Soviet Melodrama: A Historical Overview

By Peter Bagrov (St. Petersburg)

Much has been written about melodrama, including Russian melodrama. I intend neither to formulate a history of melodrama in Soviet cinema, nor to focus on theoretical issues surrounding this genre. For those readers interested in the specifics of Soviet melodrama, I would recommend the solid texts by Irina Shilova and Nina Dymshits, and also the recently published historical survey in Evgenii Margolit's article in Noveishaia istoriia otechestvennogo kino: 1986-2000, which deserves special attention. This brief article is currently the fundamental text on the history of melodrama in Soviet cinema. It is the first study to examine virtually the entire body of films that belong to this genre, to trace their basic structural laws, and to establish their major aesthetic links and historical parallels. Yet, despite the abundance of unique material in the article and the author's—one of the greatest specialists of the history of Soviet cinema—erudition and power of observation, the article gives rise to a contradiction: melodrama, in a paradoxical way, simultaneously turns out to be one of the major genres of Soviet cinema and “an accidental guest at someone else's feast.” Most of the historical and factual data in my article is laid out in Margolit's, perhaps with fewer details but with greater consistency and thoroughness. I, however, am proposing a new way of looking at the history of Soviet melodrama and—potentially—a new way of making sense of it, no matter how presumptuous this claim might appear.

I am interested in a single hypothesis, one that is possibly overly rash. This hypothesis would horrify most of the classic directors of Soviet cinema, even though their personal utterances and “slips of the tongue” support this hypothesis in passing.

Apologetic definitions of this “low” genre—held in such contempt by everyone—abound, but since I shall be discussing Soviet filmmaking between the 1920s and 1940s, let me limit myself to a quote from Anatolii Lunacharskii:

…this kind of dramatic narrative—characterized by artificially burning affects, frequently accompanied by charged music, a sharp contrast between good and evil, with lots of action, and with a poster-like crudity in the entire thing—has a real chance, under the right circumstances, of finding a place at the cornerstone of genuine, democratic theater. Clearly, refined snobs wrinkle their nose at the bombast and sentimentality of old melodrama, yet general audiences continue to remain faithful to it through today—not only because of their inadequate aesthetic development, but also because of their health, their romanticism, their fearlessness in the face of melodrama's stark expressivity. (25)

The People's Commissar of Enlightenment was writing about theater, where he was attempting to actualize his ideas: his entire dramatic output consisted precisely of “revolutionary melodramas.” Lunacharskii was not alone. Amongst the passionate apologists for melodrama, who saw in this genre the future of revolutionary theater, were Georgii Plekhanov and Romain Rolland, who was always highly respected in the Soviet Union. The People's Commissar conscientiously and carefully supported “the most important of the arts”—even this legendary phrase of Lenin's, it should be pointed out, is known to us entirely because of Lunacharskii's recollections. In cinema as well, he tried to implant melodrama as virtually the dominant genre. Naturally, such patronage, almost from the “highest” of places, untied the hands of people working in commercial cinema. And the 1920s became the only period in the history of the Soviet Union that melodrama blossomed in its “pure form.” It is notable that the flow of melodramas came to an end in 1929, the same year that Lunacharskii left his post. But this concerns practitioners-craftsmen, which is much less interesting, even though we shall return to them later.

Much more interesting than the practitioners-craftsmen were the theoreticians. Discussions about melodrama regularly flared up in newspapers and journals. The conclusions of the opponents of melodrama are obvious: accusations of being primitive, bourgeois, catering to the lowest denominator… And the defenders' main argument came down to… that same catering to primitive audience tastes. In one of the earliest articles (from 1922), with a very typical title, “For the People,” all of cinematography was declared to be the heir of theatrical melodrama (exactly what Lunacharskii was writing about), precisely because it was the most democratic of the arts, accessible to the widest range of social classes. That same year saw the publication of Eccentrism (Ekstsentrizm), Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg's manifesto of The Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS). The word “melodrama” does not—and, it would seem, could not—appear in this jolly, aggressive, at times crass brochure. And yet, one of the major FEKS slogans differs virtually not at all from Lunacharskii's declaration: “Life requires art that is hyperbolically crude, dumbfounding, nerve-wracking, openly utilitarian, mechanically exact, momentary, rapid ” (Kozintsev 4; in Taylor and Christie 58; emphasis in original). And, in fact, the first full-length feature film by the FEKS, The Devil's Wheel (Chertovo koleso, 1926) was just that—a melodrama. Maybe not a salon melodrama but a criminal one, yet a melodrama nonetheless.

