Sat down with this only because I’m always willing to spend a couple hours with Marlene Dietrich; little did I know it would harmonize so well with Camus’ Les Justes, which I’ve just read with my summer school students. Indeed, the film’s second act begins with a revolutionary throwing a bomb into an aristocrat’s carriage.
This is a wonderful movie, a brilliant illustration of the literal meaning of the word “revolution.” Callous aristocrats are driven from their estate by the Red army, which then lines up Tsarist sympathizers and guns them down. The next day the estate is retaken by the White army, which then lines up Socialist sympathizers and guns them down. The male lead is an upper class Brit send into the revolutionary organization as a spy who then become himself politicized, but then later rescues an aristocratic woman imperiled by the revolution. As always, the poor are forced to pledge ideological allegiance to whomever is holding a gun to their heads; sometimes they have to change their politics three times a day.
As a side note, it’s interesting to see a historical drama which was made at a time closer to the events it depicts than it is to the time at which you’re watching it. Does that make sense? In 1937, the revolution was just twenty years old, and there’s a strange sense, watching these scenes, of how palpable and immediate those events were at the time the film was made, which serves to reinforce how vague and distant those events are to us today. I can’t quite put my finger on this sensation. It’s the double remove, perhaps, of watching a historical historical drama. Somehow it lends the representation an uncanny sense of the real.
Blah blah blah. See it not for the sake of my metahistoriographical maunderings but for Marlene Dietrich in soft focus, hiding from her pursuers under a bower of fallen leaves in a birch grove. And for the shellshocked station master announcing the arrivals and departures of invisible trains.