Thursday, August 25, 2011

Stalin's Wife

Zhena Stalina is an ambitious four-part television series that attempts to convey the agonizing position Nadezhda Allilueva found herself in when she married Josef Stalin.  The writers took their cue from a 2004 documentary by Slava Tsukerman, drawing on even more archival material to piece together a very intimate account of this marriage.  The series does lack emotional intensity, which Jamie Miller notes in his review for Kinokultura, with Duta Skhirtladze giving a rather subdued performance as Stalin.  But, then this film is principally about Nadezhda, and Olga Budina turns in a powerful performance as Stalin's wife.

I don't know that much about Allilueva, so I can't say how accurate the telling is.  It appears to be more an emotional "truth" that the director is aiming for in justifying the fateful decision she would ultimately make.  We see her provide understanding and love for Stalin's son from a previous marriage, shown in this film clip, and try to guard their two children from his tyrannical outbursts, only to feel the full weight of his anger.  One senses the same love-hate relationship one finds in most abusive marriages but with far more profound consequences, as Nadezhda has her broader family to think about in the wake of her husband's reign of terror. 

The filmmakers decide to treat Stalin's terror on the periphery, with pointed references rather than any attempt to explain his actions.  Instead, the series focuses on Nadezhda's reactions to the growing list of crimes against humanity her husband is perpetrating, and her attempts to reconcile this with the image she stills holds of "Soso" as the idealistic revolutionary she first met in 1917.  As a result, this film becomes very domestic and probably won't appeal to viewers looking for pithy insights into Stalin's character.  It is Olga Budina's strong performance that holds the viewer.

Budina had previously played Aglaya Yepachina in the television series, The Idiot

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