Entry from November 21, 2013

On Monday, November 18th, I spoke to a meeting sponsored by the Danube Institute in Budapest, Hungary, about the Russian director Yuri Mamin’s film, Window to Paris of 1993, which we then watched and discussed. My remarks on this occasion follow:

It’s a legend reaching far back into the Middle Ages, perhaps as far back as the events that inspired it — which remain in dispute, for there are versions of the myth as early as the perhaps equally mythical Children’s Crusade of A.D. 1212. I refer to the legend of the Pied Piper. English speakers generally know it through Robert Browning’s poem of 1842 which is very precisely set in the town of Hamelin, on the Weser in Lower Saxony, on the 22nd of July, 1376. The burghers of Hamelin, having tried everything to rid their town of a plague of rats, turn in desperation to a strange drifter in parti-colored garb who promises to destroy them for 1000 guilders. Playing on a little pipe, the strange man somehow bewitches the rats so that they follow him, and then leads them to the river, where they all drown. Or all except one. When the town fathers renege on their agreement and offer the piper only fifty guilders for ridding them of the rats, he gets his revenge by playing on his pipe and leading all the children of the town to a magical portal which opens up into the mountain above the city. None is ever seen again. Or, as before, none but one: this time a lame boy who couldn’t keep up as the other children danced away behind the piper.

Browning emphasizes the lone survivor, both of the rats and the children, so as to give a closer account of the piper’s witchcraft, as he imagines it must have been experienced by the bewitched. The surviving rat, for instance, is imagined escaping to “Rat-land” with — as a positively post-modern touch — a manuscript commentary of his experience reading as follows:

At the first shrill notes of the pipe,
I heard a sound as of scraping tripe,
And putting apples, wondrous ripe,
Into a cider-press”s gripe:
And a moving away of pickle-tub-boards,
And a leaving ajar of conserve-cupboards,
And a drawing the corks of train-oil-flasks,
And a breaking the hoops of butter-casks:
And it seemed as if a voice
(Sweeter far than by harp or by psaltery
Is breathed) called out, “Oh rats, rejoice!
The world is grown to one vast dry-saltery!
So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,
Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon!”
And just as a bulky sugar-puncheon,
All ready staved, like a great sun shone
Glorious scarce an inch before me,
Just as methought it said, “Come, bore me!”
— I found the Weser rolling o”er me.

Similarly, the little lame boy laments:

It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can”t forget that I’m bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new;
The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
And honey-bees had lost their stings,
And horses were born with eagles’ wings;
And just as I became assured
My lame foot would be speedily cured,
The music stopped and I stood still,
And found myself outside the hill,
Left alone against my will,
To go now limping as before,
And never hear of that country more!

Browning mentions the part of the legend in which it is claimed

That in Transylvania there”s a tribe
Of alien people who ascribe
The outlandish ways and dress
On which their neighbours lay such stress,
To their fathers and mothers having risen
Out of some subterraneous prison
Into which they were trepanned
Long time ago in a mighty band
Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land,
But how or why, they don”t understand.

Wikipedia says that someone has found in parts of Polish Pomerania a lot of names common in or indicating their origins in Hamelin, so maybe there was some real exodus from those parts in the Middle Ages of the young, looking for a promised land elsewhere and leaving broken-hearted parents behind them, which first inspired the legend. At any rate, I refer you to it because it also inspires Yuri Mamin’s Window to Paris, made in the immediate post-Communist period in 1993, as a way of thinking about the transition from the Soviet era, based as it was on a similar promise of happiness and plenty somewhere else, somewhere in the future, to a form of Western liberalism which — perhaps not surprisingly — former subjects of the Communist régimes found themselves thinking of in rather similar terms as a Golden Age just over the horizon. Mr Mamin uses the legend of the Pied Piper to expand on Browning’s version of an ideal but chimerical promised land, just out of reach, and brilliantly uses the resulting contrast between the fantasy and reality for comic effect.

