The article reviews films on the cult of Todor Zhivkov (1911 – 1998). It was first published under the name of Stillborn Myth in Cinema Art Magazine, 1990, and was later included in Tsvetan C. Todorov’s book The Moving Shadows, 1998.
Articles and research were recently published on communist censure and „locked films“, yet next to none of them ever mentioned films on the cult.
The myth for the exceptional role of Todor Zhivkov in Bulgarian revolutionary movement is over hard-driven, over-paid by the state, of no credibility whatsoever.
It is only in these films, though, where the salvation of Bulgarian Jews by Todor Zhivkov is documented: а history of instruction yet sadness.
The first attempt to show Todor Zhivkov on screen was in the documentary „Chavdartsi“ (1964) by Nyuma Belogorski, but this film was not shown en masse.
Explanatory notes have been added for the English translation.
Tsvetan S. TODOROV
Todor Zhivkov is the leader of the Party and the State to have last longest in socialist Bulgaria.
The cinema, which belonged to the state and was run by it, flattered Zhivkov in a very special way.
For 33 years, from 1956 to 1989, Todor Zhivkov demonstrated his idea of art as serving politics. He used to repeatedly instruct what must be done and what must not – by any means. He would closely observe the developments in the cinema, praise some artists, or “constructively” criticize them, and more often than not deprive them of work.
On its part, the cinema could only praise him. In communist times, films such as “Margarit and Margarita” (1989) were literally unthinkable.
In Bulgaria, at the turn of the 70s a few feature films were produced to present Zhivkov’s revolutionary past. This is an instructive yet sad page in the history of our cinema, notwithstanding its democratic tradition. These films were shot through a well-known totalitarian mechanism. They all aim at conjuring up – in the social mind, the myth of Zhivkov’s exceptional role in both guerilla fight and building up socialism. Belatedly though, the cinema was quick to catch up with the praise choir.
Todor Zhivkov’s character first appeared in feature productions in 1977, in two films at the same time.
Zako Heskija’sz “A Final Battle“ (“Boy posleden”)
is cautious in taking up this theme. The character of the Party Plenipotentiary (the part played by Ivan Bourdjiev) did not provoke any anxiety. The film was based on a real story from the book of Veselin Andreyev, the guerilla poet. The truthfulness of his memoirs was seemingly believable. As for the character of the Plenipotentiary: he was gifted all the virtues of the model guerrilla fighter.
Yet evil never comes alone.
Then emerged the co-production of “Soldiers of Freedom” by Yuriy Ozerov (1977, 4 episodes); (“Soldaty svobody” (1977, 4 episodes)).
Besides the Soviet “Mosfilm”, studios from Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia took part in the co-production.
Scriptwriters Dimitar Metodiev and Atanas Semerdzhiev were included on the Bulgarian part, as well as about ten popular actors. The co-production is cinematography epic, a story of communist struggle during the Patriotic War, in the typical style and swing of social stagnation. In the background of ordinary soldiers and guerilla leaders, the official communist version of events is promoted. Once again, this film prompts another approach to the easy and guileless ways to the development of the cult for the leader.
This cinema cult was not to be developed in all socialist countries, though: in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia such films were not produced.
Soviet films in praise of Stalin up to his very end turned out the most popular, e.g., “The Fall of Berlin”, Padenie Berlina USSR, 1949, by director Michail Chiaureli.
Regrettably, the socio-political system at home grew increasingly thriving for the likes of such films. Three more Bulgarian films were on to openly propagate Zhivkov’s key role in the near past. Each of them has its particular cinematographic advantages, duly acknowledged then by critical reviews. Nonetheless, they still remain emblematic of an entirely wrong politics which collapsed in 1989. Before 1989, none of the critics would ever dare to courageously tell the truth.
“The Hit” (Udarat)
by director Borislav Sharaliev (1981), actor Lyubomir Mladenov playing the part of Todor Zhivkov,
“The Echelons” (Eshelonite,1986), also known as “The Echelons of Death”,
by Borislav Punchev,
with actor Philip Trifonov in the part of Zhivkov, and
“They Prevailed” (“Te naddelyaha”, 1986) Kiran Kolarov, with Antoniy Ghenov in the part of Zhivkov.
These three films were highly budgeted epics, based on “documentary” material to fictionally narrate the story of Zhivkov’s younger years before September 9th, 1944. Some real events were revealed but as for our hero, truthfulness of facts is to be cautiously approached. At this particular time, disregard for facts, change of fact for fiction and swap of wishful thinking for reality forced their way in full swing.
What part did Zhivkov really play in the eve of September 9th 1944?
What did he actually do when Bulgarian society fought for the salvation of the Jewish people?
Where was he indeed, when the “Chavdar” guerilla brigade was besieged?
The films do not give the correct answer to these questions. The truth is to be sought with historians, witnesses, and documents which allege no other. Henceforth, the documentary aspect of the films is but suspicious.
Cinematic “todor-zhivkovyads” also include “Man of the People” (1981) by Hristo Kovachev, produced on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the then Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party and Chairman of the State Council of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.
