TRETIA MESHCHANSKAIA






(Liubov v Troem; Bed and Sofa)


USSR, 1927


Director: Abram Room

Production: Sovkino; silent with Russian intertitles; black and white, 16 mm; running time: 75 minutes. Released 15 March 1927. Filmed in 1927 on location in Moscow.


Producer: Sovkino studio; screenplay: Viktor Shklovskii, Abram Room; photography: Grigorii Giber; assistant directors: Sergei Iutkevich, E. Kuzis; art directors: V. Rakhals, Sergei Iutkevich.


Cast: Nikolai Batalov ( Kolia ); Liudmila Semenova ( Liuda ); Vladimir Fogel ( Volodia ); L. Iurenev ( doorman ).



Publications


Articles:

" Bed and Sofa ," in Close Up , December 1927.

A.W., " Bed and Sofa at the Film Society," in Close Up , May 1929.

H.C., "Note on Bed and Sofa ," in Close Up , May 1929.

Hill, Steven P., " Bed and Sofa ," in Film Heritage , Fall 1971.

Burns, Paul E., "An NEP Moscow Address: Abram Room's Third Meshchanskaia ( Bed and Sofa ) in Historical Context," in Film and History , December 1982.

Mayne, Judith, " Bed and Sofa and the Edge of Domesticity," in Mayne, Kino and the Woman Question: Feminism and Soviet Silent Film , Columbus, Ohio, 1989.

Youngblood, Denise J., "The Fiction Film as a Source for Soviet Social History: The Third Meshchanskaia Street Affair," in Film and History , September 1989.


* * *


Tretia Meshchanskaia , Abram Room's celebrated 1927 melodrama about a menage a trois , made its way West under a variety of titles, among them Bed and Sofa , Three in a Cellar , Old Dovecots , and Cellars of Moscow. The film enjoys the distinction of having been banned (as well as praised) on two continents. Bed and Sofa , as the film is best known in the United States, was Room's fourth film. Like many early Soviet directors, Room (1894–1976) had come to the cinema along a circuitous path. A physician specializing in psychiatry and neurology, he served as a medical officer with the Red Army during the Russian civil war that followed the revolutions of 1917. Originally from Lithuania, Room decided to stay in Moscow after demobilization and began to work in the Theater of the Revolution.

None of Room's three previous pictures—two short comedies from 1924 that are no longer extant and the action adventure Death Bay ( Bukhta smerti , 1926)—prepared critics or audiences for Bed and Sofa , a brilliant psychological chamber drama that lay bare the dysfunctions and contradiction of early Soviet society. From the opening shot, we know that we are not going to see a schematic narrative about enthusiastic revolutionaries.

Liuda, a bored housewife who could not be more unlike the prototypical Bolshevik "New Woman," lives in a one-room basement apartment on Third Meshchanskaia Street (the literal translation of the film's original title), a petty-bourgeois neighborhood in Moscow. She spends her days idly, mainly reading magazines, notably the popular movie fan magazine Soviet Screen ( Sovetskii ekran ). Her husband, Kolia, is a charming and good-natured but dictatorial and egocentric stonemason. The couple is soon joined by Kolia's old war buddy, Volodia, a printer who cannot find an apartment in Moscow due to the severe housing shortage that was still a major social problem ten years after the revolution.

Liuda is quite understandably annoyed by the addition of yet another person to their cramped apartment; of course she has not been consulted. Yet Volodia, ingratiating and helpful, quickly wins her over by proving the perfect lodger. The sexual tension between Liuda and Volodia is palpable from the beginning, so when Kolia is called to a job out of town, it is scarcely surprising that Volodia takes advantage of the opportunity to woo Liuda openly. In the movie's most famous and exhilarating scene, Volodia invites Liuda to take a plane ride with him as part of Aviation Day celebrations. This is the first time she has been outside the apartment since the movie began; what joy! (And what stunning aerial shots of a Moscow that is no more.) When Kolia returns home, he finds himself banished to the sofa.

