Tsirk (1936), Soviets Avoid “Backwardness”

The film Tsirk (1936), though a skillfully crafted story, was without a doubt a propaganda vehicle for the Soviet Union.  The main character Mary appears to be an escapee of an apparently backwards society where she was chased out by an angry mob for having an interracial child. In order to escape from the mob, she jumped on a train where she met what appeared to be a circus actor who took her under his wing. They perform while traveling though the main focus is the Soviet Union.  While in the Soviet Union, specifically Moscow, Mary developed feelings for a young Soviet army man and refused to leave Moscow with the original man who saved her.  Mary’s “savior” tried to blackmail her into leaving by threatening to expose the child she had given birth too. Enlisting the help of a fellow circus actress, the woman chosen to replace Mary once she left, she avoids leaving Moscow on the train with her original “savior” and stays to perform the Soviet attempt at reaching the stratosphere.  Unfortunately her “savior” comes back to the circus and reveals to the massive crowd in attendance her interracial child. Rather than shun Mary, the crowd accepts her for who she is and mocks her “savior” for being racist.

Many instances of propaganda appeared throughout the film, however the strongest two that I saw were the industrial progress of the Soviets and surpassed backwardness. The culmination of the film arrived with the closing act, deemed the Soviet attempt at the stratosphere, which showcased the industrial capabilities of the Soviet Union. Using soviet technology and planning, they succeeded in reaching the stratosphere.  Besides the industrial strength of the Soviet Union, their progressive nature also appeared after Mary’s past was revealed. The soviets showed acceptance for Mary and her child and denounced the racist mindset of Mary’s “savior”.  This criticism of racism showed the Soviet’s great “forwardness”. However, we also know that there was a sizable anti-semitic movement in the country. The acceptance of other races, cultures, and ethnicities does not seem applicable to the Soviet Union at this time.

Self Help

A. Samuel Smiles was a Scottish author and government reformer. His father died of cholera so his mother had to work very hard to support him and his many siblings. This example set by his mother had a great influence on his life and certainly this book.

C. Published during the Victorian Era in Britain, this book made Smiles quite famous. The book has been called the bible of “mid-Victorian Liberalism.”

L. The language is simple and inspiring. It is a guide to personal betterment, similar to many books today.

A. The audience is the average working man of the late 1800s. It was not likely directed towards women as it does not mention females at all. While the book stressed he importance of the working man for progress, it does not say that the famous and wealthy cannot help progress society.

I. The intent of the book is to inspire people to work hard and better themselves. He also informed people that work is better than reading for progress.

M. Smiles first pointed out the importance of hard work for personal improvement. He then  stressed the need for personal growth from within, not from from outside influences. He expanded the scope of his argument by examining government’s role in progress. Smiles believed that anything past protection of basic rights was a hinderance on progress–defined by Smiles as energy, industry, and uprightness. Since a government is only as good as the people of which it is comprised, he said that people must take what their ancestors have developed and improve upon it so that their successors may continue the trend. Lastly, he noted that the common working man who inspires others to better themselves is just as important as the men whose names appear in the history books.

Spencer’s Social Progress

Author: Herbert Spencer, English philosopher

Context: 1857, prior to Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”, on the tail-end of the first Industrial Revolution

Language: inquisitive and scholarly; here he asked what social progress really meant and whether it should be redefined

Audience: the intelligent but uninformed, more specifically those interested in philosophy and anthropology

Intent: to direct scholars’ attention to another way of thinking about society and social progress; until this time most were under the impression that social progress meant that societies were improving the standard of living. Spencer argued instead that social progress meant that people were living on more equal terms rather than on better terms in general.

Message: The point that Spencer tried to make in this essay was that people needed to rethink what they knew about social progress. Until this time people thought that social progress was the improvement of the quality of life through the advancement of technology. Instead, social progress meant that different factions of society were becoming more equal rather than just finding their lives easier. He analogized social progress to that of organic progress; that all organisms grow in the same way, from homogeneous to heterogeneous. He said that all forms of progress take this course, including social progress. He said that social progress had been doing so due to the division of labor, specialization, and the intervention of government. Society had been dividing itself based on what individuals within a community practiced, and how the need for trade arose as a result of this specialization, which in turn leads to an even greater level of subdivision, that of playing a single part in the creation of a final product.

