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Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Yakov Protazanov- the super-avantgardist traditionalist of Soviet cinema.

At the end of May the Iluzion cinema decided to treat its viewers with a trio of films by one of the most interesting figures in Russian and Soviet cinema- Yakov Protazanov. Undoubtedly, one of the most prolific directors Russian cinema has ever had, his filmography runs to well over a hundred films (80 of which were produced by 1918) and so it is an almost impossible task to summarise such a career. In Soviet times (after a spell in France and Germany) he returned to direct 'Aelita' - one of the great Soviet science fiction films based on Alexei Tolstoy's novel of the same name. At Iluzion the three films on show were Закройщик из Торжка (The Tailor from Torzhok), Процёсс о трех миллионах (The Trial of the Three Millions) and the almost Bunuelian romp about religion Праздник святого Йоргена (Saint Jorgen's Day). These three, of course, represent only a minute serving of his talent but nevertheless indicate what an immense talent is often ignored by scholars of world cinema.

Protazanov, of course, had a difficult time among many of the Soviet critics and was always deemed the arch traditionalist amongst the Soviet avantgarde. This was the view propounded also in Nikolai Lebedev's history of Soviet Cinema which came out in 1947. Yet in many ways nothing could be further from the truth and now critics and scholars like, for example, Marianna Kireyeva, have been known to state that Protazanov represents a kind of super avant-garde. His ability to use a multiplicity of cinematic languages and forms and not to be tied down by any of these was, arguably, the true mark of Protazanov's claim to greatness.

Interestingly, this 'arch traditionalist' (according to the accepted definitions) of early Soviet cinema had played an enormous role in the formation of the French avant-garde- Rene Clair, an actor in one of Protazanov's French films 'The Meaning of Death', wrote about this influence. In fact, the early French avant-garde were in many ways formed by their experience in the Russian emigre Studios de l'Albatross

Like his colleague at Mezhrabpom studios, Boris Barnet, a scholarly study of Protazanov is hampered by the fact that he never left written accounts of his own work. While an Eisenstein scholar may found it hard to ever read everything written by and about his object of study, a student of Protazanov faces the opposite problem of never quite knowing about how Protazanov himself conceived of his own work.

Nonetheless there were certainly dominant themes running through his oeuvre and the viewing of the trio of films at Iluzion certainly highlight his own fascination with religion and deceit. Whether Protazanov was a Tolstoyan at heart (as is suggested by his early works) or a de facto Bunuelian avant la lettre (as his Saint Jorgen's Day intimates) remains to be seen. He was, however, in retrospect one of the most fascinating figures of Russia's Silver Age to survive and even to flourish throughout the early Soviet period. His work with Meyerhold in Белый орёл (The White Eagle) as well as with Ilf and Petrov and Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky in Saint Jorgen's Day suggest a figure who was able to attract some of the most fascinating figures of Russian culture to his orbit. Other great films of his include Сорок первый (Forty First)- one of the greatest films to be made about the Russian Civil War as well as one of the best literary adaptations made during the Stalin period & whose power still survives to this day; Бесприданница (Without a Dowry) by Ostrovsky.

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