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Russian and Soviet Cinema, 1896 - 1953
The Beginnings to the Death of Stalin

Continued from Part One.

Dziga Vertov

The work of Dziga Vertov (born Denis Kaufman) was diametrically opposed to that of Eisenstein, but is just as rewarding and challenging. Suspicious of "unreal" staged fiction, Vertov called a for a radical film language that apotheosized the camera lens (the "cine-eye") as superior to the human eye in capturing a cinematic reality. Perhaps not entirely consistently, he claimed his work as objective documentary while using extreme stylization in composition, special effects and editing. Although later eclipsed by accusations of formalism in his own country, Vertov's interest in everyday life would go on to influence cinéma vérité, Direct Cinema, the French New Wave and Dogme 95.

Vertov, whose pseudonym translates as "whizzing top," started his film career in news reels, reporting from the front of the Civil War and also screening his works in the agit-trains. Trained in psycho-neurology in the field of perception, Vertov was able to use his background to experiment with montage techniques. Throughout the early 1920s, he published a slew of manifestos and theoretical papers on cinema while at the same time producing a series of features that sought to present "life caught unawares."

The culmination of this came in 1929 with his magnus opus Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom), one of a series of otherwise unrelated productions at the time that were "symphonies" to the great cities of Europe. In Vertov's case, the city was a composite one, including scenes from Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, but the point was to capture general Soviet reality not that of an individual place. As the title suggests, the film follows a filmmaker who is shooting a documentary about life in the city. Not only is the whole premise of the film exceedingly self-referential, it also contains an unusually prescient subtext that shows cinema as a medium of manipulation and casts doubt on its own veracity.

Vertov went on to experiment with sound in films such as Three Songs of Lenin (Tri pesni o Lenine, 1934). The adulation of the European avant garde and a steady stream of awards protected Vertov's position at first. But it was not to last, and Vertov eventually went back to editing newsreels.

Aleksandr Dovzhenko

Although Zvenigora (1928) was Dovzhenko's fourth film project, it is often labelled as his debut, so violently did it fling him from provincial obscurity to bright stardom in the firmament of Soviet montage. Dovzhenko, aside from his distinctive film language, is distinguished from his contemporaries by his painterly eye (he trained as an artist), his interest in the folklore of his native Ukraine, his attempts to reconcile modernity and tradition and his lyricism.

Zvenigora's sweeping narrative encapsulates the whole of Ukrainian history, and was, as the director himself put it, "in 2000 meters of film, a whole millennium." Replete with culturally specific references and adopting an ambitious narrative structure, Zvenigora was notoriously difficult to follow for Soviet audiences at the time. Even Eisenstein's account of the Moscow premiere of Zvenigora suggests as much confusion as admiration. Perhaps it is no surprise then that nobody has yet risked springing it on the American public via a DVD release. Arsenal (1929), was also historical, commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of the battle for Kiev during the Civil War. The battle was noteworthy for a six-day siege in which Bolshevik irregulars managed to defend the city's munitions factory - the "Arsenal" of the title - from the Tsarist "Whites." Although the narrative is firmly rooted in one time period, Arsenal is thematically more ambitious. Not only did the director show the Civil War victory to be a result of the commitment of ordinary people (rather than the leadership of the Party), Dovzhenko made a brutal film that refused to glorify war or revolution. Arsenal's triumphalist ending (slightly at odds with the rest of the film's tone) is a retelling of a Ukrainian folk legend about an 18th-century leader of a peasant uprising.


Arsenal sparked a storm of critical response, which the increasingly confident and respected director was able to weather. But his next feature, Earth (Zemlia, 1930), was too controversial for the director's reputation to survive intact. His supporters, however, instantly, and correctly, identified it as the masterpiece of Dovzhenko's career.

The film was intended to illustrate the state's new policy of collectivization of agriculture and the end of "rural capitalism." Ukraine, as the "bread basket" of the Soviet Union, bore the brunt of this transformation. And, indeed, Earth does argue in favor of collectivism over small peasant holdings.

