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Back in the Arena: The Return of Nathan Becker (1932)

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

//S. Pohomova//


An amazing movie that was filmed in two versions, in Russian and in Yiddish at the dawn of the sound era of Soviet cinema. The full-scale shooting of a village, the role of which was played by Ukrainian Vinnitsa, the unforgettable faces of Jewish elders, as if they were photos from the ethnographic expeditions of Semyon Akimovich An-sky, and the labor competition in the circus arena - all this is "The Return of Nathan Becker" by Rashel Milman and Boris Shpis.

Photo 1 (frame from the film)


Plot.

Bricklayer Nathan Becker (David Gutman) returns to his native shtetl after 28 years of exile. With him comes his wife Meika and a friend, the dark-skinned bricklayer Jim (Senegalese actor Kador Ben-Salim). Nathan Tsale's father (Solomon Mikhoels) welcomes guests to his humble abode. The local artisans are tormented by unemployment. And when a truck suddenly appears in the crooked street of the shtetl with a girl calling everyone to build a factory, the local Jews begin to almost storm the car. Among the mobilized is Tsale, too. At the District Committee, he offers to hire his son, who built New York City with his own hands. Having obtained such a high-class specialist, the head of the District Committee (Boris Babochkin) suggests that Becker Jr. teach young people in classes at the Central Institute of Labor (the Central Institute of Labor, an organization founded in Moscow in 1920 to study labor and labor practices). However, Nathan resents the Soviet methods of training workers. He does not understand why it is necessary to expend effort on physical exercises to train the arms and back, why organize a comfortable workplace, and why take care of the needs of ordinary laborers. To prove the effectiveness of his method, Nathan challenges a Soviet worker to a kind of duel to lay a brick wall. The contest is held in the circus arena, but Nathan concedes the argument. Despondent, he returns home and is ready to pack his bags and return to America. But the head of the district committee asks Nathan to stay in the Soviet Union and continue training workers, trying to combine American and Soviet approaches.


N.B. The film survives without parts 1 and 9.


Context:

Films about Westerners imagining the USSR from afar and traveling there to see it for themselves were not uncommon on Soviet screens in the 1920s and 1930s. Of particular note were pictures of Jewish returnees from America, Palestine, or simply abstract foreign countries who came to the Soviet Union in search of work, social status, and a just society. The Jewish pogroms of the early twentieth century served as a justification for emigration and as a reminder of the image of the Russian empire as a "prison of the peoples. Nathan Becker left his native shtetl 28 years ago, which roughly corresponds to the pogrom wave of 1903-1905.


The events of the picture unfolded during the first Five Year Plan (1928 - 1932), when the state was trying to maximize the pace of industrialization. Many Soviet films of the period depict labour exploits and competitions against the background of the rapid construction of factories and plants across the country. Such a super-project appears in Nathan Becker's Return, the construction of Magnitogorsk, where the workers swayed by the representatives of the District Committee dream of going. However, Tzaleh Becker is sent to build a factory near the shtetl. The enigmatic word "Magnitogorsk" incorporates the utopian dreams of local Jews of a better world.


Creators.

Belgoskino - The Belgoskino studio was in charge of film production. In those years the Belarusian Feature Film Studio was located in Leningrad, the largest cultural and cinematographic center of the country. It did not move to Minsk until the late 1930s.


Photo 2. Peretz Markish. Source: https://www.blavatnikarchive.org/item/24521


The screenwriter was Peretz Markish (1895 - 1952), a prominent Jewish writer and poet who was repressed for his involvement in the Jewish Antifascist Committee.


Markisch was born into a poor family in Polonnoe in Volyn. From 1921 to 1926 Markish lived in Europe, so the theme of the Jewish emigrant who returned to the Soviet Union was not hearsay. Peretz Markish was a member of the Soviet Writers' Union and headed its Jewish section, and in 1939 he was even awarded the Order of Lenin.


On the night of January 27-28, 1949 Markish was arrested as a member of the Presidium of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. After a closed trial the poet was shot on August 12, 1952. He was posthumously rehabilitated on November 22, 1955.


Directed by: Rachel Millman and Boris Shpis


Photo 3. Rachel and B. Spies on the set of the film "Engineer Gough. 1935


Rachel Markovna Milman and Boris Vasilievich Shpis, who had worked together before, were appointed directors of The Return of Nathan Becker. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, in tandem, they produced a number of interesting paintings.


Rachel Markovna Milman was born in 1897 in Penza. She received a musical education. Like Perets Markish, she lived for some time abroad, where she perfected her cinematographic skills. Upon her return to the Soviet Union in 1927, she became an assistant to G.M. Kozintsev and L.Z. Trauberg, through whom she came to know Boris Shpis.