Right after FEKS, Fridrikh Ermler and Eduard Ioganson organized KEM (kino-eksperimental'naia masterskaia), the main slogan of which was: “Without any feelings or any transformations” (Ermler 95). It is impossible to think of melodrama “without any feelings.” One of its main characteristics (overlooked by the People's Commissar) is an orientation towards sentimentality. It would seem that melodrama would be incompatible with the KEM program. And yet, two years later Ermler and Ioganson's Kat'ka's Reinette Apples (Kat'ka—bumazhnyi ranet, 1926) was released, where the designation “melodrama” appears right in the opening credits. No matter how the directors justified themselves at meetings of the artistic council, their film is a melodrama regardless of how hard they tried to hide behind the designation of a melodrama “with a comic bent” (which is what it really was).

Lastly, let's take an extreme case: Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). It would seem that… But even here one can discern the triangle of classic melodrama: He—is the battleship; She—the crowd of people; the villain—power. Many people will find such an analogy farfetched (I would even agree with them), but the analogy itself belongs to… Eisenstein.


Here we approach the promised hypothesis. Actually, more of a peculiar insight into the history of Soviet cinema instead of the hypothesis itself, which lies in the fact that the “despised and low” genre of melodrama turns out to be a sort of cornerstone for the entire domestic film industry. If we were to search for examples of “pure” melodrama, we would find few of them, and fewer with each passing year. Soviet cinema never managed to master the system of genres to its very end. At the same time, “transformed” melodrama, melodrama “under a false name” (both of these designations will appear only in the 1970s) can be found everywhere.

It is not difficult to find an explanation for this. Alongside comedy, melodrama is historically the first genre to emerge. And if we consider realistic representation to be the chief (possibly, the only) advantage of early films over theatrical performances, it becomes clear why precisely melodrama—and not comedy—occupies the dominant position in the first years of cinema's development. Even Stanislavskii called attention to melodrama's verisimilitude as one its greatest strengths: “In watching a melodrama, the viewer considers that everything that takes place in the play took place in life, not onstage. That is why the theater's conditionality is alien to melodrama” (qtd. Gorchakov 427-8). Clearly this is even more relevant to a film melodrama.

In his famous article “Dickens, Griffith and Ourselves,” Eisenstein places specifically melodrama at the top of the pyramid, referring to Dickens as “the connecting link between the future art of cinema, which could not have been guessed at, and the recent (for Dickens) past—the tradition of ‘good murderous melodramas'” (Eisenstein 214; Eizenshtein 63), declaring that in this way “melodrama… had a great influence on Griffith at this high point in its development, and the firm foundations of Griffith's films contain a considerable number of its astonishing and characteristic features” (218; 64).

Under the designation “astonishing and characteristic features,” Eisenstein had in mind less the philosophical-aesthetic aspects of Griffith's filmmaking than the devices of composition and narrative style (in particular, parallel montage). The main thing is that in experiencing genuine admiration for the pioneer of film art, Eisenstein deliberately avoided emphasizing the individual particularities of Griffith's art. For Eisenstein, Griffith was the best representative of already established classical American cinema, the model professional filmmaker. In this way, theatrical melodrama, in Eisenstein's view, was the foundation stone of cinema, its “basis.” As we can see, Eisenstein is in complete solidarity with the official point of view concerning the matter of melodrama. We should probably concede the accuracy of Lunacharskii's, Eisenstein's, and others' view of melodrama. Inasmuch as many of the discussions of the early 1920s should be examined with a large corrective for the maximalism of the post-Revolutionary epoch, it should be stressed that Eisenstein's article was written in 1944.