Once again, though, the Party is entirely absent from Dovzhenko's vision, and the film is a paean to the rhythms and cycles of nature - an antithetical notion to communism's insistence on linear progression - and is lush with images of fertility and sexuality. Unlike Zvenigora and Arsenal, the plot is marked by narrative simplicity and, although the story is filled with confrontation and, eventually, murder, the film is a supreme example of poetic lyricism.

Dovzhenko would continue to make films, but the increasingly oppressive political environment tamed the once-bold director. His legacy, though, would not be forgotten, and the feature film studios in Kiev would later be named after him.

Entertainment Film in the 1920s

Montage was a major innovation that has made Russian cinema famous throughout the world. But it was not appreciated by Russian audiences at the time. The classics of montage generally got small releases and were seen by a relatively small number of people.

Far more popular than these exercises in the avant garde use of film language were genre films whose first aim was to entertain, returning the cinema to its popular roots. Although frequently less than ideological, these films often found favor with the authorities as they could be exported, thus bringing the Bolsheviks much needed hard currency.

One of the big coups of Soviet cinema in the early days was succeeding in wooing one of the big names of Tsarist-era cinema back to work in the country - Iakov Protazanov. Given his connections with the old guard of filmmaking, perhaps it is no surprise that Protazanov should make far more "traditional" cinema, with strong characters and story-lines; he was, after all, one of the most popular and prolific directors of the time.

It's a strange twist of fate, then, that the only film of his to be available on DVD in the US is not one of his "popular" works but his semi-experimental feature Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), the first film he made after his return. Commonly described as the first Soviet science fiction film and noted for its expressionist costume and set design, Aelita is both heralded as a precursor to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) and sometimes dismissively written off as communist propaganda - an accusation which is completely baffling, given that the film argues that the ideals of revolutions are prone to being hijacked by tyrants.

Protazanov learned his lesson from Aelita and never made such a densely plotted and avant garde film again. Yet Aelita already shows his interest in popular cinema and conventional genre forms, such as the detective story, slapstick comedy and romance, while the expressionist portions of the film, although striking, take up relatively little screen time, causing some critics to question whether it should be called a science fiction film at all.

A refreshing alternative to the giddy experimentalism of the 1920s can be found in the hilarious comedies of Boris Barnet. Two of them are available on DVD, Girl with the Hatbox (Devushka s korobkoi, 1927) and his first sound film, Outskirts (Okraina, 1933). Although light-hearted, these are also works of considerable perception and artistry. Outskirts is also the title of one of the most original Russian films of the 1990s, Petr Lutsik's satiric homage to 1920s and 30s Soviet cinema that quotes dozens of the classics, including its nod to Barnet's film.

Worth noting is that Girl with the Hatbox features the comic genius of Vladimir Fogel, an extraordinary chameleon actor who starred in some of the best comedies of the age. He can also be seen in Kuleshov's By the Law, Pudovkin's Chess Fever and Abram Room's Bed and Sofa. The ability to entertain was obviously a deceptive reflection of his personality; he committed suicide in 1929, at a time when the regime was becoming more repressive. Barnet himself also took his own life, although not until 1965.

The Female View

Early Soviet directors were predominantly male, and their films were chiefly masculine in nature, dwelling on themes such as revolution, progress, the machine age and male bonding. Only one female director of note stands out from the era, Esfir Shub, who worked in documentary and was an early influence on Eisenstein. Her work today, though, is chiefly honored for its preservation of rare footage from the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods rather than for its aesthetic value, and not even her most famous work, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Pad Romanovykh, 1927) is available on DVD.

There are, however, a couple of a films by male directors that notably tried to represent the female perspective on the social and political transformations under way. One of them, Aelita: Queen of Mars, has already been mentioned. Although its central character is a man, the film presents an argument that must have resonated for many females: that it was time for male revolutionaries, whom the film presents as being sexually immature, to settle down and act their age.

