Lenfilm and Mosfilm: A Historical Celebration

in 12th Vladivostok Pacific Meridian International Film Festival

by Shahla Nahid

A certain glance into the archives at the Vladivostok Meridian-Pacific Film Festival see the Russian Lenfilm and Mosfilm respectively celebrate; the first, its centenary and, the second, its 90th birthday of existence. However, their heritage, the films which marked the world of the cinema, some by their innovative language, others by the revelation of the weight of the political burdens as well as the attempts to distract people, had for a long time remained forgotten by the world. Some had quite simply disappeared in wars, by neglect, fires or by chemical interactions of materials used in the manufacture of the negative rolls.

Soviet Silent films, which remained excluded from the trade market, were a part of it and had remained unknown until shortly after WWII in France, in Western Europe and other places, except in the Weimar Republic. It was only after 1945 that cinema lovers could discover the Soviet cinema of the 1920s and get to know works from Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Alexander Dovzhenko, Vsevolod Pudovkin and some other filmmakers.

Some attempts were undertaken during these past years which gave the chance to the amateurs of the golden age of the Russian and Soviet cinema to discover an extraordinarily rich, informative and varied film. The masterfully organized retrospectives by the George-Pompidou Center in Paris from 1979 to 1981, and the Locarno Film festival which, in 1985, contributed to revealing the talent of Boris Barnet, are examples of these attempts.

Then came the turn of the Orsay Museum which organized, in 1996, a retrospective of one of the principal and pioneering studios of 1920; Mejrabpom-Rus. In 2000, the Locarno Film Festival chose to look at this cinema from the point of view of the censure and showed about fifty censured films from the Soviet Film Archive. This marvelous initiative was taken again by the Pompidou Center in Paris in 2003 under the evocative title of Freezing and Thaw: 1926-1965, by adding some twenty more films, in particular the censured ones together with the original versions. La Rochelle Film Festival in France, in collaboration with the Cinémathèque of Toulouse and on the occasion of its 50th birthday, enriched this initiative by introducing a section called The Golden Age of the Soviet Silent Films.

Thanks to this collaboration and the judicious choice of eleven very varied works lent by Toulouse cinémathèque, the festival goers could discover all the richness and the diversity of the Soviet production of the silent cinema period. Through these works, which represent only a very tiny part of this exceptional period, spectators realized that this cinema was not limited to the revolutionary epopees or did not give some privilege to one filmmaker in particular. This event also made it possible to discover three films by Friedrikh Ermler, namely the fantastic Remains of the Empire (1929).

It is important to specify that the 1920s period was not solely characterized by the extraordinary variety of films, but also by the variety of the structures of production. Nationalized since 1919 by Lenin, for whom the cinema was the “most important of all arts”, according to Natacha Laurent, Deputy General of Toulouse’s cinémathèque, “this branch of industry continued to function, throughout the 1920s, with varied structures?: State institutions (like Goskino), different size organizations (like the Mejrabpom studio), artistic groups and workshops (like the cine-eye of Dziga Vertov), made it possible for the filmmakers to work in different structures which allowed them a relative autonomy. Admittedly, censure exists, but it had nothing to do with what it became under Stalin”.

If the cinémathèque of Toulouse is regarded today as one of the important places for the memory-keeping of the Russian and Soviet cinema in Western Europe, it is due to a long friendship between the founder of this cinemathèque, Raymond Borde, and Victor Privato, the director of the very rich cinema archive of the USSR, the Gosfilmofond.

Indeed, in 1965, Raymond Borde decided to adhere to the International Federation of the Film Archive (Fiaf), whose role is to support the co-operation between the most important institutions in charge of the conservation of the cinematographic heritage. As Victor Privato, the director of the USSR Cinema Archive, was seeking a partner in Western Europe to assure the diffusion of the Soviet cinema, this mutual confidence made the exchanges possible and gave the Toulouse cinemathèque the possibility to constitute this exceptional collection of Russian and Soviet cinema.

The centenary of the creation of Lenfilm and the 90th birthday of Mosfilm, two legendary studios of world cinema, coincided with the organization of this 12th edition of the Vladivostok International Film Festival, which proposed, in a section entitled The Mosfilm We Never Knew, a selection of seven films from this studio’s archive, between 1938 and 1998. Among the selected films, three represent the ideological turning of the Russian cinema, i.e. 1929-1953. Yet each one has a special characteristic and brings another light on the Soviet cinema.

One of the most representative films of this period, was The Fall of Berlin (1949), by Mikhail Chiaureli, the laudator of the regime and naturally benefiting from the greatest attentions, with Mikhail Gelovani (an actor often playing Stalin on the screen) playing the main part. This film covers the events of 1941-1945, praises Stalin and his genius (although very much criticizing him as a strategist during the Second World War) throughout the film and stresses the industrial achievements, the overall enthusiasm of the people and their sacrifices, strongly present in most Soviet films. The choice of the actors for their resemblance with Stalin and Hitler is extraordinary. The choice of the angles for the camera to depreciate the enemy (Hitler, his nervous gesticulations and his way of speaking) in opposition with the breast height image when he showed Stalin, as a kind and wise father, called “small father of the people”, is extremely efficient and shows an astonishing perspicacity. Shostakovich’s music, another well-known artist who was close to the Soviet regime, accompanies the strong moments of the film without becoming an overpowering characteristic of it. One of the most interesting moments of the film is incontestably the scene which shows the allegiance of the Vatican to the Nazi regime, a reality seldom evoked at that period.