But now that Volodia is the "husband," he quickly begins acting like one. If anything, he is more boorish and tyrannical than Kolia ever was. The two men resume their friendship, joking and playing checkers while Liuda sulks. She attempts, fruitlessly, to regain control over her life by sleeping with her husband again. When Kolia and Volodia learn she is pregnant, they are outraged and demand that she have an abortion, since paternity definitely cannot be established. Sad and nervous, Liuda is packed off to a private clinic, where other clients are a prostitute and a young girl. Standing at a window, awaiting her turn, she spies (whether in reality or in her mind's eye) a baby in a carriage on the sidewalk below. She has a feminist epiphany. For the first time, Liuda decides to take control of her own life, to have the baby and leave the corruption of the big city. In the movie's closing scene, we see a confident, smiling Liuda leaning out the train window, cross cut with shots of her two husbands' annoyance, and then relief, that she has gone. They resume their immature, carefree, bachelor life in their dingy basement room on Third Meshchanskaia Street.

Bed and Sofa is beautifully shot, acted, and edited. It was quickly recognized as a masterpiece of silent film art and remains fresh and appealing three-quarters of a century after its release. The film's producer, the state-run studio Sovkino, eagerly offered this well-made film for international distribution, but it was banned in Western Europe and the United States for its sexual content and ambiguous moral message. Yet, though the film was not commercially exhibited in the West, it was widely seen through the film society circuits, which could avoid censorship since they were "private" clubs.

Bed and Sofa 's reception in the USSR was controversial for reasons that sound the same as those in the West but were in fact quite different. Room had intended not only to make a picture exploring the social problems of urban life during the last years of the New Economic Policy (1921–28), but specifically to support the state's campaign against the sexual freedom of the revolutionary years and against abortion on demand. What went wrong? The Association of Revolutionary Cinematography (ARK) quickly and unequivocally praised the film in its journal Cinema Front ( Kino-front ) as "one of the most successful pictures of Soviet production," which dealt with thorny problems in a "soft [meaning non-didactic], artistic, and consistently Soviet way."

Yet despite ARK's strong support, the film was excoriated for the six weeks before its release in a carefully orchestrated campaign carried out in the pages of the trade newspaper Cinema ( Kino ), the fan magazine Soviet Screen (which apparently did not appreciate Liuda's patronage), and the conservative Soviet Cinema ( Sovetskoe kino , organ of the Commissariat of Enlightenment, which had oversight over the film industry). Room's movie was variously labelled "psychopathological," a "Western European adulterous romance," and an "apology for adultery." Given the large number of European and American entertainment films that dominated Soviet screens in the late 1920s, along with the frankly Westernized products of the semi-private Mezhrabpom studio, the level of vilification Bed and Sofa was subjected to was suspiciously excessive. Indeed, the film was successfully released, although with a new title, Menage a trois ( Liubov v troem ), that would not connect it to the " Third Meshchanskaia Street scandal."

In 1927, although few Soviet citizens were aware of it, the stage was being set for the Cultural Revolution of 1928–32. By the early 1930s, Soviet arts and entertainments would be stripped of any remaining creative autonomy to serve the interests of the state. This period of social and cultural upheaval was followed by the formal adoption of the aesthetic credo of "Socialist Realism" at the Soviet Writers' Congress of 1934. Abram Room and his film were unwittingly swept up into the whirlwind of change, criticized for lack of foresight more than anything else.

Although Socialist Realism would not be canonized for another seven years, its attributes were central to the cultural debates of the late 1920s. Bed and Sofa fit many of Socialist Realism's main criteria: it was plotted, contemporary, realistic, and tendentious. But it had three major ideological failings—none of which were related to sex. The first was the lack of the positive hero, and worse, the fact that the film is dominated by three negative characters. While Liuda is indeed transformed from a passive and amoral social "parasite" to, presumably, a mother and a contributing member of society, this is only because of her desire to actualize her "petty-bourgeois" individualism. Kolia may be a worker, but he refuses to attend political meetings because they are boring. As for Volodia—he even looks neurotic (actor Vladimir Fogel's struggle with mental illness was well-known in film circles; he committed suicide in 1929). Second, Socialist Realism is supposed to show life as it should be; the path to the new world. Reform in Bed and Sofa is partial at best. Third, the film fails to include a true proletarian as counterexample to Kolia the stonemason and Volodia the printer, petty-bourgeois craftsmen. The cultural revolution about to be unleashed would be in large part an attack to eradicate meshchanstvo (petty-bourgeois philistinism). This film embodies it, especially in its original Russian title Third Meshchanskaia Street , which comes from the same root word. No wonder the studio decided to release it as Menage a trois. As a work of art, Bed and Sofa remains a superb example of European silent film. Given its context and subtext, it must also be considered one of the most important films in early Soviet cinema history.

—Denise J. Youngblood



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