Whilst in conversation with Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Commisar of Eduction, Lenin first uttered this now somewhat clichéd quote. But what was it about cinema that made it so important to him?
Russian art as a whole experienced a period of relative freedom in the years following the revolution. The belief that art should change the world fired avant-garde artists across genres to create transformative pieces, bringing them out of the gallery to the people. The idea of art for the masses was hugely important, and no other art represents this culture better than cinema. The revolution dramatically swept aside the prerevolutionary film culture, opening the floor for a whole generation of new filmmakers, critics and theorists to debate the ideological and stylistic direction of this hugely influential art form.
Lenin, along with many intellectuals, was not himself particularly interested in cinema as an art form, preferring ‘high art’ to the ‘popular’ art of film, yet he clearly realized the power that cinema held and its importance in the consolidation of Bolshevik rule as a tool of propaganda. The realities of Russia and the civil war limited possible pathways for the spread of the Bolshevik message but gaining the support of the rural population was instrumental to victory and cinema represented a powerful method of achieving this.
The Bolshevik party encouraged support amongst the peasants through the use of AgitProp, short newsreels and educational films which were easily understandable, and travelled the length of the country on trains, lorries and boats. Agitators reported that the effect of seeing such films for the first time on the peasant population, particularly the younger generations, was incredibly powerful (Taylor 1988: 38). In the very earliest years, the agitprop films represent the focus on ‘education’ within the realm of cinema, which, against ‘entertainment’ would become a crucial theoretical discussion in the years that followed. Therefore, cinema was initially important for Lenin and the Bolsheviks as it facilitated the spreading of their message across the population, creating support and eventually winning the war.
However, the symbolic importance of cinema to soviet ideology rendered it even more powerful. Cinema itself was representative of the new society the Bolshevik revolution sought to create. Film was an industrial art form closely associated with modernization and the progress that is associated with the dawning of a machine age, and while other forms of art were virtually impossible to police, the equipment and technical knowhow required in filmmaking make cinema an easy art form to control. Moreover, the revolution had caused many filmmakers to flee, often times taking their equipment with them. The floor was therefore left wide open for a whole new generation of young directors to take the limelight. Many of them including Eisenstein and Kuleshov learnt and experimented during the civil war, while working on the Agitpoezdi.
The limited resources and importance of putting across a message clearly and succinctly, led to a ‘cinema born in the wake of revolution and civil war’ which was ‘different and to all intent and purpose, new’ (Gillespie 2000: 4). The distinctive revolutionary style of 1920s soviet cinema was therefore born out of a civil war and crucial for lenin as it represented an ideologically sound art form for the new soviet state.
Amongst the new theories, perhaps the most influential in the history of film, was the theory of montage put into writing by Lev Kuleshev. His editing techniques were used to great effect in his 1924 film “The Extraordinary adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolshevik”. However, despite the ideologically sound representation of the americans political enlightemnet in this film, Kuleshev was criticized for the Formalism and Americanism of his work and the film was condemned as pure ‘Entertainment’ without the aspect of ‘Enlightenment’ that was judged by many as absolutely paramount to the new cinema of soviet Russia.
Eisenstein, Vertov and members of Glavpolitprosvet however, believed that their films should raise the artistic consciousness of the masses and condemned the “narcotic” effect of western tastes on film audiences (Youngblood 1992: 39). Sergei Eisenstein continued and extended Kuleshevs theory of montage. He wrote about 5 different types of montage, the most important of which being ‘intellectual montage’ and employs this technique to harrowing effect in The Strike, where the symbolic cutting between the slaughter of a bull and the government troops, place a moral judgment on the actions of the soldiers. He took his techniques even further in dramatic use of montage in October, a propaganda masterpiece released to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. However, for the masses, the intellectual montage employed in October took the idea too far, creating a 3 hour long epic which was too complicated for audiences to understand. Even Battleship Potemkin, was far from an instant success, being replaced in cinemas by Robin Hood not once but twice (Taylor 1979: 95). Clearly therefore, the ‘masses’ were still demanding entertainment from their films. They did not want to be challenged or upset by the ‘revolutionary gauntlet thrown down by Eisenstein or Vertov’ (Taylor 1988: 47).
Therefore, in theory, the nature of cinema, and the new style and techniques that grew out of the 1920s resulted in a revolutionary art form that was ideologically sound and incredibly useful as a tool of propaganda. However, in reality, the determination of ideologs to use cinema as a tool of education and enlightenment for the ‘masses’ about whom they knew little, and whose preferences they cared for even less, resulted in complex films almost as unintelligible to the general population. The ‘masses’ wanted entertainment, which explains the continued success of Hollywood films and the continued popularity of its stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, as highlighted in the 1927 film The Kiss of Mary Pickford. Cinema was, for Lenin, the most important of all the arts for its propaganda potential, but the limited success of the films we now hail as masterpieces in soviet 1920s highlights that despite its potential, the industry failed to really gather support from the people.