The key moment in the film comes when its version of the Piper, a music teacher played by Sergei Dontsov, says to his bosses at the new, post-Communist business school where he teaches: “You used to train the builders of communism; now you train the builders of capitalism. And the results are the same: predators and ignorant crooks.” It’s natural to take this as a criticism of the new, “capitalist” Russia, but in the context I think we ought to see it, rather, as critical of utopianism, whether communist or capitalist, to which so many, perhaps including Mr Mamin himself, became addicted in the unhappy century just concluded. His film concentrates on the magic portal, through which the film’s main characters pass at will between West and East, though they are always conscious that it will soon close, leaving them on one side or the other.

But Mr Mamin reverses the legend’s point of view by leaving us with the piper and his followers on the other side of the magic portal when it closes, ostensibly in the promised land but suddenly, to them, a place of exile from which they desperately seek a way back — and find one by hijacking a plane. But as one of the characters weeps, crying “Mother Russia! We’ll never see you again,” we can’t help remembering the French-Russian character played by Andrei Urgant, longing for a glimpse of home from his Parisian exile. Nikolai, the piper, takes him back to Petersburg through the window, blindfolded, and then reveals to him where he is by showing him the heroic statue of Lenin. Andrei stands there looking dumbfounded as Nikolai drives away in a cab. In utter panic, Andrei then turns to chase after him, crying “Stop!”

This is the man who, earlier, while sitting in a Parisian restaurant with the monoglot Nikolai, tells him of a couple of neighboring diners: “You know what they’re talking about?” he says. “They’re talking about the food they’re stuffing into their mouths. Remember us in a communal apartment on Lenin Square at my kitchen table with a bottle of vodka and one pickle? We talked about fine arts, the fate of Russia, about God.” The hint of Ostalgie — a word which, I think, had not yet been coined at the time the film was made — is present there as it was earlier in Nikolai’s outburst against the crassly commercial authorities at the business lycée. But if Yuri Mamin knew early on what it was to long for the high-mindedness and comradeship of the old days, he also knew, and at the same time, what an illusion that vision was.

So, of course, does his Pied Piper, who sees the meretriciousness of Western freedoms while still aspiring to them himself. Thus the ending also reverses the Pied Piper legend by having the piper joining the others in a desperate attempt to find another way back to Paris, which now that they’re back in Petersburg has reclaimed its place as the promised land This ending also casts a light back on Nikolai’s sorrowful speech to the children when they announce that they have decided to stay in Paris. After trying and failing to persuade them that their parents love them and want them to come home, he says: “You’re right. You were born at the wrong time in a miserable, bankrupt country. But it’s your country. Can’t you make it a better place? You can do a lot, believe me. You haven’t even tried yet.”

To me, this is an immensely moving moment, but in context we must suppose he understands better than he lets on their wish to take what amounts to a shortcut to the very real prosperity and opportunity of Paris, which seemed and perhaps still seem like a utopian vision from the Russian point of view. As the film’s everyman, Gorokhov, played by the late Viktor Mikhailov puts it when told that the window will open again in 20 years: “In 20 years we’ll be too old for Paris!”

It’s a paradox, of course. The children are the future of Russia, and yet by the time the future arrives — in whatever form it arrives — they will be beyond the enjoyment of its benefits, if any, which will accrue mostly to those who have not earned them, as they have already in the West. How can the kids themselves not understand this and long for a shortcut to the future just like their elders going back to the revolution? The most heart-breaking moment of the film comes as Nikolai asks them how they expect to live in France, and a young teen, maybe 13 or 14 but quite pretty says: “Beauty has its value everywhere.”

She, at least, has learned her lesson well at the lycée. But there is in that line as in the film as a whole an underlying suggestion of the despair which seems to me to lie behind the state of demographic collapse that now threatens Russia. It also threatens the countries of Western Europe, including France — maybe because we, too, have learned to believe in the utopian hope that leads to despair. But if Window to Paris has a moral, it is that utopia is — true to its Greek meaning, which is “no place” — always going to be on the other side of the magic portal.

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