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National Research University Higher School of EconomicsIQNewsThe Soviet Film Revolution

The Soviet Film Revolution

How the October Revolution gave rise to the new cinematography
December 07, 2017

The October Revolution created a new cinema. At first, "the most important of all arts" struggled to keep up with social transformations and was not yet used as a weapon in the fight for a communist culture. But the mid-1920s, an innovative, cutting-edge film industry had emerged from sources such as theatre, street performance, posters, poetry and circus shows. This industry was able to do what the politicians had failed to achieve, namely trigger a world revolution.

On Shoulders of Pre-revolutionary Art Giants

In the 1920s in Russia, viewers in crowded cinema theatres watched foreign films about the lives of ‘counts and princes’, men and women of high society. This kind of cinema did not fit in well with the recent social transformations and was hardly suitable for shaping a new type of person, the builder of Communism.

This old form of cinematography was already an anachronism, but the new style of film was yet to be born. Everyone was aware of its propaganda potential – Lenin's phrase “Of all arts, cinema is the most important for us” became a mantra, but film did not yet function as a political tribune.

Meanwhile, the new film was growing on fertile soil: pre-revolutionary motion pictures, initially imitating European and American movies, eventually found their own style. Cinema had mastered the genre of urban melodrama, moralising and entertaining at the same time. Film directors Yevgeni Bauer, Pyotr Chardynin and Yakov Protazanov discovered Russian movie stars, such as Vera Kholodnaya, Vera Karalli and Ivan Mozzhukhin.

Father Sergius, directed by Yakov Protazanov

In 1919, the State School of Cinematography (later VGIK) was established, where the first Soviet actors were trained by masters such as Vladimir Gardin and Lev Kuleshov. Before 1917, Gardin had directed more than 30 films. Kuleshov used to work with Bauer. "The Revolution had transformed the way the film industry operated, but for some time, the artistic techniques and people were the same as before, "according to Professor of the HSE School of Cultural Studies Jan Levchenko.  

In addition to this, many young cinematographers still held old ideas of cinema as entertainment. In 1921, Grigory Kozintsev (who later directed the outstanding Hamlet starring Innokentiy Smoktunovsky), Leonid Trauberg and Sergei Yutkevich set up what they called the Factory of Aesthetic Actor to produce adventure films. But many others perceived this trend as a manifestation of inertia, believing instead that the revolutionary times required a change of concept.   

The Kuleshov Effect or Feature Film Born from Documentary Footage

Sergei Eisenstein is often referred to as Leonardo da Vinci of cinematography. This can be equally attributed to Lev Kuleshov who became famous not just in Russia but worldwide. Alfred Hitchcock described the Kuleshov Effect as a filmmaker's essential tool.

Kuleshov discovered that viewers could derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots assembled during a montage than from a single shot. Kuleshov introduced a new approach to film editing and a new concept of filmmaking as a synthetic and multicomponent art. His best-known films are The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks of 1924, By the Law of 1926, and The Great Consoler of 1933.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks , directed by Lev Kuleshov

"We make films – Kuleshov made cinematography", wrote his students in the foreword to his landmark book Art of the Cinema (1929). Kuleshov's school trained famous film directors such as Vsevolod Pudovkin, Boris Barnet and Mikhail Romm.

"The birth of a new Soviet cinematography is also linked to the Civil War," according to historian Igor Orlov. Cameramen accompanying military units and propaganda trains filmed the events and immediately showed the footage to soldiers. Short propaganda films were produced featuring the goals and the early victories of the new Soviet regime. Kuleshov was one of the directors of these documentaries and the author of the propaganda film On the Red Front (1920).

By Lenin's orders, propaganda trains had to carry and show films featuring industrial, agricultural, anti-religious and scientific topics. None were produced in Russia at the time; so foreign-made films had to be used instead.

Soviet Cinema Lagging Behind

According to Orlov, the Bolsheviks began to focus specifically on the film industry during the New Economic Policy (NEP). In 1922, the State Film Distribution Trust was established, followed by Goskino (the central film producing company), which was in charge of Soviet film production for decades afterwards. Nevertheless, the cinema was not under total state control. Commercial film distribution was evolving, and movie theatres made money mostly by screening films made in the West.

The cost of producing early Soviet films was very high, the material resources and equipment were lacking, few movies were produced, and the audience was not very interested in domestic product, preferring foreign films. In May 1924, the Thirteenth Communist (Bolshevik) Party Congress addressed the challenges of filmmaking, stressing the need to support its propaganda role. "It is necessary to draw the attention of broad proletarian masses, the Party and professional organisations to this matter," stated the Congress resolution. "Until now, the Party has not been able to effect proper use of the cinema and to take it under control."

