The Village Detective: a Song Cycle

“Surface Tension”

Erica Levin (The Ohio State University)

Bill Morrison’s The Village Detective: A Song Cycle revolves around the story of Mikhail Zharov (1899-1981), a beloved but nearly forgotten actor of the Soviet era. Morrison chanced upon his subject after a few reels of film were dredged up by fisherman trawling off the coast of Iceland in 2016. As a filmmaker, Morrison has long been drawn to working with archival footage in various states of decay, most famously in the compilation film Decasia (2002). Courting the tension between opposing forces, his work exploits the vivid strangeness of cinematic images ravaged by time, on the one hand, and the overwhelming desire to wrest meaning from their unexpected reappearance, on the other. However, unlike the footage revisited by Morrison in his recent film Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), which features footage unseen since 1929 when a cache of films was buried under a hockey rink in the Yukon, the material in question here turns out to be from a film that has never been lost, Derevensky detektiv [The Village Detective]). Safely tucked away in the archive, The Village Detective has periodically appeared on Russian television in the half century since its release in 1969.

Though the footage recovered from the ocean floor comes from a film that has never vanished entirely from view, Morrison makes much of the play between appearance and absence, surface and depth. Initially, he presents the sea battered print of The Village Detective starring Zharov in the titular role with its original (undamaged) soundtrack, encouraging viewers to invest in the film’s whodunnit narrative despite the abstract marks and visual voids that threaten to overwhelm the figures on screen. Later, he pairs passages of water-logged footage with a droning soundtrack composed by David Lang. Instead of inviting us to look past these blemishes, here Morrison attends carefully to filmstrip’s fragile surface, rendering spots and streaks in the emulsion as signs of history’s volatility. The detective’s search for a missing accordion reads as an allegorical reflection on collective memory and forgetting. Morrison pivots away from the mesmerizing effects of degraded celluloid to pay a visit to the Gosfilmofond, the Russian state film archive in Belye Stolby. There he plumbs the depths of Zharov’s career, offering up a film compilation drawn from a Soviet era on the verge of disappearance.

black and white film strip with close up of man's mustachioed face
Spots and streaks in the emulsion as signs of history’s volatility

Stalin casts a long shadow over The Village Detective: A Song Cycle, his legacy inextricable from the historical conditions that gave rise to Zharov’s success. As a teenager, the young actor landed a role as an extra in Ivan the Terrible (1915). Fame came a few years later, in the early sound era, when Zharov became the first actor to sing in a Soviet film, The Road to Life (1931). Morrison informs us that over the course of his long career, Zharov “played some of the most beloved iconoclasts of Soviet cinema.” Yet the film offers plenty of counter-examples to this typecasting: for instance, Zharov’s role as the Tsar’s obsequious guard, Malyta Skuratov, in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible: Part II (1946). While the first installment of Eisenstein’s film released in 1944 was well-received by Stalin, Morrison reminds us that the sequel was widely understood as a critique of authoritarian power and subsequently banned until 1958.

More than once, Morrison edits to create the effect of a younger Zharov interrogating himself later in life. He juxtaposes an interview from Zharov Tells (1970), in which the actor looks back on his life and career with a scene from Engineer Kochlin’s Error (1939) featuring Zharov as Investigator Lartsev of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, precursor of the KGB. Engineer Kochlin’s Error recounts the story of an engineer wrongly accused of being a spy. In 1939, Soviet audiences would have received the film as a state-sanctioned response to the political persecution that spiraled out of control under Stalin’s rule. (In the film, the wrongly accused is justly exonerated, a compensatory fantasy offered up in a dark moment of collective paranoia.) Morrison cuts together two distinct moments in time so that Zharov’s Lartsev, seated at a desk under a large portrait of Stalin, is made to interrogate Zharov (as himself) years later, raising questions about what an individual career can tell us about Soviet cinema, history, and politics.

In 1931, Zharov was offered a chance to play the role that cemented his newfound fame: Zhigan, the charismatic leader of a band of ruffians who are swept up off the streets of Moscow for re-education at a labor commune in The Road to Life. This film offers a rich example of the way Soviet cinema in the early sound period was understood as an essential tool for influencing shared ideas about the social good and the production of new structures of feeling, helping to shape what film historian Anna Toropova, calls “an emotional revolution.” But emotions are not always easily controlled, and revolutions rarely unfold seamlessly or in a straight line. In the case of The Road to Life, young viewers were so captivated by “the romanticism of the street children’s existence” (as one critic observed) that they overlooked the film’s celebration of their transformation into respectable Soviet citizens. As Toropova observes, “Whilst cinema extended Soviet power’s reach into a new psycho-physical domain, it perpetually threatened to give rise to emotional values that pulled at the seams of established notions of ‘Sovietness.’” Morrison’s film offers us a glimpse of Zhigan’s charisma, and hints at the tensions that characterized this historical moment, but ultimately shies away from addressing the larger implications of cinema’s ambivalent role in the grand Soviet experiment.

Throughout The Village Detective: A Song Cycle, Zharov’s remarkable screen presence keeps the film’s melancholic preoccupation with loss and historical amnesia at bay. However, the film’s emphasis on one actor’s singular life and career risks minimizing the broader contradictions of Soviet cinema and this history’s relevance to recent practices of media disinformation and political repression. Instead, the film begins and ends with the question of how life is woven into art and, vice versa, how art reflects life, while other urgent concerns shimmer just below the film’s convulsive and decaying surface.

