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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Odessa and Film

To most people's minds to mention Odessa and cinema an image of the massacre at the Potemkin Steps in Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin' comes to mind. Yet the history of cinema in Odessa is a long and fascinating one. In fact some Odessans like to claim that it was Josif Timchenko who shot the first cinematic film at Odessa's Hippodrome. His "Jumping Horseman" was shown on January 24th 1895 during a medical congress (weeks before the Lumiere brothers patented their cinematic machine in France). Whether Odessa is the real birthplace of world cinema or not, it is surely a city that has played a significant but often unacknowledged role in Russian and Soviet cinema history.

One of the few books available on this subject is Vadim Kostromenko's two-volume anecdotal history of the Odessa Film studios. In it he recounts his own memories of the studio after the Second World War and, in less detail, some of the original figures who developed cinema in Odessa including such figures as Peter Chardynin and the great silent move actress Vera Kholodnaya who died young in 1919 of the Spanish influenza and was buried accompanied by a huge crowd of Odessans. The films scripted by Odessa's literary legend Isaac Babel include the magnificent Benya Krik. Mayakovsky was also to write scripts for the Odessa Film Studio- seven in total (of which two were actually shot). Another name linked briefly to Odessa and cinema was Nikolai Erdman (one of the Soviet Union's greatest satirists). Among those who rebuilt cinema in Odessa in the post-revolutionary period of the 1920s was the legendary Mikhail Kapchinsky who, though arrested three times during various waves of repression, was to survive into the 1980s. It was Kapchinsky who brought Eisenstein's film 'Battleship Potemkin' to Odessa from Leningrad in order to save it from the autumnal climate of Leningrad which was making filming impossible and it was this fact that meant that the film would concentrate on the Odessa episode of the 1905 revolution and the fate of the Battleship Potemkin. In the 1920s profits from Italian films starring Lina Cavvallieri and Francesco Bertini would help restore film production in Odessa (rather than the American films popular elsewhere in the Soviet Union at that time).

A film about the Soviet-Polish War shot in Odessa was to star the legendary historical personage Kotovsky who agreed to play himself. This Robin Hood bandit figure turned Bolshevik unfortunately was not to live to become a film star. He was assassinated just before the film was about to go into production and so future generations have been denied this historical curiosity of watching the real Kotovsky act out his own life.

Alexander Dovzhenko was to begin his cinematic career in Odessa and although it was certainly not a successful beginning, it was here that he would develop his style of film-making to become one of the leading directors in the world.

Film-making in Odessa was to enter an uncertain period after 1929 which was to continue into the late Stalin period. In fact between 1929 and 1941 and between 1944 and 1952 the director of the Odessa Film Studios would be replaced almost annually. Many who worked here were to suffer repression and even execution (including many of Dovzhenko's former scriptwriters, co-directors and cameramen). The main task in the immediate post-war years  in Odessa was to restore the film studio to its previous glory given the destruction and theft carried out by the Roumanian occupying forces during the war years.

Cinema in Odessa in post-war years got off to a slow start and it was only with the advent of Alexander Gorsky as head of the film studio that in 1953 film production would be reset on an upward course. Under his direction and that of his successor Gennady Zbandit, Odessa would return to quality film-making. In 1956 one of the most important films of the early Thaw period was to be made in Odessa - Marlen Khutsiev's (and Feliks Mironer's) Весна на Заречной Улице (Spring on Zarechnaya Street). A young cameraman would work with the two directors and would go on to have a long association with Odessa: Peter Todorovsky. The actor (and subsequently one of the Soviet Union's most important post-war directors) Vasily Shukshin would also debut in Odessa in Khutsiev's second film 'The two Fyodor's'.

One of film's most promising but unsuccessful figures Genrikh Gabay (in the photo above) was to have a career dogged by misfortune. His masterpiece Зеленвый Фургон (The Green Truck) shot in Odessa was to be mauled by Kiev officials and made unrecognisable. After shooting films from completely unsuitable scripts, he was to emigrate to Israel invited by Golda Meir. Yet even here he was to be given roles and films that he could not accept - he turned down Golda Meir's offer of post as Minister for Cineamtography as he wanted to shoot films. Then he was given the script of a national patriotic film to shoot- he turned this offer down in disgust affirming that he had too much of fighting in war to incite his then countrymen to fight against their Arab enemies. Gabay would then leave for the United States and find himself equally marginalized. It was not in his nature to shoot commercial cinema. Invited by a priest to shoot a long documentary on the life of Christ his Jewish roots and atheist leanings caused further problems with his producers. Maybe little remains to prove Gabay's talent but his journey through the cinema of three countries surely deserves to be told belonging to the history of cinema's would-have-beens as well as serving as an exemplary tale of one of cinema's more admirable refuseniks.

Another of life's refuseniks - Joseph Brodsky - was to star in the unlikely role of an Odessa party secretary in Vadim Lysenko's Поезд в далекий август (Train for a distant August) in 1970. Lysenko's assistant Leonid Mak noted Brodksy's similarity to Naum Gurevich and given Brodsky's need to find work the future Nobel Laureate jumped at the chance. Unfortunately Brodsky's role in the film came to the notice of party officials in Kiev and all shots of Brodsky were ordered cut from the film. However, unknown to the authorities only the close-ups were reshot and medium and long shots of the character are still those acted by Brodsky himself.

Odessa's major contemporary name is, of course, Kira Muratova who has remained faithful to the city and still uses the studio. Another long-term association with Odessa and the studio was kept by Stanislav Govorukhin who shot many films here. The legendary Vladimir Vysotksy acted in Govorukhin's most popular film series Место Втречи изменить нельзя (the Meeting Place can not be changed) but also in other films shot in or about Odessa. a lesser-known but by no means minor director - Georgy Yungvald-Khilkevich - shot a number of films here including the film 'The art of living in Odessa' based on Isaac Babel's short stories about Odessa.

In short, the history of film in Odessa is in no way a negligible one. If the Odessa Film Studios were not one of the Soviet Union's major film studios, cinematic history in Odessa is, nonetheless, a fascinating and inspirational one and deserving of a major historical work.

1 comment:

  1. before Lars von Trier blunder...