Some fascinating recent docus have used objects as a starting point to discuss sweeping historical movements — a passport (“A Hungarian Passport”), a couch (“Divan”), and now, in Christiane Buchner’s “Neighbors of the Kremlin,” a building. Constructed as a self-contained unit, with 500 apartments and its own canteen, cinema, theater and shops, the House of Government in Moscow housed veterans of the Revolution and important members of the Party and their families. Interviewing a cross-section of women who once resided there, Buchner traces a domestic history of the Soviet Union. “Neighbors” looks a good bet to move into PBS or history-themed cable.
Located right across the Moscova River from the Kremlin, the House on the Riverbank, as it was sometimes called, was commissioned in 1929 to coincide with the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year-Plan. Buchner unearths impressive early footage of the massive construction site.
Stalin envisioned a building that possessed the self-sufficiency of a luxury cruise liner. Given its fully-automatic laundry, billiard room, central heating, telephones and de-facto mall, not to mention the 25 guarded entrances, the Government House could be thought of as a ship of state uneasily anchored in the middle of Moscow. It even came to encompass its own museum, although not all that happened within its walls was displayed there.
Buchner chose to interview only elderly women. In the intimacy of kitchens and bedrooms, whose parents headed the KGB and whose relatives died in camps, is not immediately apparent. There is something disarming in the apparent white-haired gentility of old age: Only slowly do vast differences in temperament and experience among the women begin to be felt, creating dramatic undercurrents that drive the historical narrative.
Innocent tales of schoolmates’ astonishment at their individual flats give way to memories of childish incomprehension at searches and seizures. While one woman querulously complains about those who failed to do proper homage to her father, composer of the Soviet national anthem, another speaks with horror of the women shot for refusing to report their husbands as enemies of the state.
Not all recollections are painful. Many speak of the enthusiasm for a collective experiment and the excitement of being part of history.
Buchner’s structuring concepts don’t always work, however. To cover the Krushchev period without resorting to outside narration or allowing a male interviewee, Buchner shows a man’s hands turning the pages of a photo album while his voiceover identifies snapshots of VIPs; this stylistic choice makes both pic’s exclusion of men and its reconstructed time-line suddenly appear unnecessarily artificial.
But, by and large, the indirect approach creates a unique, organic sense of one of the great failed idealistic dreams of the 20th century.