Articles & Notes — March 23, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Soviet Union: films behind the Iron Curtain

soviet-1To be honest, as a person born in former Soviet Union, I never really liked old 70s – 80s Soviet movies. The films we mostly saw, were comedies, social dramas and war movies.

Although I do like war movies, these ones were boring, filled with propaganda, while comedies and social dramas were mostly dull. So, its safe to say, I grew up watching the “western movies” instead.

Anyway, I decided to post this article for those, who have absolutely no idea what it was like for the movies during the Soviet times.

And I am not talking about the USSR circa 1980s, it goes way earlier into 1910s. So, if you’ve got some time to kill, continue reading.

 

SOVIET CINEMA (1919-1991)

Officially, 1919 is considered the birth day of the Soviet cinema. On August 27, the “decree on the nationalization of cinema” was signed. Soviet cinema has always been very unique. This is partly explained by the fact that it has developed over decades of isolation from the rest of cinema (behind the “iron curtain”, if you will). First success came to the Soviet cinema during the silent movie era.

The works of director Sergei Eisenstein have generally influenced and affected the development of cinema as a genre of art in the world. Although, after the 1920’s it went downhill. After the Second World War, only a few Soviet films made “for a mass audience,” have been successful abroad.

This is primarily due to the fact that the specificity of Soviet life was incomprehensible and uninteresting to Western viewers, as Soviet films abroad seemed quite primitive, even boring.

Below is a little graph of how many movies were made in the Soviet Union starting from 1918, and until 1930.

1918 — 6 films made
1919 — 57 films made
1920 — 29 films made
1921 — 12 films made
1922 — 16 films made
1923 — 8 films made
1924 — 69 films made
1925 — 80 films made
1926 — 102 films made
1927 — 118 films made
1928 — 124 films made
1929 — 92 films made
1930 — 128 films made

On the other hand, the Soviet Union access to foreign films was very limited for ideological reasons. Inside the Soviet Union’s national cinema was incredibly popular, theaters were often filled, the film industry brought considerable revenue to the State. Entire genres of cinema in Soviet Union were banned by the censors and the permissible artistic style films was considerably narrowed.

soviet-2CENSORSHIP

Speaking of censorship, regarding movies and photography, it began in Soviet Union in 1919.

In August of 1919, both film industry and photo industry were nationalized (became government’s property, partially or completely).

 

Goskino USSR (USSR State Committee for Cinematography) was a central state directory body of the Soviet Cinematography. It was responsible for all censorship regarding movies and films of the USSR. In 1953 Goskino was included in the Ministry of Culture of the Soviet Union. Ten years later it became the Committee of the Council of Ministers. Since 1976 Goskino was under the administrative reform of higher state bodies – the “Committee for Cinematography of the USSR.

During the Soviet Union times, Goskino was involved in films production, and also engaged in censorship. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it continued to function (in Russian Federation), and in 2004 its title was changed to Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography (Roskultura) under Ministry of Culture. Four years later, in 2008 it was abolished.

 

KGB and customs carefully controlled attempts to import books, journals (and other printed materials), audio and video from abroad. However, despite all efforts, they could not stop the illegal / unauthorized import of foreign films (especially after the spread of VCRs in the country), plates and other foreign artists.

A huge number of “censor volunteers” (snitches, yeah) engaged in search of any ideological flaws, missed by official censorship, reporting various “mistakes” to party organs.

However, the final verdict on any controversial issue has always been adopted by party authorities, who oversaw all the censorship in the Soviet Union.

soviet-3THE CINEMA OF STALINISM: 1930–1941 (from FilmReference)

During the late 1920s and early 1930s the Stalinist wing of the Communist Party consolidated its authority and set about transforming the Soviet Union on both the economic and cultural fronts. The economy moved from the market-based NEP to a system of central planning.

The new leadership declared a “cultural revolution” in which the party would exercise tight control over cultural affairs, including artistic expression. Cinema existed at the intersection of art and economics; so it was destined to be thoroughly reorganized in this episode of economic and cultural transformation.

To implement central planning in cinema, the new bureaucratic entity Soyuzkino was created in 1930. All the hitherto autonomous studios and distribution networks that had grown up would now be coordinated in their activities by this planning agency. Soyuzkino’s authority also extended to the studios of the national republics such, which had enjoyed more independence during the 1920s.

Soyuzkino consisted of an extended bureaucracy of economic planners and policy specialists who were charged to formulate annual production plans for the studios and then to monitor the distribution and exhibition of finished films.

With central planning came more centralized authority over creative decision making. Script development became a long, torturous process under this bureaucratic system, with various committees reviewing drafts and calling for cuts or revisions.

In the 1930s censorship became more exacting with each passing year, in a manner that paralleled the increasing cultural repression of the Stalinist regime. Feature film projects would drag out for months or years and might be terminated at any point.

Such redundant oversight slowed down production and inhibited creativity. Although central planning was supposed to increase the film industry’s productivity, production levels declined steadily through the 1930s. The industry was releasing over one-hundred features annually, but that figure fell to seventy by 1932 and to forty-five by 1934. It never again reached triple digits during the remainder of the Stalin era.

Veteran directors experienced precipitous career declines under this system of bureaucratic control; whereas Eisenstein was able to make four features between 1924 and 1929, he completed only one film (Alexander Nevsky,1938) during the entire decade of the 1930s.

His planned adaptation of the Ivan Turgenev story “Bezhin lug” (Bezhin Meadow, 1935–1937) was halted during production in 1937 and officially banned, one of many promising film projects that fell victim to an exacting censorship system.

soviet-4AWAY FROM THE WEST

Meanwhile, the USSR cut off its film contacts with the West. It stopped importing films after 1931 out of concern that foreign films exposed audiences to capitalist ideologies.

