My Grandmother (1929) A Silent Film Review

Red tape is skewered and bureaucrats are mocked in this experimental Georgian comedy. In addition to satire, we are treated to various animated sequences, bold editing and absurd set design. Something for everyone, really.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Please fill out Form 345-J and turn it in to Door 4 and then submit Form 879-P…

A bit of madness and nonsense can both entertain and reveal important truths and that is certainly the case with the film we’re looking at today. Clocking in at just under an hour and bursting with frantic energy and absurdist humor, My Grandmother (ჩემი ბებია, Моя Бабушка) pokes fun at the elephantine Soviet bureaucracy.

Bureaucrats, dude.

Georgian director Kote Mikaberidze also made use of the latest editing trends, special effects, imaginative set design, animation and a slightly twisted sense of humor all in the service of his message: death of bureaucrats. That’s no exaggeration but literally the words that close the film.

The first third of the picture, a full twenty minutes, is taken up establishing the topsy-turvy world of an office dealing in… something. To be honest, the office seems to be all about creating work for itself and then ignoring that work as the employees goof off. One bureaucrat (Aleksandre Takaishvili) is the worst of the lot, so bad that he is targeted for satire in a newspaper and fired.

A newspaper skewering.

This obviously does not sit well with his wife (Bella Chernova), who loves the perks of her husband’s job and if he doesn’t have a position, he can’t have her. With his world crumbling around him, the bureaucrat asks one of his former colleagues for help and the answer he receives is simple: he needs to find himself a benefactor, a “grandmother” in slang of the day, and make him write a letter of recommendation.

Our hero (?) sets out on his quest to pester a higher-ranking official into writing that precious letter and allowing him to return to the ranks of paper pushers.

The search for a grandmother…

However, I must tell you that this synopsis makes the film sound more plot-heavy and linear than it really is. In fact, it’s something of a mad dash with the story constantly jumping down rabbit holes and pursuing any oddball thread that shows up. I think “stream of consciousness” is a bit too heavy a description for such a confection but it does feel very much like a half-remembered dream.

The characters mix fantasy and reality and we never really know which illusions will come true and which will not. The bureaucrat is impaled by a giant pen to symbolize his newspaper skewing and then the caricature slides off the page and escapes while stop-motion animated dolls and toys look on in astonishment.

The escaped caricature.

The bureaucratic offices are a maze of inefficiency with doormen and gofers performing most of the real work and the officials napping on the job as a requisition order crawls around like a lost puppy trying to get one of them to pay attention to it. A nude statue comes to life in order to lecture people who drop their cigarette butts on the floor. In the world of My Grandmother, the ostensibly inanimate objects have more pep and motivation than the humans who surround them.

Takaishvili is game and amusing as the loathsome main character but Chernova thoroughly steals the show as his hyper and aggressive spouse. She charges around the city after her husband, alternatively ignoring him as his body hangs from a lighting fixture (he’s practicing hanging himself), trying to kill him herself and begging him to take her back when his fortunes improve. Her exuberance and extroversion are infectious and while she is just as horrible as her husband, she is definitely the more interesting character.

This wife has had it.

While much has been written about the style and technique of My Grandmother—and deservedly so—the film’s appeal also lies in its international familiarity. From the circular complexity portrayed in the stories of Kafka to the sloth-staffed DMV of Zootopia, digs at bureaucracy are going to be met with knowing chuckles and annoyed sighs by audiences around the world.

I recently navigated some Kafkaesque bureaucracy when some urgent medical treatment was held up by someone failing to put Paper A into Box B and so My Grandmother obviously hit the spot for me.

Reconciliation?

While the film featured a bold worker vanquishing the obnoxious bureaucrats in the end, it does not portray a clean sweep and it makes no promises that the worker will be able to keep his position long enough to cut through the red tape. With satire this sharp and mocking and an ending that doesn’t ostentatiously praise the state, plus such wild experimentation, it was inevitable that somebody would find it objectionable.

Not even the workers can save the day.

(Compare Aelita: Queen of Mars, which dealt with official corruption but unambiguously waved the flag and made sure the guilty were punished. And The House on Trubnaya made sure that it ended not with a romantic clutch between the leads but with a union official righting employer wrongs. Insistence on “realism” and toeing the party line was not as strictly enforced in the Soviet industry of the 1920s but, like all moviemaking nation, there were still unwritten rules that had to be followed.)

My Grandmother was pulled and shelved for almost forty years before being dusted off and re-released in the 1970s. While it is lavishly praised by people fortunate enough to have seen it, it remains comparatively obscure in a world where people are often content to begin and end their Soviet silent film research with Battleship Potemkin.

Papers, papers everywhere.

My Grandmother is the right combination of the familiar and the absurd. Most of us have experienced the problems the picture is mocking and I think almost everyone can appreciate the creative choices made by Kote Mikaberidze. Definitely worth seeking out.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD by Beth Custer, who also composed a new score for the picture. You can order a copy here or get a DVD directly from bethcuster.com. The site also sells an MP3 album of the score. The film comes with optional English narration and Russian title cards from the 1970s re-release but no English subtitles. (By the way, exhibitor A. Katsigras proposed the addition of narration for rural Russian audiences in the 1920s.)

☙❦❧

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4 Comments

  1. Steve Phillips

    Fascinating!
    I’m surprised that such untempered anti-bureaucratic, anti-government content was permitted then — even considering the relative openness of the 1920s USSR.

    My understanding is that 1929 was about the last possible moment for any form of criticism of the state. How lucky that this quirky film got made at all, just before Stalin slammed the window shut.

    Come to think of it, Stalin was Georgian.

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