In 1984, at a meeting at the Krastyo Sarafov Theatre High School, Hristo Kovachev imparted he had long been shooting the film unbeknownst to Todor Zhivkov. When Zhivkov found out his comrades were up to a surprise for him, he wanted to see the material shot. Then, Hristo Kovachev said, a bit reluctantly though, Zhivkov consented to showing the film to the people.
I reckon the same story refers to the other films, too, before they were shown to the public; yet, it all might be but fictitious.
The films offer outright proof of an ongoing cult of a particular person, as well as of an attempt at creating a myth out of a particular name. Having in mind the failure of official mythology at home and mostly in the Soviet Union (the films about Stalin) in the 50s, Bulgarian authors had to be extremely cautious and streetwise.
The cult of personality could barely be detected in any of these films, or the likes of them, if considered out of the time context. Incredulously though it may seem, they still appear to be natural, normal, and even… modest.
But if just a step back in time is made, and a look is taken at the big picture, the cult of the “most infallible and provident” leader will come up in front of one’s eye. The myth is of the simplest character ever, based on the cult of the everlasting leader and his revolutionary youth. Since his early years he is deemed to have been at the centre of each important event, in the lead of each and every humanitarian action and brave operation. So, is it any wonder he be on a pedestal even today? That’s what the logic of the myth is.
In the four films in view, Todor Zhivkov is the motor of all action, the one to pronounce the most important cues, and see the furthest in the future. The films conjure up an amazingly similar image which proves unidirectional effort. The name of the main character is purposefully avoided yet he is invariably recognizable either by his guerilla nickname of Yanko, or by physical likeness intentionally sought. Some of the reviews at that time also give evidence of this by straightly naming the hero.
He is a man inextricably rooted with the people, caring for their children, giving them a chunk of bread when hungry (“They Prevailed”). He would never lose his sense of humour even in the hardest moments of struggle (“The Echelons”); he is a coldblooded warrior, unexceptionally brave, and of iron character (“A Final Battle”, “They Prevailed”, “The Hit”). Looking into the matter, such were the features ascribed to the contemporary image of Todor Zhivkov made up by the media.
Let’s get back to his film character though.
He’d rather have no friends but loyal co-workers, comrades in fight.
He’d rather have no girlfriend but a comrade.
He’d wear a white shirt or a reddish cap.
He rescues the passengers on their way to death camps, saves the brigade from utter defeat, and leads the blow dealt on September 9th.
In the long run, he rescues the Jewish, the guerilla men and the people.
In all his dealings, he would never make mistake, change his mind, or hesitate.
Meanwhile, he is shown a most ordinary man, a typical Bulgarian. Or, not quite, as he is easily recognizable.
His statute is immune. He is a myth. And, as being such, he shall not be exposed in moments of weakness. His deeds and decisions shall not be questioned, nonetheless criticized or ridiculed.
The character of Todor Zhivkov is not present in films on modern topics not only because a director is hard to find but also because modern topics in Bulgarian cinema have gained a reputation for certain realism and democratic trend. The official Party mythology attempted at infiltrating modern Bulgarian cinema under the sign of the “positive character” perspective. On the other hand, the life of the Secretary General was devoid of actual “heroic” events. Thus, our hero could not make his way to modernity…
For decades on end, the image of the big leader was banned for any critical approach. To criticism were immune not he alone but the entire Party and State apparatus, and a number of institutions and organisations as well. In Bulgaria, it was impossible to create films such as “Is There a Frenchman in the House?”
(1982) by Jean-Pierre Mocky (“Y a-t-il un Français dans la salle?”),
where the character of the French President is set in the present and shown in a quite unorthodox manner. It was impossible due to the same reasoning for which the slogan “Everything in the name of the man” was construed by the people in the following sense: we all know exactly who the man is – Todor Zhivkov.
Yet there was a lot to talk about. For the people, the image of him drastically differed from the official propaganda. In private talks he was called “Uncle Tosho” which is far from any mythologizing whatsoever. The cinema tried to conjure up a myth absolutely unnecessary for the people but of service to the Party leadership alone.
The initial push was probably started by “A Final Battle” and “Soldiers of Freedom” where Zhivkov was first shown in the halo of a hero. The very idealization of an ordinary man points at the possibility of unimpeded development of this motif in the circumstances available. At the same time, I assume that if outright criticism to the tendency was then rampant, the next films might have not been produced at all. Yet, hardly ever can we forget those times, and we very well know how such a voice would have echoed: it would have been punished and stigmatized. For back then, the limits of publicity and democracy were brutally violated, and the political quality of the works was not only to be given priority and prevail over art, but at times propaganda would even completely replace all art.
The film-makers cannot be but having had their wavering and even some doubts about the appropriateness of such an approach. Yet, vigilance is often easy to lull: you remake history, and according to official resources, this is the right history. On the other hand, a number of Zhivkov’s postulates, such as the statement that “the backbone of Bulgarian literature has always been political”, adduced ostensive safety and power.
However, which history was meant? The official version of our latest history, or the history of the people which was yet to be recorded? The one of his personal mythology, or the history of the people?
