The Golden Age of Soviet Cinema-A Personal Journey
It has been estimated that there more approximately 40 million casualties in World War One. This tremendous loss affected many countries economy but also their film production. The United States fared better than most countries, as the fighting did not occur on their soil. Countries such as Italy and France saw a decline from the premiere position before the war. Both countries relied heavily on imports and in France’s case; they imposed high taxes on tickets to the theatre. Germany’s ban on imports and support from the government helped stabilize the industry and a new breed of important directors evolved. Perhaps the most surprising recovery after the war was the Soviet Union. They not only had to deal with the aftermath of the war, but endured two revolutions. With the Bolsheviks in power, the film industry would flourish for another 10 years before the First Five-Year Plan was implemented. What happened to Soviet film after 1928-30 after the “plan” is open to debate. Vance Kepley Jr. in his article, “The First Perestroika: Soviet cinema under the five-year plan” argues that “the conventional position of most historians is that states that the Soviet Cinema suffered dramatic decline in the 1930’s, when the creative energies of the Soviet montage directors were suppressed only to be replaced by the formulate filmmaking of Socialist Realism”. 4 The 1920’s may be considered the golden age of Soviet cinema. With the introduction of Soviet montage by such esteemed directors as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, the Soviet filmmakers revolutionized the making of motion pictures that endure until today. The two directors “found out how to combine and contrast images to get ideas across, and how the rhythm and pace of editing, and the use of music, could stir emotions”. 12
According to Denise Youngblood in her book Movies for the Masses10, “Soviet popular cinema in the twenties can be divided into four genres: comedy, melodrama, adventure and historical (costume) drama” (72). When one thinks of Soviet Cinema in the twenties, Sergio Eisenstein’s brilliant masterpiece Battleship Potemkin comes to mind. The movie is propaganda in a subtle way. The scene on the Odessa steps revolutionized film making and stands today as a tribute to Eisenstein’s brilliance. To most film critics, Eisenstein has been enshrined as a genius, but in reality he was a complex human being. Mark Cousins in his The Story of Film2 describes Eisenstein as a Matryoshka(a wooden nesting doll). He describes him as a Marist on the outside and an engineer inside and then a presumed Catholic inside a Jew and inside a bi-sexual. This most account for his genius. To really appreciate the scope and depth of Soviet films of the era, one has to view the film themselves. My own personal journey began by viewing three different types of cinema: propaganda, avant-garde and popular films for the “masses”.
Although propaganda played a massive part in post Bolshevik Russia, it was often an after-thought. Sergio Eisenstein’s first film, Strike3, does not pull any punches. It is a story of workers’ striking for dignity above all else. The film applies all the Soviet montage images such as juxtaposing, fast cuts, reverse and overhead shots. The film was made in 1925 and contains many haunting scenes such as the slaughter of cattle interspersed with shots of attempts by the military to end the strike. The scene itself is hard to view, but brings home the point of collectivism in a very heavy handed manner. . Eisenstein’s cameraman on the film was Eduard Tisse. His montage of workers faces, and especially the stunning apartment stairwell scene, gave the film a distinct style and feel. Philip Cavendish in his book The Men With the Movie Camera, 1 notes that :his tendency to exploit the structure of the building in order to split the screen into discrete zones of action”.(153) Animal symbolism abounds within the film from the slaughtered cattle to dead cats. One stunning scene is when water hoses are turned on the strikers reminding one today of Selma Alabama.
Besides purely propaganda cinema, films were made that catered to the masses .Denise Youngblood declares that “some remarkable experimental films were made…but most Soviet films were unabashedly commercial products. These popular movies, designed to cater to the taste of the mass audience made a respectable showing against the formidable popularity of foreign films”(13). “Montage was not the stylistic norm for Soviet silent cinema. Most Soviet features of the 1920’s followed more conventional norms of storytelling, and many clearly imitated the Hollywood entertainment pictures that enjoyed such success in the Soviet commercial market”11. The Remarkable Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks5 is such a film and one of the most popular films made in 1924. It had everything that made the Hollywood western popular. There was a cowboy from America, fistfights, chases, and of course the good guys (Bolsheviks) versus the bad guys (street criminals). There is also a slapstick quality of the film that gives the impression that the Soviets were able to laugh at themselves as well as the American. In the end however, they do manage to install some propaganda, as the Bolsheviks prevail and convert the American to a “comrade”.
