On the silver screen

Print edition : December 22, 2017

A scene from Seigei Eisenstein’s 1925 “Battleship Potemkin”, which is based on the mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin in 1905.

From the famous Odessa Steps sequence of the movie "Battleship Potemkin", which captured the horror of the massacre of the crowd that had gathered to welcome the mutinous soldiers.

Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet Union’s iconic and pioneering film-maker. Photo: Bettmann Archive

A scene from Eisenstein's 1927 feature film "October", in which he chose an ordinary worker, Vassily Nikandrov, to play Lenin.

Dziga Vertov, one of the four greats of Soviet cinema. He directed “Three Songs About Lenin”.

A poster for the documentary film “The Sixth Part of the World”, 1926, directed by Dziga Vertov. Found in the collection of the Russian State Library, Moscow. Photo: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Boris Barnet, who made "Moscow in October".

Mikhail Romm, who directed “Lenin in October”.

Sergei Yutkevich, who made "The Man with the Gun" in 1938.

Maxim Straukh, who played Lenin in “The Man with the Gun”.

Vsevolod Pudovkin (left), who made "Mother" and "Storm over Asia". Photo: Mondadori/ Getty Images

A poster of “A Mother’s Heart” (1966).

A poster of “The Fall of Berlin” (1950).

Andrei Tarkovsky, who debuted in 1962 with "Ivan's Childhood". Photo: AFP/Getty Images

A scene from "Ivan’s Childhood".

The creative urges of the pioneers and innovators of cinema in the Soviet Union surged in the heady aftermath of the October Revolution and through the period of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, whatever the political and economic arguments about that tactical policy retreat into a short stretch of free market and capitalism supervised by the state.

EVEN before Soviet cinema had made Lenin its first and finest mascot, Lenin had already made cinema famous by conferring on it the status of “the most important of the arts”. That at least has been the accepted legend. Later, some film historians have raised doubts about whether Lenin did actually give cinema that kind of primacy. In fact, it is Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Commissar of the arts and education under Lenin, who, in a letter written in 1925, a year after Lenin’s death, puts these words into Lenin’s mouth while recalling a conversation he had with the leader about state allocation of budgets for cinema. Lenin, he recounts, was disposed to be liberal with grants for what he felt was the most important of the arts. But, some film scholars point out, it is not as if Lenin was all that unduly concerned about cinema or gave it special consideration, although he did himself see many of the films popular in those days. Be that as it may, Lenin’s purported prioritisation of cinema was requited by a cine-romancing of the revolutionary figure into a cult category of “Cine-Leniniana”.

Cine-Leniniana, from the 1920s until the 1970s, comprised a body of work of over a dozen feature films and over two dozen long and short documentaries ranging from the formally innovative and montage-inspired to the formulaically socialist-realist types. There were in this mix masterly offerings like Sergei Eisenstein’s feature film October made in 1927, which was the first to depict Lenin as a celluloid historical character, and the ace documentary film-maker Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin in 1934. Eisenstein chose an ordinary worker, Vassily Nikandrov, to play Lenin, and the man became so identified with the role for his accurate natural imitation of Lenin’s body language and mannerisms that he was again chosen to play the part of the leader of the revolution in another film the same year, Moscow in October directed by Boris Barnet. The worker-turned-artist was not so much acting as behaving like Lenin in these films.

Evoking Lenin

A number of films, which followed over the next 10 years, evoked Lenin by suggesting his presence without actually venturing to show him. In 1937, a more histrionically “performed” version of Lenin was played by a professional actor in the socialist-realist mould, Boris Shchukin, who strove, through research, study and method-acting practice, to look, sound and feel like Lenin to himself and therefore to the viewers. The film, Lenin in October, scripted by Alexei Kapler and directed by Mikhail Romm, was hugely successful and was followed by the duo with another work two years later titled Lenin in 1918, in which Shchukin again played the role, the emphasis this time being on how Lenin conducted the war against the White Guards and combated dissent and treachery in his own ranks as he piloted the revolution onward, himself surviving an assassination attempt.

Apart from these biopic approaches synonymising Lenin with the October Revolution—and befittingly, because without Lenin there would have been no revolution—there were a number of films in which the persona of Lenin was introduced as a role model and inspiration, where an encounter with him became a life-changing experience, as it was for the central character in the director Sergei Yutkevich’s The Man with the Gun (1938). A peasant-turned-soldier who fought in the war against the imperialists and went on to become a revolutionary, he was transformed by a conversation he had with Lenin, here played by Maxim Straukh, who, from most accounts, stepped into the shoes of the leader on-screen with studied ease. Lenin appeared only in a few scenes but was pivotal to the plot.