” Bill Morrison: Cine-Detective”

Scott MacDonald (Hamilton College)

In his more recent, longer films, The Great Flood (2013), Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), and The Village Detective: a song cycle—Morrison seems committed to using archival work to provide engaging and revealing cultural education to broader audiences than he had for much of his less overtly informative earlier work. The Village Detective was instigated by the unexpected discovery of three film reels found among a haul of fish and lobster off the coast of Iceland. The composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who had worked with Morrison on The Miner’s Hymns (2012), alerted him to the news.

Like Dawson City: Frozen Time, the new film braids various histories together. The film’s central thread is the career of Mikhail Zharov, one of the most popular actors during the Soviet, then Russian era, who is seen in clips from dozens of films he appeared in—including an early bit part in Tsar Ivan (1915), where, as a 15-year-old, he played one of Tsar Ivan’s many guards. Zharov was the first to sing in Russian on film, in the USSR’s first sound film, Road to Life (1931), directed by Nikolai Ekk. For modern cineastes, at least in the West, he may be best known for his role as Malyuta Skuratov, Ivan’s guard and confidant, in Eisenstein’s Ivan, the Terrible, Part 2 (1946, 1958).

Near the end of his prolific career Zharov played Fyodor Ivanovich Aniskin, the lead in Village Detective (1969, directed by Ivan Lukinsky)—the film that was on the reels dredged up off the coast of Iceland. It was apparently an immensely popular film (though scorned by critics) that was followed by a series of Village Detective spinoffs.

Morrison braids Zharov’s history with the history of the Soviet Union, as imaged not only in films he appeared in, but in newsreel footage and other depictions of historical moments, some of which I found remarkable: the shots of Nikolai Evreinov’s The Storming of the Winter Palace (1920), for example, which involved 2500 actors and 100,000 spectators in a “theater of mass action”; and the weirdly powerful images of Rasputin and his archrival Iliodor (played by the real Iliodor!), seen in the badly decayed copy of The Fall of the Romanovs (1917, directed by Herbert Brenon), filmed in New Jersey.

Early in The Village Detective, Morrison reviews the geological history of Iceland, which was formed by volcanoes along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, “the deep divide between East and West,” where the North American and Eurasian plates meet. On a literal level, the geology of the area where the film reels were found had much to do with their preservation, but Morrison’s sequence about geologic history also “serves as a cinematic metaphor, comparing the layers of base and emulsion to the geological layers of the planet on which the narrative of humanity—and indeed all existence—have played out” (Morrison, in email to author, December, 2022).

For me personally, this sequence, and especially “the deep divide” is a metaphor for my comparative ignorance of Eastern European and Russian history, including cinema history beyond the montage filmmakers of the 1920s and the rebellion against montage in films by Tarkovsky, Sokurov, and others. My ignorance is, at least in part, an historical result of my growing up during the Cold War, when there was little access to modern pop culture in the USSR—in recent decades, confirmed by personal laziness and a variety of distractions.

The Village Detective, like earlier Morrison films, is also about the two kinds of history embedded within the salvaged reels. We see substantial excerpts of the film’s comic mystery about an accordion that has disappeared, as wily detective Aniskin attempts to determine who took it. These excerpts are seen through the water damage to the edges of the filmstrip, which acts both as a curtain through which we peer at the action and as an upbeat visual accompaniment—itself accompanied by a score, composed by David Lang and performed by Frode Andersen, that demonstrates the surprising versatility of the accordion. One of the central ironies of The Village Detective is that seeing the original Village Detective within Morrison’s film might be more fun than seeing an undamaged print.

As fully as any earlier Morrison film, and more obviously than most, The Village Detective can be read as a personal manifesto. This is made clear in several ways. At the end of an early interview with Grennady, the musician whose accordion is missing (he’s resisting personal questions about where he was at the time his accordion disappeared), Aniskin assures him that to find the accordion, “we have to take a full course of action.” Morrison immediately cuts to a shot outside the gate of the Gosfilmofond, the Russian state film archive, where he hopes to take a full course of action tracking down information about Zharov’s filmography.

There are other implicitly self-reflexive moments, including the song that Zharov sings (from Thunderstorm, 1934) during the pre-opening-credit sequence of Morrison’s film. The song is about a young lad who, alone, late at night, “was a regular at the cemeteries.” The Village Detective is dedicated to Jóhann Jóhannsson who died in 2018, and it traces the history of Soviet/Russian filmmaking from the death of a Tzarist empire, to the USSR and through the death of Stalin and the demise of the USSR to Zharov’s later years and death in 1981. And of course, Morrison has spent his life haunting archives: cinematic cemeteries where films are “buried,” where their remains are stored.

The Village Detective is framed by comments Zharov makes in what appears to be a 1970 cine-biography, Zharov Tells. Facing the camera in Vladimir Tomberg’s film, and in Morrison’s, Zharov says, “Remembering my life, I am trying to follow, to find for myself, and for others too, especially the young, the answer to the question of how life gets woven into art and how art reflects life.” This seems as relevant to Morrison’s work as to Zharov’s.

In the end, we learn that Village Detective was never a lost film—or if it was lost, it was only lost to us in the West. We see the solution of the mystery of the missing accordion in a 16:9 version of the original film, which is housed at the Gosfilmofond archive. Presumably, the particular print we’ve been seeing was a reduction made for use on television and in situations (in this case, probably on an ocean liner) where the film was projected as 35mm or 16mm—until it had come to be seen as out-of-date or was too damaged to show, and was thrown overboard.

Wily cine-detective Morrison has solved whatever mystery of the salvaged reels there was—and in the process, has revealed a wide range of aspects of Russian film history that perhaps for many cineastes—I assume I’m not alone—have remained submerged for decades.

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