“Hear this Song and Remember”: Unspoken Grief in Anastasia (1997)

Anastasia is a necessary myth. Her symbolic afterlife in film and popular culture is a direct response to a broad trauma, a grief which came with too many names, and was thus imbued into one. The idea that Anastasia could survive the Russian revolution became a symbol for life after the revolution in general, as the story implies that some persistent spirit of the old world could survive in this new one. Given the recent DNA findings and studies on Anastasia, I find it interesting that the history surrounding her and the numerous films about her end with different morals, each political but for dissimilar reasons.

The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and there are persistent rumors that she miraculously survived the massacre of her family. Some suggest that, while lined up with the rest of her family, a bullet bounced off a necklace she was concealing, and a sympathetic soldier snuck her away. There were multiple actresses who stepped forward and claimed to be Anastasia, but each were disproven, even in their lifetime. There was still, however, a persistent hope that she was alive, at least until 2007. Two bodies were discovered, and after DNA testing, officials concluded that the remains were the missing Romanovs, and like that, the Anastasia case was formally closed. Despite that evidence, there are still those who argue that Anastasia escaped, not because it’s likely, but because they need the idea of her survival. Her afterlife means more than her life, at least in Western media and global conspiracy theories.

Who can blame people for wanting Anastasia to survive? What is the kinder thought? That she lived and had a life or that she was gunned down in a basement with her siblings. It doesn’t help that most people picture her as a young child, like in the animated film, even though she was 17. We have been saturated with multiple delightful films where she lives happily ever after, and it’s wonderful. But what does this cinematic impression do to history? Does it matter when history and fantasy overlap, seeing as we tell ourselves fantasy to make sense of history?

“Things I Almost Remember.”

I was absolutely obsessed with the animated Anastasia movie growing up. To the extent where a friend of mine called me Anastasia because I made her watch the movie so many times. As Anya, or Anastasia, explains in the film, every girl hopes that she is Princess, although they do so without considering what that means. The film is truly spectacular, and I highly recommend it. Even while re-watching the movie, knowing the history, and having seen other adaptations, it is so enjoyable, and the music is incredible. Because of my background with the film, however, I also found it slightly haunted. There is a lot which the film cannot talk about, both because it is a children’s film, and because it didn’t want to make audiences angry. It focuses on a historic event but changes the conditions of this event to remove blame. Anya’s “Journey to the Past” is not about vengeance, or even grief. It’s about moving forward, however contradictory that might seem given the song’s title.  The film is interested in the past, but specifically in the byproducts of the past, what is left over and what that can become. That interest makes perfect sense given that this is a film for children, and its main purpose is to inspire kids to love their family and carve out their destinies, rather than just fixate on the horrific events in the past. To do something with that past, to be a living demonstration that the sacrifices of our ancestors meant something and can continue to live. Anya’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress, says as much when they are reunited, noting that their relatives “would not want us to live in the past” now that they have each other. Rasputin opposes this forward thinking as he is stuck in the past. Everyone has moved on and grown up, but Rasputin is the same, just rotting underground. He is fixated on old grievances and cannot give up. He is like the anti-image of Anastasia, in that he has also survived the revolution, but as a relic. Anastasia’s name translates to “she who will rise again”, which makes sense given her legacy, but Rasputin also rises from the underworld in the film. What distinguishes them is that Rasputin is dead, literally falling apart, while Anastasia becomes more than what she was during the film.

“It’s Time to Take Your Place in Life.”

I assumed that the film would have performed poorly in Russia, given that it casts the revolution as some demonically influenced mob and argues that the royal lineage continues and exists outside of Russia. I was surprised to find the exact opposite. The film did well in Russia and remains popular, largely because the Russian distributor sold the film as “a fairy tale set against the background of real Russian events”*. The term “fairy tale” is crucial here, as it suggests that the events in the film are purely fictitious, and that they are somewhat childish and easily dismissible. The film is thus pure entertainment, and a useful way to introduce certain historic figures, and the conspiracy around Anastasia. I think it is also noteworthy that the film is extremely American and told from a Western perspective. It even stars American’s sweetheart Meg Ryan. That American gaze is foundational to the Anastasia myth, as it was initially spread during the Cold War to vilify the revolution. Each Anastasia film is removed from Russia, especially the 1956, whose trailers marketed that the movie was filmed across Europe, although it could not film in Russia. You’ll notice that every adaptation of Anastasia focuses on her escape from Russia, and the animated film suggests that leaving Russia is the only way she can find home, which is not so much a place as a family.  

When Anya sings “Journey to the Past”, she is caught at a crossroad, deciding whether she should do what is expected of her, to get a job at a factory, or to go off on her own. She eventually decides to do something for herself, to find her family. That independent goal is meant to distinguish Anya from the ‘greater good’ sentiment of her era and make her seem more Western. In the final lyric, Anya cries out, “bring me home at last”, and she does go home, but there is nothing there. She finds her way to the Catherine Palace, but only the ghosts of her family have survived, and Anya is not a ghost, and she cannot live in this dusty world. Her only chance to find a living family, and coincidentally be proven Russian royalty, is to leave Russia and never return. This is where the film creates a further dynamic, having already established a relationship between fantasy and history. The film suggests that there is a binary between coincidence and intention/con, as Anya’s journey is filled with happy coincidences that seem far too coincidental. She miraculously breaks into the palace, without guards noticing, and finds the exact people who are looking for an Anastasia lookalike, the very people who know what Anastasia looked like as a child. She also randomly finds Pooka, which the film argues translates to good luck, and he helps her multiple times. Perhaps the largest coincidence, however, is her name. Anastasia loses her memory after she is separated from her grandmother, and yet despite that, she adopts the name Anya, which is quite close to Anastasia. Even in her confused state, she maintains this crucial element of her identity. The names Anya and Anastasia are so close that characters often bounce between them when identifying her, as though they are interchangeable. I think the film sets up these circumstances, so it seems like Anya is fulfilling her destiny, and that the universe wants her to. Rasputin made a deal with the Devil, and so it figures that heavenly elements are assisting Anya, perhaps her ghostly relatives.

“What had always been was now gone forever.”

Returning to the film as an adult, I was struck by the way it fosters a sincere heartbreak at the center of its narrative. Anya longs for a family which doesn’t exist anymore, and she can’t even remember that. She is given no opportunity to mourn in the film, as she is so busy trying to find where she belongs. There is one scene which shows just how much Anya has lost, without her realizing it. When she wanders into the palace, the song which her grandmother taught her slips out, as though her memory has been jogged by this traumatic space. She begins “Once Upon a December” by humming, as though still looking for the words. Her version of the song is different than the one we hear in the prologue, as Anya uses this melody to talk about the overwhelming emotions she suddenly has. She describes this sensation as “a memory from a dream”, in that it is blurry, and she cannot understand if it was real or not to begin with. The same goes for Anya’s grieving process, as she feels grief but cannot understand it’s source. Like remembering the melody but not the words. I find this scene incredibly moving, particularly when the ghosts of her past begin to embrace and dance with her, yet she has no idea who they are. They crowd around her, and seem to treasure how old she has gotten, but she doesn’t know if they ever existed, let alone her relationship to this space. I think it’s noteworthy that the ghosts emerge from paintings, as these images are the only part of them which remains at the palace. Anya cannot visit a graveyard to pay her respects because a graveyard does not exist. Instead, the images of what these people were are all that remains. Paintings and icons play an important part in the film, as prior to this point, we have seen various citizens selling Romanov clothing and images. The paintings in this scene are too large and cannot be stripped from the walls, and so they remain. They have survived just as Anya has. Anya is also identified because of a painting, again suggesting that these ghosts are helping Anya without her knowledge. Alternatively, we could read Anya’s journey as a balancing act, as the world setting right something which went terribly wrong.

When Anya is surrounded by her sisters during this scene, they look like different versions of her. It’s as though they are the different possibilities surrounding Anastasia, the different people she became to our culture. There have been so many Anastasias, and so we get this doubling effect in the film. She doubles with her siblings, with herself as Anya and Anastasia, and even with the different actresses we encounter in the film, each trying to act like Anastasia.

The most symbolic moment in this scene comes when Anastasia’s father steps forward and dances with her, and then, kissing her forehead, backs away with their arms still outstretched. This moment ties to the earlier train scene between Anastasia and her grandmother, the one where they desperately reach for each other but lose their grip. Anastasia’s father recreates this moment, signaling that Anastasia has been left behind, but that is a good thing here. She survived, they did not. It likewise illustrates a broader theme in the film, this issue of forgiveness. He is not just her father, he is the Tsar, and rather than pulling a Hamlet and asking her to reinstate the Romanov line in Russia, he tells her to go, he leaves her behind. The Grandmother later does the same, by letting Anastasia live a normal life with Dimitri, rather than living as this lost Princess. She gets to make her own path, finally knowing where she came from but also doing something more. I would argue that the “Once Upon a December” is the only scene which directly focuses on mourning and trauma, especially as Anya ends the song by falling to the ground and bowing her head. It’s both a curtsy and an admission, like the weight of this grief pushes her down, just momentarily. The song’s title refers to this grief as well, as the melody originally had no name when Anastasia and her grandmother sang it. They just refer to it as their lullaby, which means that the “Once Upon a December” name comes from this grieving moment. The prologue takes place during December, and Rasputin was killed in December, and so the song is about the end of season, of year, and of a dynasty. The beginning of the film all takes place in winter, and it’s only after Anya leaves Russia that things warm up. This new climate signals that the long-ago December has finally changed, and that spring and rebirth are here. Anya does live again, but to do so, she must accept who she is, and then move on. This confrontation with the past, and being let go, is her first step to doing so.

