Russia and Soviet Union

THE CINEMA OF STALINISM: 1930–1941

During the late 1920s and early 1930s the Stalinist wing of the Communist Party consolidated its authority and set about transforming the Soviet Union on both the economic and cultural fronts. The economy moved from the market-based NEP to a system of central planning. The new leadership declared a "cultural revolution" in which the party would exercise tight control over cultural affairs, including artistic expression. Cinema existed at the intersection of art and economics; so it was destined to be thoroughly reorganized in this episode of economic and cultural transformation.

To implement central planning in cinema, the new bureaucratic entity Soyuzkino was created in 1930. All the hitherto autonomous studios and distribution networks that had grown up under NEP's market would now be coordinated in their activities by this planning agency. Soyuzkino's authority also extended to the studios of the national republics such as VUFKU, which had enjoyed more independence during the 1920s. Soyuzkino consisted of an extended bureaucracy of economic planners and policy specialists who were charged to formulate annual production plans for the studios and then to monitor the distribution and exhibition of finished films.

With central planning came more centralized authority over creative decision making. Script development became a long, torturous process under this bureaucratic system, with various committees reviewing drafts and calling for cuts or revisions. In the 1930s censorship became more exacting with each passing year, in a manner that paralleled the increasing cultural repression of the Stalinist regime. Feature film projects would drag out for months or years and might be terminated at any point

Alexander Dovzhenko drew from Ukranian folk culture in such films as Zemlya ( Earth , 1930).
along the way because of the capricious decision of one or another censoring committee.

Such redundant oversight slowed down production and inhibited creativity. Although central planning was supposed to increase the film industry's productivity, production levels declined steadily through the 1930s. The industry was releasing over one-hundred features annually at the end of the NEP period, but that figure fell to seventy by 1932 and to forty-five by 1934. It never again reached triple digits during the remainder of the Stalin era. Veteran directors experienced precipitous career declines under this system of bureaucratic control; whereas Eisenstein was able to make four features between 1924 and 1929, he completed only one film ( Alexander Nevsky , 1938) during the entire decade of the 1930s. His planned adaptation of the Ivan Turgenev story Bezhin lug ( Bezhin Meadow , 1935–1937) was halted during production in 1937 and officially banned, one of many promising film projects that fell victim to an exacting censorship system.

Meanwhile, the USSR cut off its film contacts with the West. It stopped importing films after 1931 out of concern that foreign films exposed audiences to capitalist ideologies. The industry also freed itself from dependency on foreign technologies. During its industrialization effort of the early 1930s, the USSR finally built an array of factories to supply the film industry with the nation's own technical resources.

To secure independence from the West, industry leaders mandated that the USSR develop its own sound technologies, rather than taking licenses on Western sound systems. Two Soviet scientists, Alexander Shorin in Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg) and Pavel Tager in Moscow, conducted research through the late 1920s on complementary sound systems, which were ready for use by 1930. The implementation process, including the cost of refitting movie theaters, proved daunting, and the USSR did not complete the transition to sound until 1935. Nevertheless, several directors made innovative use of sound once the technology became available. In Entuziazm: Simfoniya Donbassa ( Enthusiasm , 1931), his documentary on coal mining and heavy industry, Vertov based his soundtrack on an elegantly orchestrated array of industrial noises. Pudovkin in Dezertir ( Deserter , 1933) experimented with a form of "sound counterpoint" by exploiting tensions and ironic dissonances between sound elements and the image track. And in Alexander Nevsky , Eisenstein collaborated with the composer Sergei Prokofiev on an "operatic" film style that elegantly coordinated the musical score and the image track.

As Soviet cinema made the transition to sound and central planning in the early 1930s, it was also put under a mandate to adopt a uniform film style, commonly identified as Socialist Realism. In 1932 the party leadership ordered the literary community to abandon the avant-garde practices of the 1920s and to embrace Socialist Realism, a literary style that, in practice, was actually close to nineteenth-century realism. The other arts, including cinema, were subsequently instructed to develop the aesthetic equivalent. For cinema, this meant adopting a film style that would be legible to a broad audience, thus avoiding a possible split between the avant-garde and mainstream cinema that was evident in the late 1920s. The director of Soyuzkino and chief policy officer for the film industry, Boris Shumiatsky (1886–1938), who served from 1931 to 1938, was a harsh critic of the montage aesthetic. He championed a "cinema for the millions," which would use clear, linear narration. Although American movies were no longer being imported in the 1930s, the Hollywood model of continuity editing was readily available, and it had a successful track record with Soviet movie audiences. Soviet Socialist Realism was built on this style, which assured tidy storytelling. Various guidelines were then added to the doctrine: positive heroes to act as role models for viewers; lessons in good citizenship for spectators to embrace; and support for reigning policy decisions of the Communist Party.

Such restrictive aesthetic policies, enforced by the rigorous censorship apparatus of Soyuzkino, resulted in a number of formulaic and doctrinaire films. But they apparently did succeed in sustaining a true "cinema of the masses." The 1930s witnessed some stellar examples of popular cinema. The single most successful film of the decade, in terms of both official praise and genuine affection from the mass audience, was Chapayev (1934), co-directed by Sergei (1900–1959) and Grigori Vasiliev. Based on the life of a martyred Red Army commander, the film was touted as a model of Socialist Realism, in that Chapayev and his followers battled heroically for the revolutionary cause. But the film also humanized the title character, giving him personal foibles, an ironic sense of humor, and a rough peasant charm. These qualities endeared him to the viewing public: spectators reported seeing the film multiple times during its first run in 1934, and Chapayev was periodically rereleased for subsequent generations of movie viewers.

A genre that emerged in the 1930s to consistent popular acclaim was the musical comedy, and a master of that form was Grigori Aleksandrov (1903–1984). He effected a creative partnership with his wife, the brilliant comic actress and chanteuse Lyubov Orlova (1902–1975), in a series of crowd-pleasing musicals. Their pastoral comedy Volga-Volga (1938) was surpassed only by Chapayev in terms of box-office success. The fantasy element of their films, with lively musical numbers reviving the montage aesthetic, sometimes stretched the boundaries of Socialist Realism, but the genre could also allude to contemporary affairs. In Aleksandrov's 1940 musical Svetlyi put' ( The Shining Path ), Orlova plays a humble servant girl who rises through the ranks of the Soviet industrial leadership after developing clever labor-saving work methods. Audiences could enjoy the film's comic turn on the Cinderella story while also learning about the value of efficiency in the workplace.

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