In the history of the ordinary people, Zhivkov’s part is not one of merit; rather, it is in the fallacy he introduced into the Party. Through the Party the fallacy infected all venues of life.
The theme of his being an ordinary man is treated in the film “Man of the People” (1982). The film takes it for granted that the comrade in view is an eminent, outstanding leader and Party figure. It was only necessary to just show what an ordinary people’s man he was. It wasn’t difficult though: he resembled many of the people we used to meet. What film-makers took for truth undisputable, however, was felt in the film as a deep void. Instead of impartial analysis, in “Man of the People” too much adulation is forced, and criticism was replaced for sentiment. That was an ill-carried anniversary film, and today it remains a document of an age gone.
The same attributes refer to the film “Think of Me аs Fire” dedicated to Lyudmila Zhivkova. The present article, however, is engaged with the films which, one way or another, personify Zhivkov directly without any perfidiously veiled interpretation of his myth in other genres of Bulgarian cinema.
We can’t but ask ourselves what preconditioned the emergence of these films in a comparatively short period of time. In general, this was the thriving of stagnation. It was namely in this period when in the lead of Bulgarian cinema there came up a figure who personified the barracks-bureaucracy order. The likes of him were almost everywhere and overpowered everything. With an iron gauntlet on, he was trying to lead the ship of our cinema to thriving, yet in truth it all sank to wreck. All attempt was nonetheless a representative manifestation of the “socialist competition” for the best film on the labour front line, a film about the first labourers, the first ones, and the First One…
Yet he failed to foresee all oncoming. Hristo Hristov’s “A Woman at 33” (1982) went on-screen, though it was later banned upon a notorious article in the Rabotnichesko Delo (“Workers’ Deed”) newspaper. Similar bans followed in television as well, where Ivan Terziev’s “Seltzeto” (“The Village”), 1978, premiere in 1990) had long been in wait for premiere.
A great number of projects passed out yet unborn. For a long time, the cinema was abandoned by scriptwriters such as Georgi Mishev, Boyan Papazov, Vladimir Ganev, and many more top directors such as Binka Zhelyazkova and Hristo Piskov who stopped shooting.
At the time of Nikola Nenov, Director General of Bulgarian Cinematography up to 1989, each film of ideological importance had to be accounted for a control number of viewers. The audience was expected to watch these films accordingly to these numbers. Along this policy, the active public was supposed to watch the films targeted twice or three times, so that the number of viewers would meet the effect desired by the Communist Party. Naturally, this never happened. “The viewers” were there in statistics alone.
I was assured of what the attention paid to these films was at an economic council held at the Cinema House in Sofia in the spring of 1985. From the height of his position, in front of the audience Nikola Nenov questioned a number of cinematography managers to speak out to comrades why in their region a particular film hadn’t reported the number of viewers demanded. The managers shied out like pupils caught in the act. One of them dared to even make up an excuse: “Two copies of the film were stolen on me…”
To steal a film about Todor Zhivkov equaled to utter absurdity.
No one would ever dare to even think about speaking out the truth in such atmosphere. Yet, it was simple: the people wouldn’t be forced to see these films. That’s why public was mostly provided by collectives from manufacturing organisations, schools and army barracks.
That was part of Nikola Ninov’s concept of survival among the traps of totalitarian system. Probably following it was the article he published, entitled “Todor Zhivkov, the April Line and Bulgarian Cinema”: one of a kind overt eulogy to the Leader and his cultural policy.
The film-makers of these films in view were but far from accidentally elected. Each of them was a great professional of his own place in cinematic procedure having created many of our best films. Those were “All Is Love” by Borislav Sharaliev, “Yo-ho-ho” by Zako Heskija, “Salvation” by Borislav Punchev, “Office Position: Orderly” by Kiran Kolarov, and the documentary “Damyan” by Hristo Kovachev. However, it turned out that for the administrative-command system it was easy to provide the right directors for a specific political purpose. Such a mechanism is worth researching and remembering: that would guarantee no replica in the future.
The myth of Todor Zhivkov in Bulgarian cinema was a shy one. It failed to fully develop with all its branches and deformities, publicly well-known since Stalin’s time. Probably, it was because there already existed some immunity to this myth and contemporary adulators had to consider it. Moreover, the films themselves would also keep their distance: guerilla nicknames, situation-signs, physical resemblance, etc., were applied. Inasmuch, the very appearance of films about leaders is inevitable in times of stagnation and social standstill. This is the major moral of the story. On occasions, mechanisms would agitate so hard that the leader is reduced to a comic victim of his own mythology, as was the case with the makers of “Boris I” where allusions were self-declared.
Notwithstanding, the myth of Todor Zhivkov’s prominent part in our revolutionary movement was ill-carried, profusely budgeted, yet of no faith and still-born, so it is no longer celebrated today, though the films about the myth were granted the highest prizes in the country.
Empty films in empty halls: part of our history.
*The title of the article in the original is “Stillborn Myth”, first published in the “Kinoizkustvo” Magazine, 1990