“Absolutely incredible. To be executed for a crime I never committed. But isn’t all mankind in the same boat? Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually but I go at six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.” Thus begins, without doubt, the funniest film ever conceived.
As another Lockdown drives us closer to the precipice of insanity I must, again, take pen to paper. My cause? Religious. My aim? The salvation of Mr Allan Konigsberg. The 85-year-old Mr Allan Konigsberg.
Firstly, before I supplicate you to actually watch this film, I wish to put down a disclaimer. Count Leo Tolstoy of Yasnaya Polyana, Tula Oblast, Russia really is one of the biggest bores and overbearing preachers in world literature. War and Peace, the novel on which this film is really-unbelievably-loosely-based and Anna Karenina apart, Leo-babes didn’t really write anything of enormous note, did he? Not for him a jaunty little short story or gripping murder mystery? ‘Sevastopol sketches?’. Easy to write. ‘Hadji Murat?’ So-so. This prize count, rather like our current Archbishop of Canterbury, was too busy apologising for his great good fortune, his past and his conscience that he lost the whole point of what a novelist is supposed to do – to entertain. If you like your literature moralising and devoid of satire, human interest and juicy murders then the count is for you. For Tolstoy, the pulpit was where it was at – delivering tract after tract of unintelligible guff such as, ‘Resurrection’, or the unintelligible, ‘Kreutzer Sonata’. Might as well listen to James Last. Or One Direction.
His influence, however, is far-reaching. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Johnny Barnes, Pelham G. Wodehouse. ‘Vladimir Brussilov specialised in grey studies of hopeless misery where nothing happened until page 380 when the moujik decided to commit suicide’, wrote the latter, nicely framing the Tolstoyan paradox. He is just begging to be parodied. He’s a sitter, a Ronnie Rosenthal sitter.
There is an exchange between Coral Browne and Alan Bates in Alan Bennett’s ‘An Englishman Abroad’ where Bates, playing the role of traitor-in-chief, utter bastard, may he rot-in-hell, Guy Burgess reacts to Browne’s complaints of the dullness of life under Communism: ‘The comrades, though splendid in every other respect, don’t quite gossip in the way that we do’, he ripostes, or is that re-posts and, on this subject, my little pan-fried Slavs, I have cogitated in the past. There is a cultural bridge between us Brits and you Rooskies that is unbridgeable. It is a yawning chasm that will yawn until the world turns on its axis and disappears up its nether regions – or 2020 AD.
As Exhibit I, I offer you the fact that, in another of those, ‘never the twain shall meet’ moments, our Russian buddies remain stony-faced at the brilliance of the flick currently under review but then, as a fearsome old hack friend of mine pointed out this morning, no-one outside of Great Britain finds ‘Withnail and I’ funny either.
This is not to pass judgement, it’s clearly different parody for different narody,
You like Koul’biaka,
and I like Moussaka,
You drive a Lada,
and I shop at Prada,
Let’s bite the Crimea off….
‘You LURVE Russia!’, howls a sergeant major when our hero joins the army. ‘Yes, sir!’ he answers. ‘Louder!’, ‘YES SIR!’ Yes, my bratya and syostry, I genuinely love Russia because Mother Russia, she’s not my mother, has given me so much. Friendship, love, children and unfathomable inner richness (zzzzzz), but British and Russian senses of humour are as far apart as our two countries currently find themselves geo-politically.
Take irony, for example.
In Russia, most irony, and indeed many jokes, have a political twist and you would need to have lived under communism and have an excellent grasp of the Russian language and history to get them – the interminable stream of Chapayev or Chukchi jokes, for example. Russian jokes are also, and very frequently, black in tone which, again, leads us back to the Philosopher Wodehouse, ‘Freddie Widgeon felt like the Russian moujik whom, having put in a hard day strangling the wife and drowning the kids in the local reservoir, returns home to find the vodka cupboard empty.’
There is little levity, triviality, in Russian humour but, and in this I am their greatest fen, Rooskies don’t do political correctness either. In fact, I would argue that debate in Russia is freer, though this does not apply to the Mass Media (obvs.), than in England. Russia, having had the considerable advantage, or disadvantage depending on your Provenance, of a Marxist past, sees the authoritarian nature of debate in England, the fact that we all now debate with the brake pedal applied, as anathema.
Silliness is also given a free pass in Russian humour and the relentless mickey-taking, for which we Brits are famed, is absent. Many are the complaints I have had from Russian friends that we are an empty, superficial lot and, whilst there is much weight to the accusation, the historical context needs to be factored in. The 20th century, for Russia, was bleak beyond words. China apart, no other nation got it in the proverbial cojones quite as badly as Russia and, inevitably, this is reflected in their humour and, indeed, world outlook. Grab what you can whilst you can because tomorrow…oh God, tomorrow.
Thus, whilst attempting to unravel the Russo-British humour debate, this article is essentially a call to arms. Join me, fellow Christians, join me! Gather under my flag in this the Fourth Crusade! Let us free our brother Konigsberg from the clutches of those who seek to destroy him. Let us drive from his battlements the judgemental exes, the howling mobs and restore this Titan.
Onward! Christian Soldiers!
The purpose of Mankind, of Life is, in my opinion, to leave something for posterity. Some sign of your presence on this globe and Mr Konigsberg has, unlike most of mankind, left behind a legacy of gems, jewels and brilliants. There have been some duds, yes, but over these my pen will brush for this a paean, a hymn, a canticle of Praise.
I am also deeply loath to pass judgement on Woodsky for an, admittedly unconventional, decision he made in his personal life. ‘Let he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone’, was a quip some bearded Sage came up with around 32 AD and, in today’s culture of cancel (a fabulous oxymoron) the phrase is never truer. People who can barely write their name in the ground with a stick, plankton in intellectual oceans, seek to pass judgement on those who are, by several versts, their superiors. Mr Konigsberg has had to suffer more than his fair share of unfounded accusations and, having been found not guilty, puts us, his Disciples, to write what we damn well please.