In the same year, 1924, the Association of Revolutionary Cinematography was set up on the initiative of filmmakers Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, and a few writers. The association issued a declaration, proclaiming cinema to be "the strongest weapon in the fight for a Communist culture."

However, in the mid 1920's, ‘ideologically wrong’ Western films still prevailed in Soviet Russia. Even in 1927, ten years after the Communist Revolution, the number of copies still numbered many thousands, and their box office revenue stood at 18.7 million roubles versus just 11.8 million roubles brought in by Soviet-produced movies. The function of revolutionary propaganda was temporarily filled by theatrical production.

Historical Reconstruction Saves Revolution

The New Economic Policy (NEP), which continued throughout most of the 1920s, affected the romantic image of the Revolution. Not all expectations had been met. The hopes of ​a great renewal were partly frustrated by the realisation that building socialism was impossible without 'regression' to capitalism. The challenge was to either rescue the former image of the Revolution or to construct a new 'revolutionary reality'.

At first, theatrical pieces devoted to the October Revolution were used to create this new reality. In 1920, director and playwright Nikolai Evreinov produced the play The Taking of the Winter Palace and staged it in the Palace Square in Leningrad on the event's anniversary. In 1924, The Palace and Fortress, a silent biopic directed by Aleksandr Ivanovsky, Protazanov's student, was released; produced in the historical reconstruction genre, the film was designed to purify and re-glorify the Revolution.

This turning point coincided with the first large-scale attack against the NEP, according to Orlov. "The Party, as if suddenly frightened by the temptation that the NEP may present for some people, decided to change course, like milk changes to curds," wrote People's Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky. The authorities sought to discredit the 'new bourgeoisie' (nicknamed Nepmen) in the public eye.

This was the start of a campaign against the NEP. Satire associated it with decay and death. Theatrical plays and movies depicted a typical Nepman as a caricature image of a lazy and bossy character with "a fat belly and oily face, heavily adorned with diamond jewellery" and having piles of money stuck in his pockets. This was the image of a capitalist depicted in the film Strike (1924) directed by Eisenstein and in The Meringue Pie play staged by Meyerhold's Theatre of Revolution.

The government and artists acted in unison: the year 1924, which foreign journalists termed 'the year of a second Revolution', saw a new offensive on capitalism. As private enterprises got closed, their Nepman owners were accused of speculation and consequently exiled.

Parents of 'Ideological Cinema’

At the same time in 1924, real Revolutionary cinema was born, such as Strike by Eisenstein, followed by Battleship Potemkin in 1925, marking the 20th anniversary of the 1905 revolution, Pudovkin's Mother based on Maxim Gorky's novel in 1926, and The End of St. Petersburg in 1927 on the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution.

Strike, directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Many young directors rejected the approach to film as entertainment and "a means to lull the audience to sleep." Light entertainment could only breed an undemanding and complacent bourgeoisie, according to Eisenstein who believed that the new cinema should have a clearly defined ideological mission. "I believe that refusing to adopt a clear [ideological] orientation [in film] and allowing the energy to dissipate is the greatest crime of our era," Eisenstein wrote.

The new cinematographers consistently stressed the role of the October Revolution, which had influenced them both directly and indirectly through literature and theatre. Thus, Eisenstein's work was inspired partly by Vladimir Mayakovsky's poems and partly by Meyerhold's theatrical experiments.

Earlier, Eisenstein's approach to art had been influenced by the Proletcult movement which rejected the existing theatre as an anachronism, and also by poster art, street performance, circus and music hall shows, as well as the eccentricity of American cinema.

According to Eisenstein, if it had not been for the October Revolution, his talent might not have been revealed. "The Revolution gave me the most precious thing in my life – it made me into an artist," the film director wrote in his Autobiography. "If it had not been for the Revolution, I would have never broken the family tradition of being an engineer like my father. I had already felt the ability and desire, but only the revolutionary whirlwind gave me the main thing I needed, the freedom of self-determination."

Battleship Potemkin , directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Revolutionary Circus with Buffoonery

Clearly, this freedom also translated into aesthetic novelty. Its core concept was what the director called 'attraction'. "Attraction is any aggressive technique used in a show to give the audience an emotional shock," according to Eisenstein. His theatrical production based on Ostrovsky's Enough Stupidity in Every Wiseman, and his first film Glumov's Diary based on the same material (1923) were both conceived as a 'montage of attractions'. This concept, according toculturologist Natalia Samutina, makes it possible "to combine seemingly incompatible plans and effects to enhance the impact on the viewer and convey the director's carefully constructed ideological message."

