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.