To keep one’s words to a minimum whilst also maintaining intellectual authority over a subject is a true skill: to know one’s subject intimately and to distinguish with certainty what is and what is not essential for the reader’s elementary understanding. Birgit Beumers displays this skill in A History of Russian Cinema. With a main text of only 259 pages, Beumers navigates her reader’s way through 110 years of Russian cinema, highlighting the major and neglected landmarks of Russia’s cinema history with an easy precision that betrays her mastery of the subject. A welcome addition to Russian film history, Beumers’ work is a far weightier accomplishment than it looks. Although “only” an introduction, A History of Russian Cinema offers readers much that is different from earlier Russian film histories. Most impressively, the book is built on an enormous amount of close film viewing. Films from throughout Russia’s fascinating cinematic history (many of which this reviewer had never even heard of) are described in detail and related back to the historical and social contexts in which they were produced.
Beumers begins with a comprehensive chapter on pre-revolutionary Russian cinema. Many earlier English-language histories have lacked this, albeit for an understandable reason. It is only since 1989 that pre-Soviet Russian cinema has entered into widespread critical awareness in the West. In the meantime (between 1920 and 1990) the aesthetics of 1920s constructivism became so dominant in critical ideas about Soviet cinema that other Russian cinematic traditions have been framed in reference to this powerful, but equally short-lived, artistic movement. Beumers is keen to point out that although the montage movement of the 1920s represents a golden age in Russian cinema, it was preceded by a similarly unique silent filmmaking tradition in the 19teens. Working in the genres of psychological drama and melodrama, pioneer directors like Yakov Protazanov and Yevgeni Bauer (the now-recognised master of the period) developed a distinctly Russian approach to dramatic tone in order to depict a dark, melancholic vision of social life that was popular with Russian audiences. Perhaps most noteworthy in these early filmmakers’ innovations was their unusually pronounced use of film style (lighting, sets, camera framing and movement) to convey characters’ psychological states and emotions, which are so integral to melodrama and psychological drama: Beumers notes the “interesting stylistic devices” (p. 36) and “decorative style that characterised early Russian cinema.”(p. 33) Though used to different effects, this early preoccupation with the surface characteristics of the cinematic medium is perhaps not too far removed from the frenetic stylistic innovations of the Bolshevik cinema to come.
It was in 1918, effectively before the revolution had any significant impact on the film industry, that Lev Kuleshov began making the innovations in editing that led to the montage movement. As Beumers notes, these early innovations had nothing in essence to do with any philosophical allegiance to dialectical materialism. They had to do with Kuleshov’s interest in engaging audiences at a perceptual level, a virtue he found strongly apparent in Hollywood comedies:
Studying American films, Kuleshov explored the use of expressive movement to render emotion; to this end, he relied on real persons rather than schools … Kuleshov realised the possibility of creating space [through editing] … He thus determined that the content of a frame changes its meaning depending on its context. (p. 45)
This cross-fertilisation of Hollywood and Soviet traditions (each informing the other) is one of the more important points to recognise in film history. It was from Hollywood, via Kuleshov, that Sergei Eisenstein inherited the theory of juxtapositions that he would develop, so remarkably, into an explicitly Marxist-Leninist aesthetic.
Giving due emphasis to the golden age of narrative montage, Beumers also stresses the many other kinds of films made in the young Soviet Union during the 1920s. Dziga Vertov – whose relevance only seems to grow – is discussed in reference to the vibrant documentary and animation cultures of the period. The comedies of the FEKS group (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) are also given important emphasis. It was through these populist genre films, and others such as Protazanov’s famous sci-fi Aelita (1924), that Soviet film studios attracted the audiences needed to finance the far less popular experimental productions of the montage filmmakers. Ironically, given the feverish ideology embraced by many of the period’s Soviet artistes, Beumers notes that “the cinema for the workers had no market, and the cinemas that could return a profit needed to cater for audiences with bourgeois tastes.” (p. 69)
In contrast to a more recent revisionist argument put forward by Jamie Miller(1), Beumers describes Stalinist cinema in fairly stark terms as a period of mass industrial and bureaucratic centralisation and progressively stultifying artistic expression under Stalinist terror (a fairly accurate summary, I suggest). This was the age of “Socialist Realism”, the official doctrine adopted by the film industry in 1935 almost verbatim from the tenets outlined for Soviet literature a few months earlier. The doctrine was said to be built on three core values: socialist idea (ideinost), national character (naradnost) and Party loyalty (partiinost) (p. 78). More specifically, the revolutionary function of cinema was to present audiences with the “reality” of the Soviet socialist ideal (socialism + realism). The communist utopia of Marxist-Leninism was to be cinematically realised in the Stalinist here and now (no irony intended).
