and its negative consequences. Sergei pays little attention to the reading, and the meeting ends in an argument. Sergei’s father exclaims:

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How did we live? What did we utter dying? “For motherland, for Stalin!” – we shouted before dying. We won the war like that. Stalin was denounced, and what do we have left? “For motherland” and “Hooray”. And what is motherland for you? A plain sound? The motherland is in danger, and you are deaf to its cries!

Sergei replies to that: ‘Long before I was born, you, out of your enthusiasm, were doing things that now you are afraid of. [...] You lied, you were being lied to, and now you don’t have the courage to admit it’. This exchange clearly reveals the conflict of the two generational ideologies, mutual dissatisfaction, and incomprehension as central themes of the film. Sergei’s father still firmly believes in the Soviet ideals, which for Sergei are the root of all evil.

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After the argument, Sergei leaves and meets his old friend, Andrei Nemchinov. While walking the paths of the mining town, they are suddenly transported to the year 1949 in the same mining town. Besides, the day the travel to, the 8 of May, is repeating for them over and over again. Despite the fact that the heroes try to change the course of the events and re-educate local people, the next morning everything is back to square one and none of the townspeople seem to remember the events of the previous day. The only thing that is changing is the heroes’ attitude towards their environment.

Sergei meets the younger version of his father and is forced to re-evaluate him from a different perspective. Sergei learns that his father was imprisoned for attempting to close the malfunctioning mine, and was reported on by the head of the mine, whose credo was ‘Our country needs coal’.

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For Sergei, his father’s life was conditioned by the patriotism of the Stalin’s era and the heroic post-war past, which Sergei despised with all his heart. As a result, he alienated from his father and never knew much about his life. In this connection, highly symbolic is the episode in the beginning of the film, in which Sergei rents a house for his father next to a Soviet monument cemetery. In the late 1950s – the early 1960s, numerous Stalin’s monuments were demounted and buried in the ground all over the Soviet Union. Not being buried too deep, with time, they started to partially reappear from the ground — in the 1990 documentary Stalin s nami? (Is Stalin is with us?), one of the interviewees visits a place where Stalin’s stone face has come to the surface. While Sergei is talking to the landlord, his young daughter is playing in the yard and comes across the half-buried Stalin’s monument; she later asks her father: ‘Why did they bury this man?’, to which Sergei replies laughing: ‘He misbehaved, so they buried him’. Sergei’s attitude reveals total alienation from the past and disdain towards it; his decision to rent a house for his father in this place indicates that, for him, his father is just another Soviet monument, a relic of the past. He chose not to take any interest in his father’s values, and thus failed to know that he was a person for whom a human life and the preservation of nature were always a priority over production of coal at all costs. Thus the subject of the father’s novel acquires a new meaning for Sergei.

Still from Stalin s nami? (1990)

Still from Stalin s nami? (1990)

It is quite symbolic that, no matter how hard Sergei tries to alter the course of the events or adapt to the life in the past, the next morning the day begins anew, making all the yesterday’s efforts futile. Thus, the film explicitly suggests that no one is able to change the past, as well as live a full life while dwelling on past memories, and the only option left is to accept and overcome it. The central conflict of the film — the conflict between generations — is resolved as Sergei, through his time travel experience, is develops a more compassionate relation with his father and forgives him for the mistakes of the past’. The film ends as Sergei returns to the present day, makes up with his father and lovingly embraces him. It’s viewed that Zerkalo dlia geroia was intended to appeal to the people of that generation, who felt personally attacked by so many films critical of the period of their youth, and holding them responsible for the tragic events of those years.

>> Read the next article Metaphor: Repentance