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Depictions of Communism in Cinema and Other Media

A Student Essay

Hammer and Sickle. Symbol most commonly associated with communism.

Communism has always been an ideology that has keenly interested me. As a Democratic Socialist I 'believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few.' (Qoute taken from Democratic Socialists of America Website, 06/02/18.) I personally do have sympathies towards some of the ideals associated with communism but then also my political opinion is that the ideal only works in principle. It does not and never has worked in practice.

Either the society cannot sustain itself, unless it buys into some of the ideals of capitalism, 'an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market' (Quote taken from the website Merriam Webster, 06/02/18), similar to modern-day China, or becomes exploited and corrupted, leading to the ideals of totalitarianism, similar to the former Soviet Union.

The ideal of communism itself states that all property, produce, industry, and wealth should be the property of the state and evenly distributed amongst the population. Each person contributing and receiving, according to their needs. The idea originally, like many left-wing ideals, derives from the writings of German Philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) but was finalized by Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) at the start of the Russian Revolution.

'Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.' (Quote of Vladimir Lenin 1920, taken from the website Brainy Quote, 16/02/18.)

As well as nations, however, communism covers a number of political movements, political parties, and also terrorist groups. Like, for example, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People's Army, also known as FARC, who have only recently made peace with their government. Others include the Japanese Red Army, now replaced by Movement Rentai. And also the Red Army Faction, a terrorist group present in West Germany during the 1970s, also known as the Baader Meinhof Group. This just goes to demonstrate the influence communism has had across the globe and not just in the realms of totalitarianism. Making it an extremely diverse subject to investigate.

As well as the political and social aspects of the ideal, Communism also triggered a new visual style in art, design, and photography. A style intended to break away from the traditionalist styles of the past and embrace a more modernist style based upon the communist ideal. Like for example, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, by El Lissitzky.

Though communism greatly affected art, it also greatly influenced another recent form of visual culture, one that allowed for the full embracement of propaganda and mass messages of solidarity, filmmaking. Across history, there have been a number of different representations of the political belief and it is my intention for this essay to analyze a number of these depictions, looking into how each of them presents the ideology.

The first film to discuss, is possibly the most recognizable piece of communist cinema, Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein). Battleship Potemkin remains one of the most famous films to come out of the Soviet Union and the silent era. It was named the greatest film of all time at the 1958 World Fair and was even distributed in the US by writer and director, Douglas Fairbanks.

'The Battleship Potemkin, first shown in 1925, which came to be perhaps the most frequently analyzed work in the history of cinema' (Quote taken from Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin by Peter Kenez, Chapter 3 The Films of the Golden Age 1925-9, Page 55.  Published 7 March 2001, by I.B. Tauris in New York.)

The film itself is a depiction of an actual mutiny that occurred, just after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), before the First World War had actually broken out but the seeds of the revolution were already starting to be sown. Eisenstein himself wrote that the film was fully intended as a revolutionary propaganda film. In the film, we see depictions of the ship's officers as extremely cold and unsympathetic. Eisenstein wanted to create the greatest sympathy for the sailors and the civilians that were killed. It primarily focuses on showing the cruel and cold nature of the Tsar's absolutist monarchy, depicting the mutineers and the civilians who support them as the ones in the right and shown as tired, abused, and discriminated.

Despite the film's praise, it actually received mixed criticism and also a massive amount of shock around the world for its use of violence. As seen in the massacre on the Odessa Steps scene, making it one of the first films to make usage of scenes of extreme violence.

'The Odessa steps sequence begins with the first firing of the soldiers shots; the killing of a child; marching boots on the steps; a bespectacled old lady, wounded in the face; a pram bumping down the steps; a mother climbing the steps with her dead son outstretched across her arms.' (Quote taken from The Story of Film by Mark Cousins, Page 105.  Published 3 September 2011, by Pavilion Publishing in East Sussex, England.)

