Review: The Blinded Paraket
Directed by Yuri Alexei Stepanovitch-Bartholy
(2007, Russia/US: 120 minutes)
By Paul Murphy
The Blinded Parakeet is a further re-tread of the Gulag diary of Yuri Alexei Stepanovitch-Bartholy filtered through sepia-tinted memories of his grandfather Lem and mother Svetlana. The first segment of the film deals with the life of Lem Bartholy, brought up an orthodox Jew in the Lithuanian town of Plunge. The cause of separatism from an encroaching Tsarist regime, coupled with communal fears of anti-semitic purges and pogroms, leaves Lem ravaged and old far beyond his years. His fears, however, are not totally unfounded. Svetlana lived mainly in the interstices between the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the death of Stalin and the second segment deals with her story. Somewhere inbetween these momentous events Yuri Alexei managed to survive, even to thrive. The Blinded Parakeet is his testimony to courage in the face of adversities.
Firstly, he is imprisoned for making rude noises. After six years in Siberia he is released on good behaviour but is then returned to the Gulag for making impudent comments about members of the Politburo. In the Gulag Yuri Alexei makes few friends. The work is gruelling, he suffers constant pain. Every day he endures repetitive chores and grinding toil. Then the inmates are told that Stalin has stopped regular supplies of fresh fish heads, diverting them instead to the Don Cossacks. Yuri Alexei manages to escape from the Gulag in the most Homeric fashion, for those who recall Odyssey Book 6, clinging to the underbelly of a sheep. He hitches a lift with a Siberian infantry battalion, travelling to its position due east of Moscow. Eventually taken prisoner by the Germans near Tambov he is enlisted as a private soldier. Surviving constant battles and skirmishes, Yuri Alexei escapes through Poland, scraping through the Battle of Berlin and gets himself liberated on the right (US and British) side of the iron curtain. After the war he writes his memoir of war and the gulag, The Blinded Parakeet to massive popular acclaim.
But he is not without his critics. Norman Arsch-Finkelschmerz, the eminent Jewish Liberal writer and historian, author of Scamming the Gulag, pens a rejoinder. Stepanovitch-Bartholy suppresses it through his legal advisors. The rejoinder hinges on Arsch-Finkelschermz’s hermeneutic analysis of The Blinded Parakeet, claiming that Stepanovitch-Bartholy could not have read Kant in Hebrew while in Siberia for the simple reason that Kant was never translated into Hebrew. Nor could he ever have been captured by the Germans at Tambov, for at this time Tambov was in Russian hands. Nor, he asserts, did the ‘large orange parts of Poland’, described in The Blinded Parakeet, ever exist. Stepanovitch-Bartholy is willing to engage with these criticisms, describing them as ‘anti-semitic slanders’. However, the academic community is never convinced, even as public interest in his memoirs reaches fever pitch.
In perhaps the most compelling image of the film, Arsch-Finkelschmerz gazes across a polluted Siberian lake, grasping his irradiated sandwich in one hand, recites snatches of a Gulag ballad penned by Stepanovitch-Bartholy. This is cinema in the purest sense. Snow falls. After possibly ten stupefying bathetic minutes, Arsch-Finkelschmerz finishes his hymnal, a chanson or prayer dedicated by Stepanovitch-Bartholy, to the cosmic Dionysian solar energy source. He gazes into the sun. His expression - moon-faced, puzzled - says everything. The names Bertolluci, Dziga-Vertov, come to mind. Pure cinema indeed.
Paul Murphy saw The Blinded Parakeet at the Duke of York cinema in Brighton.