This little article is a bit of an experiment. You see, at any given moment there are several billion bad movies being made. Our own trade news pieces often read like a series of obituaries to good storytelling. Hell, a good percentage of our hyperbolic rhetoric actually gets picked up six months down the line by a studio with a vested interest in intellectual apocalypse. Remember when Dustin got a Universal Soldier sequel made? Well, we’re drawing the line here. We’re going to pluck out the good ideas every once and a while on the principle that if shit keeps sticking to the wall, maybe ice cream will too. We’ll tease out some bit of history or literature that would make a damned good movie if it hit the right peoples’ ears, explain what makes the story so compelling, how it could be adapted for film or television and what the dream cast would be. Of course, if the article doesn’t get enough comments, Dustin said he’d make me live blog “American Idol,” and nobody wants that.
Yakov Dzhugashvili was born in 1907 with a congenital shortage of vowels in Georgia (the country, not the state), which was at the time a fairly backwater part of the Russian Empire. His life went rapidly down hill from that heady starting point. His mother died before his first birthday, and his father told associates that “with her died any human feeling in him.” Which is a fairly significant turning point in retrospect when that father goes on to change his name to “Stalin” and play at revolution. Stalin left Georgia and had little to do with Yakov’s childhood, leaving the boy with his dead wife’s family. Prison, exile, revolution, war, Stalin lived it up while his boy grew up without even learning to speak Russian until adulthood. Urged on by his uncle, Yakov heads to Moscow for university and the nightmare of his adulthood begins.
Stalin loathes him, the reminder of a long dead wife. Yakov drowns himself in alcohol, and when his fiancée is brutally dismissed, he shoots himself in the head but survives. Stalin is in the next room and scoffs “he can’t even shoot straight.” Yakov eventually marries a famous ballerina and fathers two children, but his mother’s family is summarily arrested upon his father’s orders. Show trials and grand proclamations of conspiracy. Yakov’s aunts and uncles, the ones who raised him as their own child, the family-in-law of the great tyrant himself, are locked away and then executed during the second World War.
Yakov joins the army during the war, avoids most special treatment and serves as an artillery officer, but is captured during the great German drive into Russia. Stalin disowns him and arrests his wife. All prisoners are traitors in the Soviet doctrine, and those few who survive the German concentration camps are escorted directly into the Gulag at war’s end. The Germans use Yakov for propaganda, spreading the word that he switched sides in crude leaflets, dressing him up like a Nazi doll in SS uniforms for photo shoots.
Hitler tries to arrange a prisoner exchange: Yakov for the German Field Marshall captured at the Battle of Stalingrad, but Stalin refuses. “I will not trade a Marshal for a Lieutenant.” There are rumors for years after the war that Stalin did attempt two times to send rescue missions, but Yakov is dead before the advancing Russians reach the camp. His death has been shrouded for decades. The Germans claimed he was shot while trying to escape. Others claimed that he committed suicide, throwing himself onto an electric fence after British POWs taunted him mercilessly. Other sources claim that his only friends in the camp were Poles and that he committed suicide by guard in shame after newspapers broke the story of the Katyn massacre.
But however he died, it’s a downright Shakespearean life, one of misery and nihilistic sadism, of the struggle to live any kind of life when one’s father is not only a monster, but the monster, the closet thing to a god king the modern world has ever experienced. One gets the impression that the only time he was ever truly free in his life was the moment after he decided to run for the fence.
To tell this story in a film requires two great actors and a director with enough restraint to focus the camera in and not let it pan out and linger on the great events of the time. Let the great events be reflected in their effects on the two main characters: Yakov and Stalin. Joseph Fiennes or Viggo Mortensen have the sort of dark and haunted presence to pull off a long life of desperation and heartache. And in a more nuanced sense, they both can act while not saying a word. Stalin? Anthony Hopkins could add another legendary antagonist to his resume here.
The studio would try to mess up the story in a few obvious ways. They’d focus on a love interest of some kind, letters back and forth, that sort of thing. They’d give Yakov a confidant and friend in the camp, probably a Brit or an American with whom we’re supposed to identify, probably with some badly written comedic lines. They’d probably insist on softening and humanizing Stalin, playing up the bad childhood, dead wife, etc. and letting that hang as an excuse to make the audience more comfortable.
The key to telling the story correctly is to make it about that relationship between father and son. Walk the fine line between their horror at and hatred of each other, and the little touches of similarity that make them foils at the same time. Echo their relationship with glimpses of Yakov with his son and daughter. Begin the film with Yakov being captured by the Germans. End it with him breaking into a run towards the camp fence. Everything else is told in flashback, a slow marinating revelation.
Or you know, they could just make a movie about another fucking board game.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.