Xavier Villetard: Forever Lenin, 2006

reviewed by Nina Tumarkin © 2007

In 1998 Boris Nemtsov, then President El'tsin's close associate, First Deputy Prime Minister, and Vice-President of the Russian Federation, said in an interview that Mr. El'tsin was determined to accomplish the following three things before leaving office. First, to bury with requisite dignity the remains of the Romanov family murdered eighty years before; second, to provide for himself and his family a safe and comfortable retirement. In these the President was successful. His third goal was to remove Lenin's body from the mausoleum in Red Square and bury it in St. Petersburg next to his mother's grave. [1] This Mr. El'tsin never was able to do; vociferous protests by Communists and others made the task impossible. “Hands off Lenin!” shouted the demonstrators. Vladimir Putin decided to avoid the political fallout from such an act and let the matter drop.

Many years ago, while writing a book on the cult of Lenin, I asked George Curtis, Medical Examiner of the City of Boston, whether he thought the first attempt to preserve Lenin by refrigeration had been scientifically sound, explaining that I was writing a book chapter about the preservation of the leader. “Oh yes,” he replied in a broad Boston accent, “I hear that's a great job of embalming.” Mr. Curtis and other readers of the now-defunct Casket and Sunnyside, the trade journal of coroners and undertakers, likely would have enjoyed Forever Lenin , written and directed by France's Xavier Villetard. I expect that for most of the rest of us the experience is at best mixed.

Villetard has directed seven films—three of them for television—and written three. These include En attendant la révolution (Awaiting Revolution, 2002), about a bewildered man whose life has been wrenched by post-Communist, market-capitalist Russia; FBI contre Hollywood (The FBI Against Hollywood, 2001, for television), with Kirk Douglas playing himself; and Les Hommes de Piaf (Piaf's Men, 2003, for television), a documentary whose cast includes French singers Charles Aznavour and George Moustaki. Forever Lenin appears to have been made for French viewers interested in communism and the Soviet Union. [2] According to First Run/Icarus Films, the film is meant to explain why and how Lenin's body was preserved in a mausoleum and to show how its fate mirrors the turbulent history of the Soviet Union.

If you mute the sound and skip the first and last three minutes or so, Forever Lenin looks like a documentary of the most conventional kind: talking heads, most of them scientists who have worked in the laboratory that has kept the body in repair; archival film footage of moments in Soviet history; and close-ups of the Lenin Mausoleum and Lenin in his sarcophagus, that sort of thing. Then you toggle the mute button and the film changes from an apparently disorganized and oddball documentary into some other genre. Although it contains relevant information about the processes used to maintain the corpse, about the difference between embalming and mummification, and some observations on Soviet history, the film was made mostly to entertain; as an example of documentary “lite” it fascinates. Ken Burns it isn't. Nor, however, is it Michael Moore, whose films entertain while making a clear (often strident) argument.

It is the tone and content of the voiceover commentary that ruins what might have been an almost unexceptionable, albeit clumsy, piece of filmmaking. The catalogue copy calls the commentary “wry.” Wry indeed! The narrator's voice is clear and tempered, but much of what he says, though frivolous and amusing, is also markedly sardonic. He addresses the dead leader directly, using the familiar “tu” form in the original French voiceover. The film opens with shots of the outside of a computer-generated Lenin Mausoleum. “My dear Lenin,” begins the narrator, as the camera moves into its interior, in which Lenin's sarcophagus slowly starts to rotate, “surprised to see you floating in a virtual mausoleum, it suddenly occurred to me to send you an email.” Does this sound merely wry? Later, after a few sentences on the transfer of Lenin's body to Tiumen' just after the German invasion of 22 June 1941: “In March 1944 you returned to Moscow. In Siberia your mummy had a makeover and, fitted out with a new sarcophagus, you had a grandstand view in May 1945” when Stalin reviewed the victory parade in Red Square (the actual date was 24 June 1945). Is this merely wry? Droll, perhaps, but the humor wears thin very quickly.

The talking heads do inform. These include three scientists who worked in the Lenin Mausoleum laboratory. One of them, Il'a Zbarskii, son of one of the two men originally in charge of Lenin's embalming, is the author of Lenin's Embalmers.[3] Another is Iu. I. Lopukhin, who wrote a book on Lenin's illness, death, and embalming. [4] The original, ordinary embalming had been meant to last for a week, from Lenin's death on 21 January 1924 until his burial six days later. But for numerous fascinating reasons not explained in the film, the Politburo approved Stalin's proposal to make Lenin's lying-in-state a going concern. A young Russian historian explains this by pointing out that the largely illiterate peasant population could not understand communist ideology rationally, making a cult of Lenin necessary. And a cult needs a shrine. Other reasons not mentioned in Forever Lenin include: the Russian tradition of embodying both temporal and spiritual in a single individual; the discovery in Luxor, Egypt, of the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen that led to a “King Tut” craze in Europe and the U.S.; and the leadership's well-grounded fear of open opposition in the immediate aftermath of Lenin's death (overnight Moscow became an armed camp), and thus a need to back up their quite desperate claim: “Il'ich has died, but Lenin lives.” Tellingly, the quickly-formed Funeral Commission was headed by Feliks Dzerzhinskii, founder and leader of the Cheka. The outpouring of popular grief at Lenin's lying-in-state—more than 750,000 people stood for hours during a bitter cold January to catch a glimpse of their deceased leader—showed Lenin's importance as a source of legitimation for the regime. The dead Lenin had to serve as a stabilizing force legitimizing his successors.

