Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik (1992) presents itself as a film about Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin (best known for the feature film Happiness), but if one goes beyond its promotional materials and synopses The Last Bolshevik is, in reality, a cine-essay concerned not just with a single film director but the political environment that dictated the construction and composition of that director’s, as well as his peers’, images. Chris Marker’s career was dedicated to the investigation of images, their circumstance, context, politics, content, composition, poetry, etc. And what better subject is there to quell Marker’s appetite than a film dealing with the career of one of the most obscure yet iconoclastic filmmakers working in Stalinist Russia?
Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is right in pointing out in his book Movies As Politics that Marker’s relationship and understanding of Medyedkin’s career is dependent on Marker’s radical left-bank activities in Paris during the summer of 1968 when the two filmmakers first met. As evidenced by William Klein’s film Mr. Freedom (1969), the radicals of the left bank were obsessive in their investigation and perverted appropriation of communist slogans and other forms of propaganda. But the desired ends for the revolutions of October and May were not entirely the same, other than a similarly idealistic hope for positive reform. Yet, if one assumes a perspective subjective to that of Chris Marker and his film’s subject one is immediately struck by just how close the two ideologies are to becoming identical. Both Marker and Alexander Medvedkin believe in Utopia and, through their affected approach to montage, launch investigations as to why Utopia has not yet been achieved. From this standpoint The Last Bolshevik must be read as a personal inquisition on Marker’s part as to what mechanisms, both political and uniquely filmic, allow for revolution to become so quickly derailed by the revolutionaries themselves. Of course there is no answer to Marker’s inquisition, only the refining of his questions and an achieved understanding that, given it is afforded only through second hand testimony, is not totally reliable but absolutely as subjective as it is illustrative.
The majority of The Last Bolshevik is composed of the testimonials of persons who either knew or studied Alexander Medvedkin. The subjects who have only academic experience with Medvedkin are as dependent on the testimony of the persons who knew Medvedkin as Marker is, and their remembrances can be, at times, as contradictory as the testimonials in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981). For Chris Marker these inconsistencies and minor continuity errors in memory are of little importance because he is able to supplement their errors with images.
Upon watching The Last Bolshevik one is immediately struck by how long Marker must have sifted through the many archives that survive in Russia to assemble his footage. Then one is struck again by how carefully he has observed it, at one time freezing on a frame of an aerial view of a reenactment of the storming of The Winter Palace and citing that a photograph exists from standard eye level that is often passed-off as being contemporary to the real event being re-made for the camera in the air. The obsessive approach Marker has taken is further evidence of his aesthetic link to the Soviet directors of the twenties and thirties. In one instance, during The Last Bolshevik, Marker quotes Alexander Medvedkin’s retelling of how he wept the first time he cut two images together for one of his newsreels, that he (Alexander Medvedkin) was overwhelmed by the power those two images possessed when coupled together. This exemplifies the connection between Marker and his subject while at the same time revealing how far more dependent The Last Bolshevik is on its images rather than the remembrances that play on its soundtrack.
It is therefore important to contextualize The Last Bolshevik within the moment of its production in 1992 (five years after Alexander Medvedkin’s death at the age of 89). Documentary film and historical cine-essays had adopted the Errol Morris aesthetic popularized by his film The Thin Blue Line (1988) where the content of the film would not exist without the soundtrack of testimonials and remembrances. The Last Bolshevik, and arguably Peter Watkins’ The Freethinker of the same year, calls for a return to an image based communication in non-fiction filmmaking.
However, unlike most non-fiction films, The Last Bolshevik is as determined to display and investigate the relationship between juxtaposed images as it is to bringing factual information to its audience. With elaborate montages Chris Marker shows his audience as much about Alexander Medvedkin and his socio-political environment as his subjects tell the audience. This strategy, even if it had failed, would have at the very least demonstrated the aesthetic theory behind the works of Soviet Cinema that the film is all about.