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"Circus," an enormously popular Stalinist musical comedy directed by Grigory Alexandrov in 1936, is a prime example of Socialist Realism in film.

Socialist Realism “dictated to literature {and other Soviet arts} which aspects of reality should be depicted and which should not…. By selecting the reality it portrayed, Socialist Realism presumed to discover and disclose the development of Communism in Soviet society and by the force of that inspiration and example to hasten that development.” (Bullitt, p. 72)

In other words, official Party doctrine under Stalin forced artists to depict a happy socialist reality of the future; films espousing pessimistic views or non-political, non-propagandistic scenarios were frowned upon and often shelved. Socialist Realist art de-emphasizes the individual in favor of the masses, though “positive heroes”—strapping young Commies--could play protagonists. Starvation, purges and other elements of actual Soviet life were ignored by Socialist Realism in favor of presenting industry and the Communist state in the most glorious light possible.

Movies had always been a priority for Soviet leaders. As Lenin is rumored to have said, "For us, cinema is the most important art." Stalin echoed Lenin's sentiment: "Cinema is the greatest means of mass agitation. Our task is to make good use of it." Under Lenin, experimentalism and auteurism had been encouraged (see Djiga Vertov, Sergei M. Eisenstein.) Under Stalin, however, movies had to be simple enough for everyone to understand, so that all proletarians could be indoctrinated through mass entertainment. "Many older Soviets at that time were still illiterate and relied largely on films for information on the world outside their tiny villages." (Ratchford, pg. 91)

A 1935 decree called "Movies for the Millions" stated the following:

"The victorious class wants to laugh with joy. That is right, and Soviet cinema must provide the audience with joyful Soviet laughter." (Ratchford, pg. 84)

Such movies were scornfully labeled "boy meets tractor" films by more artistic and rebellious directors (see Andrei Tarkovsky).

Stalinist ideology runs rampant throughout "Circus," which debuted during a time of mass famine and purging in Russia. Characters of varying nationalities represent their native countries’ supposed roles on the world stage: Ivan, the Russian Adonis/protector; Franz, the nefarious deflatable Nazi; Marion, the helpless American showgirl, and so on. The action takes place under the big top, as Franz exploits Marion’s talent in exchange for keeping her mixed-race baby a secret. Ivan quickly falls in love with her, sings with her in a room overlooking Red Square, and stands up to the jealous Franz on her behalf. Highlights include a Russian performer fending off an entire pride of lions using naught but a flower bouquet, plenty of rollicking song and dance routines, and giant Stalin-head banners on the march during the rousing finale.

During a lullaby scene toward the end of the film, we see people of varying ethnicities singing to Marion's baby, including popular Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels. The scene was meant to depict how open-minded and non-racist the USSR was in comparison to the United States. However, when Stalin renewed his anti-Semitic policies, Mikhoels himself was purged by the secret police. His murder was made to look like a car accident.

The film's theme song ("Song of the Motherland," by Dunaevsky and Lebedev-Kumach) became nearly as well-known and well-loved as the film itself. One man is even said to have sung it as he faced the KGB firing squad.

Circus Theme Song Lyrics (translated by William J. Comer):

Chorus:
My motherland is broad,
It has many forest, fields and rivers.
I know of no other country
Where a person can breathe so freely.

From Moscow to the very hinterlands
From southern mountains to northern seas
A person will feel like an owner
Of his immense motherland.
Everywhere life is free and wide,
Just as the Volga flows completely.
The way is open to the young everywhere;
The old are everywhere held in esteem.

No one is extraneous at our table;
Any person can walk behind the plough.
In golden letters we write
Stalin's law for all peoples.
No number of years will ever wipe away
The glory and greatness of these words:
A person always has the right
To education, rest and labor.

Over our country a spring wind blows;
With every day one lives happier.
No one on earth knows how
To laugh or love better than us.
But we will sternly knit up our brow
If an enemy wants to break us.
We love our motherland, like a bride;
And we care of her, like our tender mother.

I've never seen Volga, Volga, also directed by Alexandrov, but it's said to be similar.

Works Cited

Bullitt, Margaret M. "Toward a Marxist Theory of Aesthetics: The Development of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union." Russian Review 35 (1976): 53-76.

Ratchford, Moira. "Circus of 1936: Ideology and Entertainment Under the Big Top." (Inside Soviet Film Satire, Andrew Horton, 1993, Cambridge University Press).

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