Boris Vasilievich Shpis was born in 1903. He studied at the Mining Institute and the Academy of Arts. He began his cinematographic work in the 1920s at Kozintsev and Trauberg's Factory of Eccentric Actors (FEKS). Spies worked as an assistant on all of their films up to and including S. V. D." inclusive. In the late 1920s, Spies began working with Rachel Millman. In the second half of the 1930s, however, they are both suspended from directing. They participate in the organization of the Film Editing Workshop. Spies also developed theories of editing, a lot of writing.


On February 14, 1938 he was arrested, and on May 8 he was sentenced to death and apparently shot on the same day. Rachel Millman did not know this and tried to help her friend and colleague, collecting letters in defense of the director. She tried to help Spies' wife and daughter.


Milman worked in editing until 1970. She died in 1976, having lived 79 years.


Boris Shpis was rehabilitated on February 9, 1956.


Solomon Mikhoels

Photo 4. Solomon Mikhoels


David Gutman




Gutman David Grigorievich was born in 1884 in Vyatka. He graduated from the Dresden Polytechnic Institute. He made his first steps in the director's profession in Nizhny Novgorod. Worked all over the country in different theatrical genres, from circus, agit-theater, musical-hall to classical dramatic theater. He was a man of many talents. He himself wrote plays, putting on plays, played on stage and starred in films, in which he made his debut at Abraham Rooma in "Traitor" (1926). Non-heroic appearance Gutman limited the choice of roles. Nathan Becker was the only major role in Gutman's film career. Died in 1946.


Petyka and Vasily Ivanovich


Photo 6. A still from the film "The Return of Nathan Becker. Leonid Kmit and Boris Babochkin.

Photo 7. A still from the film "Chapaev" (1934) with Leonid Kmit and Boris Babochkin.


A few years before the famous duet of Boris Babochkin and Leonid Kmit as Chapaev and his orderly Petka ("Chapaev", 1934) these actors starred together in "The Return of Nathan Becker". Boris Babochkin played the judicious Soviet leader Mikulicha, and Leonid Kmit reincarnated as his assistant and mentor from the Central Institute of Labor, who often accompanies Mikulicha and also tries to curb Nathan's explosive nature. Incidentally, Boris Babochkin began working in the theater under the direction of David Gutman, the performer of the role of Nathan Becker.


Creation of the film

Photo 8. On the way to the expedition on the film "The Return of Nathan Becker. 1932. Source: http://spb-tombs-walkeru.narod.ru/bgs/milman.html


The script for The Return of Nathan Becker was co-written by the avant-garde Yiddish poet Peretz Markisch and the screenwriter and director Rachel' Milman; Milman later co-directed the film with Boris Spies. For the production of The Return of Nathan Becker, Spies and Milman were invited to the Belgoskino studio. It was the collective's first sound film and first Yiddish film. Although the picture is filled with ideologically accurate invectives, when confronted with Jewish characters, characters and speech, much of it gets a touch of comicality or ambiguity.


"- If I had only known that there would be Soviet power, I would have done something like this twenty-five years ago...

- What kind of things?

- Do I know? ... I would have killed a policeman! I would have been a man now, too! If only I'd known!"


Unfortunately, the Yiddish version of the film has not survived. But in some mass scenes of the Russian-language version of the film you can see the characters arguing or discussing something with each other in Yiddish.


Shtetl

Excerpt 1. 00:00 - 02:20

Excerpt 2. 09:10 - 09:35


The shtetl in "The Return of Nathan Becker" looks as if it were modeled after the GOSET productions - crooked walls of houses, jagged lines, crooked streets. The artist was Isaac Michlis, who had worked on several Jewish pictures, for example, "His Excellency" (1927), "The Man from the Settlement" (1930), "The Border" (1935) and others. Interestingly, the writers and directors of "The Return..." Millman and Shpis, as well as cameraman E. Mikhailov, were strictly city dwellers. They had never seen the place until their first trip to choose a nature. Of the creative group, the "shtetl" was known only by the painter I. Makhlis and P. Markisch.


"Are my hands worse than your party ticket?"


A gallery of artisans waiting for work, sitting on the square and squinting at the sun, could well pass for photographs from S. A. An-sky's expeditions.


Photo 9, 10, 11


And the inclusion of niguns and klezmer music in the film's soundtrack enhances the sense of ethnographic sketching.


Excerpt 3. 05:53 - 07:55

Excerpt 4. 1:03:40 - 1:04:53


Afterword.

The strange, absurd figure of Nathan, who half of the film criticizes and even mocks the Soviet order, and by the end convinces the District Committee and the CIT that it is necessary to introduce the exploitative elements of the American system into labor everyday life. The film, although seemingly made according to propaganda film molds, is filled with nostalgia for the shtetl, parodies and hooliganism of Jewish folklore, and Yiddish intonations even in its Russian-language version.


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