This post is a part of the Russian in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Fritzi from Movies Silently and Flicker Alley. Check out all the posts here!
I will be honest, when I first agreed to participate in this blogathon I was at a bit of a loss. I wasn’t sure what sort of movie I wanted to write about since my exposure to Russian films is somewhat limited, though I have seen THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING. Still I decided to take the plunge and try something completely out of my classic film comfort zone, choosing a Russian silent film that I had never heard of before called BED AND SOFA.
First some backstory and historical context of the film. BED AND SOFA, also called TRETYA MESHCHANSKAYA, was directed by Abram Room (1894-1976) in the final years of the New Economic Policy in Russia. In the same way that the Hayes Code changed what Hollywood could and could not make films about, so too did Socialist Realism change the face of Russian cinema when it became state policy in 1934. Before the new rules came into effect some filmmakers, including Room, made films that examined the lives of the common people of Russia without holding to the party line. However, unlike many of his counterparts, Room decided to make a film with three leads rather than focusing on the common masses.
Room was born in what is now Vilniuse, Lithuania and after studying medicine and psychiatry, served in the Red Army as a medical officer during the Russian Civil War. He also did amateur theater work and from 1914-1917 directed the Students Theater of the Institute of Psyco-Neurology. In 1923 he was invited to join the Theater of the Revolution and became director of the State Film School. A pupil of Lev Kuhleshov, Room began working as an assistant director on films in 1924. In making BED AND SOFA, Room intended to make a film that not only spoke out against abortion on demand and the sexual freedom that had come about during the revolution years, but one that also explored the social problems of urban life during the final years of the New Economic Policy. BED AND SOFA met with much criticism and negativity from the government when it opened, and we will soon see why.
Morning has come to Moscow and all throughout the city people are stirring. On Third Meshchanskaia Street the sunlight is peeking into a small apartment, where the cat is waking up. The cat climbs up onto the small bed and wakes up one of the two people sleeping in it. Kolia (Nikolai Batalov) stirs and stretches in his bed, then picks up the cat and uses it to wake up his wife Liuda (Lyudmila Semyonova). Liuda gets up and begins to get things ready for the day as her husband washes up. She prepares breakfast and makes the bed, while her husband eats and reads the party newspaper. Kolia prepares to go to his job as a construction foreman but not before telling his wife, “Today is Saturday. Don’t forget to wash the floors!” Romance is not dead. After he leaves, Liuda goes to clear the table and snorts “Husband!”. At this moment a train is hurrying into the city, carrying Volodia (Vladimir Fogel) a printer in search of work. When he arrives he is told that before he can get a job he must first find a place to live. Unable to find any vacancies, Volodia wanders through the city until he reaches the square where the Bolshoy Theater is being constructed. He sits down on a bench and settles down to nap, unaware that Kolia is working high above him.
Back at the apartment Liuda is setting the table for dinner, using Soviet Screen film magazine as inspiration for the centerpiece. She goes to her cramped corner where her vanity and clothes are, and begins to change when a strange man enters the apartment. Shocked, she tells Volodia to get out of their private apartment before her husband laughingly appears. Kolia and Volodia are old army buddies who met on the square, and Kolia has invited him to live with them. The already cramped apartment becomes even more claustrophobic but Volodia turns out to be a somewhat ideal houseguest. He soon gets a job at the party newspaper as a printer and even helps with some household chores, as well as bringing Liuda gifts of her favorite film magazines and a radio.
Two months pass and Kolia comes home in a rush, having just been told that he must go out of town on a business trip. While Liuda packs, Volodia tells Kolia that he doesn’t feel comfortable staying in the apartment while he is away. “People will talk a lot of rubbish!” he says but Kolia laughs him off. He isn’t worried about Liuda he says, “No man can take her from me!” Liuda looks up at that, offended at the assumption. While Kolia is away the sexual tension between Liuda and Volodia, which until now has been unspoken, becomes much more obvious culminating during a day out of the apartment. Volodia takes Liuda out for a flight over Moscow, much to her giddy delight, and to a movie for the first time in longer than she can remember. Back at the apartment Volodia becomes bolder telling Liuda how attractive she is. Unsure how to respond, Liuda goes to the table to tell her fortune with playing cards and Volodia offers to do a reading for her. When it comes time to reveal what is in her heart the card is a jack of diamonds, while Liuda is represented by the queen of hearts. Exchanging knowing glances, Volodia places the two cards on top of each other.
