The form, style, and content of Soviet Cinema of the 1920s

Soviet cinema of the 1920s is often cited by film makers and historians as being one of the most influential decades for film production. Directors such as Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov came to prominence through their experiments with editing, which would send shockwaves through cinema, providing future film makers with blueprints on how to successfully manipulate and construct cinema for years to come. The 1920s would also see the continuing rise of communism, first under the leadership of Lenin and later Joseph Stalin.

These two men along with the many Soviet Film makers would use the medium of film to not only tell great stories but also promote communist ideology and use it for means of propaganda and control. Soviet cinema of the 1920s could not have happened unless the Revolution of 1917 had taken place. The Revolution acted as the catalyst for cinema to take its next evolutionary step as the new government under the premiership of Lenin, saw cinema as the new radical medium by which to process and communicate its communist ideas.

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The Revolution itself was nothing less than the taking of power by the people and the creation of a new state and society in which workers ruled. 1 Lenin applying the theories of Karl Marx led the Bolshevik (Communist) Party to victory over the tsarist regime on behalf of the masses. From 1917 to 1920 the Bolsheviks had to defend their revolution against the forces of reaction (The Whites) as well, as fight off attempted invasions of Soviet Russia by Western Capitalist powers. It was during this power struggle that Soviet cinema was born.

During the civil war, a major concern was to get propaganda films out to the troops fighting in the countryside. The government attempted to get its doctrine across by using innovative agit-vehicles such as trains, trucks and steamboats to supply leaflets, printing presses and film equipment to the masses as quickly and efficiently as possible. With the revolution Russian cinema split into two camps. One section of the industry remained in the USSR, dedicating its manifesto to destroying the pre-revolutionary experience, creating art out of a new epoch unencumbered by the heritage of a bygone age.

The other section went into exile, endeavouring to preserve abroad the cinema which had come into being during the pre-revolutionary years. Soviet Cinema was officially born on the 27th August 1919 when Lenin signed the Council of the People’s Commissars of the RSFSR Decree ‘On the transfer of the Photographic trade and industry to Narkompros (The Peoples Commissariat of Education)’, nationalizing private film and photographic enterprises. 2 The nationalization of the film industry had a massive effect as many films, which had been made in the previous decade, finally hit cinemas.

The films that were now readily available in Russian cinemas were mainly news reels and documentaries, very few fictional films existed or survived before the revolution. Early works such as Lev Kuleshov’s Engineer Prite’s project (1918) had only several scenes which had survived. The scenes which did manage to survive did show the emergence of Kuleshov’s talent for direction, which would see him become a major player in Russian cinema during the 1920s. The scenes indicate that unlike Kuleshov’s contemporaries in Russia he had fully grasped the Hollywood- style continuity guidelines for editing.

Kuleshov’s later teachings, writings and films would later explore the implications of Hollywood continuity style in great detail. His experiments with various montage and acting techniques would be later employed in his later work as well as the films of Sergei Eisenstein who undoubtedly is the most famous of the early Russian film directors The news reels, which played predominantly before 1924, would also make use of the talents of another talented director who would later come to prominence working in the montage movement, Dziga Vertov, who would later direct Man With The Movie Camera (1929).

The lack of films being made during the early 1920s was mainly due to Russia’s economic crisis after the revolution. The newly established Bolshevik government had issued a decree that due to the poor health of the economy, no monies were made available to the film industry. Secondly all raw stock of film held by private firms had to be registered with the government, which forced producers and dealers of the raw film to hide it thus creating a film shortage.

When films were made, such as an adaptation of Tolstoy’s Polikushka (1922) it was considerably delayed getting into theatres due to the incredible cold and hunger which forced the production to keep stuttering. The film originally went into production in 1919 but only made its first public screening three years later. Post-Revolutionary Russian directors strove to break away their link with the style of films before the revolution. They decided on a commitment to reality in the new Russian cinema, in particular to the effects of how the revolution was still affecting the country.

The new wave of Soviet directors would begin to show how the impact of montage could deeply effect not only new films being made, but also old films which were re-edited. Of course the re-editing of old films into something new was mainly due to the aforementioned shortage of raw film and a new aggressive policy of creating new films out of old material which was seen to represent the past. In 1919 Vladimir Garden became the first theoretician of montage cinema and delivered many lectures to the Re-Editing Department on montage. The lectures he gave had a great impact on his colleagues, most notably Lev Kuleshov.

