There is a provocative dimension, perhaps, in the title of this dossier: one hundred years of Soviet cinema? How is this possible, if the USSR itself, as a geopolitical entity, only lasted seven decades, before its spectacular demise in 1991, when the rule of the Communist Party was overthrown and the union shattered into its fifteen constitutive republics? How can we speak of the continued existence of Soviet cinema in the quarter-century since this apocalyptic event? It is definitively not because, as bellicose proponents of the new wave of Russophobia might have it, the Putin administration has virtually restored the old Soviet order in everything but name. Rather, Soviet cinema continues to exist, and will continue to exist for many years to become, for two main reasons.
Firstly, because films made during the Soviet era are still with us, with a few tragic exceptions.1 This is the nature of the cinema: films exist, not only long after they are made, but even well after the social and political framework in which they are realised has perished. At home and abroad, Battleship Potemkin, Man with a Movie Camera, The Cranes Are Flying, The Colour of Pomegranates, Stalker and so many other landmark works of Soviet cinema continue to be watched by audiences, discussed among circles of cinephiles, written about by scholars and referenced (even parodied) in new films.
Secondly, because, even to this day, the history of the USSR – the boundless optimism it promised and the nightmarish reality it brought about – looms large in the cinema of Russia and the other former Soviet republics. Many of the major films of the post-1991 era – such as Khrustalyov, My Car, Russian Ark, Cargo 200 and Leviathan – have participated in the vast project of digesting the tragic history of the Soviet experiment, with its multiple swerves between revolutionary excitement and sanguinary repression, between breakneck progress and social decay, and between moments of triumph (defeating the Nazi war machine, launching a man into space) and debilitating, often self-imposed, setbacks. Indeed, there are no signs that this process of coming to grips with the country’s past shows any sign of abating.
The impetus for this dossier is, of course, the centenary of the Russian revolution – and more precisely the night of November 7, 1917, when a Bolshevik-led uprising stormed the Winter Palace and overthrew the Provisional Government, thereby establishing the world’s first proletarian state. Few moments in the twentieth century have proved to have historical resonances as momentous as this event – even if its long-term impact has often been downplayed in the years after the Cold War came to a close. In Russia itself, the centenary passed with barely a ripple of official recognition, reflective of the ambiguous position the revolution has in official historiography. Elsewhere, its pertinence may be more keenly felt, especially with the recent rise of radical political movements out of the wreckage of neoliberal capitalism.
In power, the Bolsheviks were quick to recognise the potency of the cinema in their efforts to forge a new, socialist order. Famously, Lenin even reportedly claimed that “Of all the arts, the most important for us is the cinema.” Efforts to martial filmmaking as a revolutionary instrument, however, were hampered by the disarray and deprivation of the Civil War years – it is notable that the first entry in this dossier dates from 1924. Before that watershed year, would-be Soviet directors were nonetheless engaged in filmmaking activities: hording scraps of recycled celluloid to make short newsreel strips, as Vertov did, or even, as Kuleshov did, resorting to directing “films” without any film stock at all, blocking out scenes with actors and cameras despite the inability to record their efforts. The second half of the decade, by contrast, was the veritable big bang of Soviet cinema: Kuleshov and Vertov were joined by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Barnet, Medvedkin, Shub and Kozintsev in a wave of innovation in film form that revolutionised the art form on a global level, and which still serves as a point of inspiration for artists hoping to merge radical politics with avant-garde aesthetics. This was a time when montage was in the ascendency, an approach to filmic construction that was seen as a visual expression both of the revolutionary ethos of the Bolsheviks and of the dialectical materialist worldview that underpinned it. Foremost among the proponents of “dialectical montage”, on both the level of theoretical elaboration and practical application, was Eisenstein, and in conjunction with this dossier we are proud to publish a brand new Great Directors profile on him by Julia Vassilieva.2
The free-wheeling experimentation of the late 1920s was brought to a jarring halt by the political repression of the 1930s, with the “socialist realist” artistic doctrine stringently enforced amid a wave of purges, arrests and executions. Stalin was not above providing his personal input to prospective scripts, advice which was not to be taken lightly – but under his rule filmmaking in the USSR markedly declined both in qualitative and quantitative terms. And yet, despite the supremacy of propaganda cinema, this was still an era capable of yielding works of the beauty of Chapaev, By the Bluest of Seas, Ivan the Terrible and The Fall of Berlin.