Eisenstein's use of clownery and circus themes deserves a separate mention. In his play based on Ostrovsky's Enough Stupidity in Every Wiseman, grotesque and eccentricity ruled. A clown conducts the heroine's wedding ceremony. The attending guests sing the neverending Russian comic song "Once a priest had a dog, and he loved her so. But she ate a piece of meat, and he killed her and let her go." It turns out that the bride had several suitors, and then a mullah continues the wedding ceremony, offering the heroine a harem full of husbands.

Later, Federico Fellini used a similar technique in his 1963 film 8½ and in some others. The mask theme is another similarity between the Italian and Russian masters' work. Eisenstein's Strikedepicts negative characters as grotesque masquerade figures. The difference is that the Russian director views carnival and clowning as giving life and energy to the movie, while the Italian director perceives it as a relic of the past (see Vyacheslav Ivanov, Maska kak element kul'tury//Mask as Element of Culture).

Creative Revolution in Film

Kuleshov, Eisenstein and Pudovkin are considered ‘the three giants’ of contemporary montage – bold, fast-paced and playing with contrasts; more than just an element of form, their montage is an integral part of the film content.

Termed as 'Russian montage' by American film critics, Kuleshov, Eisenstein and Pudovkin's discoveries caused a revolution in cinematography.

Eisenstein in particular proposed a theory of montage summarised in his article The Fourth Dimension in Cinemaof 1929. In his book Cinema between Heaven and Hell..., film director and theorist Alexander Mitta wrote,  "Eisenstein contrasted soft editing which aligned frames to produce a consistent narrative with a radically different method of creating a story. In Eisenstein's montage, frames did not merge together in a gentle embrace but collided, striking a spark of meaning. A dark frame collided with a light one, and opposing movements clashed with each other..."

The famous stone lions in Battleship Potemkin are an example of montage creating new meaning: by showing three lions – lying, sitting and standing – in a sequence, Eisenstein makes them look like the startled animal is coming alive. "The stones 'growled' in this silent-movie metaphor," according to Mitta.

Battleship Potemkin, Startled stone lions

In Strike, montage relies on a play of contrasts. This film is literally a black and white movie: impoverished workers versus indulgent capitalists, justice versus injustice, a meagre meal for poor people versus a drunken feast of the 'bourgeoisie', etc. Similarly, Pudovkin's Mother relies on contrasts between the old and new life, between delusions and realisation of truth.  

These new cinema artists also shared the tendency to use techniques such as dramatic mass scenes, expressive close-ups, clarity and precision of details and rigorous composition of frames.

Just like the literature and paintings of that period, cinema deliberately emphasised the artistic techniques used.

Proletarian Fist

Details and gestures in Soviet cinema are a separate topic, whose revolutionary significance for cinematography was discussed by French literary theorist Roland Barthes, who found the 'proletarian fist' to be one of the most striking details in Battleship Potemkin. "The clenched fist given in full detail signifies indignation, anger mastered and channelled, the determination of the struggle; metonymically joined to the whole Potemkin story, it 'symbolises' the working class in all its resolute strength," Barthes notes. Another suggestive detail in Battleship Potemkin is a pince-nez hanging from a rope; it gives us a cue that the insurgent sailors have thrown overboard the doctor who allowed them to be fed rotten meat.

It was important for Eisenstein to create an emotion of horror and to wrest this emotion out of his audience. One of the most powerful scenes in Battleship Potemkin is that of a baby pram bouncing down a giant stairway. This bouncing pram "elicited more horror than a hundred horrified people," according to Mitta.     

Suspense of Masses

Mayakovsky's verse, "If powerless people join together – surrender, enemy, freeze and drop!" echoes the message of Eisenstein and Pudovkin's films. Revolutionary masses and 'class-conscious workers' are the new and powerful heroes.

Pudovkin's The End of St. Petersburg (1927) is a story explaining why the Bolsheviks seized power, but it does not show any of the leading politicians of that time – only rank-and-file fighters for freedom. Speaking about political figures, Eisenstein's October, also released in 1927, showed Lenin for the first time as a movie character, but this film was less successful than Eisenstein's other work.   

Eisenstein's Strike, due to its 'impersonality and theatricality', was reminiscent of plays produced in the early years after the Revolution. Mass scenes were designed to create an impression of working class cohesion. Eisenstein described his Strike as "daring, dashing... rough and combative." This and his other films include many graphic scenes intended to shock the viewer.  

"In my films, crowds of people get gunned down, labourers buried up to their necks in the ground get their skulls smashed by horses... children get crushed on the Odessa steps ... thrown into fires," Eisenstein wrote. “<...> But our cinema is original not only in its form, technique or method. <...> Here, art rises to self-awareness as a kind of violence, <...> as a crushing weapon clearing the way for the victorious idea."