But the "feminist" film par excellence of the period is Abram Room's Bed and Sofa (Tret'ya Meshchanskaya, 1927). Arriving in Mosow, Volodya has nowhere to stay and goes to an old friend, Kolya, who shares his small room with Ludya. Despite the lack of space, Kolya agrees to put his old friend up on their sofa. Ludya, at first angry, later falls for Volodya, who shows her more attention than Kolya. It is soon Kolya who is sleeping on the sofa and Volodya in the bed. Ludya finds that she has gained little, though, as Volodya's attentions begin to subside and the two men's friendship blossoms once again. Before long, Volodya is back on the sofa. Things come to a head, however, when Ludya finds out she is pregnant and, since it is not clear who the father is, she is forced to have an abortion. While waiting her turn at the clinic, she watches some children playing outside and has a sudden change of heart - and leaves both men to raise the child on her own.

Bed and Sofa stirred up a storm of controversy and was quickly banned; its discussion of sexual inequality was too frank and damning to the patriarchal system to be tolerated, while many considered its advocacy of single motherhood to be immoral. Although the October Revolution had sought to overthrow bourgeois morality, the late 1920s saw a consolidation of Tsarist sexual mores and, in the period of the Great Terror, the notion of women as subservient housewives was reinforced.

Women briefly appeared as independent characters again during the Second World War, as Moscow wanted to ensure that they would join the resistance if their area fell to the advancing Nazis. But following the defeat of Germany, the massive depletion of the Soviet population, and particularly men, meant that the only role acceptable for women, in life or cinema, was as prospective or actual mothers.

Sound and the Great Terror

The introduction of sound in the 1930s had a huge effect on Soviet cinema, creating two great challenges.

The first problem was how to reconcile sound techniques with montage, and Eisenstein quickly realized that sound could mean that cinema would return to a more theater-like presentation of action, with the sound added as mere "illustration." Rapid visual editing could not be matched by rapid editing of sound in a way that would be decipherable to the audience, and a continuous aural experience demanded a parallel visual continuity which montage could not supply (Pudovkin's sound film, Deserter [Dezertir, 1933] amply illustrates the mismatch). In short, sound cinema made Soviet montage obsolete.

Not to be defeated, Eisenstein immersed himself in sound theory and proposed that sound would work best when the music undercut the image rather than reinforced it. He was able to put his ideas to the test in his film Aleksandr Nevsky (1938), which had an original score by Sergei Prokofiev.

The second problem was that of the script. Sound cinema enabled film to say so much more. Whereas previously the message was carried visually, now it could be carried more directly in the dialogue. But this was a double-edged sword. As well as allowing a plainer, simpler cinema, it also meant that it was more subject to censorship. As a result, film production dropped as scripts struggled to make it past the censors, who were monitoring words now rather than abstract associations.

These major changes were exacerbated by a reorganization of the arts and the promulgation of Socialist Realism - the aesthetic doctrine that tried to bring to life Stalin's famous dictum, "Life has become more joyous, comrades, life has become happier." As Stalin increased his grip on the reins of the country (murdering the only plausible challenger to his power, Sergei Kirov, in 1934), he launched the Great Terror in which thousands of people vanished into the Soviet gulag (prison camps) in Siberia. Artistic expression became more difficult - and dangerous. Irony, expressionism and "inner soul drama" were definitely to be avoided if a filmmaker wanted to stay out of trouble.

It required a certain amount of skill to produce a film, such as Mark Donskoi's The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (Detstvo Gor'kogo, 1938), that was exciting enough to please audiences and yet not contain anything politically problematic. Also highly popular in this period were Stalinist musicals, which had an uncannily similar history to Nazi musicals in Germany at the same time.

Nevertheless, the 1930s were not without brave souls who dared to challenge Stalin in film, such as Lev Kuleshov, whose The Great Consoler (Velikii uteshitel, 1933) is a complex critique of artists who refused to tell the truth about the social conditions around them, and Aleksandr Medvedkin, whose Happiness (Shchaste, 1935) is an outrageously irreverent satire, complete with one of the strangest images in of all Russian film - nuns wearing see-through tops. Medvedkin, who claimed with a straight face throughout his life that he was a committed Bolshevik, has been the subject of two documentaries by Chris Marker.