The death of Stalin, and the ensuing cultural thaw instigated by Khrushchev, gave renewed impetus to Soviet filmmakers in the late 1950s, and in the 1960s the nation was witnessing something of a second cinematic golden age, with a new generation of directors taking inspiration less from their silent-era forefathers, and more from the “new wave” cinemas of France, Italy and Eastern Europe. The relationship that many of these filmmakers had with the Soviet state was also markedly different to that which prevailed in the early years of Bolshevik rule. In contrast to the utopian celebrations of revolutionary transformation in the 1920s, directors such as Tarkovsky, German and Parajanov now decried the crushingly depressing nature of late-Soviet life, and under Brezhnev’s increasingly authoritarian rule, were censored, imprisoned or forced into exile.
Upon his ascension to power in 1985, Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost offered a brief moment of buoyancy for Soviet filmmaking, and figures such as Sokurov, Pichul and Muratova used the window of openness to depict their country in an unprecedentedly unflinching light. But the totalising social collapse in the years following 1991 obliterated the economic basis for film production in the “sixth of the world” that had been covered by the USSR. In 1985, 4.2 billion movie tickets were sold in the Soviet Union, the most of any country in the world – more than the US, more than India even. The average Soviet citizen went to the cinema 14 times a year. A decade later this had dropped by more than 95%: in Russia barely 50 million entries were recorded in 1995 (one for every three inhabitants). Theatres closed down, studios went bankrupt, filmmakers and technicians suffered long bouts of unemployment as the entire region went into economic meltdown. It is perhaps symptomatic of this creative and social abyss that the years 1991-1996 are totally unrepresented in this dossier.
In the last two decades, however, cinema in the former Soviet territories has undergone something of a rebirth, with the rise of new auteurs such as Balabanov, Bartas and Omirbaev. In Russia, a viable film industry has managed to re-establish itself, partly, it must be said, as the result of state policy under Putin.3 As unlikely as it sounds, Russia is one of the few places in the world where a genuinely national cinema is reasserting itself. Amidst a great deal of commercial output which even puts Hollywood into the shade with its tawdry cynicism, directors such as Loznitsa and Zvyagintsev set out to probe the fault lines of contemporary Russian society. In doing so, however, they once again have to partake in the delicate dance between artistic creativity and political might that marked so much of cinema in the Soviet eraera – and which is also attested to in Cerise Howard’s report, in this issue, on a FIPRESCI colloquium dedicated to Russian cinema that was held in St. Petersburg in November.4.
With more than fifty articles dedicated to individual films, “100 Years of Soviet Cinema” attempts to survey the vast landscape of Soviet, and post-Soviet, filmmaking. Many of the canonical works of film history are covered, but, in the spirit of Bernard Eisenschitz’s call for “another history” of Soviet cinema,5 so are films and genres that have received less interest from international critics and scholars, even if they were popular successes domestically – films in this category include Wild Swans by Tsekhanovski, Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures by Gaidai and The Irony of Fate by Ryazanov. Some of the articles in this dossier are reprinted from earlier Senses of Cinema articles, while others are newly commissioned pieces. Of particular note here are those contributions written by the members of a new generation of scholars on Soviet cinema, who are able to give a fresh perspective on films that, perhaps more than in any of the other major national cinemas, retain a sense of vitality and youthfulness – enthusiasm, as Vertov would put it. It is in the hands of these writers and their successors that the second century of Soviet cinema will be entrusted.
- Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow is only the most notable example of the many Soviet films lost to the terrible vicissitudes of history. ↩
- http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/great-directors/sergei-eisenstein/ ↩
- Witness, for instance, the lavish support recently given to Sokurov’s Faust, the production of which itself represented something of a Faustian bargain for the filmmaker. ↩
- http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/festival-reports/howard-festival-russia/ ↩
- See Bernard Eisenschitz (ed.), Lignes d’ombre: une autre histoire du cinéma russe (1926-1968) (Milan: Mazzotta, 2000). ↩