Script and direction: Mikhail Dubson. Production: Lenfilm Studio, Leningrad, 1935.
The film’s plot which suits the requirements of the ideology takes place in a shtetl in one of the countries in Eastern Europe, near the border between this country and the Soviet Union. The residents of that town are split, as usual, between the good and the bad. The good ones, poor Jews, aspire to the life developing in front of their eyes on the Soviet side of the border, a life that seems wonderful to them. The bad ones, including the town’s wealthy man and his henchmen as well as the policemen, do their best to annoy the good ones.
Arieh [Zuskin’s protagonist] works in the wealthy man’s office. The audience first becomes acquainted with Arieh as he sits at his desk and calculates figures with an abacus with the total engrossment in his calculations.
During the plot it becomes clear that the subject of bureaucracy was chosen to show a dedicated, loyal, serious person. These qualities are expressed also when Arieh, who becomes active in the underground, initiates the union of a group of Jews with non-Jewish workers, or when he smuggles over the border a man who is being pursued by the secret police.
In the closing segment symbolizing the victory of the “socialist forces of light” over the “capitalist forces of darkness”, Zuskin has an opportunity to try out his beloved way of expressing the thought process, mood, or feeling by using music or song. In Soviet cinematic art the music was usually used to convey a message. In Border the message is of ethnic brotherhood.
Arieh, excited at the underground campaign, bursts into a song without words. First it is a quiet Jewish melody. Then it becomes louder and when Arieh’s Russian comrade begins to accompany the singing with his harmonica, the song becomes even stronger, and gradually through small musical passages, becomes something that could be either Russian or Jewish, a song of happiness and victory.
In 1993 the filming of the movie ends, but it is screened only in 1935.
From my book The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin, p. 71
You are invited to watch, as follows:
Script: I. Zeltser and G. Kobets. Direction: V. Korsh-Sablin. Production: Belgoskino, Leningrad, 1936.
The movie tells the story of a Jewish family who arrives from abroad in the Soviet Union, to the area bordering China. In 1928, this forsaken area began to become populated with Jews who came from all over Russia and even from outside, following a proclamation by the Soviet government, and in 1934, the area was declared the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (region) which received the same name as its capital city, Birobidzhan. The movie’s plot takes place that very year, 1934.
The family at the center of the plot consists of the elderly woman Dvoira [played by Maria Blumental-Tamarina], her son Lyova, her two daughters Basia and Rosa, and Pinia [Zuskin’s protagonist] the husband of Basia. They become members of a kolkhoz. Everyone, except for Pinia, eagerly throw themselves into their new lives. Pinia, whom life in the capitalist world has ‘spoiled’, refuses to work like everyone else and prefers to search for gold which, according to the rumors, abounds in the area. The search for gold does not bring Pinia happiness. The particles of gold that he seeks so avidly within the grains of sand that he washes using a shovel and a bowl, reveal themselves to be particles of simple metal; he himself is arrested when he attempts to cross the border.
The supposed message of the movie: happiness can be achieved only through work on behalf of the Soviet homeland, as Dvoira and her children do.
Pinia thinks otherwise. Zuskin was positive that he had to show up, at the very beginning, what a man his hero was. So, the opening of this role [and the first phrase of the film] was his invention: ‘Tell me, how much could a steamer like this cost?’ The question does not square with the speaker’s appearance, which proclaims him as a man without a penny in his pocket, something that creates an obvious contrast, and the audience rolls with laughter.
“The role of Pinia was easy to play by using all of the regular techniques; from the first moment, it is clear who he is. But to portray him as Zuskin did, I doubt if anyone else could have done that”, wrote the cinema man Leonid Trauberg who meant an ability not only to provoke laughter but also to draw tears.
When I, Zuskin’s daughter, imagine – in my real life – the moment when my father heard his death sentence, I see Pinia in close-up with the secret police officer. I see Pinia, his shoulders slumped, despair in his look. I hear the tone that cannot be imitated in his last line in the film – and perhaps the last line in his life? – “I don’t understand anything”.
But all of the same and in spite of the fact that we have moved away from Pinia a distance of many years, people who saw the movie Seekers of Happiness still remember, with a smile, the actor who enriched the history of art with his dazzling characters and with the unforgettable phrase, how much could a steamer like this cost?
