The Overcoat (Shinel)

Russia (1926) Dir. Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg

Despite the huge acclaim Russian silent cinema has achieved here in the west, it was a different story on its native soil back in the day, when even such revered classics as Battleship Potemkin weren’t hits with neither the public nor critics. Western frivolity may have been frowned upon in Soviet Russia but the escapism of Hollywood movies was substantially more popular over social commentary and propaganda.

Another film to suffer the same fate was this loose adaptation of The Overcoat, a short story by Nikolai Gogol, which also took in plot elements from another Gogol work Nevsky Prospekt for its opening act. Critics felt that the story, written in 1842, wasn’t updated for modern times and that the central conceit of the overcoat’s importance wasn’t properly conveyed.

The story revolves around lowly government clerk Bashmachkin (Andrei Kostrichkin), a meek, saturnine chap who knows his place, which include being out of the reach of the woman he worships from afar (Antonina Eremeeva). Meanwhile, rich landowner Ptitsin (Nikolai Gorodnichev) is hoping to end an ongoing dispute with his neighbour by bribing Bashmackin’s colleague (Pyotr Sobolevsky) to have some documents altered.

Using the woman as a lure, Bashmachkin is tricked into altering the documents which turns out to be a huge scam that the woman was also a part of. Heartbroken, ashamed and fearful of the consequences, Bashmachkin becomes more insular and distrusting of others. Years later, still stuck in the same old job but now an old man, Bashmackin finds he is in need of a new overcoat.

It might not be so apparent as to why Kozintsev and Trauberg felt the need to pad out Gogol’s original story of The Overcoat with one of their own creation with a sprinkling of Nevsky Prospekt from the above synopsis. The suggestion that all involvement of the titular garment was tacked on to another story is not accidental per se, as it does become the focus in the second half of the film.

What is achieved in the first half is establishing Bashmackin’s character and creating sympathy for a man treated unfairly in terms of social status and personal happiness. In Gogol’s work, Bashmackin is in his fifties but his tenure as an unappreciated workhorse is the only thing to make him pitiful; here we have a litany of humiliating and deleterious setbacks to explain the lack of traction in his life.   

The woman, the obsession, and the brothel are the parts lifted from Nevsky Prospekt, deftly interwoven with the scam subplot to provide the anti-corruption “money vs. principles” commentary of the piece. The gentry and the powerful are portrayed as corpulent, decadent types freely associating with the underhanded in this segment but the real scathing depiction is saved for later.

Switching gears to the saga of the new overcoat, the theme is the shallowness attached to appearance rather than the person. With less hair and teeth and a pronounced hunch, Bashmackin has transformed from Harold Steptoe to Albert, his overcoat in a similarly desperate state of disrepair. Tailor Petrovich (Vladimir Lepko) suggests Bashmackin buy a new coat which he can’t afford but the designs are too good to pass up so an economy drive is implemented to save up the money.

Once he has his new coat Bashmackin is suddenly noticed by his colleagues and even invited out for a drink, but this newfound attention doesn’t sit well with the aged loner, and marks the beginning of a second slide into misery. The saying “clothes make the man” is put to the test when Bashmackin is robbed of his new pride and joy and the authorities refuse to speak to a dishevelled old man.

It’s truly bleak stuff and should be depressing viewing but Kozintsev and Trauberg flex their creative muscles and turn this potent lament about a pointless life coming to a pointless end into an engaging work. Inspiration for the presentation can be found in the editing and symbolic shot composition of fellow Soviet Sergei Eisenstein with subtle touches of German Expressionism.

Use of shadows and near gothic like presentation of the buildings in St Petersburg, shot largely at night because cameraman Andrei Moskvin liked the contrast between the snow and dark skies, recall the Weiner era of German cinema, deceptively fooling audiences into thinking a brooding thriller is abound from the opening frames. Then later on, they get surreal in a nod to Murnau’s quirkier moments, especially the finale.

Other touches are quite enigmatic in their simplicity, like the view of Bashmackin from behind the woman’s fan, or the whimsy of the new overcoat coming to life via stop-motion animation in Bashmackin’s fantasy. The best scene was the jump from young to old Bashmackin – the young version is shown obscured behind a steadily increasing pile of papers on his desk, which when removed show the older version.  

Elsewhere symbolism is a prominent facet, using buildings, statues and obtuse camera angles to remind us that Bashmackin is a small man in a big world – his apartment is a tiny cramped single room, the inside of the police chief’s office is palatial. Andrei Kostrichkin himself does a great job of making Bashmackin seem small, especially in his older guise, physically hunching his body and walking in crotchety steps.

Because the editing is often choppy and abrupt, not everything makes clear sense, and it takes a while to recognise many of the characters in the first half, through the intertitles not being helpful enough with the identification, or the cast are introduced in the dark. The 63-minute run time seems absurdly brief but aside from some more in depth transitional moments, not a lot more really needs to be added here.

The liberties taken with the story might make The Overcoat a confusing and erratic experience for modern audiences, but the true appreciation is reserved for the actual filmmaking which compensates for its shortcomings. More an inventively shot curiosity than a forgotten classic.