In the same collection of articles devoted to Griffith, there was another article by Mikhail Bleiman, one of the Soviet Union's first (and best) cinema scholars, and co-author of screenplays for such landmark films of the domestic industry as My Motherland (Moia rodina; dir. Aleksandr Zarkhi and Iosif Kheifits, 1933) and A Great Citizen (Velikii grazhdanin; dir. Fridrikh Ermler, 1937 and 1939). While Bleiman's article traces an entirely different historical-psychological chain, nonetheless he also remarks that “for a specific period of time, Griffith made it [melodrama] the main genre of art” (30). And he immediately makes another apologia for melodrama: “We should not think that melodrama, in its various forms, is a ‘boulevard,' low genre in literature. We must abandon the division between high and low genres, which, even though it does not exist officially, nevertheless resonates in our theory and practice. Melodrama—no less than tragedy—is a philosophical genre” (35). I repeat: these words were written in 1944.

But let us return to the 1920s. “Naturally, all filmmaking in the 1920s was, to a significant degree, melodramatic,” Nikolai Kovarskii, film critic and scriptwriter, would later recall. He would add: “most of the films of this period are characterized by their use of a melodramatic structure as a way of actualizing the dynamic plot resources of filmmaking” (287). In fact, the “artificial poignancy of affects,” “sharp juxtaposition of good and evil” with a “predominance of action,” and even the “poster-like crudity in the entire thing”—precisely the signs that Lunacharskii referred to as typical of theatrical melodrama—was characteristic of most Soviet films of the 1920s.[1] In this sense, it is actually possible to classify Battleship Potemkin as “melodramatic filmmaking.” Griffith's paradigm of “disaster—pursuit—rescue” was precisely mastered by Soviet avant-garde filmmakers in the mid-1920s and is encountered at every turn, frequently in the form of direct citations. Even in such a “psychological” film (which is counter-indicated for melodrama) as Vsevolod Pudovkin's Mother ( Mat' , 1926), one of the culminating episodes is a direct citation of the episode of crossing the ice in Griffith's melodrama Way Down East (1920). There is no need to point to Lev Kuleshov's films—especially By the Law (Po zakonu, 1926). But this last film provides an excellent example.

All of the signs alluded to by Lunacharskii are in evidence in By the Law. There are even “secondary signs” of melodrama in the film: moral teaching (of a peculiar kind, but nonetheless), a significant role played by chance, etc. Yet Kuleshov's film lacks perhaps the single most important secondary sign of the melodrama—in the words of Irina Shilova: “the genre is characterized by an essential schematization of images designating fully localized virtue and vice. From this follow the precise and stable types: the ideal hero, the suffering heroine, the insidious villain, the simpleton” (116). Admittedly By the Law sharply contrasts good and evil. But good and evil dwell in each of the characters, and for each of them the struggle between good and evil is an internal one. The heroes are not simply victims of accidental fate: by the end of the film all three characters—the criminal and his judges—are murderers, and each of them carries a tragic guilt. In this way, the melodrama turns into tragedy.

Iakov Protazanov's Forty First (Sorok pervyi, 1926), based on a story of the same title by Boris Lavrenev, provides another example. And a very striking example since exactly thirty years later Grigorii Chukhrai will adapt the same story for the screen as a romantic melodrama pure and simple. The beauty, Mariutka, flouncing her blond curls, heroically kills forty White Guard officers and falls in love with the forty-first, who is just as attractive and noble. The affair takes place against the background of artistically flowing sands. And when Mariutka, faithful to her revolutionary duties, shoots the lieutenant, tears pour down her beautiful face as a children's choir sings off-screen. That's in Chukhrai's film.

