Soviet Cinema: Politics and Persuasion under Stalin

April 1, 2010

This is a depressing book. Not because it's badly written or ill-organised - quite the reverse - but because it records, in often numbing detail, how one of the most vibrant cinematic cultures of the 20th century was systematically crushed by bureaucratic heavy-handedness and political paranoia.

During the 1920s, audiences the world over were transfixed by the visual power and stylistic originality of the films originating from the Soviet Union. The work of Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Alexander Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov and their colleagues put Soviet silent cinema second only to its German counterpart in the estimation of cineastes. We all know, of course, what happened to German cinema in the following decade. Miller's book relates the equally dismal tale of the Soviet film industry during the same years.

It was a Politburo resolution of July 1925, affirming a policy of non-intervention by the state in matters of artistic style, that unleashed the creativity of Soviet film-makers. Such tolerance, almost inevitably, couldn't last. From 1929, the start of the period covered by Miller's study, a succession of decrees steadily restricted their freedom of operation, bringing them under the scrutiny of a series of official bodies with lumbering, ogreish names: Soyuzintorgkino, Glavrepertkom, Narkompos, GUKF.

Such restrictions, Miller argues, stemmed from a "defensive way of thinking" in the highest echelons of the Communist Party. While official Soviet propaganda proclaimed "power to the people" and preached the "historical inevitability" of the imminent socialist paradise, the party, he suggests, operated on very different though unspoken assumptions: that most Soviet citizens were indifferent, if not positively hostile, to Communist doctrine and that "class enemies" in the pay of Western interests were constantly working to sabotage and undermine the state - a mindset that would give rise to the "show trials" of Stalin's Terror.

The result of this darkening political climate, as far as Soviet cinema was concerned, was that every film, from script to post-production stage, was subjected, as Miller notes, to "a draconian system of censorship" imposed by proliferating official bodies. Films were required to deal with one or more of a checklist of current party topics - and deal with them, furthermore, in the approved formulaic manner. Deviations from these strictures could lead to drastic re-editing or total suppression. Miller recounts how Alexander Medvedkin's satirical rural comedy Happiness (1934), one of relatively few Soviet films of the decade to show wit and originality, was withdrawn from distribution and banned on the grounds that, by taking a humorous stance, it belittled the significance of the class war.

For those involved in film-making, whether studio heads, directors, screenwriters, actors or technicians, the consequences of perceived ideological deviation could be far more serious. In a chapter devoted to "The Purges", Miller gives a melancholy list of those arrested, sent to the gulags or executed during the years 1929-41. Not all of them were famous or influential individuals whose supposedly counter-revolutionary attitudes might have infected the general public: among those liquidated Miller names a clerical worker, a nightwatchman and a boilerman.

The grounds for arrest or execution were often arbitrary - having spent time abroad, even on official party business, could be enough to raise suspicion. According to Miller, the director Konstantin Eggert, who spent over 20 years in the gulag, "was arrested due to the fact that his second name matched that of a Swedish baron".

Given such pressures it is hardly surprising that, with rare exceptions, Soviet cinema of the 1930s presented a dispiriting parade of mediocrity. For as Miller notes, the apparatchiks' efforts were ultimately self-defeating - in aiming for a national cinema that would inspire the masses, they succeeded mainly in boring and alienating them.

Soviet Cinema: Politics and Persuasion under Stalin

By Jamie Miller. IB Tauris, 240pp, £49.50 and £16.99. ISBN 9781848850088 and 0095. Published 18 December 2009

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