The two begin sleeping with each other and Liuda is happily sewing a button back on Volodia’s shirt when who should come home, but Kolia. He has brought home fruit for Liuda to make jam with. When he notices that the calendar hasn’t moved since he left he laughingly asks, “What did time stand still for you while I was away?” Dinner that night is decidedly awkward, especially when Kolia begins to notice Liuda’s attractiveness as well. Volodia reveals the affair to him and Kolia storms out of the apartment, going to spend the night at his office. The next day he returns to get some belongings before going back out into the rain. Liuda calls him back and offers to have him stay in the apartment since the couch is now free.
The three begin to live in some sort of domestic harmony. Kolia and Volodia spend evenings playing checkers and drinking tea, much to Liuda’s frustration and annoyance. However, Volodia has now taken on the role of husband complete with the bad attitude. One day Liuda attempts to leave the apartment when Volodia blocks her way and locks the door, angrily asking if she is waiting for Kolia to return. He then goes to sleep on the couch, taking the key to the door with him. When Kolia does come home Volodia rolls over and does not unlock the door, causing Kolia to climb in through a window. Liuda kindly comes over and offers him some tea which he gratefully accepts. Liuda then brings him back to bed with her, starting an affair with both men. Soon the inevitable happens and Liuda becomes pregnant. Since neither man can be certain who is the father, they both insist that she has an abortion.
Spoiler Warning…I am going to talk about the ending of this movie because I feel that it is important in order to have an intelligent discussion about this movie. If you don’t want to know what happens now is the time to duck out.
Liuda sadly goes to the abortion clinic where she finds herself in the waiting room along with a prostitute, as well as a young girl with her mother. While waiting to be called into the back room she looks out of the window and sees a young boy playing with a doll. Then looking down she finds herself face to face with a little baby. She is smiling at the child when the nurse comes out and calls the next patient back. Liuda looks up and an older woman tells her “It’s your turn next!” It is at this moment that Liuda makes her decision and gathers her things, quickly leaving the clinic. When Kolia and Volodia come to see what has happened, the nurse tells them that Liuda never got the abortion and left before anything could happen.
In the apartment, Liuda gathers her belongings and takes down her picture from the wall. She calls the landlord in and tells him that she is leaving. When he offers to give her money she refuses, telling him that she can take care of herself and go to work. He wishes her good-luck and Liuda leaves the small apartment. The two men return home to find Liuda’s note on the table, in which she says “I will never return to your Third Meshchanskaia Street”. Volodia tells Kolia that they are scoundrels and the two sit down, one on the bed and one on the sofa. Kolia asks “Well, should we have some tea?” and Volodia wonders, “Is there any jam left?” Far away a train races along the tracks, carrying with it Liuda who looks out the window with a small smile. The train hurries on and crosses the bridge leaving Moscow behind.
Not surprisingly, this film met with resistance when it was first released. It was called “an apology for adultery”, a “Western European adulterous romance”, and “psychopathological”. Not only did it not have any place in it for the communist party or the collective, but it also had three “negative” main characters. Kolia is a good worker but at one point he refuses to go to a party meeting because it is “boring”, while Volodia just looks neurotic (a sad irony as the actor playing him, Vladimir Fogel, struggled with mental illness and committed suicide in 1929). Liuda spends most of the film being a passive burden to society, not working or contributing and spending all day reading frivolous magazines, and she only comes to a more productive end point because she wants to further her “petty bourgeois” individualism. Not only that but the film has no positive example of the good communist proletarian. Thanks to all of this controversy this film was not widely shown for many years and became forgotten until the 1970s when it was rediscovered. Now regarded as a small masterpiece and example of European silent cinema, this film is a widely discussed and analyzed one. Room himself stated that everything in the apartment is there for a reason and has it’s own significance, which doubtless leads to multiple viewings. I know that I watched this film twice and saw many things that I had missed the first time around.