Kuleshov began to work on several experiments with montage film making himself, the most famous of which was the ‘Kuleshov effect’. This experiment with film originally took the form of a still close-up of a face of an actor called Ivan Mozzhukhin, and then proceeded to juxtapose three different frames with the original: A dead woman in a coffin, a plate of soup, and a child playing. As a result of the juxtaposition the audience was given the impression that the expressions on the actors face were changing, while the background taken from an unknown pre-revolutionary film remained unchanged. With this experiment Kuleshov laid down one of the fundamental laws of montage cinema: that the meaning of a montage sequence is not determined by the content of the montage elements, but by their juxtaposition. With experiments in film now taking place during the late teens and early twenties cinema was then to be handed another lifeline by the leader of the Bolsheviks, Lenin. In 1921 he formulated the New Economic Policy which allowed for a limited re-introduction of private ownership and capitalist dealings, regarding film making.

As a result of NEP film stock which had been hoarded suddenly reappeared and private film production firms and governmental groups increased. In 1922 Lenin made two statements which helped determine the course Soviet Film making was about to take. Firstly, he issued the so-called Lenin proportion, stating film programs should balance entertainment and education. Secondly Lenin had the foresight to realise what a powerful tool for propaganda and education among the illiterate, cinema could be. Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important’ he once declared. 4 In late 1922 the government the tried to organize the film industry by creating a central distribution monopoly called Goskino. 1922 also saw a new dawn for Russian cinema in that it was the first time any one outside of the USSR could actually see a Russian film. The Treaty of Rappallo opened the way for trade to take place between Russia and Germany, which in turn led to films being seen in not only Germany but the rest of the world as well.

This treaty was vital to future film makers from other countries as the resulting years would give birth to Soviet artists such, as Sergie Eisenstein who would later be cited by German, French and even US film makers as a massive influence on their respective countries films. In the following year the NEP was starting to slowly effect the Soviet film industry and many new films were being made. Red Imps (1923) directed by Ivan Perestiani deal with the Soviet civil war and was a huge hit with audiences. It was the sort of film Russian cinema became fascinated with making as subsequent films would deal with historical and political rhetoric.

However the following year would see the emergence of a new talent in the Soviet cinema, and would see the montage movement taken onto a different plain from which it had been before. In 1924 Russia received the unfortunate news that its leader Lenin had died and that a new successor had been appointed in his place. Joseph Stalin took power of Russia that very same year, but would be involved in an intense power struggle for the rest of the year and would continue to be very suspicious with anyone who would oppose his regime.

The film world had a new master now and film makers would have to far more careful with the types of films they would be making. The same year, saw the arrival of not only a new leader of the government, but, a new voice in land of Russian Cinema, Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein had not only participated in building bridges during the civil war, but had also been a theatre director who then decided to move into cinema in 1924. Eisenstein’s first feature was an adaptation of playwright S. M.

Tretyakov’s Gas Masks (1924), however a few months later he began work on Strike (released 1925) and this became the first major film of the montage movement. The film like many of Eisenstein’s films was based on actual event from Russia’s history. Strike was about the pre- revolutionary struggles of the Russian people before the Bolshevik coup. The masses were the hero of the film rather than say an individual thus re-enforcing the political doctrine of communism. This provided a starling contrast to Hollywood cinema where the individual was far more important than say a mass group of people.

Eisenstein wanted to shock the audience’s perception with his use of montage and subject matter. He called the use of montage an ‘attraction’. The ‘montage of attractions’ was a sequence of shocks having an effect on the spectator and provoking a response reaction in such a way that the spectator was in effect becoming the co-director of the film as they were being asked decipher and interpret the images relationship to each other. Montage film making was closely related to the idea of Constructivism, which was a style influential in film, poster design, and architecture and theatre design.

Constructivism’s main purpose was to show film being made. It was in effect drawing attention to itself, explaining that film unlike life is not real. Eisenstein later went on to insist that montage went even further in terms of art than that of Constructivism when he came up with an even more complicated conception of what montage was. Eisenstein insisted that montage was not solely limited to editing but was a universal principle that could found in traditional drama, poetry, and painting. 5 Eisenstein foresaw the possibility of intellectual cinema, by a range of images contrasting each other; this would later be known as juxtaposition.

He believed that shots should not be seen as linked but, should be seen to collide with each other. For Eisenstein, this conflict imitated the Marxist concept of dialectic, in which antithetical elements clash and produce synthesis that goes beyond both. 6 Eisenstein followed Strike, with what many modern ay film critics and historians consider his most influential film. Battleship Potempkin (1926) was again based on a historical Event in Russia’s past, this time the failed revolution in 1905.