The industry also freed itself from dependency on foreign technologies. During its industrialization effort of the early 1930s, the USSR finally built an array of factories to supply the film industry with the nation’s own technical resources.

To secure independence from the West, industry leaders mandated that the USSR develop its own sound technologies, rather than taking licenses on Western sound systems. Two Soviet scientists, Alexander Shorin in Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg) and Pavel Tager in Moscow, conducted research through the late 1920s on complementary sound systems, which were ready for use by 1930.

The implementation process, including the cost of refitting movie theaters, proved daunting, and the USSR did not complete the transition to sound until 1935.

As Soviet cinema made the transition to sound and central planning in the early 1930s, it was also put under a mandate to adopt a uniform film style, commonly identified as Socialist Realism.

In 1932 the party leadership ordered the literary community to abandon the avant-garde practices of the 1920s and to embrace Socialist Realism, a literary style that, in practice, was actually close to nineteenth-century realism. The other arts, including cinema, were subsequently instructed to develop the aesthetic equivalent.

For cinema, this meant adopting a film style that would be legible to a broad audience, thus avoiding a possible split between the avant-garde and mainstream cinema that was evident in the late 1920s.

The director of Soyuzkino and chief policy officer for the film industry, Boris Shumiatsky (1886–1938), who served from 1931 to 1938, was a harsh critic of the montage aesthetic. He championed a “cinema for the millions,” which would use clear, linear narration.

Although American movies were no longer being imported in the 1930s, the Hollywood model of continuity editing was readily available, and it had a successful track record with Soviet movie audiences. Soviet Socialist Realism was built on this style, which assured tidy storytelling.

Various guidelines were then added to the doctrine: positive heroes to act as role models for viewers; lessons in good citizenship for spectators to embrace; and support for reigning policy decisions of the Communist Party.

Such restrictive aesthetic policies, enforced by the rigorous censorship apparatus of Soyuzkino, resulted in a number of formulaic and doctrinaire films. But they apparently did succeed in sustaining a true “cinema of the masses.” The 1930s witnessed some stellar examples of popular cinema. The single most successful film of the decade, in terms of both official praise and genuine affection from the mass audience, was Chapayev (1934), co-directed by Sergei and Grigori Vasiliev.

Based on the life of a martyred Red Army commander, the film was touted as a model of Socialist Realism, in that Chapayev and his followers battled heroically for the revolutionary cause. But the film also humanized the title character, giving him personal foibles, an ironic sense of humor, and a rough peasant charm.

These qualities endeared him to the viewing public: spectators reported seeing the film multiple times during its first run in 1934, and Chapayev was periodically re-released for subsequent generations of movie viewers.

Soviet movies by decades – graph

1920’s – Silent movie era. Lenin said once that “The most important of all arts for us is cinema!”. So, naturally, according to his words, tons of movies were released the next couple of years, mostly documentary films about war (propaganda films). A lot less were shot comedies, social dramas and action movies.

1930’s – Lenin is already gone, Joseph Stalin has taken center stage. More propaganda movies follow. Among them, some great films were released as well, such as “Alexander Nevsky” and “Chapayev”. The rest was all about war (civil war) and the power of Soviet Union. Movies with sound appear, as well as a couple of sports films, and musical comedies that were soon forgotten unlike “…Nevsky” and “Chapayev”.

1940’s – The worst possible time to be thinking about movies – its World War II! Although, Sergei Eisenstein did manage to direct “Ivan Grozny”. Most movies were again, related to war (WWII this time), telling stories about the hard lives of soldiers who fight on the frontlines. More war propaganda movies follow, however mostly biographic films about Union’s famous cultural people are shot. In 1943 film “Moscow Strikes Back” (original title translated as: Defeat of the German Armies Near Moscow) received an Oscar (yes, that Oscar) for “best documentary film.

1950’s – Stalin is gone, Nikita Khrushev is the new leader of the Union. During his regime, there are lots of films shot about crops. Most films can be classified as comedies or dramas. More films are shot in color as well. Also, for the first time in Soviet cinema history, movies started to feature such things as cheating, repressions, corruption, and others.

1960’s – Era of comedies for the Soviet cinema. Some of the comedies shot at that time attract attention of foreign audiences as well. Even a few joint film projects with other countries were organized.

1970’s – About 66 percent of films shot in Soviet Union were shot in the 70’s. Needless to say, most of them became “favorites” for a few generations of soviet people. All film genres are developing. (I should specifically note “Stalker”, a fantastic syfy drama by Andrei Tarkovsky, if you people haven’t seen it, find it and watch!).

1980’s (early 80’s) – It becomes obvious, that Soviet cinema is going downhill again, since nothing new or exciting was shot. Except for – first ever Soviet action movie “Pirates of the XX century”. Mostly dark psychological thrillers are released, and dramas. It should also be noted that the Sherlock Holmes series (1979-1986) where Soviet actors Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin played Holmes and Vatson respectively, became the best ever on-screen version of the Sherlock Holmes’ adventures. The daughter of Arthur Conan Doyle once commented that her father would approve Livanov as Holmes.

On 20 February 2006 Livanov (Holmes) became an Honorary MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) “for service to the theatre and performing arts”.

On April 27, 2007 a sculpture featuring Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson as portrayed by Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin was opened on the Smolenskaya embankment alongside the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Moscow.

So, there you go, some brief history of cinema in the Soviet Union. There are of course lots of things that I did not mention, however I believe for those who had no idea at all – this can fill the void just a little.



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One Comment

  1. A very interesting article to read as an Englishman. There is not enough Soviet history in English schools and it is eye opening to see how cinema played a part in Soviet history. Top read!

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