As tyrants of the twentieth century go, it's hard to top Josef Stalin in the mass-murder department. He was pretty nimble with the Big Lie, too. These facts have not been lost on post-Soviet Russian filmmakers, of course: In the dawn of the free marketplace, it's open season on Communist totalitarians with bushy mustaches. But as early as 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev used the 20th Party Congress to denounce "the cult of personality" and other Stalinist "excesses," Russian writers, painters and moviemakers began, if only meekly, to snipe at Uncle Joe. Over the years, after all, he'd exterminated many of their families and a third of their countrymen.
Pavel Chukhrai's The Thief, a 1997 Oscar nominee as best foreign film, is being billed as a "haunting look at life during Stalin's regime in postwar Russia." And so it is, even if of somewhat lesser virtue than, say, Nikita Mikhalkov's brilliant Burnt by the Sun (1994), during the course of which the official terror claws its way into the idyllic summer home of a decorated military hero.
In The Thief, set in 1952, a Soviet war widow named Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova) finds herself traversing Russia by train with her six-year-old son, Sanya (Misha Philipchuk). Homeless, poor and ignored by the regime, they are lost souls until a tall, dashing stranger in uniform bursts into their train compartment. At first glance, the strapping Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov) seems to be the answer to their prayers--heroic father figure, faithful lover, dedicated provider of all things material and spiritual. The moon-faced boy Sanya, narrating now from far in the future, tells us rather grimly: "Mother said that from then on we would live with him."
Indeed. Those who haven't already sniffed out another major find in the ancient thicket of Russian metaphor, here you go: Tolyan turns out to be Chukhrai's surrogate for Josef Stalin himself, and the displaced persons, Katya and Sanya, are the beleaguered Russian people. How else to explain that Tolyan is not a soldier at all but a common burglar disguised in a stolen uniform? That he is not nurturer but brute, not hero but card cheat? Or that he soon commands from his subjects a volatile mixture of love and fear?
Why, the boy even calls him "Uncle Tolyan." But that's not enough: Tolyan wants to be addressed as "Daddy," then proceeds to instruct his young charge in the arts of intimidation and violence. After telling the awed boy to touch his bulging biceps, Tolyan asks darkly: "Understand?"
For a tale so seemingly schematic, The Thief is astonishingly touching. As the treacherous Tolyan and his ad hoc "family" flee from city to city one step ahead of the authorities, we see in little Misha Philipchuk's eyes the powerful spell the older man has cast with his charm and his strength. All at once the child is bewildered, overwhelmed and scared stiff. Tolyan carries false papers, but his effects are overwhelmingly real--just like Stalin's. How peculiar it is that Vladimir Mashkov, one of Russia's leading film actors, has an uncanny resemblance to Gary Cooper.
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Vladimir Chukhrai, who is the son of the great director Grigori Chukhrai, may have a way to go before equaling his father's 1962 masterpiece Ballad of a Soldier, often regarded as one of the greatest films ever made--Russian or otherwise. But there are some scenes in The Thief that remind us of great moviemaking's transcendent power. In a night-struck railyard, a disgraced mother and son search for a pair of stolen earrings with which to bribe a police officer. On a snow-flecked winter field, a desperate boy runs after a dark truck bearing a man off to prison and at last cries the fateful word: "Daddy!" In another dark railyard, a young man commits an act that, long before it happens, has ruled his life.
"He didn't exist," sad Sanya says of Tolyan/ Stalin, the thief who has stolen his spirit. "Nothing existed. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing." Were it only true--for him and for his tragic country.
Written and directed by Pavel Chukhrai. With Vladimir Mashkov, Ekaterina Rednikova and Misha Philipchuk.