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People & Culture
Film review: The Concert - a devious farce
A French/Italian/Romanian/Belgian collaboration released at the end of 2009, the film is directed by Romanian Radu Mihaileanu, and the storyline, by French/Chilean writer Héctor Cabello Reyes, appears to have been written specifically for the film or at least was not published separately.
After some trouble with the authorities 30 years before, Andrei Filipov, the former conductor of the Bolshoi orchestra, is still working as the Bolshoi’s janitor in the new era of privatised utilities and gangster Capitalism. His nemesis, Ivan Gavrilov, the former apparatchik who, albeit ‘acting on orders’, histrionically sacked him during a public performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra - by snapping his baton in two - is now apparently the only person in the country for whom ‘stagnation period’ Socialism, or at least the Party’s slogans of the time, retain any appeal. He seems to be part, even the only part, of some die-hard remnant of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Underlining his political isolation, he relies on Filipov’s entrepreneurial wife to supply ageing, flag-waving ‘supporters’ from her informal rent-a-crowd network. She also hires out differently-specified people for weddings, funerals and other gatherings of the new Capitalist oligarchy.
Cleaning the office in his boss’s absence, Filipov the janitor reads an incoming fax, an invitation to the Bolshoi orchestra to perform at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris. Sensing an opportunity for revenge but mainly in order to conduct again, he initiates an entertaining conspiracy that constitutes the main plot of the film. In cahoots with his affable friend and former ‘cello player in the orchestra, Sacha Grossman, he quickly persuades Gavrilov to pose as its present manager and phone the director of the Paris venue to accept the invitation and negotiate a favourable deal (being a Communist, Gavrilov is obviously good at deception and drives a hard bargain). Filipov then sets about engaging former colleagues to play in a counterfeit orchestra for an apparently well-funded and exciting three-day trip to Paris where they will give a single performance of (yes, inevitably) Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Gavrilov needed little persuading: having once visited Paris on expenses before perestroika, he is keen on both Parisian high-life and the French Communist Party (PCF) which he still imagines to be a thriving political force. And he also feels guilty about the baton.
Tracked down and reassembled from their current jobs (all seem to be in some kind of employment), the ex-orchestra members end up in Paris to face a sell-out audience of the well-bred and well-fed, without once having had a chance to rehearse any of the programme or even play together at all. Anne-Marie Jacquet, the guest soloist on whom Filipov insists, is a Paris-based, Russian-born virtuoso violinist and predictably also a beautiful young woman; she has only a couple of days to master the Tchaikovsky piece which she had never played before. So far, so ludicrous.
In the basement of the Châtelet, shortly before taking the rostrum, Filipov confronts Gavrilov, now disillusioned with Paris and the PCF whose members act as woodenly as his own hired supporters in Moscow. True Communism, says the man with the now mended baton to the man who broke it – this is not verbatim but the gist - is not to do with material conditions but only a temporary experience as when an orchestra and audience together reach the height of emotional fulfilment. (Capitalist class: Now stop all this bolshie nonsense and pop along the Proms instead. Working class: Thanks, Guv, don’t mind if we do). Predictably enough, the orchestra begins very shakily but, under the inspired guidance of the soloist and conductor, manages in the space of just a few bars to reach a level of perfection that at the end (you knew it) brings the audience to its feet and tears to every eye. Those Greek peasant women formation-dancing on the jetty with Meryl Streep in the film of Mamma Mia would have lapped it up; and of course the miracle converts poor old Gavrilov into believing in God.
The stereotypes and mind-boggling unlikeliness of this farrago are as impervious to criticism as in any other fairy-tale predicated on a cheerful suspension of disbelief. Yet this is precisely the problem, for woven into the amiably absurd storyline is a misrepresentation falser than the orchestra itself.