Three essential models fitted safely within the strict yet also ambiguous parameters of Socialist Realism: musical comedies; “conversion” dramas centred on a proletarian hero’s awakening to the socialist cause; and revisionist biopics of Russian and Soviet leaders. Beumers analyses Grigory Alexandrov’s The Circus (1936) as an exemplar of the musical comedy model. She also considers Chapayev (Georgi Vasiliev and Sergei Vasiliev, 1934) as an extremely important example of both a Stalinist “conversion” film and a biopic of a national hero. Released before the doctrine of Socialist Realism was introduced, Chapayev was hugely popular and seen by Joseph Stalin himself multiple times (rumour says dozens). Chapayev may well be one of the most influential films in history, if for all the wrong reasons; a film that set a course that other filmmakers could safely follow for the next 20 years.
Of particular interest is Beumers’ diagnosis of one obvious problem with Stalinist cinema, i.e. the fact that these films are consistently weak, especially in terms of narrative and character development. The main reason, she suggests, is a simple oversight of the core principle of dramaturgy, a principle Eisenstein knew very well: conflict. Conflict (between good and evil, light and dark) was more or less rejected as a dramatic principle through Socialist Realism. For there can be no conflict in the Socialist Utopia where the dialectical force of change has come to an end. Unfortunately, the problem with the Stalinist Utopia is that it produced some rather unappealing films. Beumers writes: “These films are unappealing because they use stereotypical role models of the good worker and the villain, or in the worse case, there is no villain to overcome at all.” (p. 92) She goes on to reasonably suggest that Stalinist cinema’s historical significance vastly outweighs its aesthetic interest.
When Stalin consolidated his power, the Soviet Union was producing around 350 feature films a year. A year before his death, the number was less than ten. This fact alone sheds light on how significant the 1950s Thaw was for Soviet cinema (as it was for all Soviet culture). Over the three years following Stalin’s death, film production rose over 1000% as a whole generation (if not two or three) was given a chance to express thoughts and feelings kept silent for 25 years. Nevertheless, Beumers stresses – as Josephine Woll has previously(2) – that not all was rosy during the high tide of the Thaw. Nikita Khrushchev’s declarations on matters artistic and cultural were frequently ambiguous, if not downright contradictory. Artists and intellectuals could never be too certain of their newfound liberties. Furthermore, the Thaw was quick to freeze over again. By the time cinema caught up with the Thaw thematically, aesthetically and philosophically, the walls were already beginning to close in. But in the space in between, some remarkable films with striking consistencies were made: Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1956), Lev Kulidzhandov’s The House Where I Live (1957) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut feature Ivan’s Childhood (1961). These and many others all adopted a resolutely humanist stance on the Great Patriotic War, shattering the silence Stalin had imposed on the horror, by portraying the war as a tragedy experienced by the individual.
