Saturday, January 24, 2009

NYJFF: The Return of Nathan Becker

August 12, 1952 would be the last night on Earth for thirteen Soviet Jewish writers and intellectuals. Loyal Communists who had promoted the Russian war effort as members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, they were fatally purged by Stalin in what came to be known as the “Night of Murdered Poets.” Among them was one Peretz Markish, a Yiddish poet, playwright, and novelist, who also penned the screenplay for the only Soviet Yiddish film of the sound era, The Return of Nathan Becker, which screens tomorrow at the NY Jewish Film Festival.

Markish was not the only member of the Return production who would not live through the Stalin years. However, co-star Solomon Mikhoels was considered too prominent a public figure as the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater for the usual show trial and summary execution. Instead, he was assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1948 through a staged automobile accident. It is Mikhoels that the NYJFF pays tribute to tomorrow with screenings of the 1925 silent film, Jewish Luck, and Return from 1932. The leading Soviet Jewish actor of his day, Mikhoels was the cultural point-man for convincing his co-religionists their faith and heritage were indeed compatible with Marxism. Return was very consciously a part of that program.

The film is in fact, propaganda. Wisely, the National Center for Jewish Film, which restored Return, added an introductory preface explaining Mikhoels and Markish would eventually be killed by the same regime the film proceeds to exalt. As it opens, the burly title character is returning to his homeland after years of toiling for Yankee robber barons. The Great Depression has laid America low, but the Soviet Union is portrayed as the new land of plenty. His idiosyncratic father, played by Mikhoels, has abandoned the shtetl, becoming an ardent Communist. So should you all is the clear message of the film.

The noble worker has difficulty acclimating to his new home. He is so used to the competitive pressures of capitalism, he chafes at what he perceives as half-hearted efforts from his co-workers. While the work leaders try to explain the “Soviet” way to Becker, he will have none of it, challenging them to a bricklaying duel to prove his point. Becker knows only one way to work—100% flat-out. He starts fast, but is eventually worn down by the ergonomically advanced Communist methods. Believing himself disgraced, Becker prepares to return to America. However, his father and the work leaders reassure him he is still welcome in the workers’ paradise. In fact, they can learn from him as well, refining Soviet bricklaying techniques with his own innovations.

In a way, it is hardly surprising that the producers of propaganda telling laborers to work smarter, not harder, would eventually run afoul of the state. As propaganda filmmaking, Return has some interesting visuals, like the broken Becker dwarfed by the looming brick towers of his ill-fated challenge, but it is nowhere near the league of Sergei Eisenstein’s films. It is a highly significant work, but one that must be considered in the proper historical context—specifically the fates of Mikhoels and Markish. A fascinating viewing experience, Return screens tomorrow (1/25) at the Walter Reade Theater.