In the story, Filipov 30 years before was sacked either for ‘defending’ or for ‘hiring’ Jewish members of ‘his’ orchestra. Since the details are left unclear we are invited to share the assumption that there was something anti-semitic going on. Many of the orchestra members are Jews. The beautiful young virtuoso violinist is also Jewish, the daughter of two members of the orchestra who died in a Siberian prison camp to which they were banished for having contacted the (CIA-funded) Voice of America radio station ineffectively banned in the USSR during the Cold War; the ex-conductor helped smuggle her to Paris as a baby. These events and experiences of 30 years before feature in the film as visually and aurally distorted monochrome flashbacks, which are sufficiently unlike newsreel footage to convey a strong sense of distorted memory.
In the light of this it is interesting to note that Stephen Applebaum, writing in the Jewish Chronicle online, says in an interview with the director that Filipov is ‘inspired by real-life conductor Evgeny Svetlanov’, which is odd because although Svetlanov was indeed principal conductor at the Bolshoi, this was in 1962-1965, one year into the Brezhnev period but well before the 'period of stagnation', and although he was later acrimoniously sacked from his later, even more prestigious, job as conductor of the Russian [formerly USSR] State Symphony Orchestra, that was in 2000, long after Brezhnev and post-Soviet Union itself. If Svetlanov at some stage of his career was linked with political controversy involving Jewish musicians, this has eluded an initial Internet trawl.
Because we know that an orchestra that hasn’t rehearsed together for 30 years, and many of whose members haven’t even played their instruments for that long either, cannot by effort of will or divine intervention do justice to a demanding score, however inspired the conductor or soloist, we can accept that aspect of the story as a fairy-tale. But because we have been reminded time and again that in many respects life was tough in Brezhnev-era Communism (as Western ideologues have persuaded almost everyone to call the country’s socialism), we are primed to accept the film’s representation of this as true; but such truth is a relative thing. Compared with the experience of its capitalist successor, it is no wonder that many working-class people in the territories of the former USSR - and certainly more than Gavrilov, the lone, cardboard cut-out Communist of the film - look back to the Brezhnev period with a degree of pride or nostalgia, no doubt in part due to selective memory yet also significantly at variance with the histories favoured by those who defeated the USSR.
This phenomenon has been and continues to be widely reported in the Western media as well as in Russia and elsewhere, even if it is open to different interpretations. But the film blatantly misrepresents this point of view as confined to minor former Party officials, assuming Gavrilov is not seriously meant to imply that literally only one person in the entire country feels that way.
Rights and freedoms: individual and collective
My individual right to exploit you might be very valuable to me (though less so to you) while the capitalist economic cycle is in boom phase, but cue to recession or even to slump and unless I yield the autonomy I so cherish by being taken over by a competitor or go bankrupt, I might even have to rub shoulders with people like you in the swelling ranks of the unemployed. Collective ‘workers’ rights’ which as an employer I once resented may suddenly appear to be exactly the sort of rights I could do with, and at least as important as the individual freedom (say) to own a newspaper – a ‘freedom’ which I might once have been rich enough to exercise but which in these less certain times I must now cast aside.
Access to creative culture as a producer as well as a consumer hinges not only on taste and the influence of commercial exploitation but also on basic access to education at all levels including support for specialist training. In Britain (for instance) families expect to make major sacrifices for their sons or daughters to receive the teaching which even the strongest aptitudes need to develop. Such teaching in the USSR was for the most part funded out of ‘the social purse’, as were orchestras, theatres, cinemas, and a host of other institutions and activities, and on a larger scale than those that public funds provided in the West. There were indeed public controversies about what some artists or musicians and others did in the cultural field – and the high social standing of art and culture at all levels of Soviet society was probably one of the reasons for this. It is misleading to judge socialist cultural engagement on capitalist terms. Rather than assess the relative ‘freedoms’ of capitalist and socialist production in the field of art and culture, we might think of ‘art and the public’ as involving a different mix of individual and collective rights and freedoms.
