19 Dec 2009

Soviet Cinema: A Brief History

Ah Soviet Russia, why is it so many of us admire your rule of tyranny over Eastern Europe. It must be your subtlety, whilst big brother Germany got all the headlines you just sat there quietly in the corner scheming away. It wasn’t till uncle Sam started to notice your growth that things started to go a bit off course. 

For years the Soviet Union tried to impose itself on the world stage as the nation to both fear and respect. We’re all familiar with their sporting propaganda, the image of women with better facial stuble than most of us could ever dream off, tucking their unnatural packages between their legs before starting the relay will stay cemented in our minds for years. However those days are long gone, and with Russia now a minor player in the world of sport, with nothing more than an adequate national football team and an athletics squad that with new drug testing routines is left with not much more than failed mail order brides and ex weightlifting champions. What really is left to boast about?

Similarly to Nazi Germany though, The Soviet Union did understand that the loyalty of the people could be influenced by art. Yet while Nazi Germany were putting on classical concerts to tempt the Jews into taking ‘vitamin pills’, the Soviet Union were more concerned with gaining acclaim throughout the world as the true cultural hub of Europe. St Petersburg after all was built to showcase the wonders of Russia great cultural history. That’s not to say that this ‘art’  wasn’t heavily censored to control the people, but still it has left us with some of the greatest classical music, plays and novels of European history. Yet whilst we could compile a list as long as the Urals of famous historic Russian artists and novelists you’d be hard pressed to fill a notepad sheet with a list of modern alternatives. The one area of this Soviet cultural push that still remains today is their cinema. Although not as large a player as say the Korean film industry it has constantly produced some of the best works of modern film Europe has to offer.   

Formed in 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics firmly believed that film would be the most ideal form of propaganda for the Soviet Union because of its mass popularity among the peoples. Lenin himself also declared it the most important medium in which to ‘educate’ the masses in the ‘successes’ of communism, a belief later echoed by Joseph Stalin. The best example of this perhaps is Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky a film heavily censored before the German invasion of the Soviet Union due to its depiction of a strong Russian leader defying an invading army of German Teutonic Knights,. After the invasion, the film was released for propaganda purposes to considerable critical acclaim. In the time between the First world war and the Russian revolution Russian cinema was at it’s lowest ebb. Many cinemas struggled to stay open due to a lack of electrical power and film makers we’re scares with many having fled the country trying to stay a step ahead of the Red Army. This resulted in most of the industry becoming privatized, and technically saved by the interception of the Soviet Union. The first Soviet films consisted of recycled films of the Russian Empire that were deemed non offensive to the new Soviet ideology, ironically though the first of these films to be released was a religious film Father Sergius, that never managed to be released during the Russian Empire, appearing on Soviet screens in 1918.
This wasn’t a quick fix though. To start with the government were only able to fund short, educational films, the most notorious were the Agitki, propaganda films that were intended to ‘agitate’ or energize the people to participate in approved Soviet activities and help deal with those who remained unconvinced with the new order. These short films, often no longer than a single reel, were often nothing more than visual aids to live lectures and speeches, and were carried from city to city, even reaching the far reaches of the union, where films had never previously been seen. Newsreels and documentaries were the other major form of early Soviet cinema, yet as much as they were used to promote socialist realism they were also the early training grounds for young film makers to experiment with cinema.

Surprisingly though it wasn’t until 1921 that Moscow had its first fully operational cinema. It’s rapid success jumpstarted the industry significantly, to the extent that by 1923 an additional 89 cinemas had opened. This was matched with high taxation on ticket sales and film rental, yet it gave an incentive for individuals to begin making feature films again. There were now places to show films, and audiences willing to pay to see them, albeit with the measures in place within the government for these features to conform with the Soviet world view. This resulted in film makers who had already supported the objectives of the communist regime to quickly gain dominance within the industry, leaving newcomers who weren’t convinced with these new ideals struggling to conform. This aside, the Soviet Union began to assemble a new artistic community of directors willing to go against their integrity and continue producing ‘Soviet Films’.

The first major release to emerge from this new community was Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Released to wide acclaim in 1925, it still holds the mantle of being one of the most famous Russian language movies of all time. The film was heavily fictionalized and also propagandistic. It preached the party line about the virtues of the proletariat but still to this day remains to be a visually stunning piece of art, with the scene of a baby’s carriage falling down the Odessa Steps often being sighted as true cinematic genius. Potemkin was such an important film, that its first showing, at an important political convention was rushed, indeed the film hadn’t even been finished, Eisenstein was still editing the final reels whilst it was being shown, rushing each completed one to the auditorium just in time to continue on from the last. The party leaders soon found it hard to truly censor a director’s expression, and as each new film was released it soon became obvious that definitive understanding of a film’s meaning was hard to control.
Governmental control was still in place but as time progressed Soviet cinema began to slowly slip by the censors, with many containing hidden meanings that mostly went unnoticed. By the 1980s Soviet cinema saw something of a diversification of subject matter. It hard taken a long time but now previously ‘touchy’ subject matter could now be openly discussed. This resulted with films like Pokayanie (Repentance) which dealt with Stalinist repression in Georgia and many others that satirized Soviet Life in General.

Indeed Stalins death was a major turning point for Russian language film. Directors were now given free reign to film what they believed audiences wanted to see in their film’s stories and characters. A whole new breed of Russian films began to emerge, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part II a perfect example of this, a film finished in 1945 but not released until 1958, 5 years after Stalins death. This wasn’t to say that censorship wasn’t still in place, the industry still remained part of the government, and it could still pull or edit any film which they believed to contain subject matter that was politically undesirable or offensive. This wasn’t done unknowingly by directors, and many were still given the opportunity to argue the merit and innocence of their work and what it depicted, The one area though that remained untouchable was communism, any attempt to show it, or any of its fundamental ideas in a bad light would result in your film never seeing the light of day, and possibly worse. With the death of Stalin a relief to many, it gave filmmakers the margin of comfort they needed to begin producing films which they believed a truer interpretation of their Russia with the narrow formula of ‘socialism realism’ removed.
This repression though is seen by many as a blessing in disguise, the tight controls on directors and writers resulted in film makers having to look for less obvious ways to get their message across and other ways to make relatively boring ‘socialist ideas’ interesting with newly developed camera and editing techniques. These foundations have led to some great Eastern European cinema. See below for a list (complete with links) of some of the best movies to come to fruition within the Soviet era and others that have followed on from it.

Essential Soviet Cinema

Battleship Potemkin, IMDB
End of Saint Petersburg, IMDB
The Cranes Are Flying, IMDB
Alexander Nevsky, IMDB
Andrie Rublev, IMDB
Ivan the Terrible, IMDB
Solaris, IMDB
Stalker, IMDB
Modern Russian Cinema

The Return, IMDB 

Come and See, IMDB 

The Italian, IMDB 

Russian Ark, IMDB 

The Sun, IMDB 

Banishment, IMDB 

Roads to Koktebel, IMDB 

Mongol, IMDB
Patrick Gamble

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