Old Khottabych (1956)

I didn’t realize it when I ordered the film on Netflix, but based on the number of languages available in subtitles and overdubbing, this film must have had quite a world-wide appeal.  Or, at the very least, it has become a classic of Russian cinema. 

It’s a delightful, propagandistically-charged (if that’s even a word) tale of a young, and “well educated” Soviet boy, Volka, who comes across a genie in a bottle, but not quite of the Christina Aguilera type–though Aguilera is the byproduct of exactly what is being presented in this film as socially undesirable. 

Old Khottabych, the character, is the personification of all the odious things that the Soviet propaganda machine sought to eliminate, re-educate, or possibly even sweep under the proverbial rug.  He is old fashioned–he has been in the bottle for a few thousand years and he still thinks the world is flat; he is overly concerned with money and material possessions; and he is not properly “educated.” 

The entire film is devoted to a variety of scenarios involving Old Khottabych trying to do something extravagant for Volka, and Volka saying “no, you can’t do that because it’s improper” or “no, I don’t want a huge palace for myself, give it to the people instead.”  After magically whisking one of Volka’s friends away to India (because Old Khottabych thought he had done something bad to Volka), Volka and Old Khottabych fly away on a magic carpet to rescue the friend because, of course, Volka says it’s the right thing to do.  The three of them run across a palace of sorts with Roman columns and elaborate gardens and it turns out that the people who live there aren’t Sultans (as Old Khottabych expects), but rather regular working miners, laboring for their beloved Russia happily.  There’s even a shot of the miners out doing morning calisthenics together. Happy, well-fed, and working.  The image is clear.

The fun part about this film is how blatant the propaganda is.  Old Khottabych is “Oriental” in the Edward Said sense and it is clear that his “ways” are not the ways of proper Soviet society.  Every time he tries to do something he is corrected by Volka, and eventually Volka and his friend flat-out tell Old Khottabych that he needs to be re-educated. So it’s pretty obvious what’s going on:  replace the Oriental (a.k.a. wrong) with the right (Soviet).  And, the boys’ over-insistence upon having absolutely no “treasures” for themselves (save some ice cream), but rather distributing everything amongst everyone else, is a clear reinforcement of the socialist ideal in direct opposition of the capitalist ideal. 

This film is funny and serious all at the same time.  Certainly it made an impact on those who watched it back in 1956.  I appreciate the craft of weaving the genie tale in with the socialist propaganda.  Might as well make it fun.  And since the focus of the film was how Volka and his other Young Pioneer friends (a “scout-like” organization for children) dealt with this genie’s temptations, I couldn’t help but think of a few other youth organizations: the Hitler Youth, and The Inner Party’s child spies in Orwell’s 1984.  Granted these organizations are different in their basic make-up, but their agendas are similar enough:  to mould proper citizens and/or citizen-soldiers while they’re still young and impressionable.

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