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Thursday, 27 January 2011

Mikhail Romm

The place of Mikhail Romm in Soviet cinema is hard to exaggerate and yet neither he nor any of his films have found quite the reception that they deserve outside of Russia. The day of the recent Domededovo bombing (24th January) marked the 110th anniversary of his birth and this year also marks the 40th anniversary of his death. Romm's reputation has perhaps been damaged by David Caute's deeply negative portrayal of him in his study of Cold War and intellectuals 'The Dancer Defects'. Even though most of Romm's films were made during the Stalinist period (and even during the period of late Stalinism's 'film famine' he was not inactive) it would be not just wrong but wholly injust to write him off as 'fundamentally Stalinist'. This depiction by Caute of his Thaw period film 'Ordinary Fascism' highlights a terrible blindness that Western critics have been not uncommonly guilty of in their descriptions of Soviet film art. (Interestingly Maya Turovskaya author of one of the best studies of Tarkovsky came to a diametrically opposite conclusion stating that Romm's film was, in essence, an anti-Stalinist film).

A retrospective of Romm's films may indeed show up many flaws- his two Lenin films (in the late Thirties) and Cold War tracts (in the late Forties) were made during periods when dissidence proved unthinkable. Yet his Lenin films didn't sink the moral depths that Chiaureli does with his Stalin films. By presenting a human, almost anonymous Lenin, Romm spares us monumentalism and mummification: the habitual Stalinist projection of Soviet power. His films in the early to mid Fifties may also prove to be rather unsalvageable - his artistic low point was reached by his 'Admiral Ushakov' and its sequel 'Ships storm the Bastions'. That which is left, however, is not inconsiderable. His debut- an early adaptation of Maupassant's 'Boule de Suif' is a fascinating piece of late silent filmmaking whereas his 'remake' of John Ford's 'The Lost Patrol' was the first example of the Soviet Eastern later to be developed by Motyl in his 'White sun of the Desert' and then to become a Soviet genre in its own right. Whether Babluani's recent classic going by the same name was inspired by Romm's film is a matter for speculation, Romm's film certainly deserves a showing. Some believe his 1940 film 'Mechta' (Dream) to be the apogee of his work. The influential Russian film producer Armen Medvedev has named it as his favourite film on one occasion.

Romm's post-Stalinist period was marked by his interest in historical documentary films as well as his 'Nine Days of One Year' (a tale of nuclear physicists) which the senior film critic of the Village Voice J. Hoberman called a 'revelation'. The film proved that Romm, unlike others who were associated with the Stalinist period, had the power to reinvent himself. Perhaps Kalatozov was the other main director who although having worked within the Stalinist paradigm managed not to be broken by it and re-emerged during the Thaw with renewed energy (Boris Barnet was, perhaps, too peripheral a figure during Stalinism to have been forced into the compromises that Romm was - if Barnet was called upon to direct a propgandistic film such as the Stakhanovite 'Night in September' he would subvert it through apathy).

Nonetheless Romm's legacy should not be searched for solely in his films. Romm's significance for Soviet cinema arguably should be sought in another sphere: in his pedagogy. While Eisenstein may have been VGIK's most prestigious teacher it was arguably Romm who inspired a whole generation (arguably two generations) of some of the greatest film directors of the 1960s. 1970s and beyond. Without Romm's teaching we may well never have known of Andrey Tarkovsky, Elem Klimov, Vasily Shukshin, Gleb Panfilov, Andrey Konchalovsky, Grigori Chukhrai, Aleksandr Mitte, Sergei Soloviev, Tenghiz Abuladze, Nikita Mikhalkov and Vadim Abdrashitov amongst others. It is, perhaps here, that Romm's role will never be challenged and the words of many of his former students have shown how much they felt that they owed to Mikhail Romm. Mikhail Romm was not merely an individual film-maker of considerable talent: his place in Soviet cinematic history can hardly ever be over-estimated. A whole constellation of talents and geniuses who have made world cinematic history owe Romm a great deal. Without Mikhail Romm Russian and Soviet cinema in the past five decades would have been much poorer.

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