Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Andrei Konchalovsky - Pervyy Uchitel AKA The First Teacher (1966)
Soviet Union, near the Chinese border, 1923. A stranger has just come in this little country village. He is a teacher, sent by the Communist Party to teach the ignorant masses. But the countrymen are to help him, and even to let their children go and "sleep" at school instead of giving a hand. There is only, Altynai, an orphan, to seem fascinated by the teacher and his knowledge.
This early work by Adrei Konchalovsky, best known for the Hollywood movie Runaway Train, surpasses the typical Soviet propaganda film by daring to protray its protagonist as being so ideological he's goofy. The protagonist is a Red Army veteran named Diuishen who has been sent to a godforsaken section of Kirghizia to start the first school in the region. On the first day of school, the students ask him about death, and as their teacher, Diuishen is happy to answer their questions, until a little boy innocently asks him if Lenin is going to die someday. Diuishen becomes enraged at the suggestion that his god Lenin is actually mortal and, practically yanking the little boy's arm off, accuses him of being a counter-revolutionary. The boy, of course, has absolutely no idea what Diuishen is talking about.
This incident almost derails Diuishen's plans to start a school by scaring away his students, but Diuishen calms down and the children are wise enough to see that he is offering them a new and perhaps better way of life. Although the children accept him, the adults barely tolerate his presence since they see him as a threat to their way of doing things.
The movie shows Diuishen, propelled by his ideological fanaticism, learning to be human and the townsfolk, equally fanatic in their desire to keep the outside world at bay, gradually coming to terms with inevitable change. The ending, had the movie been made in Hollywood, might have been called Capraesque, but I think it is more touching than anything Capra would have done because it doesn't hit you over the head with its emotions. Instead, they sneak up on you. The lack of music at the end is particularly fitting. Instead of a booming orchestra, there's just the sound of axes.