The film also went on to be very politically influential, especially for using film as a means of propaganda. Not only influencing members of the communist ideology but also, Nazism;

'his contempt for the masses, and his realization of the sub-versive potential of cinema (both he and Goebels had been profoundly affected by Eisenstein's Potemkin) led him to the production of the most famous propaganda film ever made—Triumph Of The Will.' (Quote taken from Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel. Page 175. Published 1974, by Artbook and Distributed Art Publishers in New York.)

Battleship Potemkin remains one of the most influential films in cinema but also one of the most instantly recognised depictions of communism in history. The film does have an inspiring atmosphere, that sticks with the viewer and truly creates a revolutionary spirit that fires the heart and soul of the Communist ideology.

Of course, there are films that show communism as dysfunctional. A truly notable depiction of this is Death of Stalin (2017, Armando Iannucci). This very recent black comedy, political satire film has already gained a massive amount of popularity amongst audiences and critics. It was also recently banned in Russia, with claims stating;

'culture ministry has attempted to stop the release, describing the film as a western plot to destabilize Russia by “causing rifts in society.”' and 'that the film contained elements of “extremism”.'                                                              (Quote taken from online newspaper article of The Independent, 06/02/18.)

Further highlighting the current political situation in Russia. Where the current leader Vladimir Putin, is effectively dragging policies back to the totalitarian, police state, that was the USSR. The film itself, based on the French graphic novel of the same name, tells the story of the leadership struggle following Joseph Stalin's death. It presents the Stalinist form of communism as an absurd, bureaucratic police state, based completely on fear and submission.

Like for example, the opening scene of the film focuses on an orchestra being broadcast live on Moscow radio. When it ends, the radio producer receives a phone call from Stalin, saying that he is sending someone round to pick up a recording. After he hangs up, the crew realize that the orchestra was not recorded. This sends them into a panic, fearing what will happen to them if they anger Stalin.

So they replay the orchestra and record it, after the conductor has fainted and they've had to get an entirely separate conductor, who they have abducted out of bed and brought in random people off the street, to replace members of the audience. Though the film does display a very comedic tone, it does, in fact, fully display the atrocities that were committed by the Union during Stalin's reign, with terrifying accuracy. Even down to the death lists, lists of people the government was going to execute. Making the film both funny and truly horrifying, even more so, by the fact that there are still political systems like this in the world. Most notably North Korea.

'It's laughter and horror sitting side by side.' (Quote from Film Critic Mark Kermode, on film review of Death of Stalin, as part of 'Kermode and Mayo', produced on BBC Radio 5 Live, October 2017.)

The one thing that Death of Stalin truly achieves in its depiction of communism is its major flaw. In practice, it does not work, leaving the society that has turned to it vulnerable and easily exploited. Providing a gateway for totalitarianism, very similar to Stalin's Soviet Union.

With totalitarianism, also comes propaganda and there are no better examples, than Come and See (1985, Elem Klimov) and Red Dawn (1984, John Milius). These two films with very similar cinematic styles are both propaganda films from the height of the Cold War era. This was a period of non-military conflict between the two superpowers of the time, the USA and the USSR. Both countries were paranoid of the other, giving rise to political friction and a fear of Communism across the Western landscape.

Come and See is a war film with an anti-fascist message and is well noted in the film industry circle for its controversy and violence. The story centers around a young boy, during the Second World War, joining a group of communist partisans and his experiences of the true horrors of war on the Eastern Front.

'Filmed with steadicam, the viewer is tugged gently against their will into a child's nightmare. The final thirty minutes are possibly the most harrowing war scenes committed to celluloid, where SS officers storm a village, lock the locals inside a barn, and burn it to the ground. An atmospheric masterpiece of tension and horror.' (Quote taken from 500 Essential Cult Movies: The Ultimate Guide by Jennifer Eiss, Page 40.  Published 2010, by Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. in New York.)

The film has very mixed opinions. Some claiming that the film is a full-scale propaganda film that intends to immensely demonize Germany's role in WW2, while others have given it great acclaim and praise, stating it is superior to war films like Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola). Whatever the opinion, the film is openly brutal and is a clear depiction of communist feelings towards Nazism.

