The land of the Bolsheviks: early Soviet cinema at the BFI

BY JOSEPHINE GRAHL

Eisenstein's Fantasia: a scene from Ivan The Terrible Part I

How would you go about making film propaganda in support of a new, revolutionary state? The Russian revolution coincided with the rise of the cinema as mass entertainment, a cultural development which didn’t escape the attention of Lenin or the Soviet bureaucracy. In the 1920s, the Soviet film industry was state-sponsored and subject to state interference, its propaganda function for the new Soviet state accepted as a matter of course. But surprisingly, most of the films in the BFI’s Kino season of early Soviet films transcend the sort of didactic political preaching you might expect from that set-up.

Perhaps you wouldn’t think of combining slapstick and chase sequences in order to critique Western decadence and imperialism, but this is exactly what Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks does. Mr West, a capitalist visiting Russia, is abducted by a counter-revolutionary gang of thieves who steal from him and mislead him into believing that his worst fears about the communist state are true. It’s only when he’s rescued by the communist police and given a grand tour of Moscow, including a military march-past to the strains of the Internationale, that Mr West realises that he has been misled by imperialist propaganda. The film rattles along, full of energy and physical comedy, which made it very successful with Soviet audiences but confounded my own expectations of worthy socialist film.

"I think I like it here!" The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks

In complete contrast to Mr West is Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa, an extraordinary silent film about a couple living in a cramped apartment in Moscow who invite another worker, down on his luck, to lodge with them. In the tiny space of their shared apartment, romance blossoms between the lodger and the wife, played by Lyudmila Semyonova. The film is interesting not just for its frankness in dealing with abortion and a ménage à trois (it was banned in the UK when it appeared in 1927), but for the realistic depiction of the cramped living conditions in 1920s Moscow: cats weave in and out of the mess of the tiny apartment, and Lyudmila struggles to keep things clean and tidy. This is no rose-tinted portrait of post-revolutionary life, but a frank look at the troubles and difficulties of working class life; Semyonova’s understated, moving performance seems astonishingly modern for 1927 and still fresh today.

Abram Room's Bed and Sofa

The Russian inventiveness with cinema continued into the sound era: Pudovkin’s The Deserter experiments with the possibilities of sound in film, overlapping crowd noises and speakers at a strike rally in a way intended to give an authentic sense of the ebb and flow of the crowd’s sympathies, but which now seems confusing. More successful is a later sequence in the Hamburg shipyard, when the clattering, clanging sounds of ship building are rhythmically overlaid, building to a frenzied crescendo as the warship is finally completed. The deserter of the title is not a soldier, but a deserter in the class struggle, who is sent by his German comrades to learn from the example of the new Soviet state. The Soviet example reawakens our hero to the urgency of revolutionary struggle, and he returns to Germany a new man; the final scene is a magnificent drawn-out uprising in which the German workers battle against the police.

The Deserter was criticised by other Soviet film-makers for ‘formalism’ and over-intellectualism, reflecting the way that Stalinist control was beginning to affect the Soviet film industry. In 1929, dismayed at the popularity of Hollywood films over more politically worthy fare, the authorities simply banned imported films throughout the Soviet Union, and Soviet politicians up to and including Stalin himself began to exert more and more influence over the films that got made. The lack of an acceptable ideology was as distasteful to censors as intellectualism or experimentalism: slapstick musical comedy Happy Guys met resistance from the authorities due to its complete absence of any political message whatsoever. Happy Guys is an oddity, owing more to Harpo Marx than to Karl. Leonid Utyosov, playing the shepherd boy whose musical talents mean that he is mistaken for a great conductor, has a sunny gormlessness which gives the film occasional hilarious moments, but taken as a whole it is  a failure, an attempt to translate Hollywood comedy into Russian terms which never really comes to life.

More acceptable to the censors were the wildly popular Maxim films, featuring the youthful Bolshevik Maxim from his political awakening in The Youth of Maxim to the 1917 revolution in The Vyborg side. This is the Russian revolution imagined as a sort of Andy Hardy jape: Maxim and his ever-resourceful girlfriend Natasha have a devoted but sexless relationship, together outwitting faint-hearted Mensheviks, bourgeois stick-in-the-muds and anarchist saboteurs. In The Vyborg Side, the final film of the trilogy, Maxim is asked to take over the National bank in deference to the excellent job he has done as treasurer of his communist cadre. Lenin and Stalin come across Maxim sleeping off a hard day of class struggle; gazing benevolently down on him, they agree to leave him undisturbed for an extra hour out of respect for his dedication to the cause. Ivan Chirkov’s performance as Maxim, bright-eyed and humorous, saves the films from being nothing more than Soviet kitsch, but seeing all three Maxim films in a row (as I did) would test the most dedicated Ostalgie devotee.

The heavy atmosphere of political censorship forced many film-makers to turn to history for subject matter. The recent events of revolutionary Russia offered a safe source of material which was used in films like Chapayev,  a biographical portrait of the Red Army commander. Eisenstein, whose early films had dramatised the events of 1917 and the pre-revolutionary period, looked for inspiration further in the past, turning first to the struggle between Russia and the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, and then to the story of the Tsar most admired by Stalin as a war leader and uniter of the Russian people, Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan the Terrible (which was, with Bed and Sofa and The Deserter, one of the standout movies of the season for me) is a complete departure from the Eisenstein of October, Strike and Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein’s earlier silent films focus on the crowd, not the individual, as a revolutionary force, but Ivan the Terrible evokes the loneliness and isolation of absolute power. The rushing modernity of earlier films is replaced by an eerie, choreographed stylisation. Seeing Ivan the Terrible Part 1, I was nagged by the feeling of not quite recognising what I was seeing: what did the film remind me of? In his introduction to Part II, Ian Christie, the Kino season curator, answered this for me: Disney had a strong influence on Eisenstein. The swirling robes, grotesque shadowplay, snaking lines of axe-wielding warriors and cavernous palace interiors, as well as the tall, stooped figure of Nikolai Cherkasov as Ivan: they could all come straight from the wicked stepmother scenes in Snow White. But the mesmerising Prokofiev score and Cherkasov’s beautiful, sinister performance make the film a haunting experience.

Part II of Ivan traces his decline into paranoia and madness, when he surrounds himself with the oprichniki (‘Men apart’, a sort of 16th century secret police) and finishes off, one by one, his enemies. Ivan’s war against Livonia provides a historical parallel with the brutality of Russia’s war against Nazi Germany, but rather than ending with Ivan triumphant over the Baltic states, the film ends with his assassination of his half-witted nephew, leaving Ivan still more terrible and alone.

The climax of the film is a wild banquet sequence shot on colour film (captured from the German army!), the flickering shades of red and gold adding to the hellish atmosphere of oppression and violence. The depiction of terror and political murder clearly struck an unwelcome chord with Stalin, and the Central Committee decreed that Part II was historically erroneous and could not be released. In 1948, before he could make Part III, Eisenstein suffered a heart attack and died; Part II was not released for another ten years, after Stalin’s death and Krushchev’s denunciation of his purges. How strange the film must have seemed to the audiences of 1958.

Josephine Grahl blogs at Blue Stockings.

The Russian season continues at BFI Southbank until the end of August with Kosmos, a season of Soviet science fiction films.

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