It is widely believed that Hitchcock invented suspense in film. However, this is not entirely true.

In fact, suspense – a crescendo of the viewer's anxious expectation, according to famous French director François Truffaut – was first used by Eisenstein in the mass scenes described above, where the viewer was sucked into an emotional whirlpool and made to identify with the characters.

Suspense can compress or extend time at the director's will; an example is the gunfire scene in the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. "The events which in reality would have lasted a few moments got extended to five or six minutes by filming them from different points of view," explains Mitta. "In addition to this, the space was also distorted, as the actual stairway is about a dozen times shorter than shown in the film."

Each Frame Serves the Message

Eisenstein worked thoroughly on each frame, the basic element of film which the director termed a 'poysemic hieroglyph' and filled with broad meaning.

He found that judging the ‘pictorialism’ of a shot in cinema is naive. "Not even a film novice would now analyse a film shot as if it were an easel painting," he wrote in the article "The Fourth Dimension in Cinema" (1929). Each frame serves the main idea. "You cannot create anything unless you know what specific feelings and passions you wish to 'manipulate’," wrote Eisenstein.

Characteristic of the master, this statement reveals his tendency to theorise. The young cinema intellectuals of the time readily shared their reflections on art, finding it important to 'codify' the cinematic revolution in their articles and books.

Battleship Impact

Soviet cinema eventually triggered a world revolution. According to Levchenko, it was increasingly obvious to the West "that new cinema coming from the East was so passionate and ambitious that dismissing it as something secondary was no longer possible."

Almost immediately, Battleship Potemkin hit the world's top charts. Regardless of subsequent developments of the film industry, Battleship Potemkin is still perceived as the starting point. Many filmmakers call Eisenstein their teacher, and many students learn about cinematography from his films. (The same is true of Pudovkin whose film Mother has also made it more than once into lists of the world's top rated films).

Eisenstein's film is minimalist like a poster, emotional like a passionate sermon, and realistic like a newsreel. This textbook movie has been parodied in many ways in films ranging from The Simpsons to Terry Gilliam's productions, including a naughty reference to the hand-painted red flag on the battleship's mast in Peter Greenaway's Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015).

Film distributors' fears that releasing a movie without stars or romantic intrigue was a recipe for disaster did not come true: on the day after the Potemkin press-screening on 18 January 1926, Moscow movie theatres were packed. At the initial screenings in Khudozhestvenny, viewers were met at the entrance by a huge battleship model and theatre staff wearing sailor uniforms, but on 19 January no such effects were necessary. Later, in April of that year, Battleship Potemkin was screened in Berlin amidst huge press coverage and censorship scandals.

Subsequently, American silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks who was quite famous in Russia reportedly admitted that he was afraid to watch Soviet films after Battleship Potemkin as they gave him a shock; nevertheless, Fairbanks also praised Pudovkin's Mother.

Recognised as world movie masters, both Eisenstein and Pudovkin actively engaged with Western filmmakers. In 1928, Eisenstein and his crew toured Europe and the US, giving talks and studying Western cinema.

New Realism

Soviet cinema set many new trends in filmmaking, such as Italian neo-realism which emerged shortly after World War II and French New Wave which appeared in the mid-1950s. One of the New Wave pioneers Jean-Luc Godard was inspired by Dziga Vertov, documentary filmmaker and author of Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

Man with a Movie Camera , directed by Dziga Vertov

Vertov's movies were far less popular than Eisenstein's, but the two directors' polemics gave rise to new realism. Vertov criticised Eisenstein for imitating a documentary style in feature film, while Eisenstein judged his opponent for using artistic techniques in editing documentaries. It turned out later that both were striving for the same goal, wishing to abandon the melodramatic cinematography of the past and bring film into contact with current reality.

This contact with reality, however, was undermined by the Soviet movies of the 1930s, in particular the musical comedies by Grigory Alexandrov (Eisenstein's student) and Ivan Pyriev, whose movies showed Soviet people living a poster life full of fun. As for Eisenstein and Pudovkin, they focused on historical film in the 1930s and 1940s, when Eisenstein directed Alexander Nevsky, and then Ivan the Terrible and Pudovkin filmed Victory, Minin and Pozharsky, and Suvorov. The romance between cinema and the Revolution literally became history.

Overcoming the Revolution

Why Russia is still experiencing the effects of the 1917 October Revolution

How Russian Undergraduates Perceive 1917 Events in Russia

The 1917 October Socialist Revolution evokes a dual symbolism in the minds of young Russians.