Perhaps if there was a Thaw at all, it came in an instant, at the moment of Stalin’s death and was intensified by Khrushchev’s famous secret speech (denouncing Stalinism and its crimes) in 1956. At any rate, the Thaw was considerably shorter than the “Stagnation” that followed. Charting the early and obscure years of the Stagnation (1967-82), Beumers concentrates on those films that challenged the stifling atmosphere that set in, when less aggressive forms of political coercion became order of the day: censorship, coercion, endless bureaucratic delays and release restrictions. The case of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Roublev (1966/70) is famous in this regard, it having been shelved for five years. But others suffered worse fates, such as Andrei Konchalovsky’s Asya’s Happiness (1966), a film disallowed exhibition for being “too realistic”. Of particular note is Aleksandr Askoldov’s debut feature The Commisar (1967). Unusually for Goskino (the State Committee for Cinematography), writes Beumers, “the film was not banned for a scene, a theme or a tune; it was banned because of its profoundly pacifist message.” (p. 150) Askoldov’s film was, in other words, an especially dangerous production, contravening no one particular point in the code, but the code itself, the very idea of the code. The Commisar remained banned until 1987.
By the 1970s, such censorship tactics had changed to “deportations, exile and house arrests”:
The atmosphere of rebellion changed to one of resignation as the dissidents’ fight within the Soviet Union was superseded by the state’s attempt to eliminate any opposition. Therefore, feelings of despair often characterise the films of the 1970s. (p. 149)
We can witness this tangible melancholia in the films of the great Soviet auteurs of the period, films such as Larissa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1976) and Tarkovsy’s Stalker (1979). Coming of age in a time when a new Soviet society post-Stalin seemed possible, these “difficult” filmmakers were now stifled. Meanwhile, Beumers notes, many other filmmakers “stuck to potentially ‘safe’ material: either by adapting literature for the screen, or by continuing to exploit the popular genres of comedy, or by setting their films in the countryside.” (p. 160) Beumers considers the case of Nikita Mikhalkov, one of the few successful directors of the period, as a demonstration of the relative safeness of literary adaptation in Soviet culture.
In the Glasnost era of 1980s, the documentary form assumed a heightened degree of social significance: “Above all, new documentaries revealed the possibility of an open discussion of hitherto taboo topics … trying to unveil [history’s] hidden pages.” (p. 193) Georgian director Tengiz Abuladaze’s feature Repentance (1986) performed a similar task, “the first feature film to address the purges of the 1930s.” (p. 194) In such films, Beumers locates a desire “to trace the cause of the disease back to the past.” (p. 199) At the same time, a new kind of youth cinema came into existence, a cinema appealing to and representative of a new generation “who had no place in the society that surrounded them and could not identify with its values, who used drugs and alcohol to escape from an alienated and estranged reality.” (p. 199)
Paradoxically, in the 1990s filmmakers and audiences turned their attentions not to the possibilities of a post-Soviet future but to the securities of the Soviet past. “The loss of Soviet identity,” Beumers writes, “led to sudden nostalgia for Soviet films” (p. 216) “In exploring the past and cultural heritage, filmmakers avoided the present” (p. 226), that nebulous and intangible thing that was all the more uncertain in the New Russia. Beumers notes a consistent yearning for a concrete sense of national identity in the cinema of the period. Other films suggest a national yearning for an escape to another world. Perhaps the most interesting are the crime films of the period, such as Alexei Balabanov’s Brother (1997), for their reflection of a Russia now controlled by the underground. Beumers concludes her book with a short overview of the past decade in Russian cinema, which has seen a revival of the film industry, its so-called resurrection. Where some critics have dismissed contemporary Russian cinema as populist, derivative and sub-standard, Beumers notes that Russia currently produces blockbusters, popular genre films, animations, documentaries and the auteur cinema for which it is internationally known. One of the key points of this book is that Russia has always produced many different kinds of cinemas.
A review such as this can barely cover a selection of the many areas that Beumers explores with authority and clarity. This fine book condenses an enormous amount of information, insight and analysis into less than three hundred pages. Some may criticise the book for forcing too many films into a symptomatic mould, for treating the films too literally as reflections of their social and historical context. Given the scope of the book, however, this characteristic can be fairly understood as a result of necessary compromise. There are hoards of academic film books that cover only a small area of ground in a great deal of space. There are comparatively few that cover a terrain as large as Russian cinema with the brevity and focus that Beumers offers.
A History of Russian Cinema, by Birgit Beumers, Berg, Oxford and New York, 2009.