L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin
review by Elias Savada, 7 February 2003

Like the swamps on which the Siberian town Birobidzhan was built, Yale Strom's latest documentary L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin! is mired in mediocrity. Strom, an accomplished musician and klezmer revivalist, has made better films (particularly Carpati: 50 Miles, 50 Years), but has failed to provide his new outing with much inspiration in telling the story of founding of the first Jewish homeland.

God Forsaken are the two words that come to mind in describing the harsh, wintry climate where thousands of Russian Jews, and many from elsewhere around the world—including the United States -- immigrated beginning in 1928.

Being Jewish myself and an avid genealogist interested in my own roots, I am fascinated by what should be a truly remarkable story of families dispatched to this far end of the world. Unfortunately the cover director Strom has wrapped around it is gray and threadbare. Wearing my other glove, as a film reviewer, I must admit this is not terribly interesting filmmaking. L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin is a rambling of still photos, old newsreels, documentaries, propaganda films, poorly lit and audibly scratchy reminiscences -- in English, Yiddish, and Russian, nearly all with heavy subtitling -- and street interviews (many with people who appear to be latent anti-Semites). I couldn't focus on whether this was a socialist cant or a self-purging, experimental road movie. Particularly irksome is the constant, and occasionally subliminal visual peppering of a blood-red reminder that we must remember "The Jewish Question." Once was enough, twice okay, but ten or more such flashings and I was ready to scream.

In a nutshell, Joseph Stalin and his merry Commu-men established the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) in the late 1920s, two decades before Palestine became the State of Israel and usurped the homeland title. In March 2000, director Strom retraced the steps of many Jews seven decades earlier, traveling from Moscow east on a seven-day (three days less than his subjects) journey to a 13,900-square-mile region established to serve the socialist leader's battle to ease anti-Semitism, improve relations with the West, and strengthen the borders from possible Chinese or Japanese invasion. The Yiddish culture thrived as 45,000 Jews resettled here, but the communal project came to a crashing halt with Stalin's terrorist, anti-Semitic purges from the late 1940s through the early 1950s. Still, despite their cultural expulsion a half-century ago, some 6,000 Jews still thrive in the area surrounding Birobidzhan, capitol of the J.A.R., as evidenced by the film's extended musical celebrations by the religiously-strong residents.

What could have been a forcefully-framed subject instead meanders around the Siberian countryside for ninety minutes, stuck in ancestral swamplands and unsupported by Ron Perlman's bland narration. Audiences hoping to welcome another film based on Strom's well-respected cinematic bloodline will be bidding L'Chayim Comrade Stalin an unfortunate shalom (good bye).

Directed by:
Yale Strom

Written by:
Elizabeth Schwartz

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.







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