Instead of sand, in Protazanov's film there are white stones and dust. And amidst the stones there is a being equally stony and dusty: Mariutka, who resembles a guy more than a woman. Having shot another White officer, she spits and after snorting adds another number to her "tally." She falls in love with a good-humored but imperious landowner. Not because he is attractive, not because she is surrounded by sand, but seemingly because (as Pushkin would have it) “the time has come” and because she is still a woman after all. And having fallen in love, she genuinely turns into a woman: her facial expression changes, as does the lighting of her face (shot by Protazanov's constant cameraman Petr Ermolov, who would go on to work with Mark Donskoi on the Gor'kii trilogy), and even her trousers imperceptibly turn into a skirt. After the fatal shot, Mariutka lifts her head and her face is once again gray and stony. Does this resemble melodrama? Not at all. But the plot is absolutely melodramatic.

Finally, a third example, perhaps the most obvious one: Abram Room's Bed and Sofa (Tret'ia Meshchanskaia, 1927). A classic triangle: husband, wife, and lover. But with one difference: both the husband and the lover are good people. As a consequence, neither the heroine nor the viewer knows who the hero is and who the villain. So they regularly have to keep changing places and whoever is the husband at the moment is the villain, whoever the lover is the good guy. As a result, both are scoundrels, as they admit to each other at the end. And they set off to drink tea since the wife has abandoned them. Amusing? Absolutely! This film can be analyzed as a melodrama or as a comedy. Or at least as a film that is deeply ironic, which is also counter-indicated for melodrama.

Three examples: the first was made by an “innovator,” the second by a “traditionalist” (clearly only from the point of view of his contemporaries), and Room was an enigmatic figure perceived as something like a "fellow traveler,” to make use of a literary analogy. In each case the overall melodramatic construction of the film is exploded either on the level of the plot or on the emotional plane. Recall now The Devil's Wheel and Kat'ka's Reinette Apples —which openly proclaimed themselves to be melodramas—and also Battleship Potemkin. These six examples are sufficient to establish the following hypothesis.


Early filmmaking knew three pure genres: comedy, adventure, and melodrama. With very rare exceptions the first two genres were overly “isolated,” their laws were virtually visible, and those directors who worked on comedies or adventure films had to subordinate themselves to these rules whether they wanted to or not. Everyone else, whether they wanted to or not, had to take their sources from melodrama. As far as Russian pre-Revolutionary cinema is concerned, the only genre that existed was melodrama. There were a limited number of adventure films and the numerous comedies were so primitive that they had absolutely no impact on the development of cinema art. So in Russia, melodrama and filmmaking were virtually synonymous. It is not for nothing that, even fifty years later, film critics Inna Solov'eva and Vera Shitova would write: “Is not melodrama the most cinematographic of all genres, the purest genre in its cinematography?” (124). In this way, melodrama served as a distinctive jumping off point for Soviet filmmaking. The picture that emerged was more or less clear: rejecting melodrama as an out-dated and bourgeois genre, filmmakers began to construct new models. In the process of these new constructions, filmmakers made artistic discoveries, but without any firm ground under the feet of these discoveries, they remained purely speculative, to be admired by friends and students. So filmmakers were forced to seek this firm ground on which to build a framework. And this framework was always taken from that same despised melodrama. The framework was almost unnoticed when draped in its new artistic robes. But in the process of tailoring the new model, the creases would become smoothed out (especially in the work of second-rate filmmakers) and the framework would show through. Melodrama would appear in a pure form. Against which filmmakers would immediately begin to struggle… And the process would begin anew.

The fate of the FEKS provides a good illustration of this thesis. Rejecting the old art, they made The Adventures of Oktiabrina (Pokhozhdeniia Oktiabriny, 1924), an almost plotless, circus-like comedy. Their next film, Mishkis Versus Iudenich (Mishki protiv Iudenicha, 1925) was made in the same way and was virtually unnoticed. So then the FEKS turned to melodrama. And although less than a year passed between the making of Mishkis and The Devil's Wheel ?and the same actors appeared in both films?the difference was obvious: it was specifically the melodramatic skeleton, tested over many years, that allowed the eccentric (and even hooligan) art of the FEKS to come to the fore. This was a very specific kind of melodrama, the signs of which, in the words of Nina Dymshits, “were organized in a new way, with a new creative orientation … that ceased to function in a melodramatic way—that is, to strum the sentimental strings of the viewer's soul” (9).