Almost two decades later, post the Second World War, Straukh teamed up with Yutkevich to create the diptych Stories about Lenin (1957). The first, The Deed of Soldier Mukhin, goes back to the days in June 1917 when Lenin was in hiding from the interim government near the Razliv lake, and the second, The Last Autumn, was about his final days in Gorki. Straukh got the Lenin Prize for his construct of Lenin in this production. Nearly another decade later we have Lenin in Poland (1965) about his days in Cracow and Poronino towards the end of the First World War. A collaborative effort of Yutkevich, Straukh and Yevgeny Gabrolovich and Polish film-makers, the filmic device adopted here was to project Lenin’s inner monologue to probe his revolutionary spirit and world view. Soon after, two films, A Mother’s Heart (1966) and A Mother’s Loyalty (1967), directed by Mark Donskoy recaptured Lenin’s childhood centred around his mother, Maria Alexandrovna Ulyanova, who was a decisive influence on his early formative years. Another decade on, Kirill Lavrov essayed the role of Lenin in Trust (1976), a Soviet-Finnish co-production directed by Victor Tregubovich and Edwin Laine that looked at Lenin’s engagement with the issue of Finland’s independent future.

This cinema tribute to Lenin was posthumous and genuinely inspired by the example and role of the doyen of the revolution, somewhat in contrast to the command-performed, belaboured cinematic panegyrics on Stalin during his lifetime. While the war movies between 1941 and 1945, which constituted 70 per cent of film production in the Soviet Union during this period (49 of a total of 70 films), captured, some of them very powerfully, the great sacrifices and the heroism and martyrdom of Soviet fighters and citizens (the War, it must be remembered, cost the country 27 million lives), towards the end of the War, and particularly after 1945, they invariably zeroed in on Stalin as the one who, it would seem single-handedly, delivered the Soviet Union and the world from the threat of German fascism.

Elevation of Stalin

Mikhail Chiaureli’s mega colour extravaganza, The Fall of Berlin (1950), typified this exclusivist cultist elevation of Stalin. It was all about Stalin; the generals added up to little without Stalin there to hold their hands; even Marshal Zhukov, considered the hero of the real Battle of Berlin, which clinched the War for the Soviets and against the Nazis, was sidelined. The film ends on a note of apotheosis of Stalin, with the aircraft carrying him dramatically descending from the sky. A hymn in his praise on the sound track rises to a choral finale as Stalin, in resplendent white, steps out of the plane. The parallel drawn by film historians between that climactic sequence and that of Hitler arriving in Nuremberg in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) is unfortunate and perhaps a shade unfair for the one who, after all, did play a determined and decisive role in the defeat of the fascists.

It is not that the revolution under Lenin was not exaggerated or embellished in the cinematic rendering of it. Even Eisenstein’s October, made to mark the completion of the first decade after the revolution, took liberties with the facts, as a recent re-evaluation of it by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian in the context of the centenary of 1917 (with the rather uncharitable title “Hallucinating history: when Stalin and Eisenstein reinvented a revolution”) reminds us. The high point of the storming of the Winter Palace, as portrayed in the film, would suggest some tough resistance from the forces of the provisional government, whereas the fact was that it did not take too much military prompting for the ragtag elements holed up in the palace to capitulate to the Bolshevik forces and let them have the run of the place; and Alexander Kerensky, the head of the interim government, fled the palace disguised as a woman.

But this could perhaps be conceded as the stuff of, the poetic licence of, cinematic folklore, which reconstructs of historic revolutions and wars create. The heavy hand of Stalin was already at work in excising Leon Trotsky and even diluting the role of Lenin in Eisenstein’s first version of his film. But perpetuating the personality cult of Stalin as standard prescribed artistic endeavour was to come later, in the period between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and his death in 1953.

The creative urges of the pioneers and innovators of cinema in the Soviet Union surged in the heady aftermath of the revolution and through the period of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, whatever the political and economic arguments about that tactical policy retreat into a short stretch of free market and capitalism supervised by the state. They cooled off with Stalin asserting himself in the 1930s; were drafted, as noted earlier, in the cause of the War in the first half of the decade of the 1940s; went into deep freeze under the later acute phase of Stalinism; re-emerged with new shoots and fresh genius during the Krushchev thaw of the 1950s; and lapsed into hibernation again during the 18-year-long spell of Leonid Brezhnev from 1964. On that graph, like effulgent lodestars, are some of the masters of world cinema: Eisenstein, Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Andrei Tarkovsky.

