Subject essay: James von Geldern
The Bolsheviks, who considered their ideology the most modern of all political systems, liked to associate themselves with modern technologies. Airplanes, motor cars, radios, even fantastic schemes for rocket ships were all patronized by the Bolsheviks as they built their new society. Many of these enterprises were fanciful in a country that could barely provide citizens with the basics, yet there was one relatively new technology that could be used with practical effect to improve people’s live. This was the moving picture, the cinema, which Lenin dubbed “the most important of all the arts for us” in a conversation with Lunacharskii.
The desire to exploit the young medium was frustrated by a variety of factors. The wartime film industry, which had flourished when the blockade removed western movies from the Russian market, ended up in exile when most directors, writers and actors sided against the Reds in the civil war. Funding was meager, and the film school founded by Lunacharskii had to operate with almost no funds, cameras or even film stock. Most films produced by the young Soviet film industry were rather crude documentary newsreels, advocating sanitation, or warning of the dangers of lice. These were no competition against western films, particularly exciting American movies, which flooded the Soviet market when it opened again with the conclusion of the civil war. Creative efforts from within the film school and elsewhere mounted a challenge, based on aesthetic experiments among avant-garde artists, and leading to furious debates on the nature of socialist film. Newsreel director Dziga Vertov (Denis Kaufman), demanded a fact-based aesthetic in which documentary footage combined with agitational subtitles inspired a new consciousness in viewers. Lev Kuleshov, the leading teacher in the film school, noted the success of American stunt films, and encouraged his students to harness “eccentricity,” as stunts were called in Russian, to present the Bolshevik point of view. In contrast to Vertov, who insisted that film should record inherently socialist material, Kuleshov argued that raw footage has no inherent meaning, and only acquires that meaning when it is placed together with other film clips. It was the job of the director to select clips from a variety of sources, some even antagonistic to socialism, and to place them together to create the proper sense. He called the editing process montage. Young director Sergei Eisenstein (Eizenshtein in Russian) learned from both. He released two films in 1925, Strike and then the justly renowned Battleship Potemkin, that featured bold action sequences and radical editing to create a indisputably Bolshevik take on the Russian “revolution” of 1905. The famous action scenes of Potemkin, including the slaughter of innocent citizens on the grand steps of the Odessa Embankment, and the flight of the battleship through the midst of the Russian Fleet, contained original footage and footage from other sources, including German newsreels of the wartime period!
Any claims to the leadership of Soviet film were disputed by adherents of a proletarian cinema based in the Proletkino Studio (where Eisenstein made Strike before leaving). Neither side could ignore the ever-present competition of American movies, which still dominated the box office. At the height of its success, hailed by critics around the world as a masterpiece, Potemkin was removed from most Moscow screens to make way for Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad, which was far more popular with Soviet audiences.
17 Moments in Soviet History – Socialist Cinema, by James von Geldern is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.