Film-Making in the Soviet Union

By Lightman, Herb A | American Cinematographer, August 1974 | Go to article overview

Film-Making in the Soviet Union


Lightman, Herb A, American Cinematographer


Editor travels to the USSR to observe Russian motion picture methods and equipment and report on them to readers of American Cinematographer

MOSCOW

En route to the Soviet Union, as invited guest of the Association of Film Makers of the USSR, I review in my mind what I know of the history of the Russian cinema.

Up until the Revolution of 1917, the Russian cinema, destined to become one of the greatest in the world, was technically primitive and sparse in output. Before the first Russian studio was built (in 1907), the only film activity that prevailed involved French cameramen sent in by Gaumont,-Lumière and Pathé to make a film or two and then leave. After the first studio was built, others (all small) were constructed by the Russians, French and Germans, but these hardly constituted a base for a true film industry. At the time of the Revolution, there existed, in all the vastness of Russia, only 1,045 cinema theatres, with a total seating capacity of 364,000.

After the Revolution, the Soviet Union fell heir to a film industry that existed in name only. The Europeans and White Russians had left the country, taking with them whatever stocks of film and camera equipment that had existed. Feature production, which had begun in 1914 on a very small scale and which had concentrated mainly on the filming of stage plays, was at a standstill. The most ambitious feature produced until then had been an adaptation of Tolstoi's FATHER SERGIUS (1917), directed by Feodor Protazanov and filmed mainly on location in the elegant clubs and palaces of the time. Upon completion, it was promptly banned by the czarist government.

The Revolution turned out to be, not only political, but cultural and artistic, as well. Startling new forms were tried out in music and stage plays and this surge of innovation soon spread to the cinema. In August of 1919, the film industry was nationalized by the Soviet government and came under control of the People's Commissariat of Propaganda and Education. Even though the studios were a shambles and there were only meager supplies of film stock available, motion pictures were given fop priority when Lenin declared: "Of all the arts, the cinema is the most 'important for us."

During the period of civil war and counter-revolution that prevailed after the initial Bolshevik takeover, film facilities were devoted almost totally to the making of documentaries which recorded the progress of the Red armies and the changes being made by the new government. Most of this film was edited by a young film buff named Dziga Vertov, who cut it first as newsreels and finally edited the footage into a three-hour, 13-reel documentary called THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE OCTOBER REVOLUTION. This film is commonly regarded as the first Soviet feature.

Encouraged by the success of this venture, Vertov quite dogmatically declared that the only significant role of film in the new society was to present factual matter to the people of the nation. In 1922, to back up this theory, he inaugurated a weekly newsreel called KINO-PRAVDA (FILM-TRUTH), which not only presented facts, but commentary to interpret those facts.

There were those who disagreed with Vertov's narrow appraisal of the film form, regarding it as a medium of potentially far wider scope. With the all-out approval of the government, these more imaginative individuals began to experiment with film as a storytelling medium, tackling original screenplays with modern themes, as well as the classics, usually with actors of the Moscow Art Theatre. Some of their efforts were impressionistic, some outright slapstick; they tried everything.

Among the more adventurous of these film-makers was Lev Kuleshov. He had made films before the Revolution, but was now inspired to seek out new emotional and psychological depths in the potential of cinema. Assuming correctly that the key to the impact of film was the juxtaposition of one image in relation to another (in other words, the editing process), he and his colleagues-which included V. …

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