Monday, June 13, 2016

The Nail in the Boot: Stylish Propaganda from a 1932 Soviet Silent

Don’t feel bad if you’re unfamiliar with The Nail in the Boot. In fact, don’t feel bad even if you’ve never heard of the director, Mikhail Kalatozov, or any of his other film works. The Soviets wanted it that way. For many decades, they got their wish.

The Nail in the Boot was the first feature drama from Kalatozov, who had previously focused on documentaries. Salt for Svanetia (1930), a film about the scarcity of salt in the remote town of Svanetia, is today considered a masterpiece of Soviet cinema. At the time, though, it was heavily criticized for what Stalinists saw as a fascination with the small mountain village’s simple-mindedness and belief in superstition. Kalatozov was on shaky ice with the powers that be. With The Nail in the Boot, the director set out to make a film that highlighted the importance of flawless production from industrial workers—an idea that should have put him back in their good graces—but it dramatically backfired.

The boot in question.
 
Painfully trying to climb the barbed wire.

The plot of The Nail in the Boot is so simple it could almost be a fairy tale, and it veers into territory that's decidedly Grimm. An armored train on maneuvers is attacked by imperialist forces, and the soldiers—all communist workers drafted from the same boot factory—send one man off on foot to deliver the message that they need immediate reinforcements. He sets off dutifully enough, but is hobbled by a nail that penetrates his foot from his poorly-made boots (ironically made by his soldier companions and co-workers at the factory, whose lives depend on him). He bears on, clearly in excruciating pain, attempting to soldier on with his shoes removed, but ultimately, the pain is too much. He sits down to bathe his foot in a stream, as his comrades speed towards their deaths on a doomed train, the message undelivered.

The film’s visuals are so raw, so stark, that in my memory they seem almost like still pictures. Kalatozov focuses on the detailed machinery of the train, the insides of gun barrels, individual shells, tracks, wheels, steam, and smoke. From these parts, we get a feel for the whole, and somehow manage to grasp the brutality of war from these pieces. This train is a battleground, but we also get a sense of the factory and the mechanized environment where the soldiers worked. While this is a late silent, the film feels loud, and if it had sound effects, our ears would bleed from the impact of the men shouting, the gun blasts, the steel on the tracks, explosions, and the train crash. 


Soviet propaganda: the parts that make the whole.



Objects get camera time far more than faces do (at least in the first ⅔ of the film), so when Kalatozov does linger on a face, it maximizes the impact of the emotion. The Dreyer-esque close-ups ensure that we see and feel every shred of what the characters are experiencing, from the soldiers awaiting their death to the defeated soldier with the wounded foot when he sees the miles and miles of barbed wire keeping him from his destination.

The last third of the film takes place after the attack on the armored train, at the court martial of the soldier. The dark scene takes place in a courtroom more frightening than any Brutalist architect could devise, presided over by a menacing officer who looks like he just ate glass for breakfast. The severe angles and dark atmosphere make things look pretty foreboding for our soldier, but we know he’s done nothing wrong—right? We saw the anguish on his face when he could walk no further. We saw how hard he tried to keep walking on his increasingly-infected foot, going miles further than even seemed possible, trying to scale the barbed wire, forcing himself to try to do what ultimately couldn’t be done. He is questioned:

“Does the accused know that on maneuvers it is the same as war?”

“Does he understand the importance of delivering the report?”

“Does he understand the oath of the Revolutionary soldier?”

He nods in agreement to each question, as if to say of course.

He is given a hypothetical situation: “You are captured. The enemy orders you to shoot at your own troops!...” He shakes his head: No, never.



Things look pretty bleak at this trial.




But according to the court, he’s already guilty. “You did shoot! A report not delivered … is the same as a bullet!”

“He pitied his own feet and destroyed the armored train.”

At this point, the courtroom, which seemed almost completely bare before, is teeming with men. It seems that every time the crowd is shown, it has multiplied, and now there are hundreds of jeering onlookers. Everyone is against him, and they call for his death. If this all seems pretty nightmarish, it’s only getting started. At this point, things take a turn for the twisted when something happens that I’m certain has never happened in any other courtroom scene before or since: a parade marches in. Drummers, cornet-players, and a gang of marching youths strut into the courtroom bearing a huge banner that says “We don’t want fathers like him.” It would be hilarious if it weren’t for the certainty that the soldier has been condemned not just by the court, but by everyone. His fate, like the fate of the soldiers on the wrecked train, is sealed.



An unexpected courtroom parade.


Kalatozov’s point seems clear enough. The shoddy work of one factory boot-maker has led to the deaths of a whole unit of soldiers, and has also destroyed the life of the man who held their fate in his hands (or his foot). At one point in the courtroom scene, the soldier tries to defend himself, asking if the workers who made the boot shouldn’t be equally at fault. This is proletariat propaganda at its most distilled. Every worker must strive for perfection for the good of all.

Yet, the Soviet censors didn’t see it that way. The film, they thought, was critical of the capabilities of the Red Army. They didn’t want to look like losers who could be undone by one man’s boot. The film was banned and never released.

Mikhail Kalatazov, one of the greatest Soviet filmmakers, was relegated to an administrative position at Tiflis studios. By 1939, he was allowed to direct again, but until the death of Stalin, he could only make official films. Finally loosed from the bounds of Soviet regulations, he made The Cranes Are Flying in 1957, which became the first Russian film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It wasn’t until 2010 that the public saw the first retrospective of his silent work.

This post was written for the Order in the Court Blogathon. You can find more writing about the courtroom in film at Second Sight Cinema and Cinemaven's Essays from the Couch.