‘Stagnation period’ Socialism – outside pressure
The spectrum of rights and practical expectations for the people in the USSR during the Brezhnev period, while hardly ‘perfect’, compared well with those of most capitalist countries and even with those with a higher GDP – but of course, a lot depends on the relative importance you attach to individual versus collective rights. This was, however, hardly a stable or improving situation. Within a few short years, the capitalist West had defeated the core and almost all the periphery of actually existing 20th Century Socialism. But whatever view is taken of the prospect at that time for overcoming the serious dislocations in the economic, social and political life of the country, and whether, for example, the kinds of reform that were later tried during the Gorbachev period might have created a more resilient socialism, the historical reality is that the Capitalist West, and for the final shove primarily the US under President Reagan and the UK under Mrs Thatcher, had successfully and quite deliberately pushed their enemy to a point of no return. For the outcome, the Soviet leadership – and complacency and other failings in the Communist movement as a whole - cannot avoid a share of the blame.
Key to the anti-Socialist strategy was defence spending which under Capitalism produced jobs and profits, but under Socialism more simply diverted resources from socially useful purposes for which there was understandably strong domestic demand – and therefore resentment when it was not met. That offensive has been well-documented and debated elsewhere, but of direct relevance to The Concert is its ideological precision-targeting of the USSR’s professional and middle-class citizens and their more influential ‘peer groups’ elsewhere.
These were the better-educated people more susceptible than most to arguments and enticements geared to personal advancement, with perhaps a weaker sense of the link between their own personal rights (or insufficiency of them) and the personal and collective rights of most of their fellow-citizens. Having committed huge resources to developing its educational system, the leading socialist country failed to match this with the political education of its citizens to the degree required, just as its reactive approach to defence spending made it vulnerable to those who by this means were allowed to bankrupt it into defeat, ‘without a shot being fired’. Other policies might have worked, but they were not tried and the opportunity was missed. This was the situation at the time to which the film now and then flashes back.
Capitalism, Zionism and ‘anti-semitism’
A key part of that ideological precision-targeting focused on Soviet and other Jews. For the Western powers this was an irresistible win-win scenario. For similar historical reasons as elsewhere, and despite all the ravages of the war against Fascism that cost the lives of 20 million of its citizens, in the USSR Jews accounted for a higher-than-average proportion of the middle and professional classes. At the same time, an expansionist Israel, already swollen by the Six-Day War in 1967, sought then, as now, to colonise its stolen lands with Jewish settlers. But there was a problem. The increasing, if still inadequate, resistance of the Palestinians themselves, together with enduring hostility of its neighbours and growing concern around the world about Israel’s racist policies and future, slackened the rate of Jewish immigration to Israel from the capitalist West. Many Jews from the US and Western Europe continued to support the racist state financially and in terms of influencing governments and other bodies in their own countries, but they were lukewarm about moving there themselves. Non-Israelis had interesting temporary experiences on kibbutzim, but their tickets were returns.
The USSR, however, and to a lesser degree its eastern European allies, had relatively large and well-educated Jewish minorities to whom a new life in Israel would surely appeal, provided they could be treated differently from other Soviet citizens at the time and allowed to emigrate. This would not only rob the Socialist states, above all the USSR, of the valued work of specialists and professionals in many fields but would be resented by fellow citizens not permitted the same exit rights, and - for aiding the enemy - by the USSR’s anti-Zionist friends in Palestine and the Arab world generally.
For Capitalism, this was a trump card. If emigration permission was denied, human rights were being flouted - though there was less concern about the human rights of Palestinians born in lands occupied by Israel, who did not then and still do not have a right of return. If, on the other hand, emigration was allowed, yet more would expect to leave, further weakening the country’s economy. Damage was done to the morale of Soviet citizens already suffering from the effects of Western-driven arms expenditure and bombarded by images of the good life Capitalism has to offer (those to whom the Capitalist good life is denied, if they are mentioned at all, appear only in the small print).
