Monday, February 23, 2015

Movies You Never Heard Of

"The Red Atlantis – Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism,” by J Hoberman, 1998

Just as Cuba is now an island rising from the hidden mists into the blinkered field of American vision, so Hoberman hoped to do the same thing in this book for Soviet and Central European culture under ‘existing Socialism.’   By turns a liberal anti-Stalinist, a sympathetic progressive and a post-modernist ironic connoisseur of a lost “Communist” culture, Hoberman covers film, literature and plays that originated during different periods in each country.  Americans, by culture extremely parochial, pay little attention to doings outside their country, and less to doings in the prohibited confines of ostensible socialism.  Best it all be forgotten. 
Budapest Sculpture Park (CGG)

Well no.  What happened in these countries is essential to how the future will play out, as capitalism will not last forever.  Hoberman fondly recalls this culture for us.

Hoberman was the long-time Village Voice’s film critic and here he delves into film the most.  He was fired from the Voice in 2012, probably for promoting too many small films.  In one chapter he lists 27 significant films – including anti-Communist ones done in the U.S. like “Red Dawn” – that are relevant.  He spent time in Hungary and there is a lot of material on Hungarian film produced during the workers’ state period – the initial severe Rakosi period, after the insurrection in 1956 and then after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Hungary had a large film industry and later sent many to the West and to Hollywood, including the director of ‘Casablanca’ Michael Curtiz / Mihay Kertesz, the producer Adolf Zukor and the cinematographer of ‘Easy Rider’ and “Five Easy Pieces,’ Lazlo Kovacs. ‘Ricks Café’ in Casablanca was based on the famous literary Budapest coffee shop, the ‘New York Café,’ which still exists in elegant glory at 9-11 Erzsebet Korut in Budapest.

Hungarian films like “Time Stands Still,’ (1983) depict a time when the rock and roll revolution in Hungary somehow merged with the spirit of the 1956 insurrection.  It reflects the period from 1956 to 1963, when liberal-bureaucratic Kadarism prevailed in Hungary over repression, to 1969 when there were over 4,000 rock and roll groups in Hungary under Party approval.  After Czechoslovakia in 1968 though the tides began to change.  Or “The Confrontation,” (1969) - idealistic Communists try to convince Roman Catholic nuns that their perspective is wrong.  Or “Angie Vera” - how a beautiful young woman becomes a Communist.  Or “When Joseph Returns,” - factory life in Hungary, similar to the book, “A Worker in a Worker’s State,” by Miklos Haraszti.  No Stalinist mysticism here.   
Bela Kun - Leader of 1919 Hungarian Soviet (CGG)
Hoberman’s history also tracks a whole series of Soviet films - Stalinist operettas, futurist fantasies and more realist fare - not focusing on Eisenstein.  He goes up to “The Garden of the Scorpians,’ (1991) which uses montage and re-use of prior visuals to tell a tale of alcoholism in the USSR on the verge of the 1956 intervention into Hungary.  He investigates the development of literature in the USSR, some critical of the bureaucracy, some not.  His essential point is that Stalinist/bureaucratic culture was a Potemkin village hiding what was actually going on.    

The value of the book, besides its cultural sweep, is in the historical nuggets his research unearths.  Hoberman hints that the Soviets invented the musical first.  Hollywood (at the ostensible request of Roosevelt) put forward a Popular Front line in the 1943 film, “Mission to Moscow,” which justified the purge trials, the assassination of Trotsky, the Hitler-Stalin pact and the invasion of Finland.  Hoberman talks about a small group of 50 Maoists in Hungary, who were arrested in 1968.  75% of Hungarian agricultural co-ops were free to select their own leaders, though the Hungarian Workers Party tried to control every election and sometimes overruled local bodies.  A film, “The Resolution,” reflected this situation. 

Hoberman weaves the cultural analysis with history.  He mentions that Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the leading bodies in 1927 after Trotsky criticized Stalin’s support for the bourgeois Koumintang in China.  Later that year the Koumintang killed thousands of proletarian Chinese Communists in Shanghai, as documented in Andre Malraux’s book, “Man’s Fate.” 

Hoberman points out that in capitalist societies, art is ignored, or turned into a salable product.  In workers’ states however, the bureaucracy took art and culture seriously, as they knew it reflected – and affected - the thinking of the people.  Marcuse tries to interpret this in a theoretical formula for capitalism and workers states – essentially ‘extending artistic liberty the better to promote political domination.”  This is certainly true in the U.S. today.  Phillip Roth clarifies this statement, after his many visits to “Peoples’” Czechoslovakia, ‘There nothing goes and everything matters; here, everything goes and nothing matters.’

Hoberman has a long section on Jewish culture in Russia and its interaction with Bolshevism, and later its persecution by Stalin in the name of ‘anti-Zionism’ or subversion after 1936.   At one time a Yiddish ‘homeland’ was established in Siberia bordering China – Birobidzhan. Yiddish was the official language of several provinces; Jewish history for a time was explored in culture, theater and film in the USSR.  Hoberman references Babel, Grossman and Victor Serge.  The great film, ‘The Commissar” was made into a film based on Grossman’s story, “In the Town of Berdichev.” This told the story of the liquidation of its Jewish population by the Nazis, an event that was also reflected in Grossman’s “Black Book.” (which was banned in the USSR).  Babel was later arrested as a ‘Trotskyite’ spy.   Serge, a great and clear writer, gets his own chapter here, as a truth-teller allied with Trotsky.  Even in 1965 there were show trials of Jewish dissidents.  Many were part of a Soviet counter-culture and hence unreliable. 

Hoberman has a chapter on Czechoslovakia, primarily focusing on Kundera, Kis, Konwicki, Klima and Konrad.  They first three were all former members of the Communist Party, but ultimately cast out.  Of course, all these “K’s’ reference the original “K” – Prague’s most famous resident writer, Franz Kafka.  Kafka was inspired to write about bureaucratic nightmares as an office worker in the ‘Workers Compensation Office’ of the Kingdom of Bohemia.  One of Kafka’s houses is still located on a tiny street next to ‘The Castle’ on the hill above Prague.  For a time debates over Kafka filled the literary life of Czechoslovakia – the bureaucrats calling him bourgeois and the dissidents remarking that his hallucinatory view of getting caught in an unknowable bureaucratic nightmare rang true – not just for the Hapsburg empire, but also for the alleged ‘socialist’ state.  Kafka’s “The Trial” even has an indirect criticism of the moralistic and Catholic practice of ‘criticism/self-criticism’ beloved by the Czech CP and Maoists everywhere.  One of Kafka’s books, “Amerika,” was destroyed after the revolution, because his champion, Jesenka, had been expelled from the CP as a Trotskyist.  Yet “The Trial” was later re-published in 1957.  Sadly, the Czech CP had the most members of any Central European Communist party – probably until 1968. 

Hoberman’s final chapter is on the Rosenbergs – who were executed for supposedly giving nuclear secrets to the USSR.  The book ends with a fictional presentation of the young Rosenbergs’ life in New York.  It seems like Hoberman fondly remembers his own time as a red diaper baby in New York City, when the YCL held dances, the comrades were many and the world and change were possibilities.  This might be the motivation for this book.

See prior reviews of “Beatles Rock the Kremlin,” various commentaries on present developments in capitalist Hungary, review of the film “WR:  Myth of the Organism,” a book on Soviet art, “Desert of Forbidden Art;” a review of “Life & Fate,” by Vassily Grossman, the modern successor to Tolstoy’s “War & Peace.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books Used Section
Red Frog
February 23, 2015

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