The Last Station (2009)
Bill Long 3/16/10
The Last "Stop" of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Legacies, iconic status, failed attempts to live up to ideologies, the struggle between love and ideology--all of these weighty themes are probed in this impressive recent flick. The presentation is aided by excellent performances of established actors (Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy; Helen Mirren as his wife Sofya; Paul Giamatti as Tolstoy's most ardent disciple Chertkov). The movie describes the last year of Tolstoy's life, when the struggle for his legacy reached a fever pitch and the literary vultures were swirling to try to take advantage of their weakened prey. In one "corner" was his devoted wife of 48 years, who had borne him 13 children, Sofya. Her concern was that the literary legacy of her famous husband be bequeathed to the family so that they could continue to live with their accustomed comfort. In the other "corner," however, was the sly and conniving Chertkov, the most ardent of Tolstoy's ascetic Christian communalist followers, who believed that his literary gift belonged to the "Russian people." The epic battle continued and disrupted both Tolstoy's life and the community in which he lived.
But the Director, Michael Hoffman, skillfully demonstrates that such a battle not only pits people against each other who both feel that they "own" the great man's legacy, but actually ends up distorting the very subject they thought they were faithfully claiming. Or, better said, the two protangonists for Tolstoy's legacy end up constructing an image of Tolstoy that fits their needs rather than one that is faithful to the great man himself. Chertkov wanted to lead the new ascetic Christian movement, a sort of anarchistic socialist Christian endeavor; and he ended up shaping a community with beliefs and practices that were far more rigid than Tolstoy himself had ever practiced. Sofya so wanted Leo not to forget his family that she stayed up nights ransacking his papers and diaries, trying to discover if he had signed over his legacy to Chertkov and his disciples.
This conflict created a living hell for the great author, and he felt he had to escape from it in order to purchase some space for his own creative efforts. But this ended up only in disaster, as Tolstoy contracted pneumonia on the train to the southern parts, dying a few weeks later in a train station in an obscure Russian village.
This issue of honoring the legacy of the greatest of Russian authors is overlaid with another one--and that is the impossiblity of maintaining "purity" when it has to do with strict ideals of a monastic-type community for young people. The young writer Valentin Bulgakov is sent by Chertkov, then under house arrest, to be Tolstoy's personal secretary, but in fact he is also supposed to "spy" on Sofya lest the old man be swayed by the blandishments and threats of his wife. At first Bulgakov is overwhelmed to be in the presence of the great author, but gradually we see him carving out a role for himself as a sort of go-between for both sides, one who never completely loses the affection of Tolstoy, Sofya or Chertkov. But even as he is deftly negotiating the minefield of family politics, he is succumbing to the lusts of the flesh, a patent "no-no" in the Christian commune which lives at the Tolstoy estate. Ideology may be the motivating force of those behind the community, but the younger ones with some spirit just can't seem to live up to it.
One would have hoped that the life of a great writer had ended in more peace and equanimity. Surely, we think, the adulation he reaped and the extent of his works would have seemed to guarantee it. But there is a considerable distance between public perception and private realities. The peace which passeth understanding, which Tolstoy's Lord seemed to promise, eluded him at the end.
The film does a masterful job portraying the conflicting claims of two rival claimants to his legacy. Yet, it doesn't give a full or even a very adequate presentation of the philosophy that motivated Tolstoy at this period. Ever since the he stopped writing his "big novels" in 1878, he had been wholly consumed with describing and then living the simple life taught by Jesus in the Gospels. And, so serious was he in this endeavor that he devoted hundreds of pages to reviewing "modern" scholarship on Jesus in multiple languages before penning his 1881 Exposition of the Gospels. And, it almost goes without saying, he exposited the Greek New Testament in telling Jesus' story. Thus, I feel we don't really capture the austere, and possibly repulsive, radicalism of Tolstoy until we understand some of the diligence with which he devoted himself to expositing the New Testament and especially the teachings of Jesus. The film doesn't help us much in this area.
The virtue, however, of this kind of movie is that it stimulates us to pick up either the books or biogrpahy of Tolstoy, to think through his life, to reflect on the choices we have made, the commitments we honor and the loves we cultivate. We strive so hard and often end our lives with a sense of unfinished failure. We gain comfort and wisdom from Tolstoy's story, even though we can't help working as he worked to pen the right words to describe all of life.