Academic journal article Kritika

Writing about the Cinema of the Stalin Years: The State of the Art

Academic journal article Kritika

Writing about the Cinema of the Stalin Years: The State of the Art

Article excerpt

Scholars of the first decades of Soviet cinema have conventionally broken their study down into sub-periods marked both by developments in the film industry and by political change. The year 1924 saw both Lenin's death and the restoration of the film industry after the dislocation caused by revolution and civil war. The late New Economic Policy (NEP) years would produce both the first great depictions of the revolutionary process by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Dovzhenko and the social comedies of everyday life of Kuleshov, Barnet, Ermler, and Room. The end of the decade saw collectivization and the First Five-Year Plan--and cultural revolution, which had a direct effect on the film industry. This second period also coincided with the start of the Soviet cinematic debate about sound film. The introduction of sound technology in the 1930s brought a new genre, the musical, but it also made it easier to use film for ideological ends, so filmmakers experienced increasing state intervention and censorship, and the number of shelved films grew. The third sub-period dates from June 1941 to May 1945 and is marked by the evacuation of the industry to Central Asia and its total ideological mobilization. The fourth, lasting from the end of the war to the Great Leader's death, saw a drive to re-impose orthodoxy and a dearth of films, the so-called malokartin "e, the two phenomena connected by Stalin's famous dictum that "we should make fewer films, but each of them should be a masterpiece."

There have been, broadly, four approaches to writing about the film industry of these years. The first was to study individual films and the careers of individual filmmakers, and here a conservative canon was observed, with most attention paid to the "great directors," to Eisenstein and Pudovkin, Vertov and Dovzhenko, and then, later, to the musicals of Aleksandrov and Pyr'ev. But the singular achievements of many other filmmakers and, more important, the links of these directors to their colleagues through the shared experience of cinematic education, professional organizations, and work in studios were insufficiently explored. (1) The other approaches were the publication, re-publication, and translation of documents, exemplified by The Film Factory, (2) still the most important single volume on the cinema of the period; contributions to the history of the industry in its political context, the approach taken in Richard Taylor's Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany and The Politics of the Soviet Cinema 1917-1929; (3) and overviews of the cinematic process in historical context, as in Peter Kenez's Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953 and Denise Youngblood's Movies for the Masses) These five pioneering books set the agenda for the development of the study of Stalin period cinema in the West in the late 20th century. It is notable that they concentrated their gaze on the 1920s and early 1930s, which are the years that saw the greatest artistic and political debate about the direction of the industry, and arguably the years of its greatest achievement. The fate and achievements of the industry during wartime and later attracted far less attention, in part because of the inaccessibility of the films of this period.

The approaches outlined above have not changed fundamentally in recent years, but a number of factors have led to a considerable expansion of the study of the subject. First and perhaps most important is that the video and DVD revolution has vastly increased the primary material which is accessible to scholars. Many of these films are re-issued in low-quality editions, poorly framed and with bad sound, and few attempts have been made by Russian publishers to re-issue the original versions of the many films that were de-Stalinized in the Khrushchev years, but it is now possible (indeed essential) to look at the achievements of the great cinematic masters in the context from which they sprang. This context is now being examined in many ambitious documentary films being made by Russian companies, the most innovative and thoughtful of which, Zvezdnye gody Lentil'ma (The Star-Studded Years of Lenfilm), made for the Kul'tura channel, regularly includes footage from extremely rare films of the period. …

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