Friday, 25 September 2009

Branch Meeting: Early Soviet Cinema

At last night's branch meeting of Stoke Socialist Party, Brother R debuted with a look at Soviet cinema and how it developed from its early revolutionary period into the conservative "socialist realist" productions under Stalin. This is a slightly re-edited version of his lead off.

Soviet cinema could be said to have begun in 1919 when Lenin signed the Council for People's Commisars decree, which transferred film and photographic enterprises into state ownership. This was the culmination of the struggle for power in film. In 1917 film workers combined into three professional organisations, all of whom participated in nationalising parts of the film industry prior to Lenin's decree.

In this early phase only large companies were subject to nationalisation, so during the dawning of Soviet cinema state and smaller private companies coexisted. The organisation of film workers helped continue to shape the situation. In 1924 a group of filmmakers led by Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov came together in Moscow to form the Association of Revolutionary Cinematography. The objective of ARC (whose members came to include Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov) was to reinfirce ideological control over the creative process. Branches were formed in practically every studio, and the organisation had its own publications, including the weekly newspaper Kino. In 1929 the organisation adopted a new name with the objective of pursuing "100% proletarian ideological film" as part of the new cultural revolution sweeping through the arts.

It was not long before the aim of concentrating and centralising film production in order to bring the cinema under social and state control led to the idea of establishing a single national film industry. The first step in this direction came with the creation of the film enterprise Goskino in 1922, which was given a monopoly over film distribution, which was taken away by the 13th party congress in 1924. Congress also resolved to reinforce ideological monitoring in filmmaking and did this by appointing 'tested communists' to senior positions in the industry. Sovkino, and similar operations in the republics hadf a full monopoly of distribution, the import and export of films, and gradually took over production functions as well. Although it managed to lose a lot of money in its early years, the Sovkino system survived to the end of the decade without significant alteration and provided the infrastructure for the great Societ films of the late silent period.

Following Lenin's dictum that film was "the most important art", Marxist filmmakers and film theorists of the period rallied to promote communism and revolution through film. The young soviet filmmakers were zealots for that revolution. Idealistic, energetic and committed they struggle to provide filmic solutions for political problems. The two leading filmmakers of this period were Eisenstein and Vertov.

With a background in theatre and design, Eistenstein attempted to translate the lessons of Marx into a singular audience experience. The basic idea informing his theory was conflict. He considered conflict to be the mental and artistic reflection of dialectical materialism, and fashioned his films to reflect this. He developed a theory of montage in which the fashioning of each shot and the joining of shots in editing evoked opposition, contradiction and collision. His belief in the ontological truth of dialectical materialism led him to believe he could forge a revolutionary mentality in his audiences.

Eisenstein mounted his shots and joined them along various formal and thematic conflicting parameters - straight shots juxtaposed to diagonal ones, light/dark shots, and conflicts in the direction and rhythm of motion (right-to-left to left-to-right), camera distance conflicts (long shots to close-ups, etc). Through these juxtapositions of brief shots, which had a physiological effect on viewers, Eisenstein forged emotions and ideas. For him the illusion of continuity and the focus upon individual heroes encourage an anti-revolutionary false consciousness.

His most comprehensive and effective use of the conflict montage can be found in the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.The scene consists of a dazzling series of conflicting shots and editing that powerfully convey the horror caused by Tsarist troops walking in formation down the Odessa steps while shooting and dispersing a crowd of protesters. Such cinematic attractions over thematic concerns lead the spectator in the direction desired by the director.

Throughout the silent era Eisenstein assumed his aesthetic experimentation could be harmonised with the propaganda dictates of the state. Each of his silent films begins with an epigraph from Lenin and each film depicts a key moment in the myth of Bolshevik ascension.

Eisenstein was a cerebral filmmaker. Many of his later critics in the USSR believed he was too academic and his respect for ideas would supersede his respect for Soviet realism, that his politics were too aesthetic and they were too individualistic.

Vertov's oeuvre was different. He believed only documentary shots of real-life situtations in revolutionary societies can the truth be revealed. He tried to follow Marx and Engels who wrote "the turning of history into world history is not indeed a mere abstract art on the part of the self-consciousness, the world spirit or of any other metaphysical spectre, but a quiet material, empirically verifiable act." For Vertov "we hold the ability to show and elucidate life as it is, considerably higher than the occasionally diverting doll games that people call theatre. Vertov constantly compared the fiction film to witchcraft and drugs since for him fiction was nothing but a reflection of ideologies whose function was to turn the spectator away from his awareness of the real processes of production and from truth. He therefore disliked Eisenstein's fictional recreation of events, and called for the allocation of funds to documentary rather than fictional films. In shooting, Vertov preferred the use of candid cameras in places where his presence would go unnoticed. Only in such a manner can the filmmaker make "the invisible visible, the unclear clear ...; making falsehood into truth."

For Vertov the film apparatus was almost an extension of the cognitive and revelatory power of the human senses. He accepted Marx's argument that following the development of communism the alienated relation between humans and machines would change into a productive and creative interaction in which the human senses are freed and enhanced (hence his habit of superimposing a human eye over camera lenses).

His seminal Man with a Movie Camera aimed to show how Soviet society, despite the persistance of some elements of the old order, was harmoniously and collectively building a new future.

Vertov's objection to working from scripts made it difficult for him to make films after Lenin's death. Vertov's fears of the fictionalisation of social life came to fruition with the rise of officially sanctioned socialist realism under Stalin. The party demanded artists offer didactic, easily understood and optimistic picture of the revolution.

The advent of sound in cinema marked a sea change in Soviet film. The cultural commissars saw the propaganda potential for talking pictures. Silent film in the USSR reached its zenith in 1929 and thereafter yielded its place to its successor.

