(Or The Development of Soviet Cinema in the 1930s)
“If the public is not interested in a picture that we produce, that picture will become boring agitation and we shall become boring agitators” - Lunacharsky.
One aspect of the Cultural Revolution, a period which saw dramatic changes to all aspects of Soviet life in the early Stalinist period, was an overwhelming condemnation of the experimental avant-garde cinema of the 1920s. Montage, which directors such as Kuleshov and Eisenstein had considered absolutely central to the cinematic art form, was denounced as formalistic and incomprehensible to the masses. However, it was not just their style which was criticised, the directors themselves were condemned. It was noted that ’people have behaved as if the director was empowered to do with the film whatever he wanted’ and a popular view was that directors were responsible for ‘plotlessness’ in a cinema that failed to entertain. Moreover, many directors were criticised for their non-proletarian origins, often cited as the reason for their failure to produce films of interest to the masses. A survey in 1928 revealed that only 13.5% of directors were party members, while 97.3% were from non-proletarian origins . In the new cinema of the 1930s, the director and his montage no longer reigned supreme, cinematic culture was now to be rooted in the centrality of script, the importance of actors and, most crucially, the development of genre.
American cinema had long utilised genre, those timeless plot lines that become crystalised in film form, to create immensely successful and entertaining films. The power of genre lies in the way it capitalises on certain primordial feelings, sentiments and existential relations that the viewers have towards certain things. By channelling these most profound feelings from the world of the viewers, genre cinema is capable of transporting them into the world of the protagonist. This power of genre therefore helps to explain the overwhelming success of foreign films in the Soviet Union in the NEP years, in contrast with experimental avant-garde cinema. However, due to shortages of hard currency, and ideological concerns with content from the capitalist west, importation was no longer possible. By creating Soviet versions of these genres the fledgling industry could capitalise on the power of genre in unifying nation and people. Moreover, the repetition of patterns in genre films represents a search for answers to a set of repeating social questions. Such questions are timeless, however the changing values of successive generations may well affect the answers given in the resolution of the film. These genre films, are therefore a product of, as well as a reflection of, their historical context.
It is therefore interesting to explore why, of the genres that emerged, musical comedy was so heavily invested in and played such an important role in the new cinema of the 1930s. Shymyatskii asserted that ‘we need genres that are infused with optimism’, and the musical comedy is nothing if not optimistic. It was able to cater to the desires of audiences, by offering them not only an entertaining escape from every day life, but hope for the future. This is why Alexandrov’s film Volga Volga, for example, was such an incredible success amoungst audiences. At the height of the terror, in the grim reality of life in the 1930s, Volga Volga offered music, comedy, and the definitive victory of proletarian culture over the internal enemy. ‘Socialist Realism’ emerged as the portrayal of the world as it is or should be, with the key concepts of party mindedness, ideological content, class content and truth. The musical comedy was able to appease the ideological concerns of the industry, given that it functioned ‘easily within the paradigm of socialist realism’ due to the strongly utopian tendencies of the style. Ideology and audience entertainment could therefore coincide in this genre, resolving the entertainment vs enlightenment debate of the 1920s. If genre as a whole is successful by its ability to unify, musical comedy represents unification behind the socialist realist utopian ideal.
Along with the unification of plot through the use of genre, the growth of socialist realism also saw the emergence of three simple character types. The ‘party leader’ type is present in Furmanov in Chapaev. He is shown as guiding the Chapaev in the party line, as displayed when he punishes soldiers for stealing animals, thereby improving the reputation of Chapaev, his men and the Bolsheviks. Additionally, during the tactics scene, Furmanov is seen with a pipe in his mouth associating him both with the intellectuals, and with Stalin, the ultimate example of the ‘party leader’. The ‘party leader’ in Soviet Cinema therefore helped to unify the population in support of the party, by legitimising it through agreeable characters in film. The second stock figure is ‘the simple person’. This ties in with the growth of ‘heroism’ in Soviet culture, where there was a significant shift of emphasis from collective efforts to exemplar individuals. In Chapaev, there is explicit reference to heroism in the conversation between Anna and Petka. In the context of broad contemporary discussion of the subject in Soviet society with new awards for Hero of Labour and Hero of Soviet Union in 1927 and1934 respectively, Petka’s promise here is that he, an ordinary peasant, can also be a hero, and it was this narrative that served to reinforce the links between the party and the proletariat. The final stock figure is the enemy. For most of the 1930s this enemy was an internal one, attempting to sabotage industrial production or a bureaucrat such as the character of Byvalov in Volga Volga, towards whom the viewer’s necessary attitude is unashamedly confirmed in the sung epilogue denouncing such bureaucrats. These character types are a central part of a unified and simplified genre cinema, since their repetition ensures the viewer already knows the appropriate emotional response.
However, socialist realist art must hold a complete monopoly if it is to carry out its social function, since the viewer must believe that the only way to view the world is the way it is presented. It therefore cannot coexist with any other artistic trends. Therefore, if these films were going to reach the mass audiences that the party hoped they would, and have the desired effect, the unification of cinema could not be limited to the content of the film, but must also extend to the structure and organisation of the industry itself, thereby reflecting the pattern of centralisation was taking place across the political and social sphere. Traditional analysis of Soviet cinema under Stalinism suggests that it was brought under the grip of an all embracing centralised state and administrative system crushing creative spirit. It is true that there was much reorganisation of the cinema industry. In 1928 Sovkino was renamed Soizkino, extending its power across the entire Soviet Union. At the head of this new organisation, the party leadership placed Shuymatskii. Under this newly centralised organisation, censorship was now no longer an external process, but an internal one. The importance of scripts to Stalinist cinema was not only that they ensured a good plot, but also that they could be edited and adjusted to ensure an ideologically and politically sound film. Moreover, management could and would end production on a film whenever they chose. This close monitoring at every stage of the process, ensured the unifying principles of socialist realism would be enforced at every level. In order to allow the masses to see these new ideologically sound entertainment films, Shuymatskii attempted to bring about significant industrialisation to the industry, even planning the creation of a Soviet ‘Hollywood’. However, he was limited in his success due to the advent of sound technology and problems with the quality of Soviet film equipment. Immense cinefication campaigns were also planned to allow the peasant population to see films which, it was believed, would help reaffirm party control in collectivised areas. However, due to problems in production of equipment, this too saw limited success. Therefore, the cinema industry of 1930s, as well as its films, were rooted in utopian idealism, but in reality dreams of industrial efficiency in the cultural sphere were not realised.
Revisionist schools, however, have highlighted that changes to cinema came not just from above, but with much support from within, including actors, screen writers and critics. The new centrality of the plot, in order to make simple, understandable films led to the increased importance of script writers, who had till this point been significantly ignored. Furthermore, the rise of the ‘hero’ in Soviet films returned actors to centre stage as they had been in pre-revolutionary cinema. In contrast Eisenstein and Vertov, had seen no need for professional actors, preferring instead to find ordinary individuals that might represent a ‘type’. This increased importance led to the rise of stars such as Lyubov Orlova. Therefore, rather than simply crushing creative freedom, there seems to have been a real attempt to transform the industry into a ‘mass form of politicised entertainment’ in contrast to the elitist cinema of the 1920s.
In conclusion, the narrative of unification fully permeates the era of Stalinist cinema. In contrast to the pluralistic agendas of NEP era art, the cultural agenda of the 1930s was orientated towards unification, simplification and stabilisation in the cinematic sphere, quite possibly an attempt consolidate and legitimise the party rule.
Films discussed in this article are available to watch online for free
Volga Volga: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUnZqtcrOlI