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Happiness (Aleksandr Medvedkin, 1934)


     Aleksandr Medvedkinís Happiness, as rowdy as any Soviet silent movie, is a comic parable composed of equal parts of Tex Avery and Luis BuŮuel. It satirizes the plight of a Soviet farmer who finds himself providing for the state, the church, and his peers at the expense of his personal satisfaction. A hapless young prole, Khmyr, is tasked by his wife with the goal of going out in the world and finding happiness, lest he end up dead and dissatisfied after a lifetime of toil, like his father. Through stylistic exaggeration and a systematic attack on pre- and post-Revolutionary Russiaís dearest institutions, the movie achieves a wide-ranging, and deeply wounding, attack on the limitations placed on personal freedom in Russian society.


     The wide net of Medvedkinís satire leaves few targets unsnared. Usually, the critique comes through via absurd visuals or situations. An overfed tsar taunts a hungry worker with his warehouseís oversized key. A battalion of military men wear masks, robbing them of any individuality. A horse goes on strike. A priest stops a funeral midway to ask the mourners for payment. Among the peasantry, greed and infighting are constants, undermining any rightful hope to solidarity. Even death is mocked with a sequence in which the frustrated hero resolves to die and fashions his own coffin, riding astride it, as if it were a horse. For the effort, he gets deemed an unruly rebel and is severely tortured, before being sent to a thirty-three year prison term, during which he misses the Russian Revolution.


     Happiness is the cinematic equivalent of a biting political cartoon. Medvedkinís approach here exaggerates the fruitlessness of the Soviet citizenís struggle. Through the use of giant props, blatantly artificial sets, and crude caricatures of authority figures, he conceives a series of potent images that surely would have carried more weight with Soviet audiences. The biggest uprising in Happiness is staged as a food fight. A second abortive suicide is attempted, hilariously, on a windmill, confirming that thereís no easy way out of this insanity. That Khmyr finally finds happiness, courtesy of his wife and participation in the communist system, only provides the smallest solace here, as his immediate action is to laugh at the infighting of his comrades. Both less stodgy and more outrageous than the rest of the Russian silent film canon, Happiness is political cinema at its finest, and funniest.



Jeremy Heilman