Prividenie, kotoroe ne vozvrashchaetsya / The Ghost That Never Returns (1929, USSR)
To say that I’m more interested in what prison movies say about the prison experience than cinematic techniques, or the development of film as a medium, is, well… stating the bloody obvious. That probably makes it harder for silent movies, like this one, to make an impression… unless its intertitles are simply exceptional.
The Ghost That Never Returns is an intriguing film, nonetheless.
It is set in an undisclosed South American country, presumably because in Stalinist Russia it was safer to be seen to be sympathetic towards dissidents in an unnamed oil-producing country far, far removed from Russia, than towards downtrodden local dissidents angry at forced industrialisation, working conditions and the lack of real input from the workers.
The main protagonist is José Real (Boris Ferdinandov), a political prisoner who is serving a life sentence for leading the oil workers’ fight. He has been in prison for almost ten years.
It’s hard to get a handle on José. He is clearly seen to be a leader – early in the piece a young man evades guards just to run to tell him, through his cell bars, the latest on the possible strike action… and then jumps over the rail from the third tier of cells and kills himself. José is seen to be the instigator of the subsequent prisoner revolt – limited, given that all the inmates are secured in their cells, to throwing plates and other items out of their cells – action that is promptly quashed, and order restored, by the enthusiastic application of fire hoses. You don’t really see anything in José, though, that would make you want to follow him. But that’s not how the authorities see it. He is clearly seen to be the major thorn in their side, and he is bundled off to the punishment cells.
The prison itself is a magnificent four-tiered panopticon, with a single officer stationed in the centre of the ground floor, in a post which spins 360º to allow him to view all cells without having to change his position in his chair. Other staff patrol each level, and still others scurry around, seemingly doing the important business of the ruthless South American regime.
One of the functionaries realises that the prison regulations require that José, as a prisoner who has now served ten years, is to be allowed a day’s liberty. If the prisoner tries to escape, it is made clear, he will be shot. If he doesn’t, they neglect to add, he will also be shot; no-one ever comes back alive from their day out. The prison staff – led by a very strange, anthropoid warden (Daniil Vvedensky), whose feet don’t touch the ground when he’s seated – clearly see the furlough as a fortuitous, convenient way of ridding themselves of a troublemaker. Staff and prisoners alike seem to accept that José is “another one who won’t come back.”
As such, initially, he says that he won’t take his day out. “You just want shooting practice,” he says. Then someone from the oilfields tells him that the men are thinking of striking. “They need you,” he’s told. So he changes his mind.
He gets five days’ notice of his special day. His wife, Klemans (Olga Zhiznyeva), is excited. So are the oil workers. So are the Secret Police. He is reminded that he has to be back by 7.00pm.
His trip home to his village is… bizarre. He is offered some food, and a drink, on the train, and promptly falls asleep. As you would. He misses his stop. Klemans, who is waiting for him at the station, fails to see him in the carriage. She is distraught. He wakes up some time later, jumps out of the moving train, and finds himself in a desert. With, it should be noted, a Secret Service agent (Maksim Shtraukh), who somehow must have jumped out of the train with him. The agent is about to shoot him, but a local tells him that man hunting is not allowed. So he doesn’t shoot him, but follows him – quite out of the range of meddling bystanders. Still he doesn’t shoot him. José is unused to walking; he has “forgotten how to walk” in ten years, and gets tired. He finds a nice rocky outcrop, a boulder, and has another nap. As you would. Time is running out.
When he finally makes it home, Klemans is not there; she is still waiting, in hope, for the second or third train. He meets his son, who can’t be much more than ten, and some friends. He sneaks out, losing his Secret Service tail, and joins up with some oil workers. It gets to the point by which he can no longer get back to the prison by 7.00pm. The Secret Service agent has been eating and drinking and tangling with unionists. José runs home to grab a gun, finds Klemans there, and doesn’t even find the time, or the decency, to embrace her. She has reason to be a little pissed.
Back at the prison, 65 strikers from the Hillside Well are being received into the prison. It’s late. It’s known that José hasn’t returned. “Is he dead?” someone asks. “He’s leading the strike,” is the response.
Is it a story of a true workers’ hero, who bravely and resolutely continues the fight and ultimately, (one presumes), martyrs himself for the cause? Or is it the story of a man so bound up in politics that he is blind to all else, including the needs of his loyal and loving family? Both, I think, which makes it a fascinating film.
There are several versions that you can see on YouTube, at least one with a half-decent picture but Russian intertitles (and a bit of audio), and another with horrible video but English intertitles. Take your pick. Or run both simultaneously.
Posted on August 22nd, 2020 at 2:12 pm. Updated on August 22nd, 2020 at 2:12 pm.