Speaking in the Voice of the Workers: Komsomol: Leader of Electrification (Esfir Shub, 1932)
Esfir Shub is known primarily for her “found footage” films of the mid-1920s, which re-edited pre-Revolutionary Russian newsreels and archival footage to create new, politicised narratives in Padenie dinastii Romanovykh (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, 1927) and Rossiya Nikolaia II i Lev Tolstoy (The Russia of Nicholas II and Lev Tolstoy, 1928). Already in 1927, however, she inserted a small segment shot specifically for her new compilation film, Velikiy put (The Great Road), an overview of the first ten years of the Soviet state. The Russia of Nicholas II also had a contemporary epilogue (the celebration of Tolstoy’s centennial), while Shub’s next film, Segodnia (Today, 1930, shown in the US under the title Cannons or Tractors), relied heavily on contemporary newsreel footage.
Komsomol – shef elektrifikatsii (Komsomol: Leader of Electrification, 1932) was Shub’s first film that was edited entirely from the footage shot specifically for it. It was also her first sound film. Despite a clearly defined, though perhaps rather abstract, theme (rapid development of the production and use of electrical power in the Soviet Union), it also turned out to be Shub’s most self-reflexive and even autobiographical work, a status which she herself was ready to accept.1
At the time of the first Five-Year Plan (1928–32), the members of the Komsomol (the Young Communist League), were urged to take the most active and often militant part in the efforts of industrialisation. Thus, Shub was not alone in describing (or, perhaps, prescribing?) their leadership. Mikhail Kalatozov dedicated his agitational film Gvozd v sapoge (Nail in the Boot, 1932) about the potentially disastrous outcomes of a badly-made footwear to the “militant press organ of the Trans-Caucasian Komsomol, the Young Worker newspaper”. The unofficial order that various organisations, including Komsomol, should take over certain important but problematic areas of Soviet life (it could be as large as the country’s electric grid or as small as a film crew falling behind schedule) was referred to as shefstvo (leadership or, more accurately, patronage).
The film moves from a Moscow factory that produces light bulbs to a Leningrad plant, then to Armenia, and finally culminates with the opening of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station (Dneprostroi) on 10 October 1932. The episode at the Leningrad plant was directed by Shub and staged for the film in the sense that the crew itself had been tasked with being the leaders/patrons of the construction of a power generator. The generator was needed for the Dneprostroi Dam but the plant had fallen behind, so the filmmakers were asked to hasten the production. However, by the time the crew got to Leningrad, the generator had been finished, so instead Shub spent some time and effort exposing the reasons it had been late in the first place. The festivities dedicated to the generator’s successful production and shown in the film therefore also include the speeches about the mistakes that had been made.
On the other hand, for her first documentary sound film, Shub was given little negative footage, and even less time to film. She was thus heavily dependent on the patronage of the Komsomol cells and of its bureaucratic leadership for arranging and/or permitting filming at various locations around the Soviet Union. After the film’s release, she made it clear that it was both about the Komsomol and for the Komsomol: its task was to show the involvement of some of the members of the Young Communist League in the task of electrification, but also to show to the rest of the members what electrification is and how important it is – in order to encourage even more involvement.2
At the moment when filmmakers were tasked with providing instructional films for the country’s working population instead of previous fictional entertainment, Komsomol inevitably became self-reflexive. The coming of sound, a time of upheaval for the Soviet cinema, was thematised in the opening episodes, in which the film staged its own dependence on electricity, in a way reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929). In one of the shots, we can see Shub’s assistant director, Nata Vachnadze, at a switchboard during a recording of a theremin performance. Both her name and her face would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary viewers.
Vachnadze, a Georgian actress and a star of the Soviet screen in the mid-20s, applied for the position of director’s assistant after the filming had already begun, according to Shub’s memoirs, because there were no more roles offered to her.3
As much as Komsomol showcases electrification projects around the Soviet Union, from Moscow to the Caucuses, it also exhibits the multilingual soundscape of early Soviet sound cinema, soon to be suppressed in favour of the unified and normative speech of the Party.4 At the beginning of the film, a medley of European languages is presented: first, a telephone operator speaking German, then a radio announcer speaking English and German again; then French is heard. These fragments of speech are not accompanied by subtitles or other modes of translation, and are not meant to be understood in their entirety: instead, they serve as a sign of the hope that the language of cinema will continue to transcend borders even after the loss of silence, as well as a sign of the internationalism of the Soviet idea and the Soviet effort of remaking the world, not just rebuilding the country. The words “plan”, “Stalin”, “Lenin”, “Komsomol”, “proletariat”, and, of course, “electrification” prove to be clear in any language. The film, in fact, is filled with direct speech, most of it recorded on location, also in various languages and accents of the Soviet Republics.
Speech becomes just one of the many elements of the film’s soundtrack. Shub wanted to experiment with recording sound on location as well as with recording separate “wild track” sound, which included the noise of construction sites and falling water, moving crowds and singing birds, the tinkling of a portable phonograph and the clanking of machines. An exploration of the possibilities of sound cinema also included, on the one hand, a scene of dancing workers, playing traditional musical instruments, and, on the other hand, employing a young Modernist composer, Gavriil Popov, to write music for the film. The dance scene, which seems most improbable, almost surreal, today, was also questioned by contemporary viewers, but Shub insisted that the scene had not been staged and that she herself had been surprised by the abundance of cheerful music during breaks (even if the workers’ faces do not look particularly cheerful in this scene). It was the optimism and energy of the young Soviet workers that Shub said she wanted Popov to translate into his score – Sergei Eisenstein, who went on to work with Popov on the ill-fated Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow, 1935-37) called his music for Komsomol a “wonderful audiovisual victory.”5
Shub referred to her film, apparently echoing colleagues’ assessment, as autobiographical: to her, it meant that Komsomol was imbued with its own subjectivity and desire to not only reflect industrialisation but to participate in it through the means of cinema. She framed this sentiment in terms of verbal utterance as well: “I will learn to speak in the voice of the class for which and together with which I want to keep working.”6 For Shub, the film was also organically connected to her previous montage works, which she saw as “films about the people who, through a combination of records, present a clear image of a certain era.”7 Komsomol was a chance for her to work, for the first time, not with existing material but with actual people that needed to be captured on film, with their actual voices and words that needed to be recorded and heard, even as these people were sometimes overshadowed and dwarfed by the machines that they produced.
About the author:
Natalie Ryabchikova holds a PhD in Film Studies and Slavic from the University of Pittsburgh. She teaches at the American Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre School.
- Esfir Shub, Zhizn moia – kinematograf (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1972), p. 283. ↩
- Ibid., p. 281. ↩
- Esfir Shub, Krupnym planom (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1959), pp. 201–02. ↩
- See Evgeny Margolit, “The Problem of Heteroglossia in Early Soviet Sound Cinema (1930-35)”, in Lilya Kaganovsky and Masha Salazkina (eds.), Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014), pp. 119–28. ↩
- Kevin Bartig, “The correspondence of Sergei Eisenstein and Gavriil Popov, 1933-1939”, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 11:2 (2017): 165. ↩
- Esfir Shub, Zhizn’ moia—kinematograf (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1972), p. 285. ↩
- Ibid., p. 282. ↩