Movies and Film: Volga Displays: A Brief History of Russian Filmmaking

Volga Displays: A Brief History of Russian Filmmaking

Not part of the train of inventions that led to the invention of film, existing most of the time in a condition of scarcity, generously supported at various moments by its government, the history of Russian filmmaking is in several important respects the exact opposite of American film history. Here are some specifics.

Czars and Stars: Pre-Soviet Moviemaking

Because Russia and other Eastern European countries were initially dependent on Western Europe and the United States for film technology (cameras, projectors, film stock), their films of the first two decades were not as technically or aesthetically innovative as the movies of their Western counterparts. Exhibitors relied heavily on well-made imports from other countries; 90 percent of the films shown before World War I were imported. The first native production company was not founded until 1907. One of the three production companies in Russia was foreign.

However, by the time of the October Revolution, there was a thriving if small national film industry, producing products made after the styles of other countries. For example, the first feature Russian film, Stenka Razin (1908) imitated the French style, film d'art (art film). The difference between foreign and domestic film was further confused by the fact that one of the major film companies in Russia was an offshoot of the French Path-Frres.

Though the industry was small, it managed to establish some film stars, especially director Yevgeny Bauer and actors Vladimir Maximov and Vera Kholodnaya. There were even fan magazines during this period and during the early Soviet period.

The Soviet Era: First Five-Year Plan

Filmophile's Lexicon

Agitki are the propaganda films made by the Bolsheviks in support of their revolution. They represent the first organized in-stances by the Bolsheviks of an interest in using film as a propaganda device aimed at the masses. The trains used by the Bolsheviks to distribute, advertise, promote, and project the films were called agitki-trains. The word agitki is related to the English expression "agit-prop."

Director's Cut

The Russian Revolution was not equally attractive to all Russian film talent. An exodus of actors, directors, and technicians drained the new Soviet Union of some of its best minds. Actors who came to America included Ivan Mozukhin (the actor in the "Kuleshov Effect" demonstration), Mikhail Chekhov (nephew of Anton), Maria Ouspenskaya (Academy Award nominee, best-remembered as the gypsy in The Wolf Man [1941]), and Anna Sten (Goldwyn protg, and star of Nana [1934]). Berlin and Paris were also centers of migr filmmaking.

Well, really an eight-year plan. The high point in the history of Russian film comes during the early Soviet era. However, though Soviet film was born during the Russian Revolution, the form it would take was not clear until the 1920s. The few short years between about 1920 to about 1925 (in other words from the completion of the first phase of the film industry's nationalization to the release date of Battleship Potemkin) saw a breathtaking change in Russian—now Soviet—filmmaking. This rapid growth is all the more remarkable for the existence of stiff opposition to the new Marxist regime from the West.

Because of the success of the Bolshevik revolution, many figures in the Czarist film industry packed up their toys and left for other countries, leaving the new regime hard up for supplies and expertise. Further, Western countries imposed a blockade on Russia, so little new equipment could get into the country.

Still, the following events happened in rapid fashion: The film industry was nationalized; agitki were produced during and after the revolution, Nadezhda Krupskaia (Lenin's wife) cofounded the Cinema Committee; the Cinema Committee founded the very famous Moscow Film School; Lev Kuleshov founded the "Kuleshov Workshop" and discovered the "Kuleshov Effect"; Dziga Vertov established his "Kino-Eye" theory and style of filmmaking, blending a realist aesthetic with a propagandic goal; the Russian Soviet tried to coordinate film production with that of the other Eastern-bloc soviets; Russian montage theory began to be articulated.

At the beginning of the Soviet era, and before the high moments of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, Soviet filmmakers and industry bureaucrats tried to fit the new Marxist ideology with the new art form in various ways. Among others, they denied that it was an art form, but not for the same reasons the Western intellectual elite dismissed film. The Soviet "constructivists," for example, did not think film was low-brow, but an essentially new way of presenting the world, without all the bourgeois apparatus of the "legitimate" stage, for example. Unlike aesthetic elitists, they liked the fact that movies appealed to the masses, seeing in film a powerful organ of enlightenment.