Subsequently they made The Overcoat (Shinel', 1926), which also contained melodramatic intrigue for the most part: He was Bashmachkin, She the overcoat, the villain was Petersburg with its monuments. If this explanation seems a bit far-fetched, I can suggest another variant, in which She is a living woman (the heroine is referred to as “A Heavenly Creature” in the credits). A comparable situation exists with Kozintsev and Trauberg's next film as well, Little Brother (Bratishka), which has not survived. The only interesting observation about this film was made by critic Vladimir Nedobrovo, who wrote that the FEKS were interested “in the problem of resolving the theme of economic construction. In Little Brother , the economy is shown emotionally, not chronologically—via love for labor and the production apparatus. And so the love plot is fully conscious, freeing film administrators from the need to rate the film ‘Children under 16 not admitted'” (50-51). Andrei Moskvin, the cameraman, actually shot the old automobile as if it was a lyrical heroine and, in one of the episodes, the cars abandoned in the warehouse sentimentally flash their headlights. But as a precaution, the directors also included a traditional love story, with the main character, a chauffeur, in love with a young conductor.

And, finally, in 1927 the FEKS released their costume melodrama S.V.D., set in the epoch of the Decembrist uprising. This was probably their most dramatically constructed film, with a restrained and psychologically justified use of eccentricism, and unbelievably precise in its use of the details of the period and in its mass scenes. At the same time, the film contained an extremely banal love story that took up a significant portion of screen time. The love triangle in the FEKS' earlier films was always somehow “distorted”; not just the truck, but also Val'ka, the girl-criminal in The Devil's Wheel —not to mention Bashmachkin—did not easily fit into the traditional melodramatic schema. By contrast, in S.V.D. everything worked perfectly: the villain with his saber-like sideburns and voluptuous smile, the noble and trusting young hero with his rolling eyes, and the heroine with her timid glances and “Cupid's bow” (although Sof'ia Magarill, Kozintsev's wife, became a full-fledged member of FEKS, she appeared more than slightly strange amidst the other sportly young women—acrobats and clowns). While S.V.D. was without doubt one of the masterpieces of Soviet cinema, from the point of view of the positions marked out by FEKS it was an obvious defeat and a step backwards.


The biography of Fridrikh Ermler, a sentimental and passionate man, is even more revealing. Its beginnings repeat the destiny of the FEKS: after a semi-absurd, popular scientific (!) comedy, Scarlet Fever ( Skarlatina , 1924), he co-directed Kat'ka's Reinette Apples —“a melodrama with a comic bent.” And this was followed by films that were almost classic examples of the genre: House in the Snow Banks (Dom v sugrobakh, 1927) and The Parisian Cobbler (Parizhskii sapozhnik, 1927). Even the famous film Fragment of an Empire (Oblomok imperii, 1929), which more closely resembles montage cinema, was constructed around a super-melodramatic conflict: a shell-shocked soldier, who lost his memory for ten years, sees his wife in the window of a passing train and remembers her. He seeks to find her, but she is married to another man who is an egoist and hypocrite. The film, of course, is not about this at all; it is about the change of generations, about the improbable (and catastrophic) revolutionary transformations that have occurred in only ten years. But a brief plot summary lays bare the genre of the melodrama, a genre that Ermler uses as a springboard.


Obviously, pure melodrama also existed in Soviet filmmaking in the 1920s, especially at the Mezhrabpom-Rus' (later Mezhrabpomfil'm) film factory in Moscow. Mikhail Bleiman, to whom I have already referred, even wrote a pamphlet in 1928 entitled Mezhrabpom-Rus': Genre. Here are some excerpts from this very perceptive pamphlet:

Material is history in costumes or, at the very least, history without costumes. At times, in order to avoid censorship in representing tail-coats, the action is moved abroad. But no matter what the material of a film is, it is not contemporary, not social, not historico-revolutionary. It is conditional and aesthetically slicked…

