Stalin was their drug: Tractor Drivers (1939)
To get El Topo, you had to smoke weed. While watching Tractor Drivers, I had a feeling that all the actors had to take speed to keep in line with the director’s vision. In this worker’s paradise, everybody is aggressively happy and hyperactive, they plough the soil in ecstasy, feverishly exclaim instead of talking, laugh their heads off for no reason and all of a sudden burst into singing. Cinematic pathos was very characteristic for the Stalin era. Tractor Drivers is one of many films mythologising the everyday life of a collective farm (the so-called kolkhoz) and representing its hyper-idealised image on the screen.
Tractor Drivers shows us the cult of personality in its full bloom. Stalin is omnipresent: the leader looks down from the portraits, tractors are named after him and the film’s characters constantly praise him in songs. Have to admit that Khrushchev did a pretty nice job denouncing the cult of Stalin’s personality: in the 1960s the songs of Tractor Drivers were re-written and the film was re-dubbed, as well as every trace of Stalin was removed from the film by retouching. Take a look at the stills below – on the left they are from the original 1939 version of the film, on the right – from the 1960s edited version.
Tractor Drivers is a musical film. I simply love the fact that even the musical genre, always defined by escapism it offered to audiences, in the Soviet Union served propaganda purposes. If musical numbers in Hollywood musicals were usually just spectacular disruptions of storyline meant to entertain, in the Soviet musical they were ideological interludes, used to remind the viewer about his duties as a Soviet citizen. This crazy dance sequence, for instance, shows how relentless a Soviet worker is – after ploughing the soil all day, he is tripping it away like nothing happened:
In the Hollywood cinema of that time the girls were gold digging, ‘flapping’ and ‘showing’, and their ultimate desire nevertheless was to get happily married. Tractor Drivers offers us a new type of woman. The heroine Maryana Bazhan is an expert tractor driver and foreman of the brigade, who in her spare time dashingly rides a motorbike and beats off unwanted admirers. Highly masculinised in the beginning of the film, Maryana gradually acquires femininity and finally ends up married to the hero, but does it only after the tractor station authorities grant their approval.
All sorts of crazy things were happening in the 1990s, and a remake of Tractor Drivers happened. Tractor Drivers 2 (1992), directed by the notorious cinematic hooligans the Aleynikov brothers, is a trashy mix of surrealism, absurdism and parody on the “bright” Soviet past, which I definitely will have to talk about on the pages of this blog one day.