Happiness (Hyperkino Edition) DVD
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Directed by Alexander Medvedkin
Produced in 1934
Main Language - Silent with English subtitles
A cinematic folktale in which a poor peasant is sent out by his wife to find happiness. Exuding a spirit of continual cinematic invention, this is a rare treat of Russian silent cinema says Graeme Hobbs.
Released in 1935, described two years later in a regional newspaper as 'pernicious' and 'a libel against the Russian peasantry', forcing its withdrawal from circulation for more than 20 years, Aleksandr Medvedkin's Happiness is a mischievous and sprightly silent tale of what happens when a peasant goes looking for exactly that.
It's subtitled 'A Tale of a Hapless Mercenary Khmyr, His Horse-Wife Anna, His Well-Fed Neighbor Foka and Also of a Priest, a Nun and Other Old Relics' (and as an example of just how useful and extensive the 'hyperkino' notes on the film are, the one for the title alone spends 4 pages explaining, with reference to the etymology of the Russian words, just how inadequate a translation this is), and draws on folk-tales, proverbs, idioms and songs to tell its story in a form of what Medvedkin called 'hyperbolized folklore' in which real characters find themselves coping with fantastical situations.
'Dedicated to the last collective farm loafer' - though that dedication was swiftly removed before the film was ever shown - it sees the peasant Khmyr's quest hampered by the continual attentions of an irrepressibly troublesome kulak, a ridiculous scuttling priest with oversized money-shovelling hands, thieves and assorted freeloaders, including officers and officials, a taxman and some decidedly unchaste nuns garbed in transparent black. Tired of being the eternal ne'er-do-well caught between the old and new ways of Russia, Khmyr seeks to end it all, but the shiny nut-brown pated kulak Foka is having none of it. 'If the man dies, who will feed Russia?' he cries, fetching priest and soldier alike to punish the man for his temerity of wanting to die without permission. Khmyr eventually finds work on a collective farm, thriving there no better than anywhere else, until Foka's destructive meddling finally gives him the chance to set things straight. His reward is to shed his rags of clothing and be outfitted at a smart boutique, where in a nice touch he responds to being measured up by immediately bending over submissively, not knowing how to behave but willing to accept his expected punishment.
Fortunately Khmyr is often helped out in his endeavours by his indefatigably hearty 'horse-wife' Anna, who at one point earns her epithet literally, pulling their plough up a mountain at which their spotted horse had balked and working herself half to death in the process. As surprising as anything in this continually inventive and unexpected film is the tender scene that follows, with Khmyr laying flowers on her, playing an accordion and singing ('Oh, if I were a tsar I'd eat butter with butter...') to her near-lifeless body - to which she responds by opening her eyes, smiling radiantly ... and being yoked to the plough once more.
From early on the exuberantly playful spirit of Georges Melies is in the mix - as when dumplings leap from a bowl straight into Foka's mouth as he sits beneath his heavily-laden fruit tree, or later when he lays out a magical tablecloth with which to distract a tractor driver. Filled with visual invention, such as the unsettling sight of a Tsarist platoon wearing identical masks with gawping mouths and curlicued moustachios, or the priest eventually dying like a particularly frantic fly after clonking himself on the forehead with his crucifix (to the ding of a bell on the soundtrack, prepared by Chris Marker for the film's re-release in France in 1971 and used here), it's a real treat to have Happiness with us once more.
Graeme Hobbs on 8th January 2012
Author of 277 reviews
Aka 'A Tale of a Hapless Mercenary Khmyr, His Horse-Wife Anna, His Well-Fed Neighbor Foka and Also of a Priest, a Nun and Other Old Relics'.
The film that Medvedkin himself considered his greatest achievement, Happiness is a cinematic folktale in which a poor, idle peasant is sent out by his wife, Anna, to find happiness. Unfortunately his quest his hampered by priests, oficials and other freeloaders along the way. Using a form of 'hyperbolized folklore' and exuding a spirit of continual cinematic invention, this is a rare treat of Russian silent cinema.
Most people know of the Russian director Alexander Medvedkin through Chris Marker’s tribute, The Last Bolshevik (1993), and this version is presented with the soundtrack that Chris Marker prepared for the film's European release in 1971.
The film is presented as a 2-disc 'hyperkino edition' which features the standard film, with subtitles, on one disc, with the second disc featuring numerous scene-specific annotations, clips and documents (in Russian and in English) that can be viewed on screen and which contextualise the film and enhance the viewer's understanding. It is one of the most exciting developments in DVD for years, and especially valuable for important works of world cinema whose historical contexts crave further exploration.
Format: DVD B&W
Released: 22nd December 2011
Cat No: HPK5
- 2 discs