The main characters of the genre are, for the most part, people with titles. Exemplary films in this sense are The Poet and the Tsar [Poet i tsar' ; dir. Vladimir Gardin, 1927] and His Highness' Soloist [Solistka ego velichestva; dir. Mikhail Verner, 1927]. There is not a single character in these films who is not at least a count. Even the lackeys of the court are long-established members of the gentry…

The plot motivations of the genre are, first and foremost, love. There is always a love conflict at the basis of Mezhrabpom's films. Revolutions are made, wars are begun and ended, the world is turned on its head?all because of love. In The Decembrists [Dekabristy; dir. Aleksandr Ivanovskii, 1926], the rebellion begins because of a rape. In The Ice House [Ledianoi dom; dir. Konstantin Eggert, 1928], English diplomats are engaged in Russian romantic affairs. In Who Are You? [Kto ty takoi; dir. Iurii Zheliabuzhskii, 1927], the strike begins because the main character falls out of love with a millionairess and falls in love with a working woman. (96-97)

Such films, of course, were shot in virtually every film factory in the country; for example, the historical films referred to in the pamphlet—The Poet and the Tsar (He is Pushkin, She is Natalie, the villain is the tsar) and The Decembrists—were shot in the Leningrad Sovkino film factory. It is just that the conditions at Mezhrabpom were more favorable. The director of the studio from pre-Revolutionary times was Moisei Aleinikov, probably the only genuine producer in Soviet cinema. He managed to preserve the almost independent, semi-private film company until 1936. If the concept of a “star system” is applicable to Soviet cinema, then we should turn our attention not to Liubov' Orlova or Marina Ladynina, but specifically to the stars of Mezhrabpom, where women of various types were chosen with great precision: Vera Malinovskaia, the gentle beauty á la russe; full-bodied and piquant Ol'ga Zhizneva; Galina Kravchenko, the bourgeois-eccentric; Anel' Sudakevich, the chilly Pole; etc. These were the genuine stars of Soviet melodrama. Malinovskaia exclusively played victims, Zhizneva—exclusively played bitches, Kravchenko?bourgeois ladies, Sudakevich—aristocrats.

Konstantin Eggert is first in line among directors specializing in melodramas. Let me summarize the plot of his film Such a Woman (Takaia zhenshchina, 1927), which is very typical: 1918. Hunger. A sailor-Bolshevik is assigned to live in the apartment of an elderly aristocrat and her beautiful daughter, Alice (Zhizneva). In order to make use of her neighbor's food ration card, Alice seduces the sailor and quickly becomes his wife. They have a son, Mitia. Once NEP arrives, Alice's affairs take off and she becomes the mistress of a wealthy businessman. So the sailor leaves their home and settles into a distant hut, where he meets a charming peasant woman (Malinovskaia). At the same time, Mitia runs away from his egoistical mother in search of his father. He almost dies in a forest, but at the last moment his father and his new wife save the boy. An idyll begins.

Remarkably, I have described this very popular film almost thoroughly. The plot is limited to the love story. There are no precise depictions of daily life, let alone any affective secondary characters?none of this is present in the film. And there were many such films. These are precisely the films of which Bleiman was making fun. And not just he. The war against melodrama raged on the pages of all film journals. The most frequent targets were Eggert, Fedor Otsep, and naturally the directorial duet of Ol'ga Preobrazhenskaia and Ivan Pravov—the directors of one of the most popular silent Soviet films, The Women of Riazan (Baby Riazanskie, 1927). It is worth focusing on this film.

The main character in the film, a peasant kulak, marries his son to an orphan, after whom he secretly lusts. When the son is sent to the frontlines during the First World War, the kulak rapes his son's wife. She gives birth to his son. And when her husband returns, she drowns herself because she cannot bear the shame.