“You think you’re gonna miss it?”
“Miss what? Your talking?”
“No. Russia.”

One thing that is strangely missing from the animated film is just how much danger Anastasia’s existence poses to the institutions in Russia. A major reason for the Tsar and his family’s execution, was that, even while exiled, there would always be forces who would try to reinstate them to power. Anastasia survival would recreate that problem, and yet the film’s villain isn’t contemporary Russia, it’s the past. The film reaches an uneasy compromise with history by refusing to blame anyone other than Rasputin for Anya’s missing family and the poverty shown in the St. Petersburg sequence. Anastasia apparently got along well with Rasputin, and she and her sisters were deeply upset by his assassination. The film takes a different stance, and begins by introducing the Romanov curse, which was allegedly a real thing. Rasputin was the Tsarina’s spiritual advisor and her son’s healer, but he allegedly told the Tsarina that if one of her relatives killed him, her whole family would be cursed. Rasputin was famously murdered by a group of noblemen, including one Count Yusupov who was married to the Tsar’s niece. The animated film mentions Yusupov briefly in the “A Rumor in St. Petersburg” song, although Rasputin dies in a different way.

Anastasia suggests that Rasputin was betrayed by the Romanovs and publicly cursed them, selling his soul to destroy the family. He was then able to transform the sparks of unhappiness in the country into flames, specifically through demonic means. Rasputin isn’t in complete control of these powers, and they eventually destroy him. As such, the Devil is responsible for the atrocities in the revolution, not the Russian people or nobles. This placates both Romanov and Revolution supporters, as the film states that the Romanov’s were facing justified criticism and an impending uprise (this spark), but it also argues that a specific person, and the Devil, led to these events, and thus gives the audience someone to blame. By destroying Rasputin at the end of the film, and crushing his demonic influence, Anastasia signals the end of the hatred he inspired. It’s noteworthy that the bridge on which Anastasia and Rasputin fight is named after a Romanov, Tsar Alexander III. This additionally demonstrates the Anastasia is supported by her ghostly family, and that their presence is everywhere in the film, even though the film itself cannot say what happened to them. The film may only imply violence, and it personifies it through Rasputin and his demonic vile.

As Anya crushes Rasputin’s precious bottle with her shoe, she shouts “This is for Dimitri, this is for my family, and this, this is for you. Dasvidaniya.”  This moment embodies Anya’s freedom, but it’s likewise the only vengeance we see in the film. The film knows that something horrible has happened, but for complicated political reasons, it can’t say anything about that. It instead transitions the blame into one figure who can be punished. This decision was met with some criticism, as certain viewers felt that the film simplified and cartoonized a serious historic event. As a response, the later Anastasia Broadway musical changes the plot and removes Rasputin. Its villain is the son of one of the officers who killed Anastasia’s family, and he is caught between immense patriotic pride and guilt. I should note, the musical is far more mature than the cartoon, even though they share a soundtrack and general plot line. I mention this because I wonder how different the Anastasia film would be if it had been made today. The musical came out after the Anastasia case was finally closed, and so it knew, even in production, that this story could never have happened. But it still moved forward with the rumor that Anastasia had survived. I think this demonstrates that it doesn’t really matter if she did or didn’t, the persistence of that rumor is a symbol unto itself. As one character notes during the “Rumor in St. Petersburg” number, the story of Anastasia is “a rumor that’s part of our history”, so even though there is no historical fact in Anastasia’s survival, the rumor that she did is an important part of history. It’s why the song ends with the line, “Alive or dead? Who knows?” and then the character shushes the audience. It’s like the film knows that Anastasia’s death is a secret it cannot talk about, like the other atrocities in the revolution. And so, the film exists as an extension of that rumor, a way to talk about what could have been but also what was.

“Isn’t It Romantic? It’s a Perfect ending.”
“No. It’s a perfect beginning.”

There are layers of profound sadness to the film, not only in Anya’s past, but in the naïve optimism that Anastasia could survive and live this journey. Knowing that none of this is possible adds to the film, makes it feel more poignant. I think the film asks us to move forward knowing this past, just as Anya moves forward. To recognize it, and then make something more with it. Anya stays in contact with her grandmother but cannot ease into this Princess role. It’s better if she remains a rumor. That way, her life will not just be dictated by the grief of what happened, but by the hope that something better might come.  

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