Eisenstein's Aleksandr Nevsky largely toed the Party line, thus rehabilitating him and giving him the freedom to make the audacious and sophisticated cinematic attack on Stalin in the dictator's lifetime, the epic Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny, 1943-46). The film was originally intended to be in three parts, but Eisenstein died before the third part could be completed. But parts I and II alone stand as solid Shakespearean dramas about power and tyranny, complete with original music from Prokofiev, lavish sets and costumes and truly astounding camerawork. Part II is particularly dizzying, subjectively taking us into the causes of Ivan's brutal ruling style - his madness. Stalin had no trouble in seeing through the comparison Eisenstein was making, and the film was first recut and then banned.

After the war, Russian cinema was marked by hagiographic works that idolized the position of Stalin in Russian history. As in the early 1930s, there was a shortage of scripts that met the strict criteria of the time, and many of the films shown in cinemas had been stolen from the retreating Germans. Also looted from the invaders was color film stock, and Russia was able to make its first color films (Ivan the Terrible contains some sequences in dazzling color).

Essentially, though, Russian art cinema was in hibernation and, after Ivan the Terrible, it would take more than ten years for a Russian director to make a film that would be respected on the international cinema scene. In the intervening period, two important events had to happen: in 1953, Stalin died and, in 1956, Khruschev gave his "secret speech" denouncing Stalinism. It sent waves through the establishment and allowed a whole new type of cinema to be made. And, with Stalin now a bête noire, Ivan the Terrible could finally be shown to the Soviet public in 1958.

Andrew James Horton is the Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye, an invaluable film journal that originated as a column for the Central Europe Review.

GreenCine Recommends...


  • Mad Love: The Films of Evgeny Bauer. When this collection was released on DVD in December 2003, Craig Phillips wrote up a glowing recommendation. Click the title to be won over.

    Battleship Potemkin

  • Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). One of the most renowned and "quoted" films in the entire history of cinema. Cinenaut has even made a list of films that have "paid homage to the magnificent Odessa steps sequence."

  • Abram Room's Bed and Sofa (1927). For the Onion, Noel Murray writes that the film "offers the common treats of the Russian silents, particularly the inventively expressionist montage linking naturalistic scenes of people building, cleaning, or playing with their cats. The competition between early Soviet filmmakers and their ideological commitments spawned a string of movies focused on people, but dripping with style."

  • Vsevolod Pudovkin's Storm Over Asia (1928). 75to81 writes: "Pudovkin intelligently explores the legitimate case for an independent Central Asia casting stones at both the West's involvement in the region and organized religion... amazing cinematography, editing, and direction."

  • Aleksandr Dovzhenko's Earth (1930). Jonathan Rosenbaum: "The compositions are breathtaking, the evocations of death and social transformation powerful, the eroticism remarkably potent. Incontestably one of the greatest of all Soviet films."

Going Deeper

  • Iakov Protazanov's Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924). Russia's first big-budget popular entertainment presages both Metropolis and Flash Gordon.

  • Vsevolod Pudovkin's Chess Fever (1925). This light comedic short serves as a fine reminder that it wasn't all just a big heavy montage of peasant revolt and dialectical materialism in early Soviet cinema.

  • Boris Barnet's Girl with the Hatbox (1927). Same goes for this feature; without giving away too much, it even has a happy end. As one IMDb user put it, "It could almost have been a Hollywood movie, except the photography is better."

  • Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Parts I (1944) and II (1946). Well, those dates are rather slippery, actually. Part II wasn't released until 1958, ten years after Eisenstein's death. The Criterion discs in particular offer a wealth of context on a deep and deeply troubled epic.

Recommended Reading (and Sources)


  • The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema.
  • Lynne Attwood, Red Women on the Silver Screen.
  • Vance Kepley, Jr., In the Service of the State: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko.
  • Yuri Tsivian, Ivan the Terrible.
  • Yuri Tsivian, Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception.


Go back to Part One.

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