It would seem that the schema of the film is as primitive as in the films of Otsep. But the directors managed not only to find an ideal representational solution (the costumes and props are slightly stylized in the manner of the lubok), but also to layer the story with a mass of witty details. For example: the wedding ceremony of the young characters appears sinister and at the same time eccentric thanks to an accurate observation—it is very stuffy at provincial weddings. And so the beauty-bride is constantly wiping sweat off her doll-like face and a devil-may-care dancing woman occasionally gasps for air and rolls her swollen eyes, after which she continues dancing with even more frenzy. It may very be that this scene was influenced by the wedding episode in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924), just as the colorful provincial gossipers evidently migrated from Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924). In this way, profitable filmmaking—especially melodrama—marched in step with the cinema avant-garde. As for Preobrazhenskaia and Pravov, in shooting essentially genre films they deviated more and more from established canons, widening the limits of the genre itself. Their films became progressively more eccentric: the story line was gradually eliminated while the plot expanded. And the directors continued to be the talk of the town. As the epoch of intellectual cinema based on type-montage dawned, an orientation towards genre seemed entirely archaic. As a consequence, zealous critics never recognized that Preobrazhenskaia and Pravov's film language was just as distant from that of the old-fashioned craftsmen (Viacheslav Viskovskii, Aleksandr Ivanovskii, Cheslav Sabinskii, Vladimir Gardin) as it was from the film language of the avant-gardists.

The last silent film by the duet of directors— And Quiet Flows the Don (Tikhii Don, 1930), an adaptation of the first volume of the novel—almost ended up “on the shelf.” Only Sholokhov himself was able to save the film. By that time, however, the directors had already been expelled from ARRK (Associations of Workers of Revolutionary Cinematography) for “catering to a petty bourgeois audience.” This begins a new chapter in the history of Soviet melodrama.


The beginning of the 1930s marks not only the end of genre cinema, but of intellectual cinema as well. Actually, not quite… One genre was resurrected and immediately became the dominant one: the agitprop film. These semi-feature, semi-documentary sketches resembled each other like two drops of water. The liquidation of “obstacles” in the factory, in mine shafts, in agriculture were graphically demonstrated using cartoon and poster devices, slogans, and simply staged scenes. Despite their sophisticated wrappings (by the end of the 1920s even second-rate Soviet cameramen shot their films very effectively, while directors edited them with virtuosity), these films recalled the agitki of the post-Revolutionary times. Even the slightest hint of any kind of personal life was missing in these films, in which, according to Margolit, “the characters spent 24 hours a day on the labor front.” How could there be any melodrama!

After enriching film art with the appearance of a new genre, agitprop (the Section for Agitation and Propaganda of the Central Committee) virtually overturned the policy of international film distribution: in the ten years before the Second World War, fewer than thirty foreign films appeared on Soviet screens. The result, obviously, was a decrease in film attendance.

The 23 April 1932 Decree by the Central Committee, “On the Reorganization of Literary and Artistic Organizations,” which liquidated ARRK, RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), and similar organizations, put an end to the dominance of the agitprop film and demanded that filmmakers be "entertaining." This would seem to have been an ideal environment for melodrama to flourish. But the exact opposite result occurred.

Grigorii Kozintsev referred to the years between 1932 and 1936 as the epoch of “the second utopia.” Socialist realism was still vaguely defined; the standards had not yet been worked out. It is almost as if these years became a time of maximum freedom for filmmakers. On top of that, this period coincided with the arrival of sound film. Sound films seemed to be almost a new art form and artists felt themselves freed from all canons and traditions. The environment into which they dove head first was one of popular theater, the farce, the mass spectacle. Precisely at this time, the slogans of the FEKS manifesto began to be enacted, specifically in Kozintsev and Trauberg's The Youth of Maksim (Iunost' Maksima, 1934), Boris Barnet's Outskirts (Okraina, 1933), Nikolai Ekk's Road to Life (Putevka v zhizn', 1931)—Ekk was the first director to sense the new spirit of the times and the new aesthetics—and other films. There were no melodramas amongst these films, but for a funny reason: melodrama now seemed too complex, too over-determined by genre. More than that: it appeared too “elevated”—no matter how paradoxical that might sound.

