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IFFR 2011. A Politics of Fog (The 1966 Red Western "No One Wanted to Die")

Jarringly, yet somehow like a somnambulist, half awake, reality a haze, politics in cinema can stab deepest when it is most blunted and blurred at the edges. Uncertainty can be as powerful as the heavy, clear hand of postman-films, ones delivering messages.  The political object here is the Lithuanian-Soviet production No One Wanted to Die (Vitautas Zalakiavichus, 1966), playing in IFFR’s Red Westerns retrospective—a partisan crypto-Western, pitched to the audience as remarkable for finally acknowledging, in it its post-WWII rural village setting, the existence of anti-Soviet national rebels.   But forget the distracting image politics of provocatively point-counting inclusive gestures—all praise where it is due in the history, but the idea of the simple act of recording something as scoring a kind of “point” for representation is to reduce cinema to nothing but a historically official document, a bibliographic note.  Art is more nuanced than that.  What struck me about this film was that within this context of the revelation of partisans was the utter flatness of the ideology and passion of the story, how cooly dulled were the forces driving everyone.  For all the thirst for vengeance of the family of Soviet brothers united by the partisan murder of their father, and for all the tenacious terrorism of the Lithuanian nationalists lurking within the fog and the shifting population, we are given no reason to justify, rationalize, or even emotionalize the beliefs of either side in the standoff.  No On Wanted to Die exhibits that disconcerting quality  produced in a highly censored, highly ideological national cinema, where so much is politically at stake that the filmmaker opts for vagueness without context rather than risk being clear and offending someone.  The result here is that the film drains the ideology from its violent rural schism until there is nothing but a void filled with sneaky violence and gaseous motivations—think Tourneur.  In this void nothing seems worth fighting for except in acknowledgement that the world both sides are living in is as-yet unformed—no one reigns here yet, neither Soviets nor Lithuanian nationalists—and the hint (or hope?) that continual violence may form it.  That’s not something anyone can award any kind of point to, but is more likely closer to the truth of bloody, personalized human conflict, a murky truth without sharp edges but murderously existant.

I know it’s not really your point here, but I thought the historical significance of the film wasn’t that it was the first to acknowledge the existence of anti-Soviet nationalist rebels—I imagine they had been bad-guy staples of Stalinist cinema for years—but that it was the first to treat them at all sympathetically. And yet if that was sympathetic you can only imagine what moustache-twirlers the earlier portrayals were. If you want to enjoy those two great opening scenes again you can see them here.
Interesting program. Could you maybe list the films that are screening? I only found a few titles on the IFFR website.
Bobby, you can see the complete list at
Thanks. Sorry, I must have been lazy in looking for it. The lineup is great and I wish I could see these unique and rare films. Only one complaint. They didn’t include any of the classical Yugoslav films in this retrospective! And at this time it was widely-considered to be one of the best film industries in the world.
Adrian—yes I got the feeling the programmer’s introduction befell awkward English translation. However, I don’t think they were sympathetically portrayed, and in that I agree with you. They were as flat as the “heroes,” simply less featured. Bobby: it was overall a weak program and weakly programmed, no doubt missing what you refer to. Any you’d recommend?
Too bad it was weak. I’d maybe program “In the Mountains of Yugoslavia” (1946) by Abram Room. It was the first feature film shot in Socialist Yugoslavia, though it was a Soviet production. I would also program the classic “The Battle of Neretva” (1969) by Veljko Bulajic. Both of these tend more towards the war film genre than the western but they share a lot of the tropes. Wide open frontiers, horses, gunfights, simple good/evil dichotomies. It should be remembered that Tito was a huge fan of westerns!

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