Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times

By Cristina Vatulescu | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Early Soviet Cinema’s
Shots at Policing

Reminiscing about the Soviet cinema of the early 1920s, Moisei Aleinikov, head of the Rus film studio, recounted the story of legendary director Lev Kuleshov’s “montage people,” who, “wearing leather jackets and carrying revolvers, used to ‘arrest’ old film negatives in the studio, in order to re-edit this ‘rubbish … filmed by the bourgeoisie’ into new revolutionary film— there being no raw film in the country.”1 The next two chapters will follow the clue left dormant in the uncanny image of the filmmaker impersonating a secret police agent (for who else would carry out “arrests” outfitted with leather jacket and revolver rather than a regular police uniform?) and explore a type of cinema that I believe defined the foundational decades of Soviet filmmaking: kino police. I will argue that filmmakers took on more than the look of the secret police: they were instrumental in its major projects, such as identifying the new profile of the socialist criminal/enemy and molding the public response to it. That cinema was a weapon in the hands of the Soviet state was a leading cliché of the time; some filmmakers took it to heart, others to the letter. Dziga Vertov, whose experiments with capturing and editing the image of the criminal/state-enemy we will follow shortly, strikingly described his camera as “a gun apparatus direct[ing] its muzzle over the city.”2 Alexander Medvedkin actually built and wielded a camera-gun; later, his “cineinvestigations” tracked “evildoers” across the country and landed some of them in jail. Ivan Pyr’ev’s popular portrayal of the Soviet enemy in The Party Card (Partiinyi bilet) induced audience members to conduct searches on each other lest they mingle with enemies of the people potentially teeming in the darkness of the cinemas.3 Following this chapter, which explores the pioneering, if sometimes heterodox, versions of kino police, we will move to a chapter that dwells on the secret police’s own involvement with cinema, focusing on newsreels and documentaries, as well as an OGPU fiction blockbuster, The Road to Life.

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