Anyone who thinks a movie about collective farming can’t be fascinating hasn’t seen Mikhail Shveitser’s “The Tight Knot,” an extraordinarily gripping drama about cows, forage and the farmers who ran Russia’s vast collective farms in the ’50s. Made during the comparatively liberal Khruschev era, the film harshly criticizes the self-serving party leaders who did so much to destroy Soviet agriculture, from a local party secretary on up to the top bosses. Pic is still powerful today, not only because of its courageous political stance but also thanks to the dramatic quality of Vladimir Tendryakov’s script, beautifully directed by Shveitser (who died earlier this year) and acted by a sterling cast that would have been the envy of any Hollywood film of the period.
Two versions were screened at Locarno, both dated 1957. “The Tight Knot” is the original and by far superior version, in which the conflict between the honest and power-hungry communists is clear-cut. Unfortunately, it survives only in a work print that has lost so much color that the images are practically black-on-black, accompanied by a soundtrack reduced to a whisper (possibly a technical glitch at screening caught).
Pic was banned and Shveitser was forced to reshoot several scenes to whitewash the party higher-ups, replacing the actor who played the party boss. This release version, “Sasha Enters Life,” while still in need of restoration, shows the rich palette of colors used by d.p. Aleksei Temerin and his unexpectedly romantic images of the Soviet Union’s great farmlands.
Principal dramatic change is that “Sasha” casts all the blame on a low-level party man, portrayed as a stereotypical blackguard. Shveitser, who studied under Eisenstein, never recovered from the shock of censorship and devoted the rest of his career to literary adaptations.
Shattered by his father’s death, Sasha (Oleg Tabakov) is taken under the wing of Ignat Gmyzin (Nikolai Sergeyev), the upright old president of one of the area’s collective farms. Ignat, a confirmed communist who cherishes his party card, tells the boy that to fight for truth is to fight for happiness. Everyone works till they drop from morning to night, including handsome young local party chief, Pavel Mansurov (Viktor Avdyushko), who is the farmers’ mouthpiece with the party bosses.
Without caricature, the original film shows very clearly how a taste for power perverts the ideals of men like Pavel. Script skillfully interweaves Sasha’s romantic disappointment over an idealistic but mislead girl with events on the various farms, including the dramatic suicide of a farmer Pavel kicks out of the party.
Pic climaxes in a truly rousing “courtroom” scene, an open meeting in which all the farmers are called together to judge Ignat’s “anti-progressive” attitude toward cattle raising. Far more subtle than one might expect, this scene may seem excessively optimistic today but makes for a dramatically satisfying happy ending.