Happiness, it would appear, is a film demanding of context. In 2008 the Soviet silent was issued onto disc in the US with a wealth of accompanying materials: short films and restorations of other works by its director Aleksandr Medvedkin; an interview from the archive; and Chris Marker’s feature length documentary from 1993, The Last Bolshevik. The edition under review is a more recent release and presents the film in ‘Hyperkino’ format. The approach, which Ruscico (the Russian Cinema Council) have now used for a number of their titles, is a simple one, but effective. Each set contains two discs, one of which contains the feature unadorned, whilst the other offers up an annotated edition. In the case of Happiness this means a wealth of information to be accessed whilst viewing, ranging from notes and illustrations to film clips and facsimiles of relevant documents.
The need for context arises from the dense web of reference that surrounds Happiness. Whilst this is, ostensibly, a silent comedy it also plays as political satire and an elaborate riff on Russian folklore and fairy tales. The first two intertitles - one which declares Happiness “a tale of a hapless mercenary Khmyr, his horse-wife Anna, his well-fed neighbour Foka, and also of a priest, a nun and other old relics”, the other “dedicated to the last collective-farm loafer” - receive four-pages apiece of contextualising text alone. Indeed, each and every visual metaphor or obscure intertitles is related back to its original folksong or other reference point, whether it be from Gogol or the Bible. If you have ever wondered about the significance of tractor drivers in Soviet cinema or scarecrows in Medvedkin’s films then they too are covered with fully illustrated answers are just a click of the remote away.
If this makes Happiness sound like something of a daunting viewing experience, then I should qualify the above by pointing out that, thanks to the two-disc format, I watched the film with its various annotations lastly and after a couple of unadorned screenings. During those initial viewings I was certainly aware that some of the onscreen activity had much deeper meaning, but never to the point where I felt out in the cold. For all of its reference points, Happiness is above all a piece of wonderfully absurd, eccentric and arch cinema - and we can all recognise the entertainment value in that. This is the tale, as that opening intertitle pointed out, of Khmyr. He’s a peasant working on a collective farm who is fated to be a man who “won’t die, but won’t live either”. His day-to-day existence is that of pursuing the titular happiness, only to be beaten down by those around him. When he finds success as a farmer, it is everyone else around him who earns the reward (“One man sows, and seven reap”). When he decides to build his own coffin so that he may end his life, he discovers that even his death is owned by someone else. It’s absurd, but there’s pathos there too.
This personification of life on the collective farm met with disapproval, with one newspaper declaring Happiness “a libel against the Russian peasantry”. Such fervour built and led to the film effectively being banned. No official documentation exists to state as much, but it disappeared for over two decades, surfacing only for a retrospective screening in 1958. Indeed, there was only a proper re-release when Chris Marker embarked on a restoration in the early seventies, which also happens to be the basis of the one we see here. Of course, what the shelving of Happiness shows is that the satire was pointed enough - and blatant enough - to have an effect. Medvedkin never lets his cleverness obscure the storytelling. Whilst the annotations allow for an additional appreciation, the depth of reference is never Happiness’ be-all-and-end-all. Rather it makes for just another layer of richness to accompany, say, the satire, the overall comedy of the piece or the distinctive visual stylings.
One contemporary reviewer noted the similarities between Happiness and puppet animation owing to the visual design. There’s an artificiality at work that complements the sense of absurdity well. Besides the beards and the cartoon-ish situations (a runaway tractor, a runaway house even), Medvedkin has a innate understanding of the mechanics of cinema. He indulges himself in basic - but massively effective - in-camera trickery and has a wonderful way with a close-up. That “well-fed neighbour” quite literally has food fly into his face, whilst Khmyr’s father death is marked by a puff of smoke as though his soul were departing the body. Meanwhile, the tightly-framed shots of Yelena Yegorova as she lies in a bed of flowers or, conversely, the expressionistic overhead shots of an askew graveyard have a genuine beauty to them. If taken on a purely visual level, Happiness is really quite astonishing. (Medvedkin also shot a colour sequence, though it remains lost.)
To complement the images we find a pleasing simple score, consisting for the most part of either piano or light percussion. It never intrudes, which is as it should be. As far as I can tell this is the same accompaniment which adorned the Marker restoration, though it should be noted that the version here has one key difference. Whereas Marker constructed his own French intertitles, the Ruscico disc retains the original Russian designs. As the annotations make clear, their design and usage does more than merely forward the narrative, rather they play a key role in creating a very specific tone. Once again, such occurrences didn’t even register with me on an initial viewing, which only goes to demonstrate just how valuable these Hyperkino editions. Happiness is a terrific piece of cinema under whichever circumstances you happen to view, but any appreciation can only be enhanced with this disc’s additions. There is a genuine richness to its many undercurrents and reference points and, consequently, that makes this set just as rich an education.
The Hyperkino format is such that we find two discs in any given set: one is the annotated edition, whilst the other presents the film unadorned and with a selection of optional subtitles (see below). The presentation in this case is solid if clearly showing its age. The film suffers from years of damage, with scratches and tramlining prominent plus the odd bout of instability. However, the contrast is very impressive with the level of detail being satisfactory (given the circumstances) throughout. There are no problems with regards to the transfer itself to speak of, whilst the framing would appear to be correct. As said in the main bulk of this review, intertitles are in their original Russian. Given that the soundtrack dates from the Marker restoration in the early seventies it too shows some sign of its age, with momentary crackle making itself known here and there. It’s never particularly distracting, however, and for the most part we can enjoy crisp and clear accompaniment. One final note on the Hyperkino approach, not mentioned in the main review, is that the documents from the archive - official papers and so on - have not been translated. Otherwise, everything on this release is English-friendly.