From my book The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin, pp 82-84
You are invited to watch, as follows:
· The film’s fragment with subtitles in English
· Тhe film in full, in Russian, no subtitles
Тhe DVD of the film in full with subtitles in English could be purchased through http://www.golddisk.ru/search.php?SearchStr=%E8%F1%EA%E0%F2%E5%EB%E8+%F1%F7%E0%F1%F2%FC%FF
Script: Nikolai Pogodin. Director: Serguey Yutkevich. Producer: studio Mosfilm, Moscow, 1947.
This feature film is about events related to the electrification of the Soviet Russia during the first period of its existence. There are also a few additional lines. For example, the comrades Lenin and Stalin are inviting a watchmaker and asking him to repair the Kremlin’s chime which has to strike for the sake of the Soviet people. The importance of this line in the film’s framework became obvious when we remember that the script is based upon Pogodin’s play Kremlin’s Chime.
From my book The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin, pp 173 – 174:
Watchmaker was played by Benjamin Zuskin. “I have known him for some time, and I was glad that this brilliant actor would take part in the film”, wrote the director Yutkevich.
My father loved his role as the old Watchmaker. He builds the image of an unassuming man who is enamored of his craft and expert at it, confident of his skill, and the proposal to breathe new life into the Kremlin’s ancient clock seems totally natural to him. Therefore he is full of self-importance when he conducts the conversation with his exalted clients.
Once ready, the film was approved by the Film Acceptance Commission. Two days later, Yutkevich is urgently summoned to the government Ministry of Cinematic Arts and given a document which began with the sentence ‘The film Light Over Russia must be regarded as a political distortion’. Yutkevich relates: “All of the rest was devoted to justifying that decision. The character of Comrade Stalin is not emphasized sufficiently… such and such episodes are unnecessary… What happened? I asked. The film did not please Comrade Stalin. Do you have a record of his comments? No, he didn’t say anything. But the honorable Minister noticed the humphing coming from Comrade Stalin, which indicated his dissatisfaction. A new page in the management of art, I thought to myself, using the stenography of humphing. So we began to rewrite the screenplay. It didn’t help. ‘The people upstairs’ informed reluctantly, Your film will never be shown”.
And that is what happened.
In his personal meeting with my parents, Yutkevich was candid. He passed on the words of Stalin as he had been told, that there is too much of the Watchmaker [meaning supposedly not the volume of the role which was not a big one but its quality]. ‘The Supreme Auditor of Art’ will yet find an opportunity to get rid of that Watchmaker, and with clockwork efficiency.
This film indeed was never shown in movie houses but now, thanks to the wonders of technology, it may be watched as taken out of the archive and put out in DVD and internet formats.
You are invited to watch, as follows
· The whole film in Russian with no subtitles
Script: Boris Gorbatov and Mark Donskoi. Direction: Mark Donskoi. Production: Cinema Studio, Kiev, 1945.
The film was prize awarded at the Film Festival at Venice, 1946.
In Soviet Russia, they made not so many films somehow touching Jewish subjects, and Zuskin did not participate in the most of them. But between those where he did, there were two extremely significant for Jewish history: Seekers of Happiness about Jewish settlement in Birobidgan, and Unvanquished related to Shoah.
It’s interesting that the latter film was the only one presenting and underlining Shoah, in Stalin’s Russia. Not less interesting is that it was between a very few first films on this subject – in the entire world. Today we are familiar with sequences where Jews are going to their execution field, or young Nazi enchanted with a flower at this field, or Jewish child hided in a chest. But then, in 1945, it was the Unvanquished’s director Mark Donskoi who pioneered such sequences.
From my book The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin, pp 261 – 263:
The plot takes place in a city in the Ukraine during the Nazi occupation. The name of the city and the name of the place where Jews were executed are not mentioned in the film, but it is clear that the city is Kiev and the killing field is Babi-Yar. During Soviet rule, this tragedy was passed over in silence. No artist, except for Mark Donskoi, dealt with this subject.
The film is to serve as a memory of those who perished in World War Two and to highlight the invincibility of the human soul.
