- My Grandmother (Chemi bebia) (1929)
In 1929, a Soviet Georgian actor-turned-director, Kote (aka Konstantin) Mikaberidze (1896–1973), made his first film, My Grandmother (Chemi bebia, Georgian/Moia babushka, Russian), a cutting satire of Soviet bureaucracy. Stalin’s Cultural Revolution (1928–1932) was well under way. This Cultural Revolution had two major components: the social and the artistic. In social terms, Soviet society was dedicated to ridding itself finally of the remnants of the old regime: people, practices, and ideas. An important part of the attack on antiquated practices was the campaign against bureaucracy, which had been the bane of tsarist as well as Soviet Russia. Mikaberidze had every reason to believe, therefore, that he was making a “politically correct film.” He was wrong. The film was banned, not to be screened again until the Georgian film studio restored it in 1976 because, according to the introduction to [End Page 157] the restored film, “even today, it will be able to combat certain shameful practices still present in our society.“ Composer and musician Beth Custer has added a lively musical sound track and an English-language narration of the Russian intertitles to this crisply restored version from a copy held by the Pacific Film Archive, who commissioned her to write the score with the support of an National Endowment for the Arts grant.
The plot of My Grandmother is simple. The executives of the “TORK” trust laze about all day, shuffling papers, smoking and eating, playing with toy trucks, and shooting paper airplanes. The business manager, who commits suicide when a typist (with fashionably bobbed hair) refuses his love, is replaced by another unnamed man. The new business manager (Alexander Takaishvili) strongly resembles his predecessor, both physically and in terms of his complete uselessness. When a worker (Akaki Khorava) appears at the offices of the trust bearing a request for fifty rubles to restore production, the executives and staff are temporarily shaken out of their torpor. But all they produce is a new sheaf of papers, signed and countersigned—no money. In a rage, the worker’s inspection singles out the new business manager as a scapegoat, and he is fired as well as lampooned in a newspaper caricature. With a wife (Bella Chernova) and daughter to support, the ex-business manager is desperate to get his job back, especially because his wife is a well-groomed shopaholic who buys from the expensive black market. He considers suicide. Oddly enough (since he had the job in the first place), he doesn’t seem to know that the key to securing another plum position is to find a “grandmother,” an influential individual, to serve as his patron. When he thinks he has found one, to his horror, he learns that the letter of recommendation he pestered from his “grandmother” is in fact another denunciation. He is ejected once again. “Death to the bureaucrats” is scrawled on a wall outside the trust building.
On the surface, this sounds like exactly what the Communist Party had ordered: a black-and-white diatribe against the hated administrators and fat cats, in favor of the proletariat. Because of the film’s style, however, it is anything but. Even if its social message might have passed muster, its artistic style could not. The artistic component of the Cultural Revolution was waged against the avant-garde, who were condemned for the dreaded sin of formalism, an emphasis on form over content, directed at the few rather than the masses. This threat was real. The years 1928–1932 were an era of avant-garde masterpieces such as Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, Fridrikh Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire, Sergei Eisenstein’s The Old and the New, and Grigory Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg’s The New Babylon. Mikaberidze was clearly influenced by these great directors, especially by the Workshop of the Eccentric Actor of Kozintsev and Trauberg (oddly referred to in the scant DVD notes as “a group of young Jewish artists from the provinces”). Even for viewers with no interest in the history and politics of the film, My Grandmother...