New Moscow (1938) by Aleksandr Medvedkin, an eccentric comedy about the adventures of a provincial young inventor coming to Moscow with, for his only luggage, the layout for a total reconstruction of the capital, plays with symbols and uses modern techniques extremely modern for that epoch. It is full of old fashion gags and overacting exemplary of the comedies of the time and in particular in Italian cinema. This was a film which was never released on the screens!

The Russian Question (1947), by Mikhail Romm, represents all the jolts of the Cold War period. It tells the story of a talented American journalist, Harry Smith, who for a substantial fee is commissioned by an influential newspaper editor to write a book on Russia. Smith and his fiancée spend the advanced money on a house, furniture and a car.

The film starts with images of the Statue of Liberty, and then juxtaposes the scenes of poverty (dilapidated houses, popular soup and revolts of the misfits) to the idleness of wealthy people. The destruction of food whereas the poor do not have anything to eat is one of the amazing scenes; a truth which was not contradicted until today.

The film astonishes by the accuracy of its mise-en-scene, the exactitude of its decoration and similarity of the actors imitating the American way of moving and being, to the point that if the language was English instead of Russian, the spectator would take it as an American film. Naturally, at the end, the principal character adheres to the socialist ideals and speaks in all the gatherings around the United States to defend the Soviet Union!

This movie, based on the play by Konstantin Simonov, was one of the subtler works representing the Cold War era. It showed a natural affinity between two nations that had been corrupted by the American yellow press and the power of capitalist money.

By viewing The Beginning of a New Era (1967) by Andrey Smirnov and Larissa Shepitko, the other film of the section which belongs to the period known as of the ‘thaw’ of the Soviet cinema or the ‘rebirth’ of this cinema after the death of Stalin, we note that this thaw is relative because the film referred always to the myths of the socialist society: courage, mutual aid, fighting against the evil. However, this film is quite different as far as its form is concerned which brings it closer to the Italian neo-realism and indicates a turning in the interest put in individuals during the period of de-Stalinization undertaken by Khrushchev after Stalin’s death in 1953.

Unfortunately we could not see again War and Peace (1967), the monumental work by Serguei Bondartchouk, which is the synthesis of the cinematographic language of the 20th century and has had a considerable influence on world cinema.

The Red Tent (or the Judgement of the Dead (Krasnaya palatka) is a Soviet-Italian film by Mikhail Kalatozov, released in 1969. The film takes as a starting point the history of the mission in rescuing Umberto Nobile and of the survivors of the crash landing of the Italian airship in 1928. The Red Tent speaks about human relations in dangerous situations, affective losses, regrets and the ferocity of guilt.

The Red Tent was the first Russian film to have been co-funded by western financiers. Many famous western actors, such as Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale and Peter Finch played parts in it. We also see the young Nikita Mikhalkov as one of the actors. The reason that Kalatozov wielded considerable clout within European film circles is because he had won the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Festival for The Cranes are Flying. But the poorest acting of the main western actors, especially Peter Finch as Nobile, who is in struggle with the ghosts of the past and his character’s guilty conscience, leaves one perplexed. Therefore, in spite of the score of the legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone for the international cut of the film, Kalatozov’s final work was a box office failure.

One should note that each selected film in this section represented one particular period of the Russian and Soviet Union cinema. The only example of the end of the Soviet Union era was Who, If Not Us (1998) by Valeri Priyomykhov, filmmaker, actor and script writer, who denounced the arrival of the evil capitalism, and the changes which have occurred in the society where everybody wanted to hide or undermine social problems or believe these problems did not exist with the violence and absence of morality that we are facing nowadays. This film tells the story of two boys who want to become millionaires and rob a store. The older one is put in jail whereas the second is placed in a special school for ‘troubled’ teenagers. You can imagine the end… This film has received many awards in Russia as well as abroad.

In the end it is important to add that, despite the fall of the Soviet Union, without the existence of multiple subjects the existence of Mosfilm and wealthy independent producers, all of them adequate to give a new dash to the Russian cinema, this cinema could not give a ‘rebirth’ to its glorious past. The prizes given to some Russian filmmakers such as Nikita Mikhalkov with Urga in 1991, Alxei Popogriebski with How I Ended This Summer (Winner of Best Film at the London Film Festival, and the Silver Bear at Berlin for the performances of its two actors and the luminous cinematography in 2011), and especially Andrey Zviaguentsiev, for his films, The Return (Golden Lion in Venice in 2003), Elena (Jury’s prize in Cannes in 2011) and Leviathan (Best Script prize in Cannes 2014), one could not say that the Russian cinema could be easily exported.

Nevertheless, after seeing these old films, sometimes old fashioned and far too ideological, a feeling of nostalgia for a world which promised bright days and encouraged optimism occurs because the current world promises us a quite dark future.

It is hoped that Mosfilm, which has released more than 1700 films throughout its history, will continue to support talented new comers to the cinema and festivals such as Vladivostok Meridian-Pacific and therefore continue to give the chance to see more of the cinematographic treasures of Russia.

Edited by Steven Yates