Mikheil Gelovani as Stalin.
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How do you make a film about a dictator?

Beyond propaganda, trying to get under the skin of despots and dictators is a near-impossible task.

Until very recently filmmaking was so expensive and logistically difficult an undertaking that it was out reach for most people, which made it the domain largely of corporate and industrial interests. Until not long before that – ie, the advent of VCRs – the distribution and exhibition of films was closely restricted, sometimes by censorious forces though more often by commercial ones. Not surprisingly, then, it has always had a propaganda appeal and usefulness, for politicians and leaders of all stripes, both democratic and otherwise. The Bolsheviks were the first to harness the cinema to this end and, in the silent era at least, managed to produce probably the most artistically brilliant propaganda films of all time. In World War II, Hitchcock, Hawks, Capra and Humphrey Jennings were among various directors on the Allied side who lent their hand to propaganda work.

During peacetime western democracies have generally stepped back from film production efforts and allowed Hollywood and other national cinemas to craft an obliging national narrative, which the studios were only too happy to do. In recent decades, as David Sirota’s history of 1980s US pop culture Back to Our Future documents, the Pentagon has taken a much more hands-on approach to “soft propaganda” efforts, actively providing military hardware to Hollywood films if the script meets the military’s approval – a far cry from the days when Francis Ford Coppola turned to Ferdinand Marcos to hire helicopters and other props for Apocalypse Now, something for which Coppola has always been given a surprisingly easy ride by western liberals.

Dictatorships have been more eager to use film for propaganda purposes, none more so than that most cinephile of tyrants Joseph Stalin. Early on in his “tenure” as Soviet leader, he was sensitive to the power of the moving image – he ensured that all references to Trotsky were cut from Eisenstein’s October, produced for the tenth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. Stalin was an admirer of Tarzan, Chaplin and George Formby and on the home front he was the ultimate cinema impresario, outranking even his cultural tsar Andrei Zhdanov. He protected Eisenstein, despite thinking him a Trotskyist “or even worse” and even allowed a former gulag prisoner, the actor Aleksei Dikiy, to play him in a number of films in the early 1940s.

Stalin actually preferred Dikiy, a consummate Russian thespian, to the more regular interpreter of the Stalin role, his fellow Georgian Mikheil Gelovani, who played him in thirteen films. Gelovani was better able to capture Stalin’s Pori accent, something the Soviet leader did not find so gratifying. Nowhere would the old cliché “tough at the top” be more apt than in the case of Gelovani and Dikiy, who must surely have forever wondered if their next role would be their last. They both outlived Stalin, though just by a few years, and fell from favour only after his death – when Khrushchev decided Stalin was persona non grata in 1956, his fictional representations met the same fate as Trotsky’s had three decades earlier, disappearing from films of which he had been the animating spirit.

Mikheil Gelovani in “The Fall of Berlin

Andrei Dikiy in “The Battle of Stalingrad” (dubbed in German)

One of the more famous of the Stalin films is The Fall of Berlin, a two-parter from 1950, directed by another Georgian Mikheil Chiaureli (a regular Stalin auteur), in which Gelovani’s Stalin is a benevolent patriarch who tends his garden and personally plots the military conquests of what Russians still call “The Great Patriotic War” (almost every Stalin film seems to have a scene where Uncle Joe studies intently a military map). The film features other leaders – Churchill and Roosevelt are portrayed as scheming and gullible respectively at Yalta – particularly Hitler, played quite persuasively (albeit in Russian) by Vladimir Savelyev. The scene where he berates Field Marshal von Brauchitsch for the Wehrmacht’s failure to take Moscow looks back to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator – the presence of an enormous globe next to Hitler could only be mockingly intentional – and forward to the heavily-memed scene in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004), where Hitler loses the plot upon realising its all over.

Bruno Ganz in “Downfall

“Moloch” (Aleksandr Sokurov)

The various portrayals of Hitler remind us of the incongruously comic nature of many tyrants. Bruno Ganz’s Führer is a captive of the ridicule that has been poured on his historical avatar from a safe distance since Hitler first came to prominence. For all the venom of his tantrums, Ganz’s Hitler is an underwhelming presence when isolated from the horrors he visited upon the world. Even a film director as forbiddingly recondite as Aleksandr Sokurov made a Hitler film in which the most evil man of the 20th century is a gormlessly clownish madman with the occasional tendency to megalomania; the film is Moloch (1999) and its attempt at “humanising” Hitler necessarily falls short of the mark, not least when, almost in passing, Sokurov suggests that Hitler was kept in the dark about the Holocaust by the Nazi top brass. Steven Spielberg made the cardinal error of featuring Hitler in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, all the more so by casting Michael Sheard in the role. The Aberdonian Sheard might have played Hitler five times in his career but in 1989, for British audiences at least, he was far too identifiable as the morose Deputy Headmaster Bronson in Grange Hill to really embody the menace of the head of the Third Reich.

