Iron Curtain, The (1995): Impact of Stalin on One Russian Family

Moscow Film Fest, July 25, 1995–A grand, imposing 4-hour-epic, Savva Kulish’s The Iron Curtain offers a powerfully insightful look at the impact of Stalin’s totalitarian regime on one Russian family between 1947 and 1957.

Despite excessive running time, ambitious scope and impressive scale should place the film, which deals with an important but little-chronicled era, in film festivals, retrospectives of Russian cinema, and eventually perhaps even Public TV.

The saga begins in 1947, when Kostia (Sasha Bukovsky), the son of a Jewish mother and Ukrainian father, is introduced as the new student in school.

The school features prominently in the story, as it’s here that the children are ideologically indoctrinated to believe that Stalin is the system’s prize and glory, both a person and a symbol that call for selfless sacrifice and worship; the leader’s photo is inescapably seen on every wall.

The film conveys effectively the fear that prevailed in those years, specifically how parents avoided telling their children the truth about their backgrounds–and politics–because it was so dangerous and risky to do so. Indeed, as Kostia’s family shares the same cramped space with two other families, there are inevitable tensions–one concerning legal permit to live and work in Moscow. Dinners and other collective celebrations are almost always interrupted as soon as the discussion veers into heavy, inevitably divisive politics.

As a coming-of-age tale, told from a child’s P.O.V., The Iron Curtain captures in detail the process of growing up in such turbulent times: the incessant street fights among kids, the rigid hierarchy that split families and peers, friendships that in vain tried to overcome opposing backgrounds, and perhaps most important of all how meaningful and all-pervasive was the membership in the Komsomol, the influential youth organization which was ruled by the Party.

Periodically, the film gets too self-conscious about its monumental task, conveying the feeling that it’s looking down at history from a great height. This is especially so in the second half, where the director is so concerned with covering large thematic territory that Kostia’s character as an adolescent almost gets lost in the melodramatic maze. The last 15 minutes, during which the story jumps ahead to l989 and then again to l991, are too jumbled–and overly preachy.

Even so, The Iron Curtain is extremely successful in visualizing a terror regime in which political dissidents suddenly disappeared and “rebellious” scientists were put on public trial. Ultimately, the film works best as the touching story of one family that clashed with the State in its struggle to save their boy’s soul.

One of most expensive Russian productions of the last decade, the movie includes numerous locales, sets and costumes. There’s excellent use of documentary footage, rarely seen in the West, of the l952 Soviet Air-Force Day, Stalin’s death in l953, and the Moscow International Youth Festival in l957. This footage brings commendable authenticity to the recreation of the socio-political atmosphere in the post-War period.