"Silk Stockings": The American Cold War Fantasy
The Cold War had a massive influence on US politics, producing legions of films, books, and simple popular interest in the superpower conflict with the USSR. Sometimes this could take the version of fearful movies predicting nuclear apocalypse, such as The Day After, thrillers such as the host of James Bond films, action movies such as Rambo, but they could also play out as comedies. These, more than anything else, are a rich way to look at how the US viewed the world and its conflict with the USSR, and a particularly good movie in this genre is the 1957 film Silk Stockings.
Silk Stockings' plot revolves around a Soviet composer, Boroff, in Paris who has been recruited by the American Steve Canfield to write music for his next motion picture. Three Soviet commissars have been tasked with retrieving him and bring him back to Moscow, but are rapidly charmed by Canfield. In response, another Soviet commissar, this time a woman, Nina "Ninotchka" Yoschenko is sent out to retrieve Boroff, a humorless and grey, but stunningly beautiful, devoted communist. The movie revolves around Canfield's effort to seduce her, ultimately successful, and the conversion of the Soviets to Western capitalism among the splendorous luxury of Paris—all to a heady number of dance and music pieces.
The Call of Consumerism
If there is one unified theme and message in Silk Stockings, it is that consumerism and consumption is inevitable, irresistible, and good—that it is invincible and that once exposed to it, communism fundamentally stands no chance. From the very beginning of the movie, we are exposed to how anybody from the Soviet Union can be easily tempted from their ways of grey totalitarian joylessness to live a life of luxury and decadence under the capitalist consumer society —such as when the three Soviet commissars are wined and dined to make them favorable to the Russian composer staying in France.
But of course, things would not be complete without a much more radical transformation than simply a few Russian commissars being seduced by capitalist bounty, and this is provided by Ninotchka who arrives as a cold and brutal communist ideologue, utterly devoted to the Soviet Union and blood-minded in her opposition to capitalist materialism, and transforms into a lovebird under the sway of the products of the bourgeois West. At first she scorns the luxuries of Paris, finding its hotels to be decadent and bourgeois, feels solidarity with the workers, wants to visit the steel mills and industrial plans, and finds the stores and the array of fashion and luxury goods present in Paris to be frivolities which hold no interest for her. And yet Paris and Steve Canfield change her mind, so that ultimately the once unfeminine and fanatical Ninotchka strips off her Communist clothes and slips into a feminine and luxurious ballerina-esque array of silk, particularly silk stockings, stripping away her old communism and embracing the West. She finds Paris in springtime to be beautiful and gay, and delights in its luxuries and romance.
Certainly, love plays its role here, but the most important change is one that happens on the material plane, and it is one which fits perfectly into the American Cold War ideology. Capitalist consumerism was vaunted as providing endless material plenty and bounty which would be all but irresistible for the workers of the Eastern Bloc, ultimately tempting them away from communism and bringing about a revolution from the inside. Silk Stockings displays this trope to the utmost, in consumerism and materialism being quite literally seductive for even the most hard-bitten communist.
France Without the French
Paris, oh Paris! It is all throughout the movie, in the shots of the Eiffel tower, of the Arc de Triomphe, in the fine architecture, luxuries, wine, food, fashion, the ever romantic city of Paris. And to be sure, the movie does not lack for French figures, and there are plenty of fashion models, some reporters, servants, receptionists, who populate the screen. They all share one thing in common: they are certainly not the main characters, and the French rarely say much in the film beyond merci, monsieur, and highly accented fawning questions to newly arrived American movie stars.
In Silk Stockings, there are only two nations which play the role of characters—the Russians and the Americans. The French are entirely expunged from the film, despite it ostensibly taking place in their own capital. Silk Stockings shows the American perception of the Cold War splendidly, as a conflict which takes place purely between the Soviet Union and the United States, with at most other nations being auxiliaries, battlegrounds upon which this great ideological struggle is played out. They themselves have no role, no dynamic action, no real existence, beyond serving as chessboards for the Soviet-American struggle.
American Subversion - No Spies Needed!
The Russians in the film do not automatically react well when confronted with American pop culture. When they see Boroff's classical Russian music transformed into a pop culture piece, they view it as an abomination, as a bastardization of the glories of Russia and its culture. Nina Yoschenko returns home to the USSR with Boroff, both fleeing from the vulgarities of American destruction of Russia.
And yet of course, this is a film made by the Americans: there can be no genuine revulsion which lasts, no principled opposition to the United States. The Russians who return home have time to think about what they saw, and in time they begin to realize that maybe it wasn't so bad after all, and go into splendid dance parties and music which is influenced by the ditties they saw from the Americans—breaking out of the cold and grey Soviet world to be swept up in the thrill of American pop culture, humor, fun, and excitement.
The same idea continues today—that the rest of the world is fertile soil waiting to receive the United States' words and its wisdom. When the United States promotes civil society, freedom of speech, or liberal-democratic values in other countries, it is perceived as a good thing which is not to be criticized. The same appears in this movie, where the Russians are brought, without much resistant despite the occasional speech of protest, to the American way of thought: they have in a word, been subverted.
The Russian Soul
One vital element of the film is that the Soviet Union and Russia are separated and played apart, the Soviet Union fitting like a mask over Russia. Even representatives of the Soviet government, such as its commissars, tend to refer to Russia, and not to the Soviet Union, seemingly only remembering the Soviet Union when they are pressed to do so for official reasons or when they are in their more fanatical moods.
No, the movie pinpoints the true soul of Russia in a non-communist form, shown at the end when the three commissars Brankov, Ivanov, and Bibinski found "la veille Russie," a restaurant/hotel/cafe that has the culture, food, cuisine, music, of old Russia, showing the conversion of communists into ardent capitalists, and that beneath the surface of the Soviet Union there is always hiding the inevitability of the return of non-communist Russia.
The Feminine East
One aspect that is impossible to avoid in the movie is that Russia is portrayed as feminine. True, not all of the Russians in the movie are women—indeed, the majority are men, with the three commissars, a Soviet minister, and Boroff, the Soviet musical producer. But the definitive Russian is without doubt Ninotchka, the face of the Russians in the film—and she is of course a woman, and ultimately a very womanly woman at that. The Soviet commissars can be viewed as womanly themselves, since they abandon their duties and are seduced by the capitalist West—certainly a good thing from the perspective of the Americans, but against the idea of stoic manhood and duty which is generally recognized as the positive virtues of men. The overall depiction of the Russians is one which is emotional, prone to cracking under stress, prone to being seduced, irrational (as can be seen from the American perspective by Boroff's refusal to listen to reason about converting his classical music into a cheap pop culture piece), and prone to childish outbursts of joy and amusement instead of self-restraint like the Americans. It is in a sense, stereotypically feminine.
The Cold War included important parallels. Perhaps the starting call of the Cold War was the "long telegram"of George Kennan, which again and again stressed the need for the United States to assume a masculine position to cow the Soviets—not necessarily to have more arms, more guns, more bombers, although some amount of military force would be necessary, but rather to be resolute and first in the face of the Soviet Union, with the belief that this would cause them to back down. The focus is consistently upon the need for the West to be masculine in the face of the Soviet Union—which means that the Soviet Union must be, to lose, as it must lose be feminized. Silk Stockings again shows the need for American masculinity, although in this case it is for the purposes of seduction rather than confrontation....
Silk Stockings is a movie which does much to reveal how the Americans thought about the Soviet Union, which shows both a love story and a comedy but above all else an ideological struggle, presented on American terms. The Cold War was a conflict which was much more than just bombers, nukes, and armies: it was also a great cultural conflict and one which revolved around selling an image of the war and of the superiority of one's system to both sides. Silk Stockings is in a sense, a brilliant representation of the propaganda of the American system in the 1950s.