Bed and Sofa6 was another landmark popular film. Made in 1927, it shows that Soviet films made at that time encountered little censorship. It is the story of ménage-a-trois brought about by the lack of housing in Russia at the time. It at the same time paints a sympatric portrait of a woman facing the abortion decision. The acting style is natural as opposed to the exaggerated style of acting as in The Remarkable Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks5. The film looks like a loving portrait of Moscow in 1927. There are interesting montage train shots and even a filmed episode in an airplane. Besides the obvious ménage-a-trois story line, the lack of censorship is evident. Wife shares the small bed with each of the two men, the husband is shown at work eating his lunch under a statue with a large penis showing over his head. There are clear shots of the wife’s breast and as the husband leaves for work, he kisses the army buddy on the lips and the wife on the cheek. The film is propaganda free, except for a Stalin picture on the wall. Bed and Sofa is very reminiscent of an American bedroom comedy. You could almost picture Doris Day, Rock Hudson and Tony Randall starring in a remake.
The zenith of the experimental/Avant-garde movement took place in 1929 with the release of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera9. The film opens with these title cards:“ Exerpt from a camera operators diary .This film is an experiment in cinematic communication of real events without the help of intertitles , without the help of a story, without the help of theatre. This experimental work aims at creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature”9. The film stands today as a landmark of Soviet Montage film making. It is a hypnotic, dizzying journey through the director’s mind. It is filled with inter-cutting, shadows, slow & fact action, out of focus shots, double focus, and exposure montage of still photos, stop motion and multiple images. The film starts and ends with empty theatre chairs and intercuts with people filling them. The film is filled with intimate moments such as when the movie camera takes in everyday events in offices showing ordinary people getting marriages, divorce and death certificates. We see a man playing the famous “Three-card Monte” that has made its way to the present time. It has inventive moments when we see a dolly shot of the man and camera riding in a car filming and then shows what he had filmed. A woman cutting film, intercut with the actual film, as well as a superb lighting montage of underground workers fills the imagination of what life was in the Soviet Union. There is little propaganda in the film, however there is foreshadowing of what might come under Stalin’s reign. There is a poster on the wall of a man and a woman with the man holding a finger to his lips indicating “silence”. We also get a glimpse of men playing chess, when a big ear appears on screen. There are signs that we are indeed in a Soviet State with propaganda posters such as “defend the society of Soviet State” and “Cult Review”. There is a Proletarian Film Theatre, a poster of Lenin and women shooting guns at “Uncle Fascism”. The sports section at the end of the film could have come directly from the Germany Nazi films of the perfect Arian. The ending of the film is perfect as we see people in the theater viewing the film we have just seen. A camera eye comparable to the CBS eye sees all and a camera on a stand becomes almost human.
So why did the golden era have to end? Thomas J Saunders explains clearly in his review article “Art, Ideology, and Entertainment in Soviet Cinema”7 what happen to the Soviet Cinema after the twenties. “The relative ideological and economic freedom of the 1920s supported a pluralistic film culture, remembered for the avant-garde and revolutionary classics of Eisenstein…..After the first Party Conference on Cinema in 1928 the film industry suffered progressive economic and artistic decline being consigned by the tenets of Socialist Realism…..and the Stalin-cult of servility and artistic banality until the 1950s”. (86) The journey has been enlightening, and the idea that all Russian films in that era had to be pure propaganda, dispelled forever. You get a sense that these Soviet Directors made something very magical in a very difficult time.