As we will discuss in "Film Editing," the establishment of the Moscow Film School (the first such school in the world) was a watershed moment for filmmaking. Because the Western blockade of Russia prevented much raw film stock from entering the country, and because such stock as existed was used to shoot propaganda films, student filmmakers cut and recut the same prints (of films by Abel Gance and D. W. Griffith) over and over again, emphasizing different narrative elements and emotional effects, and even telling different stories using the same film stock. Almost from the beginning, the Soviet filmmakers realized the importance of editing in the making of a film. Gradually, the idea of montage was born from such experimentation.

The Soviet Era: Second Five-Year Plan

Again, the period between 1925 and 1930 saw sweeping changes in Soviet film, but this time in the opposite direction: from experimentalism to totalitarianism. These are the high years of the great Russian formalist film experiment, the years during which the most famous Russian films are produced: Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925), Strike (Stachka, 1925), and October (Oktyabr, 1928, also known as Ten Days that Shook the World); Pudovkin's Mother (Mat, 1926), The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga, 1927), and Storm Over Asia (Potomok Chingis-Khana, 1928); Alexander Dovzhenko's Zvenigora (1928) and Arsenal (1929).

However, these are also the years during which the Soviet industry began the move away from formal experimentation. Formally beginning in 1928, state policy increasingly dictated that films be made so that they could be immediately understood by the masses. In general, the state exerted an increasing control over the filmmaking industry.

Second Take

Before completely condemning the uniformity of Soviet filmmaking, keep in mind that the American genre system evolved at about the same time for pretty much the same reasons—a standardized and ideologically acceptable mass appeal—if in a different manner. In a sense the 1930s were all about uniformity; we can add to Stalinist tractor films Leni Riefenstahl's paen to social conformity, Triumph of the Will (1934), but also just about any Hollywood film directed by Busby Berkeley in which women dance in step in a chorus line.

The advent of sound in the late 1920s was, at least temporarily, a setback for formalist directors arguing over the best visual ways of getting meaning across to an audience. Dialogue and other soundtrack devices seemed to reduce the need for more subtle visual—especially editing—cues.

The Soviet Era: Totalitarianism

The Stalinist "Cultural Revolution" continued for several years the tendency to erase formal experimentation with simple films that would be accessible to the masses. Stalinists rerecognized that film was a powerful tool of propaganda; the 1930s saw the compulsory purchase of projectors by Soviets, and a consequent rise in film attendance all over the Soviet Union.

In the 1930s, the trend continued toward what would in 1934 ultimately and officially be called socialist realism, culminating during the Stalinist era in what are satirically referred to as "tractor films," monotonously unvaried movies about the exploitation of the virtuous worker by the bourgeoisie, and the ultimate triumph of the proletariat. These films were increasingly censored and more rigidly scripted.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Socialist realism included not only film but all the arts. Derived from the realist aesthetic in the novel of the nineteenth century, it was a blend of realistic setting and ideologically correct plot and message in which the proletarian hero wins against great odds over the enemy of the people.

By the 1930s and 1940s, the Soviet Union had finally become technologically self-sufficient, able to produce its own film and projection equipment. But it also made films less worth seeing, and it made fewer of them. The number of films produced in the 1930s was roughly one quarter of what it had been in the late 1920s.

The subjects of films in the 1930s and 1940s closely reflected the state message of the moment: anti-Nazi at one moment, antitraitor-to-the-revolution the next. Stalin and Stalinesque, paternalistic figures were invariably portrayed as heroic saviors of the people. Brilliant and established filmmakers like Dziga Vertov were no longer allowed to make films. Instead, Soviet films tended toward the entertaining, ironically taking as their model the "decadent" Hollywood flick.

A bureaucratic relaxing took place after Stalin's death in 1953 but, though more and better films were made, Russian film never regained the pride of place it had in the 1920s.

Late and Post-Soviet Filmmaking

However, the death of Stalin did create a "thaw" in bureaucratic control of the arts in the Soviet Union. The "generation of the '60s" would include the first set of world-famous Russian filmmakers to emerge since the 1920s: Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky, for example.

Soviet filmmaking opened up even more with the advent of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s and 1990s. Though entertainment films continued to be made, there were also films critical of the bad old Stalinist days. Some formal experimentalism even returned, after being banished for four or five decades by the state.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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