The film was part of a programme at the 32nd Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, ‘Ukraine: The Great Experiment’. Under the All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Directorate the Ukraine enjoyed a productive film industry in the 1920s. Moreover, because the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic enjoyed a degree of autonomy from the central authorities in Moscow it had a distinctive features. In the last years of the decade there was a burst of experimental film making, often avant-garde. It also continued the radical political approach that was gradually losing ground in the Soviet Union as ‘socialist realism’ became a norm. Among the key films from this period are Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1928) and Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom 1929). After 1929 central control was asserted and the experimentation died away.
It is worth noting that whilst there was a distinctive Ukrainian approach to film and film content, it was still part of the Soviet Socialist Construction. The presentation at Il Giornate tended to stress Ukrainian differences and downplay the political. The best example of this is a comment in the Catalogue describing Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera as ‘apolitical’!
This is important in discussing The Self-Seeker. The film is a satire set during the Civil War (1918 – 1921]. It satirises both the opponents attempting to restore the old regime [aided by the USA, UK and France] but also the Reds, i.e. the forces of the new Soviet Union. This led to the film being banned by the central authorities:
“The Civil War is presented in the film only in terms of its dark ugly side. It shows only robbery, dirt, the stupidity of the Red Army and the local Soviet Authorities, etc. As result, a nasty lampoon on the reality of that time was produced.”
This seems to be a singular misreading of the film. Clearly it did not fit the heroic representation of the Reds in the Civil War which increasingly became the norm. But the film ends with victory by the Reds and with collectivised peasants reaping the harvest.
The film certainly makes fun of aspects of Soviet practices in the period, one of chaos, famine and dislocation. But it equally makes fun of those of the Whites, and it is the latter that actually commit atrocities in the film. Part of the film’s complexity is a critique of NEP-men, petty bourgeois entrepreneur’s (labelled philistines) who took advantage of the New Economic Policy of the 1920s. This introduced limited market activity, a contradiction to socialist construction and a political line that was hotly debated in the Soviet Union.
The title character is one Apollon, a ‘philistine’. Because he is always looking for a quick profit he is caught up in the conflict of the Civil War. At various times he is captured by the Reds and by the Whites. On each occasion he finds a way of making money even as he is dragooned into socialist or bourgeois activities. But on every occasion some Civil War action interrupts his profiteering. And at the end of the film he only survives through the good grace of a companion.
The companion is the brilliant stroke in the film, a two-humped [Bactrian) camel.
[Bactrian Camels are much less common than dromedary (one-hump). Bactrian camels are native to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.]
The camel is commandeered at the same time as Apollon by retreating Reds: both are tied to a cart containing sugar, a rare commodity. Like Apollon the camel is tossed to and fro between the opposing forces. But, whilst Apollon is constantly having to dream up excuses or flee to safety, the camel adapts and survives. At one point he spits at a White NCO. On another occasion he surreptitiously drinks the forbidden hooch confiscated by a Soviet Committee. He several times saves Apollon at a crucial moment. And at the film’s end he is hailed by the celebrating peasants, liberated by the Reds and now returning to their harvest. They also involve him in this socialist work:
‘Although you are a hero, help us work.’
And this hero, at this point, once again saves Apollon from his just deserts. Many of the funniest sequences involve the Camel, who develops a persona equal to that of Apollon.
The satire on the Reds and on Soviet Commissars and Committees involves what can be seen as rather heavy-handed and ineffective restrictions. So at one point profiteers are bargaining for the sugar that is carried in the cart pulled by the camel. Meanwhile, a Soviet Committee debates halting ‘speculators and profiteers’, but the sugar is appropriated. Later we have a ‘struggle against hooch [illegal liquor]’. There is a more serious treatment of such campaigns in Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1930). But the Committee efforts are misdirected and vain.
The Whites are equally satirised. They veer from shooting Apollon as a Red to involving him in work in a military office. At one point the Whites HQ is sited in a monastery where the monks are salting away valuables. Apollon manages to acquire some of these but very soon loses them, with assistance from the camel.
There is one particular shot at the Whites HQ which probably did not meet with central Soviet approval. On the wall we see an anti-Red poster, dominated by a caricature which is obviously Leon Trotsky. His significant role in the Civil War was later erased when the opposition groups, including Trotsky, were subverted by Stalin and his supporters.
The film also makes extensive use of the avant-garde techniques found in Soviet montage of the period. So, at times, we see fast and discontinuous editing. Much of the humour is achieved by unexpected cuts. The film uses iris shots, superimpositions and at one point a split screen. Moments of humour are also achieved by under-cranking and speeding up the film’s motion. So the film is inventively entertaining. The co-writer and director, Mykola Shpykovskyi, had worked in Moscow, including on the brilliant comedy Chess Fever (Shakhmatnaya goryachka 1925). At least two of his other films are also satirical comedies.
Il Giornate screened the film from a 2K DCP transferred from the 35mm original. The film had Ukrainian titles [with English translations]. As it was not released at the time no other titles were made. It seems it was only discovered in the archives of Gosfilmofond in the 1990s. The screening had a live accompaniment by Marcin Pukaluk. The fact that it is on DCP means that it is more likely to travel and be seen again.
My feeling is that it is a film supporting Socialist Construction. It would seem that the enmities and conflicts of the period meant the censors failed to grasp its full implications. However, there is now a risk that it will be seen as an anti-Soviet film, not I believe the case. It is certainly a brilliant satire and very, very funny. It is also an outstanding camel movie, an animal whose screen presence I always enjoy.
Stills courtesy of Il Giornate del Cinema Muto and Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev