In the Pantheon of 20th century villainy Joseph Stalin occupies a place of murderous distinction. As dictator of the Soviet Union good old “Uncle Joe” visited a devastating famine upon the Ukraine which starved millions, oversaw a concentration camp empire and sentenced countless thousands of his countrymen to death during the paranoiac purges of the 1930’s. Some 56 years after the death of this Georgian sociopath it’s a bizarre experience sitting through director Mikheil Chiaureli’s paean to Stalinism, “The Fall of Berlin”. A film that portrays one of history’s greatest mass murderers as a benevolent demigod...
Commissioned in celebration of the tyrants 70th birthday, no expense was spared in crafting this lavish propaganda epic. 4 tank battalions, 5 infantry and artillery divisions, 193 fighter aircraft, 45 captured German panzers and 1.5 million litres of gasoline were used to create its titanic battle scenes. It looks absolutely gorgeous too, shot as it was on high grade Agfacolour film stock “liberated” from the ruins of the Third Reich by the victorious Red Army.
The plot concerns steel worker Aleksei Ivanov (Boris Andreyev), a lovable bear of a man who lives with his mother in Stalin’s socialist utopia. One day Aleksei breaks the world record for steel production with his “11 tonnes per square metre” and is to be fêted with the Order of Lenin. Enter the beautiful schoolteacher Natasha (Marina Kovalyova), tasked with writing a speech to celebrate Aleksei’s, ahem, monumental achievement. The two soon fall passionately in love and are the oh-so-cute communist couple, she the ardent ideologue yin to his burly Stakhanovite yang.
However just when it looks like our lovebirds are going to settle down into a blissful life of state servitude, the fascist hordes of Hitler’s Germany burst onto the scene. Natasha is captured and incarcerated in a slave labour camp while Aleksei is conscripted into the army, vowing to fight into the heart of the Reich to rescue his beloved. Plot-wise Fall cannot be said to be unambitious as it juxtaposes the plight of our separated couple with high level wartime geopolitics, switching between the Kremlin, Hitler’s Chancellery and Yalta Conference.
Indeed, its simplistic love in the face of adversity narrative is merely window dressing for the deification of Uncle Joe as a leader of genius. In reality Stalin’s delusions of military grandeur saw huge casualties sustained by the Red Army before he finally allowed his generals to do their jobs. Upon receiving news of the Nazi invasion he had a nervous breakdown and retired to the seclusion of his private villa crippled with indecision. Yet in “Fall” we are presented with a stern and imperturbable leader, poring over situation maps in a state of Zen-Like calm, his generals listening attentively to their commanders profound strategic insights.
Thanks to some pioneering prosthetic effects for the period, all the war’s principal players bear an uncanny likeness to their real-life counterparts. Needless to say some are depicted more flatteringly than others. Actor Mikheil Gelovani made his career portraying Stalin on celluloid. So impressed had the dictator been by his performance in 1938’s “Diadi Gantiadi” (Great Glow) that it was decreed only Gelovani should play Stalin in all Soviet productions.
In “Fall” the resemblance is striking, Gelovani’s mimicry of the moustachioed ones mannerisms and rigid poise is helped no end by the sculpted make-up. On the other hand Churchill is presented as a shambling grotesque with an altogether Machiavellian agenda (reflecting long festering but newly emergent Cold War animosities). Hitler (Vladimir Savelyev) is a hysterical pantomime villain and pretty much every German given screen time appears to be a monocle wearing, riding whip carrying, black-leather clad eater of babies for breakfast.
Scenes of the Fuehrer’s entourage feature a cadaverous looking Goebbels and corpulent Goring who has a veritable pawn shop of gaudy tin adorning his Field Marshal’s uniform. In contrast to the warmth, brightness and understated aesthetic of Stalin's War Rooms, Hitler’s lair is one of dark shadows, imperial marble and petty-bourgeois kitsch. Of course Red Army soldiers are paragons of virtue and Stalin a god made flesh. In “Fall” the Soviet leader is omnipresent. When not in a scene both acolytes and enemies talk of him in tones of either awe or dread, in many shots his official state portrait positioned prominently in frame. Uncle Joe is watching you.
Battle scenes are choreographed with panache by Chiaureli and are a sight to behold. Panoramas of massed armour rolling across Russian steppes, nightmarish columns of German motorised infantry snaking through blazing cornfields, red banners majestically waving, all beam from the screen in Agfacolour’s vivid pastel shades. Without a doubt the films crowning achievement is the bravura assault on Berlin culminating in the storming of the Reichstag.
A more authentic recreation of this legendary battle will never be committed to film as the actual shell-pocked parliament building and its immediate environs were used. One can only imagine the reaction of war weary Berliners waking up one morning to see Swastika flags once again draped from lamp posts and Waffen-SS troops in the streets, the fires of a conflict which reduced their city to rubble scarcely four years extinguished.
“Fall’s” most painfully propagandistic scene is saved for last. In a film already rife with ego-fellation, Stalin’s (entirely fiction) arrival in Berlin for the post-battle victory celebrations really takes the biscuit. Surrounded by adoring masses, a white suited Uncle Joe waxes lyrical as to necessity of world peace before the choral strains of “Glory, glory be to Stalin” drown out the cheers of his rapt audience. This orgiastic adulation is topped off by the reuniting of Aleksei and Natasha as the dictator looks on approvingly.
“The Fall of Berlin” is the epitome of cinematic sycophancy, an ideological weapon that was once as powerful as the big guns Chiaureli so loves to frame in priapic silhouette. Music and emotion will always triumph over logic and reason if any piece of propaganda is worth its salt and “Fall” certainly cemented the cult of Stalin in the collective psyche of the Soviet Union. Yet despite the pictures obsequious preoccupation with the dictator, its legion artistic merits redeem the intellectual bankruptcy of its message. While not as visually audacious as the post-revolutionary works of Eisenstein, as a piece of Soviet Realist cinema “Fall” is nonetheless a staggering technical and logistical achievement, a totalitarian “Gone with the Wind”.
Thought lost for decades following Khrushchev’s De-Stalinisation campaign of the 50’s, Chiaureli’s love letter to despotism is a little seen gem worthy of rediscovery. Consistently entertaining and sumptuous to look at, “Fall” is a rewarding experience for the adventurous viewer and is sure to be treasured by film students and military history buffs alike.