The film is possibly Eisenstein’s greatest use of his ‘montage of attractions theory’ as during several sequences it does ask its audience to help decipher the action. The film’s centrepiece is arguably one of the greatest sequences in film history, the Odessa steps massacre sequence. Even after all this time the use of the editing and the accompanying musical score is astonishingly powerful. Even modern day films struggle to keep up with its fabulously cut sequence. The sequence also reiterates the power of the moving image to not only shock the spectator but also show Eisenstein’s political stance on the 1905 Revolution.

The peasants and revolutionaries are brutally murdered as they try to flee the tsarist infantry who mercilessly gun them down. Women and children are shown being killed by the soldiers, who are presented as an anonymous savage force, robotic almost, as they show no emotion whilst dispatching their victims. 7 The cuts in the film to music are unrelenting, every time there is a drum beat from the musical score there is a cut. The colliding images perfectly illustrate Eisenstein’s montage theory to staggering effect.

Eisenstein also employs one of the principle uses of montage during this sequence, when he shows image of statues of lions inter-cut with the soldiers firing their guns and women screaming and people fleeing the scene. The use of the lions in the cutting almost make them seem to move, as if even they are shocked by the events which are passing before their eyes on the stone steps. Apart from the sensational Odessa steps sequence, the film also made a radical departure from Hollywood narration as a whole. The film begins by showing the conditions on board the Potemkin and introduces the spectator to the principle character of Vakulinchuk.

His character is presented to us as heroic revolutionary character, leading the sailors to victory. Well that’s what you would assume would happen if the film had been in the hands of a Hollywood director. Eisenstein upon introducing the character and allowing the spectator to become accustomed to identifying with him as the main protagonist subsequently has him killed by Tsarist forces. Vakulinchuck’s death forces the audience to look away from the heroic individual and instead focus on the revolutionary class of which he was part of. 8

Eisenstein’s film October (1928) again used many of the techniques of montage as were found in Battleship Potemkin. The film also made use of elliptical cutting which creates the opposite effect of overlapping editing which was used in Battleship Potemkin during the Odessa steps massacre and where the sailor smashes the plate. Whereas overlapping makes shots appear longer in time than they actually are by cutting back too and from an image, elliptical cutting works in reverse. This type of editing would later take the name of a jump cut.

In elliptical cutting the same space is shown from the same camera position in two shots, yet the mise-en-scene has changed. The contradictory temporal relationship created by the overlapping and elliptical editing compel the spectator to make sense of the actions. 9 The use of this type of cutting is used for example, when a machine gun is used to fire on civilians, the cutting seems to suggest the firing sound of the machine gun. The film whilst depicting the Revolution in October 1917 also remains true to the Soviet communist ideology by portraying the masses to be far more important than the individual.

Even the key figures during the Revolution such as Lenin and Trotsky fade in the masses of people who are trying to assumed power. They are depicted as just one of the many cogs in the ‘coup’ machine. Another key figure in Russian cinema was Vertov, whose film Man with a Movie Camera used cinematography to experiment with special effects to create visual impact. The film shows off the power of the cinema through split-screen framing and superimpositions, such as when a huge building is split like a broken egg by exposing each side of the frame separately and rolling the camera in opposite directions.

Again the content of the film is pro-revolution as the building being split in two was a traditional Tsarist opera house. The film again highlights that Russian cinema was not only trying to dispense with past but so were its people. The power of Russian Cinema made a huge impact not only in its mother land but due to the Treaty of Rappallo with Germany many of the films could be exported. The influence this type of film making had was enormous. Many later film ‘New Waves’ and other extensions of American independent cinema would later reveal where their influences had originated from.

French ‘New Wave’ films such as Breathless (1960) directed by Jean Luc Goddard and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) directed by Alain Resnais would be heavily be influence by the manipulation of time, with their use of jump cuts and spatial manipulation. Resnais earlier Documentary Night and Fog (1955) would also use contrasting images and edit them together to infuse meaning. Leni Reiffenstahl’s Trimph of the Will (1933) would also use montage editing to depict Hitler as a god like figure, hitting the audience with image of soldiers inter-cut with Hitler watching over them.

The film would also take the Soviet ideas of using film to act as a tool for propaganda. A book can only reach one person a t a time whereas a film can reach hundreds, if not thousands. Like Lenin, future leaders such as Stalin and Hitler would use film to raise them from not only being leaders of countries, but also as saviours of nations. Just as in Russia the rest of the world knew that film making was the only way you get an illiterate person to fully understand your doctrine if you couldn’t be their in person.