Thus, my courageous foot-soldiers, let me direct your gaze to our Great Cause, to the moving picture, ‘Love and Death’ – for this is the funniest film I have ever seen and, progressive that I am, remains the funniest film I have ever seen despite my having seen it 72 times and shortly after its release in 1975.
In a nutshellsky, I want the Reader to imagine the idea of tossing a small, wise-cracking Jewish comedian, like some ticking time bomb, onto the set of ‘War and Peace’, watching the said device explode and catching the debris.
This is ‘Love and Death’.
The usually inaccurate Rotten Tomatoes: “Woody Allen plunks his neurotic persona into a Tolstoy pastiche and yields one of his funniest films, brimming with slapstick ingenuity and a literary inquiry into subjects as momentous as love and death”.
Couldn’t have put it better myself.
I once went with 500 other worthies, to the BFI to watch a special screening of this little ditty and, for the first and only time, saw a packed cinema theatre literally rock. Thighs were slapped and sides held as mouths exhaled in an extasy of comic brotherhood seldom witnessed. This film is cult.
Kicking off with a philosophical conversation and, by gumsky, we’ve all had a few of those in Russia over the years, between a young incarnation of our hero, Boris Grushenko, and a Father Nikolai, who resembles an Italian widow, the film moves into an overdrive of gags, delivered machine-gun pace, one after the other.
The film has, to all intents and purposes, no plot. Napoleon, apparently out of Courvoisier, invades Austria, our hero unwillingly joins the army, unwittingly defeats the French, willingly has an affair, unwittingly a duel and an epiphany all in one breath before being shot, remarkably unwittingly, by a firing squad for trying, a la Pierre, to assassinate Napoleon. IN passing, the surname Bezukhov, is this a rare foray into Tolstoyan humour, to call your hero Pierre No-Ears? “Hahahahaha!! Good one Tolsters!! Side-splitter of a gag! I’ll send it to Michael McCintyre and all those other British comedians who are about as funny as an evening out in Croydon. Why? Because they are scaredy cats, that’s why. Luckily this film was made before the Thought Police took over. ‘Did you say, wheat?’
The announcement of war to a large country-house gathering ushers in five minutes of comic mayhem as Boris’ two brothers line up to fight whilst our hero, a pacifist, seeks maternal protection and is, for the sake of the Motherland, utterly rejected.
‘Boris! I can’t believe you’re saying this. We’re talking about Mother RUSSIA!’ intones Sonya, ‘She’s not my mother, my mother’s here and she’s not going to let her baby boy get shrapnel in his gums’ counters Boris. You know how some jokes just don’t survive the re-telling on paper?
Three engagements are announced at the party, only five out of six suitors survive and Boris, most unwillingly, joins up.
This structure, such as it is, gives Allen free rein to delve into a series of gags on Russian themes. Eisenstein, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy are all murderously parodied, history is twisted and throttled, Russian philosophy is usurped. It is a madcap procession through the 19th century.
Naturally, Allen’s then-Muse, Diane Keaton, has a role. Playing Boris’ cousin Sonya, this ‘half saint half whore’ plays the female interest and plays it brilliantly. Utterly confused, she loves Boris’ brother, Ivan, marries the herring merchant in an act of spite, cod-philosophises absurdities throughout the film and beds half of St Petersburg – humour as fresh as the day she baked her first souffle…..
War is ridiculed. Religion is ridiculed – both should be ridiculed, whatever the cost. Humour should take no prisoners and ‘L&D’ takes none. Pretzel sellers turn up at the Battle of Borodino, the dead are raised and Woody Allen, ‘they ran out of medals’, becomes a war hero.
The opera is used as the background for two glorious set pieces featuring Boris’ amour, the Countess Alexandrovna. Actress Olga Georges Picot was famous only for being the daughter of the Picot responsible for the Sykes-Picot Line but, and again I am going to have to invoke my Maker, she is as sexy a screen goddess as ever there has been, out-pouting history’s greatest pouters, Kim Basinger, Grace Kelly, you name them, by a Dali-sofa’s length.
The seduction of the Countess is a scene of utter brilliance and the duel that follows hysterical. God help us, where would be without another sodding duel (Sonya’s herring-obsessed-husband dies cleaning his duelling pistol) in Russian literature? The difference is that, in Russian literature, most of them, were real. Pushkin, Lermontov – death wish? Huh? A trawl through 19th and 20th century Russian literature doesn’t half depress – think of the deaths and their manner? The aforementioned, Dostoevsky – epileptic, Esenin – hung himself, Griboyedov – assassinated, Chekhov – TB, Bulgakov, Mandelshtam, Fadeev and of course Tolstoy whom, unbeknownst to many scholars, bored himself to death. What a litany! In our film, death is belittled, becomes a comedic and philosophical device, and is all te better for it. Boris survives his duel but his opponent, how bloody Russian is that, undergoes a conversion, before Sonya hatches the hare-brained plot to assassinate Napoleon.
But for now, my little novogonnye pryaniki, I offer this 2021 gift to you in a spirit of bucolic reflection. The last golden streaks of the sun are vanishing behind the western hills. Soon the dark blanket of night shall settle over us all and my strait jacket needs re-lining. Therefore, if you afflicted by any judgment of any system of phenomena that exists in any rational, metaphysical or epistemological contradiction to an abstracted empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself, Woody Allen can provide Salvation.
‘Love and Death’, will throw off your blues, remind you of the need for the absurd and bring you back, vaccinated, jejeune and gleaming, fresh, into Life.