The film almost immediately skips from Lenin's death and obsequies to a short time later when the body began to decompose. Simple refrigeration was the first method used to preserve the body; one of the scientists claims that a lack of sufficient electricity caused this method to fail (hard to believe). Then, two months after Lenin's death, Professor V.P. Vorob'ev, an anatomic pathologist with a long-standing interest in preserving cadavers, Boris Zbarskii, a young biochemist, and their team undertook the extended embalming and completed their work in about four months.

The film shows three successive iterations of the Mausoleum, from a hastily-erected cube, to a large wooden structure, and the red granite edifice erected in 1930 and still in place. A French historian provides some sound historical narrative as well; the voiceover commentator comes out with a few references to deaths during the Stalin era, Lenin's body's removal from and return to Moscow, and Stalin's death and appearance in the Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum, as we see archival film footage. “I cannot resist telling you about his final agony,” chirps the voiceover. In no way do the experts or narrator try to tie Lenin's body to these events, which it was supposed to reflect.

Suddenly the Khrushchev era is upon us and the scene switches abruptly to happy little Pioneers at play and the sound of a sprightly score in a major key, a change from the somber score of the first part of the film. Here Forever Lenin becomes both more scattered and more absorbing. Close-ups of Lenin's face, skull, and the laboratory are marbled with clips of current Russian cemeteries in summer, with their fenced-in gravestones and people milling about. An articulate and energetic gravedigger bubbles over with thoughts on the Russian way of death, remarking that Russians take death more as a matter of course than do Westerners. The gravedigger, in work clothes, with his hair tightly bound in a kerchief, remarks that burials, which in the Soviet period mainly resembled one another, are now distinct by social class, adding that some wealthier patrons now pay to have their remains embalmed and preserved; we see footage of a young male's face, the graceful forehead and closed eyes of a woman, a hand. The gravedigger's historical observations are mostly mistaken, but he's lively. Nothing he says relates in the slightest to Lenin.

For me the only intriguing minutes of the movie are in the footage shot by one of the few Russians allowed to film the dead Lenin and the mausoleum laboratory. We watch as the sarcophagus is removed from the mausoleum on a track of sorts, and then see hands pulling on the dead leader's socks subsequent to a restorative treatment (the body is frequently permeated with a certain viscous fluid, and once a year gets a long and thorough immersion in liquid chemicals.) I had heard that for decades the mausoleum has kept other cadavers on which to experiment; one doesn't take chances with the central extant symbol of Soviet Communism. The photographer's footage shows rows of prone preserved corpses. It turns out that some of these cadavers are Lenin's “doubles,” closely resembling him. “That's what they search for,” explains the photographer. “Now this one bears a very close resemblance,” he observes. The camera zooms in on a corpse of a man who indeed looks much like Lenin. Who looks for those doubles and where? Do “they” walk around morgues watching for Lenin's look-alikes, or instruct coroners to contact them if they find any? The film is silent on this question. In Stalin's day men who looked like Lenin were captured and killed, I suppose.

Xavier Villetard's trivializing approach to the subject of his film is evident in many ways, but one grates particularly. The youngest of the scientists filmed, Vladimir Kozel'tsev takes great pains to explain that Lenin's remains are not mummified—a process in which the corpse is dried and no attempt is made to keep the facial features intact. On the contrary, Lenin's remains are preserved by fluids. What we see in the mausoleum is Lenin's body, and Kozel'tsev says he becomes most irritated when it is called a mummy. Nonetheless, the voiceover commentator in Forever Lenin refers only to “Lenin's mummy.” So what if the word is incorrect so long as the viewer is amused?

Nina Tumarkin
Wellesley College

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Notes

1] Lenin had indicated his preference for a simple burial or cremation, adding that a crematorium ought to be built in his country, which had none. The Russian Orthodox church condemned cremation because it believed in the eventual resurrection of all believers, in the flesh, which helps explain the Russia's lack of crematoria.

2] See http://www.cndp.fr/tice/teledoc/mire/mire_foreverlenine.htm.

3] Zbarsky, Ilya and Samuel Hutchinson, Lenin's Embalmers. Trans. from French by Barbara Bray. London: Harvill P, 1998.

4] Iu. M. Lopukhin, Bolezn' , smert' i bal' zamirovanie V.I. Lenina. Moscow: Respublika, 1997.


Forever Lenin, France, 2006
Color, 52 minutes
Director: Xavier Villetard
Scriptwrites: Xavier Villetard
Producer: Jerome Amimer
Production: Leitmotiv Production, with the participation of France 5

VHS Distribution: First Run/Icarus Films. All stills courtesy of First Run/Icarus Films.

Xavier Villetard: Forever Lenin, 2006

reviewed by Nina Tumarkin © 2007

Updated: 02 Oct 07