Although this early silent cinema was greatly admired, party bosses were dissatisfied because they did not meet the requirements of the emerging bureaucratised order. During the 1930s cinema had become part of everyday life, and as the heavy hand of party censorship and interference became felt, variety declined and with it so did audiences. Small wonder - socialist realist films followed a simple formulaic plot. Typically the hero, under the tutelage of a positive character (a party leader) overcomes obstacles, unmasks the villain (who was often a reactionary with an irrational hatred of socialism) and becomes a better (i.e. more class conscious) person.

Unsurprisingly this was a very suspect form of realism. By replacing the genuine cinematic realism of Vertov socialist realism impeded the contemplation of the human condition and exploration/critique of social issues. It was arguably middle brow, formulaic arrt that excluded irony, ambiguity and experimentation.

Within socialist realism a number of genres grew up. Historical spectacles became frequent in the second half of the 1930s as the regime paid increasing attention to rekindling patriotism by appealing to myths of national glory. Films based on the revolution were still produced and each republic had a studio that made at least one film on the establishment of soviet power. The majority of other films produced were set in the present with an overall theme of struggle against saboteurs and traitors, coinciding with the bureaucracy's appetite for denunciations, fake trials and elaborate plots. This changed with the outbreak of war. The internal enemies disappeared from cinema screens and were replaced by foreigners and their agents.

Films about the Great Patriotic War became a stable of the film industry post-1945. It reflects the deep wound the Nazi invasion inflicted on Soviet society, and one which still scars the memories of elderly residents of the former USSR. But it was a trauma the regime was able to skilfully exploit in its propaganda to heighten public anxiety over Western militarism and rally them around the party. The result was WWII films were as ubiquitous in the USSR as Westerns were in the US.

The death of Stalin 1953 was followed by a revival of Soviet film. Many of the old restrictions were lifted and output grew impressively. Directors who had done interesting work in the past returned to experimentation. In a system that politicised every aspect of everyday life, any film depicting the world more or less realistically had subversive potential. Although Soviet cinema never regained the worldwide prestige it enjoyed in the late 20s, film once again provided a positive contribution to cultural life.


Nick Wright said...

Tut, tut. This is a rather simplistic 'cultural studies' type of survey burdened by a superficially 'leftist' reading of Cold War categories..

Soviet film (and art) in the period of socialist realism is rather more complex and contradictory, and certainly had more variety, than this piece suggests.

Even a critic as unsympathetic to Soviet orthodoxy as Peter Krenez (Cinema and Soviet Society, IB Tauras) gives a more rounded account than this.

Anonymous said...

What a good lead-off! And thanks for posting it. I have saved it and will study at leisure.
Andy F

andt newman said...

I am no expert on Soviet cinema, bnut this does seem like a very crude and reductionist account.

For example:
"" socialist realist films followed a simple formulaic plot. Typically the hero, under the tutelage of a positive character (a party leader) overcomes obstacles, unmasks the villain (who was often a reactionary with an irrational hatred of socialism) and becomes a better (i.e. more class conscious) person.

This sound no more formulaic than the standard plot of almost every Hollywood Western. A community is suspicious of an outsider, the community comes under threat, the outsider saves the community, and acheives redemption.

"The party demanded artists offer didactic, easily understood and optimistic picture of the revolution"

Surely any acount of Hollywood in the 1930s would see that as quite an accurate desription of Warner Brothers, except replace "socialism" with "New Deal"

art can transcend these constraints

Rash Human said...

Point 1 - this was my first ever lead-off and as such was difficult to judge length in the time available.
Point 2 - At the branch meetings it is possible to get members who are all at various ages and abilities and as a college lecturer it is important to differentiate and make it accesible for all. If it is too simplistic for any comrades I have further references available on the topic.
Of course being a keyboard warrior is the easiest option as your posts seem to verify...

Phil BC said...

I'd also add that the purpose of a branch lead off is to *introduce* comrades to a issue. It's never the final word on any subject, nor can it be exhaustive. It's not a scholarly seminar where contributions are subject to peer review.

First Andy, no one's denying 30s Hollywood was just as formulaic - indeed we talked a bit about that in the subsequent discussion. But that wasn't the topic of discussion.

And Nick, I don't think you're seeing the wood for the trees. Of course there was going to be variation within limits - it cannot be otherwise with any cultural artifact. There may be socialist realist films that stood out from the crowd, but like Hollywood for every classic there are dozens of pieces of dross.

Besides, surely the issue is the fact the party codified and enforced social engineering in the arts in the first place. I don't know about you, but I for one find that completely unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

The negative comments on the lead-off are just typical of internet academics - every issue becomes 'nuanced' to death and loses itself in a mass of detail. You often get these types on Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time'. Leave them to it!

Anonymous said...

Hey folks,

If you like Soviet film, why not go to youtube - try Birubir's page - some amazing films from the period after the lead-off stops, all with English subs. I'm a huge fan of 'Kommissar' (which was banned, 'The Cranes are Flying' (which I think won Palme d'Or), 'The White Sun of the Desert' and heaps of other Soviet stuff, much of it (gasp!) not political. 'War and Peace', and 'Anna Karenina' are two of the most beautiful, moving films I've ever seen. Personally I've always found Eisenstein hard to respond to - too long, too slow, too obvious. No character development. I reckon there's more to cinema than angles and light (acting, for example). His reputation seems to be way too high in the west because you can watch him without knowing Russian.

Best of luck to the leader-offer, I don't want to appear negative about your interest in Soviet film, even if I agree with some of the comments written above. If you're serious, learn the language. Takes time, but hell, you'll never regret it.