The last days of Lenin
Within years of the 1917 Russian revolution, a godlike image of the new state’s ruler was born. In exuberant biographies he was depicted as impervious to human pain and weakness.
“Lenin cannot be killed! So long as the proletariat lives - Lenin lives!” one of his hagiographers declared.
So it came as something of a blow to learn on January 21, 1924 that Lenin had in fact died. The mundane details of the prolonged illness that left him paralysed and barely able to speak were glossed over in the official reworkings of his life. Instead devoted party artists and sculptors laboured for decades to brand a triumphant, healthy image of the revolutionary leader on the minds of the masses.
Now that the Soviet imagery of Lenin has been toppled, the last agonised months of his life have been reclaimed for public consumption. This is the subject of Alexander Sokurov’s new film, Taurus, recently shown to a small Moscow audience in preparation for its Cannes debut. For the first time in Russian cinema the reverence demanded by the creators of Lenin’s personality cult has been abandoned. In place of adoring respect, there is harsh realism - only not the socialist variety. The 53-year-old Lenin is shown as a broken figure, crazed, rambling and unable to recognise even the distinctively sinister figure of Josef Stalin.
At the start of the film, the invalid is shown naked, half-wrapped in a sheet. We see him carried into his bath and tended to by his dreadful, downtrodden, hag-like old wife, who later retires to a back room to scrub his greying underwear by hand. We even witness his toenails being clipped as he lies writhing in his sickbed.
If Sokurov had made this film 15 years ago it would have joined six more of his earlier works, locked forever in a censor’s cupboard. He would probably have been arrested, he says, before it progressed beyond the screenplay. But Moscow’s cultural climate has changed so comprehensively that such an irreverent work prompted not even a stirring of outrage. Critical commentary has focused exclusively on the film’s cinematographic qualities; its political content has been shrugged off as irrelevant.
This is not merely revisionism, a logical, predictable antithesis to the dozens of admiring biopics created by the hero directors of Soviet cinema. The screenplay does not aim to demonise Lenin: Taurus is a strangely neutral portrayal of an unpleasant, ailing old man, focusing on his human failings and his personal disappointments. Sokurov does not want the film to be seen as a corrective postscript to the canon of official works. “This is not a political documentary, I wasn’t trying to make a political point. This is a film about a person like us,” he says.
Taurus is the second film in Sokurov’s planned quartet about the 20th century’s most powerful rulers. The first, Moloch, was a human portrayal of Hitler at home with Eva Braun in his last weeks in power. In both works, Sokurov focuses on the intense dissatisfaction experienced by the leaders as they reflect on what they have achieved. “These are people whose lives have not worked. These were deeply unhappy human experiences - from childhood to the last days of their lives. Both attempted to change the world by violently interfering with people’s lives. Neither achieved his ends,” he says. “I feel very sorry for them.”
The echoing empty halls of the Gorky estate form the sad backdrop to the last days of Lenin’s life. Behind every door a soldier hovers, observing him. The invalid has been told the telephone no longer works; newspapers are confiscated. In a moment of semi-lucidity Lenin is horrified by the grandeur surrounding him. Suddenly struck by the Italian baroque statues and the grand piano of the former inhabitants, he demands to know how much it all cost and begins to berate his wife for her inappropriate extravagance.
“But it’s all expropriated,” she explains. Her husband, his brain rotten with disease, no longer understands this much-loved concept. “Stolen. It’s all stolen,” she translates, sending him into one of the mad rages that - according to recently declassified documents - were a characteristic of his illness.
A hazy, out-of-focus effect was created for the film, achieved with specially designed plastic and glass filters. Sokurov says it was to give the film an oil-painting feel, inspired by the paintings of Velazquez and Rembrandt. The effect is more as though the surroundings are being observed through the cataract-scarred eyes of an old man.
Despite the director’s desire to inspire pity and not censure, it’s hard to feel too sorry for the dying Lenin. His powerful thirst for violence imbues the entire film. When he wakes up in the morning he asks his wife to read to him about different forms of punishment, about how the flesh falls from the human form after a certain amount of beating; when they sit together picnicking in a field, she reads to him in a comforting voice about death and torture.
The merciless portrayal of illness makes this a painful film to watch: Lenin never stops groaning and muttering to himself, dragging his useless body around, collapsing as he tries to stand up, crawling on the ground. Only his beautifully observed death offers the audience a moment of respite: the final five minutes of the film are silent as Lenin sits in his wheelchair in the garden listening to the noise of cows and birds and thunder, waiting to die.