Interestingly, the sheer output of films in the first decade and a half after the formation of the Soviet Union was mind-boggling. Between 1919, when the Communist Party nationalised film production, and 1934, when Vertov made his Three Songs About Lenin, as many as 1,300 were released. But they were a loose mix of styles and types. Lev Kuleshov, the film theorist who first demonstrated the montage effect (where the same shots in different juxtapositions produce different effects on the viewer), debuted as a feature film-maker in 1924 with a run-of-the-mill American-style roller coaster, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, in which Pudovkin played the role of the villain.

Reworking the grammar of cinema

The same year Eisenstein emerged from the radical Proletkult theatre and set to reworking the grammar of cinema. He deployed montage to a purpose beyond that of Kuleshov of deriving differential meaning from different combination of shots. He proceeded to establish a dialectic progression through combination, or collision, of shots. His very first film, Strike, made in 1925, struck out boldly in the new direction of proletarian art by embracing the collective rather than centring the theme on a hero, making narrative leaps which defied the American formula and style of storytelling, and initiating a cinema of praxis. He followed this up with his, and the world masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, establishing himself as the film-maker nonpareil of all time.

The other singular genius of the celluloid art who rose to fame at the same time and who developed the vision and theory of “Kino-Pravda” (cinematic truth, as a distinct from fictional and factual cinema) was Vertov. From 1924, and well into the 1930s, he made seven major feature-length documentaries, among them The Man with the Movie Camera, considered the all-time great of cinema, Three Songs About Lenin and Lullaby (1937).

Along with Eisenstein, Pudovkin, too, had been commissioned a film to mark a decade of the revolution. His The End of St. Petersburg (1927), in contrast to Eisenstein’s October, was told in classic conventional terms. Among the other films of note in this first flush of definitive silent cinema were Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) and Alexander Dovzenko’s Earth (1930) about a farmers’ collective. The next wave of unbridled creativity came during the Krushchev era when Soviet films broke out of the rigid socialist-realist cast and again acquired international respect and recognition. Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1958), about the love of Boris and Veronika disrupted by the War when Boris leaves for the front line, and Mark, the cad who manages to stay behind to woo Veronika and cheat on her, with its memorable final sequence where Veronika is waiting for Boris, who will never come, at the rail station because as we know, and maybe she does too, that he has died in the War, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1958.

In Sergei Bondurchuk’s Fate of Man (1959) based on a story by Mikhail Sholokov, Bondurchuk himself plays the protagonist Andrei Sokolov, who fights not for Stalin or the party (as the socialist-realist formula demanded) but to survive the Nazi concentration camp. In Grigorii Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier, young Aloysha fights a war tank chasing him and is eligible for a medal for his courage. But he seeks instead a week’s leave to visit his mother and help her repair the roof of her house. As it turns out, the week is not enough because en route he has to run errands and help out others in difficult situations so that when he finally arrives home he only has time to hug his mother and head right back promising he will be back again soon. The mother waiting in vain at the end of a winding road for her son, like Veronika in The Cranes are Flying, is the leitmotif and the narrative is interspersed as flashbacks.

This relaxed environment was already frosting over by the time the other genius of Soviet cinema, Trakovsky, debuted with his Ivan’s Childhood in 1962. Based on a short novel by Vladimir Bogomolov, the film, about a 12-year-old orphan who works as a scout for the Red Army, blazed a new trail and established its director on a par with Eisenstein, although with an entirely different, intuitive, poetic, elliptical approach to his film-making. In Ivan’s Childhood, the boy Ivan Bondarav, who has seen his mother blown up and partisans tortured to death in prison, copes with the differing treatments meted out to him by the officers in the Red Army. He is eventually hanged as a partisan, and the film closes with shots of the child Ivan frolicking on the beach. The film bagged the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1962 and Tarkovsky shot to instant fame.

Through his subsequent films, Andrei Roublev (1966), Solaris (1972), The Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1980), the artistically elusive, and in real life reclusive, legend, who defied filmic genres, went on to sculpt himself into time.

In an interview in London in 1981 shortly after the screening of Stalker, Tarkovsky defined his ideal viewer as “someone who watches a film, like a traveller watching the country he is passing through, because the effect of an artistic image is an extra mental type of communication. There are some artists who attach symbolic meaning to their images, but this is not possible for me. Zen poets have a good way of dealing with this: they work to eliminate any possibility of interpretation, and in the process a parallel arises between the real world and what the artist creates in his work.”

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor