The Overcoat

Russian stories often involve a character’s relationship with the authorities, including “The Overcoat,” made by an avant-garde film group called “FEKS” in the Soviet Union in 1926.  The FEKS group, which stands for the “Factory of the Experimental Actor,” wished to invent a new soviet cinema for the masses rather than depend on the distribution of foreign (and un-proletariat) films to the revolutionary nation.

Andrei Kostrichkin works hard as Akaki in The Overcoat.

In The Overcoat (“Shinel” in Russian), a civil servant named Akaky desires a new overcoat, and works at his boring and unsatisfying bureaucratic job pushing feather pens to get one.  He lives alone, with no other aspirations other than to stay warm in style.  When the tailor tells him that his threadbare overcoat cannot be repaired, he resolves to spend his savings on a new one with a fine drape and a fur-lined collar.  Visions of a new overcoat haunt him, and the filmmakers include a wonderful sequence (using stop motion camerawork) of an expensive overcoat walking around and engaging with Akaky in his apartment.

The satiric film makes fun of both bureaucracy and the evils of materialism, with a barbed look at the influence of pre-revolutionary ideas on the current Marxist state.  The story comes from Nikolai Gogol, who published it in 1842, although the film also contains story elements from another Gogol story, “Nevsky Prospekt.”  The filmmakers, Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, use inventive camera angles and editing to suggest the absurdity of the czarist regime.   Nobody in the film seems to be working together, especially in the government offices, where Akaky becomes the butt of everyone’s jokes.  The film delights as a strange, frantic and exotic experience.

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