Sticking it to Stalin, 50 years later

Above all, the invigorating documentary “Reprise” illustrates the Russian gift for abiding anger and uncommon tenderness.

Even now, Joseph Stalin inspires the former in the writer Arcadi Vaksberg, who serves as our guide and commentator. At the same time, the dozens of Jewish intellectuals who were executed or disappeared at the whim of the devious dictator are remembered with a kind of wistful longing.

Although “Reprise” contains quite a bit of archival footage, it is history filtered through one man’s perspective. That isn’t to say that the film is biased or incomplete, but that Vaksberg’s intimate connection to the events and the people is always front and center.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screens “Reprise” twice in free weekday matinees sponsored by the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation.

Vaksberg narrates his impressionistic, fast-paced memoir of mid-century Soviet anti-Semitism with irony, grace and a poetic use of language. Viewers fluent in Russian are in for a treat, but non-Russian speakers are ill served by subtitles that defy interpretation on more than one occasion.

The film’s principal event is the summons — complete with a car and driver — that “famous people of definite nationality” received in February 1953. Upon their delivery at the designated building, each was directed to an office where a who’s who of prominent Jews in a range of fields was assembling.

Essentially, the prestigious group was made an offer they couldn’t refuse: Affix their signatures to a document endorsing the deportation of Soviet Jews to remote Kazakhstan, or else.

Actually, no one said “or else.” By this late date in Stalin’s reign, they didn’t have to.

Needless to say, the accomplished Jews in the room autographed the petition — albeit reluctantly. As Vaksberg notes dryly, “You’ll sign any sort of paper in the embrace of a snake.”

The names and faces of the writers, filmmakers, mathematicians, conductors and generals forced to attend this despicable meeting will be known to Russian natives and students of Soviet history, but not to the average American viewer. The film packs more of an emotional punch if you’re familiar with those who were given the devil’s choice.

As it happened, a few high-profile Jews cleverly dodged their summons. Vaksberg, who now lives in Paris, takes great pleasure and provides some comic relief in relating those anecdotes.

The capper, Vaksberg happily relates, is that the mass deportation of Jews never happened— thanks to Stalin’s death a month after the infamous meeting.

A sizable chunk of “Reprise” is devoted to Soviet anti-Semitism in the1930s and ’40s, making it clear why those prominent Jews signed Stalin’s declaration.

Ultimately, “Reprise” is Vaksberg’s eulogy for the Jewish intelligentsia whose lives were cut short. At the same time, he exacts a measure of revenge on Uncle Joe.

The only time we see Stalin in the first third of the film is at his funeral, powerless and mute in his coffin. For Vaksberg and countless other Jews who survived him, this is the only highlight of the dictator’s career.

“Reprise” screens at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 27, at the Castro Theatre, and 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3, at the Century Cinema in Mountain View. (925) 275-9490 or

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.