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Monday, 7 December 2009

Francesco Misiano - The Man Who Brought 'Battleship Potemkin' to the West

Every now and again reading up on some aspect of Soviet film history I come across a name that I hadn't heard of previously and yet realize that finding out about this individual I have suddenly discovered some incredible story. Today reading Jamie Miller's new book on Soviet Cinema in the Stalin era (Soviet Cinema: Politics and Persuasion under Stalin - a book that concentrates on Soviet cinema as a film industry rather than looking at Stalinist cinema aesthetically) I discovered a name previously unknown to me for nothing was written about him in the main accounts of Russian cinema history. Neither Jay Leyda's 'Kino' nor Buttafava's book of articles on Russian and Soviet cinema - Il Cinema Russo e Sovietico- gave a single mention to this person in their works.

Yet Misiano is an absolutely fascinating historical character. He was a studio director at Mezhrabpom in so far as Soviet cinematic history goes but much more than that. He was a lifelong Italian anti-fascist who fought alongside Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht in Berlin and was imprisoned in a German prison for ten months after the Spartakist revolt. Released, he then became an deputy in the Italian parliament. In 1919 he tried to lead the population of Rijeka (Fiume) against D'Annunzio. D'Annunzio reacted by proclaiming a death sentence against this 'traitor'. In 1921 as a parliamentarian he was beaten and forced out of the Parliament by thirty fascist deputies, his head was shaved and spat at while forced to wear a sign over his shoulders and made to walk along Rome's Via del Corso. Following this and further fascist intimidation and violence against him, he then escaped to Berlin and then on to Moscow where he would help to found one of Soviet Russia's best cinematographic studios - Mezhrabpomfilm. He was the person who would take Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin' to Berlin in his luggage and who would invite Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to Moscow. In 1933 he invited German members of the film world who were opponents of the Nazis to the Soviet Union- the most famous of these being Bela Balasz, Joris Ivens, Hans Richter, Erwin Piscator. In 1936 he was sent on an anti-fascist mission to the Horn of Africa (following Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia). He then fell out of favour in the Soviet Union in 1936 but fortunately died that year before Stalin's Great Terror went into full flow (in a matter of months he would undoubtedly have become a victim of this Terror had he not died previously). Very few turned up to his funeral (even Italy's communist leader Palmiro Togliatti ignored it) given Misiano's fall from Stalinist grace shortly before his death.

A figure almost completely ignored in the cinematic history accounts of Soviet cinema (although there have been several biographies published in Italy on this fascinating figure of twentieth century history).

In the same book I also read of Ida Penzo (the wife of Eisenstein's assistant cameraman, Vladimir Nilsen who was executed in the Great Terror) - she was Italian and spent a decade and a half in the Gulag (until released in 1955). She was a ballerina and actress and had acted in Dovzhenko's 'The Diplomatic Pouch'. Another of these many tragic (and yet fascinating) stories that Soviet cinema offers up in droves.

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