Abram Room 1927 / USSR
It’s difficult to know where to start with Bed and Sofa. It dealt with a polygamous relationship, individualism in the communist state, poverty in Moscow, women in communist society, abortion, sexual liberation and a hundred other highly controversial issues, at a time when the communist party was clamping forcibly down on all forms of dissent. As a result it had the honour of being banned in the USSR and also for several years in Europe until it was finally released unde the title Menage a Trois. But Bed and Sofa is quite simply one of the very best silent movies ever to come out of the USSR, and as a situational comedy with serious overtones, it was years ahead of its time.
The plot is simple. Liuda and Kolya live in a one bedroom apartment in a poor district of Moscow. Liuda is unhappy with the lack of space and her endless domestic chores looking after her demanding and rather selfish husband Kolya. When Kolya’s friend Volodia arrives in Moscow he cannot find a place to stay because Moscow is overcrowded due largely to a lack of social housing (despite the communist party’s claims to the contrary), so Volodia moves into the tiny apartment to sleep on the sofa. When Kolya has to leave the city for work, Volodia takes advantage of his friend’s absence and seduces Liuda, and when Kolya returns it is now him that has to sleep on the sofa. Inevitably the roles comically reverse several more times for various reasons, until Liuda becomes pregnant and cannot say who the father is. When the two men decide to send her for an abortion, she comes to the realizaion that she may be better off without either of them.
The attitude of the communist party to love, sex and marriage was a confused one. In the 1920’s Russia became the first country to legalize abortion, divorce was very simple and homosexuality was decriminalized. When Stalin came to power and the state sought to gain control over as many aspects of people’s lives as it could, everything changed. Despite women being theoretically equal in the new communist society, in reality female unemployment was very high and many ended up staying at home to cater for their husbands and children, unable to divorce.
The movie is a comedy at heart – the characters are all attractive in their own ways – but it’s a modern kind of comedy, far ahead of its time, that has far more in common with contemporary dry humoured sit-coms than the kind of slapstick comedies that Hollywood produced in the 1920’s.
Whilst many peoples experience of Russian silent film might go no further than the Battleship Potemkin, Bed and Sofa is a film which – as they put it in the Michelin restaurant guide – ‘is worth making a large detour for’. It is both quintessentially Russian and utterly contemporary and the fact that it was filmed in the USSR in the 1920’s only makes it all the more fascinating to watch.