Red Dawn is admittedly tamer in terms of its violence but still, it very similarly tries to paint an extremely demonizing depiction of communists. This propaganda film centers around most countries around the U.S becoming communist and all participating in an invasion of the country. It follows a group of youths in a small occupied Southern town, as they rebel against the communist occupiers.

'Made during the Cold War and at the height of the Reagan administration, it highlights the constant undercurrent of fear society experiences when living in a nuclear age with only a tenuous peacekeeping the superpowers at bay.' (500 Essential Cult Movies: The Ultimate Guide by Jennifer Eiss, Page 125. Published 2010, by Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. in New York.)

The film is very over paranoid in its depictions. Like Come and See, it demonizes the rival ideology. However, unlike Come and See where it's depictions are more deep-rooted in actual experience and events, as the Nazi's did commit numerous atrocities across the Eastern Front, Red Dawn's depictions are fed more from capitalist paranoia. At one point, Russian paratroopers land outside a school and begin to attack it. With no reason given and no provocation. The one thing these films both have in common is that they are both extreme cases of propaganda and are a demonstration of the bad blood between both communism and capitalism.

Though this essay has mentioned primarily European examples of depictions of the ideology, communism was not and still isn't restricted to Europe; most notably, My Brother Named Shun Liu (2009, Hua Jing), a TV series from the Peoples Republic of China. It centers around a sniper in the Maoist Chinese Communist forces, who were fighting against the Nationalist Chinese forces in the civil war, until of course the Japanese invaded and they both allied to fight against them and the Chinese forces still loyal to the deposed emperor.

Unfortunately, there is very little production notes on this series, in fact, very little research material at all. There appears to be no version with English subtitles either. At first, you could possibly assume that it has not been exported outside of China but on YouTube, there is a version with Spanish subtitles and the first time that I personally discovered it, it was on a German TV channel in Berlin. This could suggest that maybe something has interfered with an English subtitled version. Most likely it has been banned in the U.S either due to its depiction of their Japanese allies or China has not seen fit to export it to the U.S. Due to the lack of research material, I've had to resort to watching the actual series, without English subtitles, in order to get an idea of the depiction of communism within it.

The major thing to be noticed about the communist characters is that their depiction emphasizes a lot of comradeship and themselves as just regular human beings. This is also partially seen with the nationalist characters but they are often seen as scheming and untrustworthy. The Japanese forces depiction started off fairly neutral, showing their combat methods as brutal but, essentially, are just human like the others. As the series progressed, however, their depiction became more brutal and demonized, to the point that towards the end, the main character’s sister is raped by a Japanese officer, leading her to commit suicide.

Admittedly, the portrayals in this series may be biased, as China is an authoritarian state, proud of its communist heritage and it is well known that some in China still have a bitter hatred towards the Japanese, due to the atrocities committed in WW2. Whether they are biased or not, My Brother Named Shun Liu, still provides another interesting perspective on the ideology.

There are a lot of mixed opinions when it comes to communism. All of them varying depending on ideals, nationalities, and demographics, this has led to many mixed depictions, all either very different or very similar. In Battleship Potemkin, Come and See, and My Brother Named Shun Liu, communism is depicted as a means to an end for great social solidarity and an end to the discriminatory systems of monarchism, nationalism, and capitalism.

'Citizens of Odessa! Lying before you is the body of the brutally killed sailor GrigoriyVakulinchuk, slain by a senior officer of the squadron battleship 'Prince Tavrichesky.' Let's take revenge on the bloodthirsty vampires! Death to the oppressors!' (Quote from the film Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein)

Red Dawn, of course, is much different, Communism is shown, in a rather paranoid and exaggerated depiction, as a force of evil. Further highlighting the rivalry between the ideologies of Communism and Capitalism.

'Soviet Union suffers worst wheat harvest in 55 years... Labour and food riots in Poland. Soviet troops invade... Cuba and Nicaragua reach troop strength goals of 500,000. El Salvador and Honduras fall... Greens Party gains control of West German Parliament. Demands withdrawal of nuclear weapons from European soil... Mexico plunged into revolution... NATO dissolves. United States stands alone.' (Quote from the prologue of the film Red Dawn (1984, John Milius)

Death of Stalin on the other hand, while it does take an anti-communist approach like Red Dawn, it is not based on wild theories and paranoia but instead is based on historical fact and political analysis through the means of comedy and satire. Depicting the truly moronic, totalitarian state that was, the Soviet Union.

'Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it. Kill him then dump him in the pulpit, then I leave the rest up to you.' (Quote from the film Death of Stalin (2017, Armando Iannucci) 

All of these different perspectives of communism cannot easily be compared, due to the massive amount of opinions towards it. Looking back through history, however, you can understand why people are both for or against it. Communism erupted from unfair and discriminatory hierarchal political class systems. Similar to what Britain was like during the Victorian era, an era which some, including myself, would argue that the current Conservative government are taking us back to.

So it is understandable why people would be attracted to communism but you just have to look at history to constantly see the vast number of attempts to instigate it and see that a majority of those attempts have not worked and have been consumed by the claws of totalitarianism, effectively becoming what communism set out to destroy.

Gallery

From Left to right:

Image 1: Picture of Karl Marx. Taken from History Guide 

Image 2: Picture of Vladimir Lenin. Taken from JacobinMag

Image 3: Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, by El Lissitzky. Taken from The Art Story

Image 4: Poster for the Battleship Potemkin. Taken from Wikipedia 

Image 5: Screenshot of the massacre on Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin. Taken from WilderUtopia

Image 6: Poster for Death of Stalin. Taken from IMDB

Image 7: DVD Cover for Come and See. Taken from Amazon

Image 8: DVD Cover for Red Dawn. Taken from The Coli

Image 9: Poster for My Brother Named Shun Liu. Taken from Saragni

Bibliography

Books

500 Essential Cult Movies: The Ultimate Guide by Jennifer Eiss.

Published 2010, by Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. in New York.

Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel.

Published 1974, by Artbook and Distributed Art Publishers in New York.

Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin by Peter Kenez.

Published 7 March 2001, by I.B. Tauris in New York.

The Story of Film by Mark Cousins.

Published 3 September 2011, by Pavilion Publishing in East Sussex, England.

Films, TV and DVD's

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) DVD

Produced by: Mosfilm.

DVD Publisher: Eureka

Death of Stalin (2017, Armando Iannucci) Cinema Screening

Produced by: Main Journey and Quad Productions

Distributed by: eOne Films and Gaumont

Screened by: Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle

Red Dawn (1984, John Milius) Film Viewing

Produced by: United Artists and Valkyrie Films

Distributed by: MGM and UA Entertainment Company

Come and See (1985, Elem Klimov) Film Viewing

Produced by: Mosfilm and Belarus

Film Distributed by: Sovexportfilm

Brother Named Shun Liu (2009, Hua Jing) Series Viewing

Director: Hua Jing

Produced by: Unknown

Distributed by: Unknown

Websites

http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/communism.html

Website Owner: WebFinance Inc.

Article Author: Unkown

https://www.britannica.com/topic/communism

Website Owner: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Article Author: Richard Dagger and Terence Ball

http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/marx.HTML

Website Owner: Steven Kreis

Article Author: Steven Kreis

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/lenin_vladimir.shtml

Website Owner: BBC

Article Author: Unkown

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Battleship-Potemkin

Website Owner: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Article Author: David A. Cook and Robert Sklar

Come and See IMDB Page http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091251/

Website Owner: IMDb.com Inc. An Amazon.com company.

Article Author: Unknown

Online Videos

My Brother Named Shun Liu (2009, Hua Jing) TV Series Viewing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNZ0fY5P9rk

Published on Sep 17, 2016

Death of Stalin Review by Mark Kermode, as part of 'Kermode and Mayo', Produced by BBC Radio 5 Live.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KA3a-3I4VCc

Published on Oct 20, 2017

Death of Stalin Director Interview by Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode, as part of 'Kermode and Mayo', Produced by BBC Radio 5 Live.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjOBWK6WkL4

Published on Oct 20, 2017

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