Life’s a Circus

Theatrical poster for Circus

Theatrical poster for Circus

The 1936 Russian Soviet film, Circus, directed by Grigori Aleksandrov and Isidor Simkov, tells the story of a famous American performer, Marion Dixon, as she flees from the United States after persecution from giving birth to a black child. She goes with a corrupt theatrical agent, Franz von Kneishitz, who looks suspiciously like Adolf Hitler, to Russia where she becomes a circus performer. After falling in love with another performer, Ivan Petrovich Martinov, von Kneishitz becomes jealous and not only prevents her from staying with Petrovich, but actively abuses Marion, despite claiming to love her.

The comedy-musical film is vibrant and silly, but it has serious undertones that are reflected through the characters. Marion’s guilt and shame is clear on her face whenever she’s not on stage. When she’s performing, she puts on a face that she thinks will please the people around her. Marion is constantly worried about the truth of her child coming out that when she has to choose between staying at the circus with Petrovich and leaving with von Kneishitz or else have the truth revealed, she goes even though she will be miserable.

The climax of the film is a final scene when von Kneishitz reveals her child as a product of Marion being a “mistress of a Negro” to the audience of the circus. He calls it wrong and that she should be expelled from society, but the audience just responds with laughter as they take the child from him and pass the boy around to keep him from von Kneishits’ grasp. The director comes up to him and explains that all children are welcome in the Soviet Union, “whether they have white skin, black skin, or red skin.” This is a critique of American society and the racism that exists there, but not in the Soviet Union where race is unimportant. This ties in with our discussions on how soviets viewed nationality as important, but not race because it is a trait that cannot be changed. The final scene is also a blatant message of nationalism, where the people, among them Marion, Petrovich, and the black boy, are marching in a parade to celebrate the glory and equality of the Soviet Union.

2 thoughts on “Life’s a Circus

  1. I agree that the message at the end of the movie, that race does not matter in the Soviet Union, is clear criticism of the United State’s racism, especially since the main character is from the US. It is interesting to think of the Soviet Union criticizing the United States in terms of progressive issues, such as race, since we consider the US to be progressive. When we learn about the Soviet Union, emphasis is usually put on political policies and their overall affect on the population. Also, since communism is so different from the capitalist life we know and love, we tend to think negatively of the ideas. With that being said, it is interesting to see the positives of the system, and how this may have resulted in a more progressive population in comparison to the United States. However, considering that film was a vehicle for propaganda, it is unclear whether this was really the case for the population. I wonder how much the Soviet population actually identified with this movie.

  2. Tatiana, great points. I think that this film is as much an indictment of the US racist policies as it is of Germany’s government and style. Keep in mind that Hitler set up a fascist government, which was vastly different ideologically in comparison to communist USSR. Von Kneishitz is not portrayed in a good way in the film; and this perhaps owes itself to the fact that many Russians were still bitter at Germans for “starting” WWI, or at the very least, responsible for many atrocities of war.

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