One point that always leads to much discussion is the ending. The argument is whether it is a happy or a sad one. Those who take the optimistic side argue that the ending is a happy one because Liuda has finally escaped the dominance of the two men and is now making her own way in the world, having claimed her independence. The other side of the argument is that it is actually a sad ending because Liuda is abandoning her family without ever finding her real place or role within it. I tend to side more with the happy ending crowd but not for the reasons that they put forth.
To me, this is a happy ending for Liuda because she has finally found and claimed her purpose. Hear me out on this. Liuda spends almost the entire film inside the apartment. She is not allowed to leave and therefore not allowed to work. It is clearly the desire of the men in her life that she not work and be available to them whenever they need her. She spends her days reading magazines, doing chores, and trying to find a place to put her clothes. Liuda is not the typical good proletarian wife, contributing to the home and society, and she enjoys the more frivolous things. And yet she is frustrated and restless because she has no real purpose in life more than to be there to make her husband breakfast, clear the table, and scrub the floors. There is only one thing that she can control in her life and that is her body. Even though Kolia and Volodia prevent her from leaving the apartment, at no point during the entire film does anyone ever force themselves on her. So in that respect she has a small amount of control. And maybe this is why she starts the affair with Volodia. He is the polar opposite, even physically, to her husband and when he takes her for a day out she gets a taste of what life could be. Instead of sitting by the window watching people come and go, she might at last find a man who will take her out and allow her to do more with her life. And since the only thing she can control is who she sleeps with, she turns to Volodia and rejects her husband. When it becomes clear that Volodia is taking on his new role more seriously than she thought he would, she turns back to Kolia looking for something that she thought she had seen in his friend but is now lost. When the moment comes that it is discovered that she is pregnant, what happens? The two men make the decision and tell her to get an abortion. She never says she wants to get one, she never says she does not want the baby but the decision is taken away from her. While in the clinic she sees the young boy and the baby, and comes to a realization. This is the moment that she takes control of her life and this is the moment that she finds her purpose. She will keep the baby and in doing so she makes her life not about the two men in the little apartment, not even about her own desires. It would be different if she had had the abortion and then left the two men, but she doesn’t. She keeps the baby thereby making her new purpose in life to provide for herself and her unborn child. She turns down the landlord’s offer of money, telling him that she will take care of herself by working. It is not insignificant that in her note she refers to it as YOUR Third Meshchanskaia Street. The apartment and the street are the world and domain of Kolia and Volodia, so she must leave to make her own world. So, yes I do think it is a happy ending but not because she has gotten free of the oppression of men or at least not just because of that. I think that it is a happy ending because she has found her purpose and she is going forth to claim it.
Another point of discussion is the reaction of the men. Some people take it as initial annoyance that she has left, followed by gleeful return to their old bachelor ways. It didn’t strike me in that way, rather it is more a stunned reaction. They are shocked to find out that she hasn’t gone through with the abortion and even more so to find that she has left. I think they realize their part in causing her to leave, and even feel a bit badly about asking her to get an abortion in the first place. They go to the one part of the apartment that is or was hers, the vanity, but she has gone and her picture is taken down and all they can do is look at themselves in her mirror. To me the bit of dialogue at the end about tea and jam is less of a “thank God she is gone” reaction and more of a “well, what do we do now?” Without her there they are at a loose end and not sure how to act, so they just go back to their old behaviors and their old sleeping arrangements. Regardless of which side of the ending you fall on, this movie certainly proves one thing. The issues of women’s rights, social independence, relationships between men and women, and sexual freedoms are not new or modern ones but are in fact as old as civilization.
I could spend pages and pages talking about this film. I loved it and I am so glad that I got a chance to see it. The acting is by far some of the most natural that I have seen on film. The pure delight and excitement on the face of Lyudmila Semyonova during the scene in the airplane is so real that I wondered if this was in fact her first plane ride. There are moments where it feels like the camera has just been left rolling in the home of these three people and we are simply witnessing their private moments. The film itself looks beautiful and the score is wonderful, Flicker Alley has obviously done a careful and loving job in making the disk. A copy of this film is being offered as a prize from Flicker Alley to celebrate this blogathon, making the person who wins it a very lucky person indeed!
Full Disclosure: Special thanks to Kimberly Bastin of Flicker Alley for providing me with a screener copy of the movie for this blogathon! And thanks to Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently for not only putting me in touch with Ms. Bastin, but also for holding this fabulous blogathon!