"The First on the Moon" The Moonlit Space of Dreams and Ambitions: Alexei Fedortchenko's Ode to Old Russia By Saul Symonds

in 62th Venice International Film Festival

by Saul Symonds

Alexei Fedortchenko’s The First on the Moon (Pervye na Lune), is constructed as a ‘secret’ history of the Soviet space project, supposedly from classified unseen-till-now documentary newsreels. The film, in its most obvious form, is a look into the communist work ethic and way of life, an examination of the people who were committed, heart and soul, to everything that was the USSR.

Whereas a recent film like Evilenko, set just before the fall of Berlin Wall, used the not-quite-so-healthy pathological makeup of a pedophilic-cannibalistic-child killer who remained uncaught for a good many years as a metaphor for the decline and eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union, First on the Moon desires to take us into the psychology of the ordinary people who lived under such a regime, (and what’s a Russian film without psychological musings? it was, after all, Dostoyevsky who pioneered psychological realism in his novels, creating so complete a picture of the mental universes that his characters’ inhabit that his readers could be excused for feeling that, together with Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov , they too could at any moment break beneath the increasing strain of guilt and anxiety as Crime and Punishment draws to a close).

First on the Moon, however, does not wish to approach its topic from a traditional angle, and instead approaches its politics via the films made by the Russian Montagists. Apart from an obvious homage to Eisenstein in an Alexander-Nevsky-inspired newsreel of a circus, many of the film’s shots recall the general look and feel of old Eisenstein movies whilst also adhering to the dictum of maximum tension within the frame. One shot of the Russian army lined up particularly reminded me of them. Troops, reminiscent of cheaply-made monochromatic toy soldiers, are lined diagonally across the frame against a stark white background of thick snow that is the Russian winter, (snow which is heavily laden with historical context as it was these very winters which stopped dead so many advancing armies – these very winters which ground the German war machine to a halt more than once). In front of this line of troops, a single officer gallops diagonally across frame on a black steed. It is a scene which I segue, (with an inevitability that is difficult to resist), into any number of images from Eisenstein’s oeuvre – images commissioned by Stalin, but used by Eisenstein for so much more than the merely didactic attempt to arouse State-driven fervour in the Russian working man and woman. And just as Kraucer believed that German cinema before the Nazi period prefigured the mass psychology that Germans would evince under the Third Reich, their “fear of freedom” as Erich Fromm termed it, their complete submission to the will of the Führer, so to in the looming violent ambitious, (sometimes overly so), productions of Russian cinema in the 20s we can discern hints of the implosion that Communist Russia would eventually face– they are films which at their most beautiful seem ready to collapse under their own weight.

First on the Moon is also a good deal of fun to watch, (something which cannot be said of this festival’s other Russian entries – I slept through most of the much-anticipated Garspatum – the most peaceful rest I had the entire festival – and awoke for the bleak sepia-toned Heaven’s-Gate-style climax in which grim and uneasy death greeted most of the protagonists – the kind of scene which, to quote what Amiguet once said of Caligari in Cinéma Cinéma, “leaves a taste of cinders in the mouth” – after the film many said it reeked of ponderous intellectual pretensions – I only wanted to know why those people were murdered, yet I never had a chance to ask anyone). The reconstructed newsreels mock and mimic authentic newsreels as well as the infectious spirit of the times, a spirit which hasn’t been seen since the glory days of Mack Sennett and Chester Conklin, (or at lest since Robert Youngson reintroduced a whole new generation to those clowns of old with his compilation films in the 70’s). And perhaps because of this, some saw First on the Moon as nothing more than a single gag dragged out for too long. At its best it is not unlike an ode to Old Russia and everything it produced, whether great filmmakers or crazy space programs so ambitious they could never work.