Characters in movies are not real. But sometimes their behaviors are so recognizable, so reflective of our own traits, that we are deceived into thinking Tony Montana, Jack Torrance or Jules Winfield is a real person. They’re not. They’re figments. Synthesis. When they reach flesh and blood status, that means the character was so well written then performed that they became recognizable to us. However, these fictitious people are not the only ones who touch us. Sometimes, a character we recognize as a stranger can also be moving. Since, let’s face it, we interact with strangers more than loved ones in our daily life.
Which brings me to my undying love of movie stereotypes. No matter how ridiculous, cruel or badly thought out, I always get a kick out of them. Because I’m seeing what is undeniably this white dude’s point of view… of women, black people, small people, children, old people, even his own. It is a truth. I recently watched Rocky IV after not having seen it in decades… cut to yesterday afternoon, I watched a matinee of Ninotchka. The connection?
THE RUSSIAN STEREOTYPE
Gene Siskel once said, “yeah, Rocky IV is ridiculous, but the bad guy is so great.” That was the first time I realized that an entire movie can be carried on the weight of juicy bad guy (a very, very rare occurrence in movies these days). Stallone was once the master of creating these nemeses. From Apollo Creed to Clubber Lang, the gigantic arm wrestler in “Over the Top”, the Sheriff in “First Blood”, the Russians in “First Blood Part II” (juicily played by Steven Berkoff, the guy who spits on Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”)…. and finally, Ivan Drago, the chilling Soviet Goliath who can punch 14,000 cubic meters per square inch, or whatever.
Ahh yes, Drago is disciplined, devoted, has been working at his craft since he was born… he is a Russian warrior designed to crush anything remotely capitalist! Ivan Drago will not just kill Apollo Creed, he will take away our freedom, our pursuit of happiness, raise our taxes, and before we know it, we will be using newspapers to wipe our asses with, instead of Charmin, Extra Soft of course. This is an American’s worse nightmare. We love our soft toilet paper. And you know Drago probably uses sand paper.
But Stallone did not invent the rules of the Russian stereotype. The rules were likely established with Billy Wilder, who co-wrote “Ninotchka,” wherein the Russian Stereotype was born in movies. But Wilder did it so well, that the character played masterfully by Greta Garbo was deeply human, recognizable and genuinely intimidating. The hardest thing for a writer to do is to write a cold character and make you emphasize with him… or in this case, her.
RULES OF THE RUSSIAN STEREOTYPE
1. Your Russian is has a poker face and holds it. Meaning, they show no emotions for a least 30 minutes. Schwarzenegger has made millions out of this strategy. It’s no wonder his most popular role was playing a machine (“The Terminator”) and later a Soviet Cop, Danko (“Red Heat”). Garbo didn’t crack a smile for at least 30 minutes. Her poker face dared the audience to search what is inside her. And we did!
2. Your Russian collects information. Garbo would move to one end of the room, only to observe it. Her eyes were her action, not her machine-like body. She observed, she harnessed information. Brando said, “always think of something” but Garbo was always collecting something with her eyes. To, you know, take back to the Soviet Union and use against us!
3. Your Russian finds joy in results. Ivan Drago first cracked a smile after his first round with Apollo Creed. Not before. And this smile was more like a smirk. But it was an expression that his machinery was operating correctly. This is an emotion, albeit a really small one. And then, that smile vanished. You’ll see Garbo do the same thing many times in “Ninotchka.” Is it an accident that Drago tells Rocky, “I must break you” like he sees him as machine too?
4. Your Russian talks little and asks questions. Because that Russkie is shaking you down. Their answers are either “yes” and “no” or they’re asking you a question. And usually, they don’t understand why a capitalist pig like you can’t answer. When Garbo asks a man what his job is and still does not understand what he does, she elaborates, “but what do you do for the human race?”
5. Your Russian is a robot that learns emotions by the third act. If you’ve written your Russian Stereotype well, you have room to give this xenophobic ideal some emotional eruptions. Drago lost it at the end of the 12 Round, when he screamed,”I fight to win for me… for me!” And you actually feel bad for him. Garbo reminisces about Paris, by singing songs with comrades. But the ultimate robot performance must go to Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” when he taps his head into Tom Cruise’s head. Rain Man was not Russian, but the Russian Stereotype was certainly applied to his character. He shows no emotions, observes/collects information, loves numbers and expresses emotions by the third act!
Because, in the end, this Russian Stereotype, like all stereotypes, has nothing to do with Russians, but rather our Eastern Block fears. Which also has nothing to do with Russia. We are terrified of losing our humanity and becoming robots, because admitting we are robots means we can be easily replaced and we are not unique. The Russian Stereotype was birthed as part of the Russian fears that spawned even before World War II and then became insane after WWII, with movies like “Invasions of the Body Snatchers” and “The Manchurian Candidate.”
What I have so much fun with this stereotype is because these characters eventually demonstrate a humanity hidden somewhere, which is also a minor joy when we meet strangers and they do the same (as long as they’re not, you know, commies).
Written by: Norith Soth