At the center of the film are Ukrainian worker named Taras Yatzenko, and a Jewish doctor named Aaron Fishman. “In an artist’s life”, wrote Mark Donskoi, “there are moments that because of their rich value are imprinted in the memory forever. For me, these were the moments when before the camera stood two brilliant actors, Amvrosii Buchma [Taras] and Benjamin Zuskin [Fishman}”.
Even in this tragic role, Zuskin doesn’t depart from his custom of moving from situation to situation. When Doctor Fishman was visiting with Taras, as a physician treating Taras’ sick granddaughter, through the window he sees a parade of a Nazi army division, and he is filled with dread, but when he turns to the little girl, the pain in his eyes is immediately replaced by a mischievous cheerfulness… And on his way to execution, he doesn’t depart from an almost eccentric gait of a doctor which is in a harry to his patients. But in a close-up, his posture and face expression are full of nobility.
Perhaps Zuskin, like Doctor Fishman, is also unvanquished?
From my slideshow:
Doctor Fishman crosses the screen, turns back, and it seems to me that it is not him but my father who says farewell to me. After all, the correlation with what happens during the Shoah and what happens to my father just a few years after the Shoah, is strikingly similar.
You are invited to watch, as follows:
The DVD of the film in full with subtitles in English could be purchased through http://www.golddisk.ru/search.php?SearchStr=%ED%E5%EF%EE%EA%EE%F0%E5%ED%ED%FB%E5+%E4%E2%E4
This film is the record of my speech/slide show/book launching at the event in New York City on August 11, 2015.
The event was dedicated to the memory of 13 eminent Soviet Jews executed by firing squad on August 12, 1952.
All thirteen, including my father Benjamin Zuskin, were members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee falsely charged with treason and espionage, and did represent different professions. Since between them there were four Jewish (Yiddish) poets, the date of August 12 is poetically nicknamed in the Jewish world as The Night of the Murdered Poets.
The event in question was the mutual production of YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research) presided by Prof. Jonathan Brent, and the Congress for Jewish Culture headed by Mr Shane Baker.
This film-record is made by Slava Tsukerman.
Slava, and my husband-to-be Yuri, and myself, all three of us, we were studying together in an academic premise in Moscow, in 1956 – 1961, and from then on, became friendly.
Slava is a very talented author/director/producer of feature movies, including the famous film Liquid Sky, and of documentaries. Besides, Slava is strongly related to what was happened to my father. About this, I have written in my book:
In the middle of the night between the 23rd and 24th of December 1948, at the entrance to the Surgical Institute of the Academy of Medical Sciences, two officers in the uniform of the Ministry of State Security appear and demand to be led to the physician on duty.
Years will pass before my mother and I learn what happened that night.
To be more precise, eight years passed. I was a student. One evening as I was about to prepare homework, I noticed that a notebook I needed was missing. I recalled a student who had sat next to me in the lecture hall, by the name of Slava Tsukerman, and I thought that he had accidentally taken my notebook. I called him. His father answered the phone. He said that Slava was not home and asked what message to give him. I told him my name, Ala Zuskin, and explained the matter.
The next day I came to the class late, as usual, and the lecture hall was full. Still Slava noticed my arrival and since the lecturer had not yet appeared, he ran to me and said with great emotion, Your father, who is he? Was he an actor at the Jewish theater? I answered in the affirmative and Slava continued, Do you live with your mother? Yes. Well then, you have to come to our house this evening, My father has something important to tell you.
That evening we visited the Tsukermans. Slava’s father, a doctor by profession, told us that in 1948, he was working as a surgeon at the Surgical Institute of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and that on the night between the 23rd and 24th of December, he was the physician on duty in charge of the entire hospital. He knew about Zuskin the actor but he didn’t know Zuskin the patient because Zuskin was hospitalized in a ward other than his. After Dr. Tsukerman read the arrest warrant, he said that he had been given instructions that on no account was he to disturb the sleep of the patient Zuskin. The visitors simply moved Dr. Tsukerman aside, entered the room where Zuskin was lying deep in sleep, wrapped him in a sheet, took him out of the hospital, put him into a car, and brought him to prison.
And now, you are invited to watch the film, as follows: