Published August 1, 1998
The Thief directed by Pavel Chukhrai is a deeply moving meditation on family and fatherhood told from the point of view of Sanya (Misha Philipchuk) the six year old son of the beautiful Katya (Yekaterina Rednikova). His father having died of wounds shortly after the end of the Second World War, Sanya was born in a field as his itinerant and apparently family-less and friendless mother wandered in search of a place to settle. As the story opens in 1952, Sanya and Katya are on a train, going they know not whither. Or at least if Katya is going somewhere in particular the fact has not lodged in the memory of the six year old Sanya. Into their compartment comes Tolya (Vladimir Mashkov), a captain in the Red Army. He cuts a dashing figure and takes advantage of an uproar in an adjoining car over someone claiming to have been robbed to begin romancing the lonely Katya and ingratiating himself with her son.
It is only later that we learn that Tolya was, most probably, the thief. Like Katya and Sanya, we are swept off our feet by this handsome, charming man who seems to offer all that the former hopes for in a husband, the latter in a father. Soon the three of them get off the train and settle down as a family in a Russian tenement-style apartment house. Tolya tells the landlady that his passport and pay have been held up at headquarters — you know how the Army is — and he will settle with her in a few days. He’s a soldier, she reasons, not a deadbeat. Tolya tells Sanya to call him “Dad,” but the boy, more cautious than his mother, will only call him Uncle Tolya.
Yet the two gradually draw closer together. When some neighbor boys beat Sanya up, Tolya gives him lessons in self defense — not only by precept but by example. When a large neighbor complains to him that the boy, on his advice, has taken after the neighbor kids with a wooden plank, Tolya comes down and beats him up, smashing his bicycle for good measure. The secret, he tells Sanya, is to scare people. “If you scare people, they respect you.” You convince them that “I’m ready to kill for this cigarette, or this ice cream — if they understand that they will give you anything.”
But with Sanya he is also capable of gentleness. When the boy gets the whole family in trouble with the other residents by leaving the water running and flooding the apartment house, Tolya instructs him to bring him his military belt, which he proceeds to wind around one fist while playing with a razor blade in his mouth. Sanya is terrified and admiring at the same time. Satisfied that he has made his impression, Tolya tells him, simply: “I forgive you.” He also tells him a secret, not to be shared with anyone. He has a leopard tattooed on his shoulder to scare people, but even more scary is the tattoo of Stalin on his breast. He tells Sanya that Stalin is his father. When the people in the apartment toast Comrade Stalin, he winks at him.
It is at this point where we learn that Tolya is a thief. To little Sanya the meaning of the fact that they must gather their things, plus some unfamiliar bundles, and leave their home in the middle of the night is still obscure, and as the sad truth of what this seeming paragon of a patriarch really is slowly dawns on us, it interferes not at all with his continuing instruction of Sanya in the secrets of what it means to be a man. At one point, trying to be protective of his unhappy mother, he grabs a kitchen knife and holds it out towards Tolya. “I’ll kill you,” he says.
“Go ahead,” says Tolya. “You know the rules of the game. If you pull a knife you have to use it.” If he doesn’t, he threatens to hit him. Sasha drops the knife and pees in his pants.
Once again, however, instead of turning violent with him, Tolya tells Sasha that it’s all right. Everyone does it once. He himself, he says, once pissed blood for three days after being beaten up by men who kicked him in the kidneys and broke his ribs. But he didn’t talk. “Remember, you can pee in your pants a hundred times,” he tells him. But in the end you have to win.” Even when such lessons in manhood are placed in the service of an apprenticeship in thievery, Sanya takes his new occupation in his stride, refusing to let Tolya think that he is as frightened as a little girl.
Soon, however, Tolya is apprehended by the authorities and hauled off to prison. The most memorable scene of the movie comes as the prisoners are being moved from the local prison to another one, or perhaps to exile in the Gulag. None of them has seen his loved ones in a long time, and relatives come to watch as they each in turn are made to run a gauntlet of barking police dogs to the trucks that are to take them away while their relatives shout bits of news from home. When Tolya runs the gauntlet, Katya shouts, “Tolya, don’t leave us!” But Sanya wriggles through the crush of grown up bodies to run after the truck as it pulls away, calling out after it, for the first time, “Daddy!”
This is not the end of the picture. What comes afterwards is in many ways even more moving in its depiction of the meaning of fatherhood and the nature of the psychological attachment between fathers and sons. But part of the point, surely, is that heroism — and in particular the kind of heroism which small boys habitually confer upon their fathers — is not dependent upon being, in the words of the sappy Private Ryan, “a good man.” At a level much more elemental than that of even the most basic morality, boys must first learn to become men by standing up to and earning the respect of the world in both war and peace. It should not surprise us that intellectual fashion in the U.S. and Britain requires that we turn to foreigners to remind us of the fact.