But trying to get under the skin of despots and dictators is a near-impossible task. To all but those who witnessed them in the flesh, they remain totems of history – their acts are their real representation. The horrors of Auschwitz speak far more to Hitler’s character than a reenactment of him at Wannsee or him spending a weekend at the Eagle’s Nest (as in Moloch); there is little point in trying to understand Stalin beyond what happened to his victims from the 1930s to the 1950s. For this reason few major filmmakers have ever bothered with the big villains of world history – there is more shade to be drawn from lesser iniquitous figures such as Richard Nixon and George W Bush, as Oliver Stone has done – and biopics of dictators tend to be the preserve of the TV movie (Robert Duval’s performance as Stalin in a 1992 production, where he mumbles like an unholy cross between John Wayne and Rasputin, almost makes you pine for Dikiy, Gelovani and the Mosfilm propaganda of old).

Filippo Timi in Vincere (Marco Belocchio)

One of the few fiction films that succeeds in delivering a nuanced portrait of a dictator is Marco Bellochio’s excellent Vincere (2009) where Filippo Timi is terrifyingly credible in conveying the will-to-power of a young Mussolini, though Bellochio’s film is mainly interested in his first wife Isa Dalser, forcibly committed to a lunatic asylum and erased from history by Il Duce. Other Latin dictators, of which there were many, have rarely featured on screen in fiction films though there have been numerous ones about the regimes they led – exceptions are two films in recent times with the bloodthirsty Dominican tyrant Rafael Trujillo, In the Time of the Butterflies (2001, played by Edward James Olmos) and a 2005 adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, where Tomas Milian played the role. There have been a number of films with Mao in them, most notably Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997) and the recent Chinese blockbusters The Founding of a Republic (2009) and The Founding of a Party (2011) but few that focus primarily on him.

Occasionally there is a fanciful eye cast on the private circles of dictators through the intermediary of a western character, such as in The Last King of Scotland (2006), about Idi Amin, and more recently, The Interview that provoked the ire of Pyongyang, which may or may not have been behind the subsequent hacking of Sony Pictures. It’s not the subtlest send-up of Kim Jong-un (though one hardly expects that of a Seth Rogen film) but it does at least have the merit of shrewdly undercutting the witless bonhomie of the foreign observer when James Franco’s self-absorbed talkshow host Dave Skylark turns on Kim only when he discovers he has been lied to using a well-stocked “Potemkin supermarket”.

“The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu” (Andrei Ujică)

The greatest film about a dictator though is one that made full use of the very films the dictator’s own regime commissioned and shot. Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu (2010) is not so much a documentary as an impressionistic collage of Ceauşescu’s public and private life, in official propaganda films made for public consumption and in remarkably high-quality home movies of the dictator and his family at play in the snow and in their summer retreat. A number of world-historical figures from the Comintern (Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Honecker, Jaruzelski, Mao and Kim Il-sung) and the west (De Gaulle, Nixon, Carter, the Queen) flit in and out in a three-hour-long pageant that is devoid of either commentary or explanatory captions. It is unexpectedly enthralling stuff fashioned out of the most lifelessly serviceable material; it expands, contracts, resonates and bulges with signs and meanings that far exceed the newsreels’ official intentions.

Ujică’s method (which he has used for three films) borrows from the one Lutz Becker employed for his film about Hitler’s rise to power The Double-Headed Eagle (1973), but the Ceauşescu film is more mesmerising, probably because the subject matter carries less historical weight. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu ultimately gets no closer to its human subject than most other films about dictators but it is canny enough to see the figurehead and his regime for the hall of mirrors that they are. Ceauşescu’s grip on power was as well-orchestrated as it was violently enforced and the film views him through the prism of official iconography that is subversively shorn of official rhetoric – the effect is as disorienting and liberating as watching a football match with just the sounds of the crowd and no commentary.

The hall of mirrors began to shatter one day in December 1989 when Ceauşescu was shocked to hear a crowd booing him as he addressed them from a balcony – it was like the Wizard of Oz’s curtain being breached. A few days later, on Christmas Day, he and his wife Elena were facing a kangaroo court after their capture. These scenes, shot on grainy video, bookend the film, and the pair are as contemptuously imperious as they have long been wont to, not being able to adjust to the new reality quickly enough. They met their end shortly afterwards, in a manner not dissimilar to Mussolini in 1945, shot by firing squad. In a film culled from polished official archive footage there can be no greater metaphor for the precipitous collapse of a once-powerful regime as being inexpertly filmed by the rabble using equipment that Ceauşescu, before his fall, would never have allowed them to get hold of.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear