Did you know that Soviet filmmakers released a film in 1947 that rivals MGM’s The Wizard of Oz? Yup, when you compare music, sets and costumes, the Soviet film measures up to the MGM extravaganza in nearly every way.
Zolushka is a retelling of the classic Cinderella tale. A loving and sweet-tempered girl lives with her unkind stepmother and two stepsisters, who use guilt and intimidation to keep Zolushka in her place as a servant.
Zolushka truly is a marvel. She cleans the house, gathers heavy firewood and sews her sisters’ ball gowns – all in one evening.
On the night of the ball, Zolushka asks permission to go to the park to gaze at the party from a distance. (Is that not the saddest request you’ve ever heard?) The stepmother agrees but says a few chores must be completed first, such as pulling weeds, sorting beans and painting the house.
This film has a witty script, with some unexpected lines. For instance, a woodchopper says Zolushka’s Step-Aunt was eaten by an ogre, who subsequently died of poisoning. In another scene, the king talks up his princely son by exclaiming, “He can do speeches! And poems! And compliments!”
The script also contains hues of Marxism. For example, the king is friends with commoners, which suggests Soviet society does not contain societal classes. “Because our kingdom is a Fairytale Kingdom for a reason,” he says. (Cough – baloney! – cough.)
The Fairy Godmother, too, is a Soviet Propaganda Tutor. After she transforms Zolushka from girl-in-rags to girl-in-shiny-gown, she offers a little speech: “I can see clearly that, although dressed in a lavish ball gown, you’ll remain the sweet and hardworking girl you’ve always been. And please stay that way. It will bring you happiness.”
This film borrows heavily from folklore. As a result, it has lots of magic. Magic is crucial, but perhaps not so much to the film nor to the girl Zolushka.
The magic is essential for the audience.
Zolushka was released two years after World War II, and the horrors of that war would still be fresh in the minds of Soviet audiences. While WWII was grisly on all fronts, it could be argued that some of the most gruesome events took place on Soviet soil.
Zolushka’s stepmother, for instance, muses about her future once one of her daughters has married the prince: “It’s a shame this kingdom is too small for me,” she says. “I’ll have no room for my antics. But that’s fixable – I’ll fight my neighbours.” This thinly-veiled reference to Adolph Hitler and his imperialistic tendencies would certainly strike a chord with audiences. (Never mind that the Soviet government had these same tendencies; that’s a discussion for another day.)
Before the war, Soviet citizens would have already suffered from pogroms, forced collectivization of farms, mass starvation, political and military purges, the prison system (a.k.a. the Gulag), and constant surveillance by the NSA, oops, the KGB.
Soviet audiences needed beauty and magic because they were Zolushka – downtrodden souls kept in servitude, living in a dreary, thankless regime. The girl on the screen with the crystal shoes is the embodiment of the Soviet populace. “Happiness has vanished as a mirage,” sings the girl, “and sorrow is in front of me.”
Zolushka is probably one of the most haunting and beautifully-filmed versions of the Cinderella story, if not the most meaningful. Whether or not you have an interest in Soviet-era cinema, we highly recommend it.
Zolushka: Yanina Zhejmo, Aleksei Konsovsky, Erast Garin. Directed by Nadezhda Kosheverova and Mikhail Shapiro. Written by Yevgeni Shvarts. Lenfilm Studio, 1947, Colour, 79 mins.
This post is part of the Fairy Tale Blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently. Be sure to read all the other contributions!