Indefinite Perfection

Condorcet, in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, argued that mankind progressed at a continuous rate toward perfection. His philosophy for perfection was guided by his own reason and science. Condorcet was adverse toward religion and believed that reason was the sole basis for man’s ability to progress, become virtuous, and better society. He saw man’s ability to be limitless and unconstrained by nature, and concluded, “that this perfectibility of man is truly indefinite.” He observed that society had gone through many stages and periods of error and false theories regarding the rights of man. This resulted from the constraints of tyranny from monarchs and hypocrisy from priests and the church. However, Condorcet revealed the single truth, “that man is a sentient being, capable of reasoning of acquiring moral ideas.” In other words, man has the ability to reason, think on his own, and become enlightened. From the single truth, Condorcet advocated liberalism where man possessed inalienable rights of liberty. He believed the future condition would be determined by, “the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.” Condorcet had a very practical and scientific view of the future of the human condition, a society shaped by history that would reflect the progress of the human mind.

Condorcet’s views on human progress and liberalism reflect many of the past readings we studied this year, such as Locke, Kant, and Smith, who agree that man is inherently good. Condorcet’s philosophy is still held in society today. It is amazing that Condorcet published his thoughts as a liberal activist during the French Revolution, and today, our society still strives for the same basic tenets of equality of nations, equality of class, and perfection of mankind. It is clear to me that Condorcet was correct when he said that continual progress toward perfection is indefinite.

Science and Religion’s Means to an End

Einstein’s writing on the contradictory nature of science and religion explains the limits of human knowledge and use of the scientific method. He believes that only religion can give us the sense of “ultimate and fundamental ends.” In addition, he adds that this is directly related to the democratic ideals and therefore with the discarding of religion, the democratic spirit is being set aside as well.

The part of this excerpt I found most intriguing was Einstein’s focus on ends and means. He states that while objective reasoning gives us “tools”, as individuals we need religion to get to goal or even long for a goal. He sees no way for an individual to develop to serve mankind without this higher power. It’s interesting because in a time where scientific progress was being made in such large strides to serve mankind, Einstein takes an opposite view explaining that only religion can serve this purpose.

In an era in such desperate need of moral guidance, why did so many flock to a scientific way of thinking?

Things To Come

William Cameron Menzie’s film Things to Come is an adaptation of a novel by HG Wells.  Produced in 1936, this science fiction film explores England’s dystopic future that comes as a result of a devastating war, which is significant in the way that it accurately predicts World War II.  England first experiences a regression to the dark ages, which is followed by a period defined by obsession with progressions of technology.  Authoritarian leaders are in power during each of these eras.

Ironically, England’s regression comes as a result of too much progress, as advancements in weaponry cause mass destruction on a wide scale and medical advancements lead to the spread of a virus by the enemy which kills half of the world’s population.  This could be an exaggerated representation of the state of Germany after World War I.  The progress-obsessed regime which follows holds advancements in technology above human lives.  This is best exemplified in the scene which the attack by John Cabel’s followers leaves the “boss” of the old regime dead.  Cabel implies that one dead man means nothing in comparison to the new world of progress that will rise.  This disregard for human life is similar to that of Hitler, who believed in killing off whole races for the sake of progress.  While Hitler’s views were obviously much more extreme than those of Cabel, they both hold progress above individual lives.

Overall, the film warns against taking progress too far, as both severely flawed regimes come as a result of obsessions with it.

Progression and Regression in “Things to Come”


What do years of war bring? What do years of peace bring? William Cameron Menzies’s film, Things to Come, based on a novel by H.G. Wells, shows these two extremes in a dystopian future. After extended war, the human race reverts back to barbarism and no longer know how to fly planes. After extended peacetime, humans make too much progress, and the object of life is not progress, it is living. Either way, too much regression or too much progression will cause humans to lose sight of what it means to live.

In Everytown, during the long war, they cannot fly planes because they have no oil or gasoline. If we are not careful about our resources and finding alternatives to fossil fuel, this could become reality in the twenty-first century. In this way, the film is warning us of the dangers of mass destruction and mass war. On the other hand, the film warns that two much progress can take away from life and actually make us less human. So what is the message that one is supposed to take away from the film? Everything in moderation? War is bad, but so is scientific and technological progress?

Ironically, both in the time of war and in the time of peace, authoritarian leaders rose to power. There was the barbaric “Chief”, and there was the forward-looking Oswald Cabal. These leaders also have similar mindsets. The chief wants to conquer the hill people, while Cabal wants to conquer the moon, then the universe.  Is this a comment on the nature of rulers, regardless of outside influences? What is the film attempting to get across to its audience?