Russian and Soviet Cinema, 1896 - 1953

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The Beginnings to the Death of Stalin
by Andrew James Horton

Introduction

In almost every single country in the world, silent cinema is under-represented on DVD, reflecting a wider lack of critical interest. One of the few exceptions to this rule (along with the US) is the Soviet Union. It's a testament to the power and originality of early Russian cinema, which has managed to overcome prejudice against silent film and associations with a totalitarian regime, that it remains so cherished in the pantheon of world cinema classics.

Strike

Soviet films of the 1920s did much to define the cinematic vocabulary of modern Hollywood, producing a range of effects designed to emotionally manipulate the audience. It's a debt that's not forgotten, and even today's crop of American directors have at various times paid direct or indirect homage to their Russian cinematic forebears.

Although many of these Soviet works were intended as propaganda and many of the directors truly believed in communism, the films usually brought out fiercely independent streaks in their creators. In fact, most of the classics of the period went down badly with the communist authorities of the time who disagreed with the directors' own visions of what communism should and shouldn't be and distrusted the film language of these works. Ironically, as these works were getting bad receptions in Moscow from the apparatchiks, they were also being censored by the West, and restoration of films from the period to their proper, original form is still ongoing.

After the explosion of creativity in the 1920s, the advent of sound presented a stumbling block to Soviet cinema. Now with a clear technical disadvantage and with Stalin's Great Terror setting in, the 1930s produced only a few memorable classics. Many directors who had become famous in 1920s were either forced to alter their style or simply could not work.

The Second World War was a boost for Soviet cinema, and it acquired international prestige of sorts with its anti-Nazi propaganda. Mark Donskoi's The Rainbow (Raduga, 1944), for example, won a prestigious US Motion Pictures and Radio Association Prize and President Roosevelt praised the film, although as an aesthetic work of art, it is justly forgotten today. After the war, Soviet cinema's meager production rate was dominated by works glorifying Stalin.

Yet the bare trickle of works of interest in the 1930s, 40s and early 50s only serves to underline the achievement of directors who in the 1920s were able to propagate their artistic vision in the face of a controlling state that was at best apathetic to their talent and at worst downright hostile.

Tsarist Cinema

Russian cinema did not begin with the communists. The first films were shown in Russia in 1896 and within ten years domestic interest in cinema-going was so strong that it led to the beginnings of domestic production. With its origins as a novelty in stalls at fairs, cinema was seen as entertainment rather than an art form.

Certainly, the experience of watching cinema was different: series of short films would run continuously and people would flit in and out as they fancied. The audience was often raucous and, despite the fact that cinema was "silent" (or "dumb" as Russians, perhaps more accurately, call it), a number of the early films were based around songs that viewers could sing along with. There were a number of historical productions and adaptations of well-known works of literature as well, since cinema was seen as working better when the audience was already familiar with the plot.

The real breakthough for Russian cinema was the start of the First World War. Imports were hindered, and demand for domestic films rocketed. The length of productions had by this time increased, and Evgeny Bauer became the first Russian director to insist that he have overall creative control for all of his films' elements (set design, lighting, costumes, script, editing) and not just marshal the actors in the shooting process.

Although firmly rooted in melodrama and often exploiting such clichés as the little country girl corrupted by the big city, Bauer's films are of much interest, rooted as they are in symbolism, Greek tragedy and the great Russian novels of the 19th century. Even today, his choice of themes seems adventurous, albeit morbid, and his sense of mise-en-scène is striking.

The sensitive treatment of the degradation of women by a patriarchal society give the works an almost feminist bent to them. Twilight of a Woman's Soul (Sumerki zhenskoi dushi, 1913), for example, is about a woman who kills her rapist; but when she marries, her husband rejects her when she lets him in on her dark secret. The husband later realizes his mistake and begs forgiveness. Too late.

The communists hated these opulent, bourgeois films, and they languished in vaults unseen until a recent revival. This film, and two others by Bauer, are on a DVD collection appropriately entitled Mad Love.

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