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Thursday, 17 June 2010

Soviet Cinema of the Twenties

While Russian and Soviet cinema is acknowledged in world cinema studies mainly due to the works of directors established in the 1920s (Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Vertov, Kuleshov and Pudovkin) as well as the Poetic directors of the late thaw and stagnation period (Tarkovsky and Paradjanov) it is clear that the 1920s was such an incredibly rich period with a host of other names who were no less interesting than those commonly cited. Room, Barnet, Ermler, Protazanov, the FEKS collective and then the Kozintsev and Trauberg duo as well as the more neglected Yutkevich (who I have written briefly about in this blog) etc. The question of how to describe the 1920s as a whole is a complex one and the solution that scholars have often found is to band directors into two schools. Nikolai Lebedev in the late fourties was the first to do this with his argument that there was a group of innovators and a group of traditionalists. While the very fact of writing a history of Soviet cinema in the late fourties was full of risks (and in fact Lebedev's was a radical venture for its time) this division was way too schematic.

The rediscovery of the revolutionary twenties in the Europe of the 1960s focused mainly on those Lebedev deemed 'innovators' and in the Anglo-Saxon world at least it was the American scholar Diane Youngblood who would first concentrate on the more neglected names such as Ermler, Barnet and Protazanov in her study 'Movies for the Masses'. However, while excellent research was carried out in the archives and especial attention was given to the critical reception of many of the films by these directors, less attention was paid to the stylistics of the films themselves and Youngblood's didn't fundamentally challenge the Lebedev myth of the two strands of twenties cinema. Her subject were still, by and large, the 'traditionalists' (or rather in her terminology the 'populists') and no attempt was made to question the very concept of the division that isolated them from the Eisenstein's and Dovzhenko's. Since Youngblood's two books there have been few other attempts to look at the twenties from a perspective that didn't base themselves on a view of an individual filmmaker.

This lack of a renewed look at the twenties and the standard dichotomy view was slightly more nuanced in Birgit Beumers chapter on the twenties in her recent study of Russian cinema history but nonetheless aspects of it remained. Although at least accepting that there were more than two strands she posits a period of 'Americanitis' and then has subchapters on Vertov, another on Eisenstein and Pudovkin, another on entertainment where she talks about the FEKS of Kozintsev and Trauberg and the KEM of Ermler, Ioganson and Nikitin as well as the other names that a Lebedevian reading would term as traditionalists. Finally before moving on to the Cultural Revolution at the end of the decade she talks about Dovzhenko as the herald of Poetic Cinema. Nonetheless little effort is made to describe the commonalities that these various strands of cinematography may have had.

However, a small and fascinating study by Philip Cavendish mainly devoted to the cameraman in Soviet cinema in the twenties has, thankfully, opened up new vistas on this extrordinary time. He concentrates on what he terms 'mainstream' cinema (and thus excludes the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov and Dovzhenko) but he shows us that these films were extraordinarily visually innovative. Instead of concentrating on the work of the directors, though, he talks about that neglected breed: the camera operator. This small, but exceedingly well-informed volume, restores to history the names of those like Forestier, Levitskii, Ermolov, Zheliabushki, Giber, Shneider, Mikhailov and Feldman. Cavendish's desciptions of films that have almost been ignored in many accounts of world cinema (as well as marginalised in Soviet accounts) display the extraordinary advances made by these characters forgotten by history and woefully neglected by cinematic historians. Moreover, the value of this slim volume lies in deconstructing the Lebedevan myth more cogently and convincingly than previously attempted.

It also gives a reading and description of these films which was missing in Youngblood's account and restores the wish to watch these films so as to enjoy every shot. I recently managed to watch a copy of Otsep and Forestier's 'Zemlia v plenu' (Earth in Chains) and was astounded by its lyrical and visual beauty. I couldn't quite believe that it has been so rarely flagged as a masterpiece. Phil Cavendish's account and his superlative description of its use of 'paysage' in the film linking it to general Western artistic trends and to stating the case for this and many other films (including, for example, the extraordinary film by Eggert and Gardin 'Medvedia Svadba' (Bear Wedding) which signalled the single exemplar of the Soviet vampire genre which was not to have any successors until Post-Soviet times) is, in its way, a tour-de-force in opening up the Twenties to a new historical treatment and to a new rediscovery of this era that was never to be matched.

In the conclusion Cavendish talks about the legacy of the visual revolution that these cameramen were responsible for. While the Stalin period meant that scriptwriters and directors were confined by ever tightening constraints, there was some leeway for the cameramen to produce visually stunning masterpieces. Fortunately, their role was rarely understood and so, Cavendish concludes, "paradoxically, the ignorance of which camera operators had complained so vociferously during the late 1920s and early 1930s had become their saving grace" in the Stalin years.

Another fascinating study which I have read recently and which relates to this period is Lynn Mally's book on Amateur Theater and the Soviet State entitled 'Revolutionary Acts'. The cultural vibrancy of the 1920s is in full evidence here and once again there is an emphasis on the interlocking trends of experimental art and the explosion of the 'amateur' as opposed to the professional. New forms would spring up given the wide extent of this phenomenon and Mally contends that these new forms had their roots in the relation between mass amateur theatre and the more experimental radicalism of Meyerhold which creatively fed on each other. Interestingly this world of theatrical experimentation drew in names that would later become part of cinematic history like Nikolai Ekk, Ivan Pyriev and Sergei Yutkevich. Another rather neglected but fascinating field.

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