Art, culture, politics
High profile individuals were always the prime targets: dancers, musicians, writers etc. Nureyev, Rostropovitch or Solzhenitsyn who left the country or were banned hit headlines around the world. The publicity sometimes gave the impression that the only dissident intellectuals in the world were those in socialist countries. At no time since the McCarthyite witchhunts were so few Western intellectuals willing to analyse the monster that was taking over the world. The point is that, although the cultural commissars (or those who could have taken that role) might have addressed the issues more intelligently, in the end, the terms of the argument were out of their hands, and there seemed little consistency to the policy of who was and who was not treated differently from everyone else (whatever might be said about how everyone else should have been treated). If a Western (and, if the individual was Jewish, then also Zionist) campaign succeeded in one case, efforts were simply encouraged elsewhere. The Socialist states were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.
Above all, it was represented that in refusing (albeit inconsistently) to ‘let my People go’, the USSR and other socialist states, along with Communists in general who included many (in Zionist terms ‘self-hating’) Jews themselves, were anti-semitic and, as such, as close to Nazis as makes no difference: the line peddled by Zionist and other heirs to the Goebbels ‘big lie’, and a calumny that would have at least 20 million Soviet citizens spinning in their graves, if they were lucky enough to have one. Of course there was anti-semitism in the USSR, as elsewhere, but the Zionist claim that it was systematic and that Jews as a category were in legal terms treated differently from other citizens was never credible except to those eager to believe it. To take just one counter-indication: against unsubstantiated assertions to the contrary, a number of US scholars contend that on available evidence Jews were over-represented in the Soviet Communist Party itself by a factor of two to three times their percentage in the general population (William A. Clark, review of James R. Millar, ed., Cracks in the Monolith: Party Power in the Brezhnev Era. [Armonk, Sharpe, 1992], Slavic Review, 53 (4), 1994, p.1183).
The concert in The Concert was a ‘miracle’. This may be a fairy tale, and we all know fairy tales are not to be taken for real, but whether the miracle is the work of God or of some unfathomable genius of the musicians themselves, it was certainly not produced by the hard work which even the most skilful must put in to achieve and maintain high standards. Although in itself and in the context of entertainment perhaps a harmless fiction, this idea of something for nothing chimes with two misconceptions which, because they affect how people organise their lives, are politically loaded and far from harmless.
One is the familiar myth of capitalism itself: the individualised dream of fast-track mega-wealth in a casino economy - have you noticed how the compère of the weekly National Lottery draw on TV wishes everyone good luck? The other is the myth of natural giftedness in false contrast to upbringing, education, opportunity, and practice, in determining how well people do things. Since not all the musicians in the film are Jewish (and Filipov is the main gentile) it doesn’t explicitly suggest that the miracle is one of ‘Jewish genetics’, but since at this point the mystique of spine-tingling music goes to its head, it leaves that interpretation dangerously open to anyone gullible enough believe it. At least Gavrilov only ended up believing in God.
Coda: a devious farce
If the film’s anti-Communist sub-plot were ‘based on a true story’, the credits would certainly have said so. But it is based firmly in the ideology of the Cold War, from the victorious, Western, Capitalist, point of view, though the credits don’t say that either. The devious tag-line of the film - ‘An Uplifting Comedy About a True Band of Misfits’ [emphasis added] – hints that somewhere behind it lurks a ‘truth’. But the story of the fake orchestra, and of the real orchestra it pretends to be having had its conductor sacked, is plainly a fiction. Interestingly, the film echoes another film, Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (made in 1939 – not a good date), starring Greta Garbo, and described in Wikipedia as:
one of the first American movies which, under cover of humorous light romance, deliberately criticizes the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. It depicts the Soviet system as rigid and gray, comparing it to the free and sunny Parisian society.
Nothing new there, then, except for the anti-semitic slur. The victors not only write history, but for those who don’t read history (or can’t be bothered with it), they also sponsor farce.