Sunday, January 09, 2011

NYJFF ’11: Stalin Thought of You

Attention to detail and a long memory might be all well and good for office drones, but they are not so hot in dictators. Stalin was a case in point. He always remembered the little people he encountered—much to their woe. However, the tyrant saw a potential usefulness in one political cartoonist that proved to be his salvation. Indeed, the late Boris Efimov would outlive Stalin and his successors, surviving well past his centennial. It is a telling episode in Soviet history, even if Efimov himself was somewhat ambiguous about his relationship with his brother’s murderer in Stalin Thought of You (trailer here), Kevin McNeer’s documentary profile of the Communist caricaturist, which screens on the opening day of the 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum.

Efimov and his brother Mikhail Koltsov were both ardent Communists who had permanently adopted their revolutionary nom de plumes. Koltsov was the more outgoing sibling, rocketing up the ladder of the Soviet journalism establishment while holding secretly working for with NKVD. He is widely accepted to have been the inspiration for the Karkov character in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Despite (or more likely because) of his prominence, he was executed during Stalin’s Great Purge, despite recanting his forced confession.

Obviously, this put Efimov in a difficult position as the brother of a declared class enemy, but it was Stalin himself who threw the struggling artist a lifeline with a personal request for a very specific cartoon supposedly well suited to his talents. While it was only during Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin campaign that Efimov was fully rehabilitated, his lingering sense of indebtedness to the fearsome dictator is evident all through Thought.

To his credit, McNeer presents an unvarnished portrait of Efimov, often challenging him on his loyal service to the Communist system that murdered his brother. He also often broached the subject of Efimov’s Jewish identity, but the centenarian shut him down each time. While he might simply be ambivalent, McNeer shrewdly includes footage of old Soviet newscasts using Efimov’s Jewish heritage as cover for the virulently “anti-Zionist” cartoons he was required to produce.

If not an explicitly hostile witness, it is clear Efimov was not entirely forthcoming with McNeer. Yet, rather than papering over his evasiveness, McNeer wisely exploits it to make larger points. Frankly, one comes away from Thought with a much higher regard for Koltsov than its ostensive subject.

Throughout Thought, McNeer consistently asks the right questions and provides the necessary context to fully understand the propaganda under discussion. The resulting film offers fresh insights into a dark time in human history fueled by a poisonous ideology. Selections of the New York Jewish Film Festival frequently play at subsequent regional Jewish themed film festivals, so viewers outside the City should definitely keep an eye out for it. For New Yorkers, Thought screens this Wednesday (1/12), both in the afternoon and evening, as the 2011 NYJFF kicks off at the Walter Reade Theater.