This epoch ended rather quickly. The First Congress of the Union of Writers in 1934 finally established the governmental standards of socialist art. The 1935 Conference of Workers in Cinema ratified these standards. The leap from the farce to socialist realism turned out to be inspirational. And now melodrama came to the rescue. Three “borderline” films, which already responded to the new demands while at the same time preserving traces of authorial individuality, were to a large extent melodramas: Ermler's The Peasants (Krest'iane, 1934), Zarkhi and Kheifits' Baltic Deputy (Deputat Baltiki, 1936), and Ivan Pyr'ev's The Party Card (Partiinyi bilet, 1936). At the center of each was the conflict between the personal and the social. The moral at the center of each was the same: the social was above the personal. But that was the point—there was conflict after all: in The Peasants it was between husband-kulak and his wife-collective farm worker; in The Baltic Deputy between the old professor who sympathizes with the Revolution and his counter-revolutionary student. In both films the main characters, having recognized the enemy, became merciless and inflexible. The personal, the humane ended for them; not even regret remained. The “villains,” however, continued to suffer. They did not reflect—neither melodrama nor socialist realism allows for reflection—but suffered. In this way, the melodramatic schema once again came to the rescue by turning itself inside out: the suffering villain and the inhuman hero. In The Party Card , melodrama appeared in its pure form: the husband—the son of a kulak and an unprincipled careerist— remains cold and indifferent, while the wife who is in love with him, having recognized him as the enemy, almost goes insane. She turns her husband in to the authorities not in a state of decision but almost beside herself, with a stony face that is uncharacteristic of this impulsive heroine. It is worth noting that Ada Voitsik starred in this role, the same actress who ten years earlier played the role of Mariutka in Protazanov's Forty First.

At the center of Eisenstein's Bezhin Meadow (Bezhin lug, 1935-37) also lay a conflict between a father-kulak and the son who turned him in. After the first version of the film was banned, Eisenstein emphasized the melodramatic plot. But this version, too, ended up on “the shelf” —as did most of the films that had a personal conflict at the center: Margarita Barskaia's Father and Son (Otets i syn, 1936), Lev Golub and Mikola Sadkovich's High Water (Polovod'e, 1936), and even Miron Bilinskii and Konstantin Isaev's The Outpost at the Devil's Ford (Zastava u Chertova Broda, 1936), an adventure film, in which a spy (Marina Ladynina's favorite role) is loved by the commander of a border post. The Party Card miraculously avoided the same fate: in order to save the film, Pyr'ev, on Stalin's personal instructions, made the main character into a spy for a foreign government, concealing in this way the melodrama behind the mask of a spy film.


The following period, 1936-38 is best characterized by its “defense films” about the coming war. This marks another Soviet contribution to the international genre system. The structure of the “defense film” resembles contemporary computer games: after a brief social exposition (the action usually took place in a small town on the border), the enemy would break his word, cross the border, and non-stop combat would begin. The enemy constantly sets up new obstacles, while Soviet officers always find a way around them. And when, finally, all of the traps have been revealed, the enemy is repulsed and Soviet planes subject some enemy city to a devastating bombardment. Game over.

At the time, such films had great success with young boys. Five years later, these boys ended up on the frontlines of a real war and, judging from memoirs, not infrequently recalled these films. “May the director who made If War Comes Tomorrow [Esli zavtra voina; dir. Lazar' Antsi-Polovskii, Georgii Berezko, Efim Dzigan, and Nikolai Karmazinskii, 1938] be damned!”—cries the young lieutenant who has led his company to its doom in Vladimir Tendriakov's story “Donna Anna.” But that is another story.


As a natural response to such “inhuman” films, a counter-tendency emerges in the pre-war years, a tendency that was reinforced by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which put an automatic end to the “defense films.” And without any decrees or directives, films about human values begin to appear one right after the other. Most of them dealt with issues of the family.

A famous polar explorer was too engrossed in his work (something that already sounds strange for Soviet cinema) and so his wife left him and is now raising their son on her own. But a child needs a father, and the boy sets out in search of him. He finds him and reunites the family. This is the plot of Ian Frid's charming film The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 1940). Reuniting children and parents is a typical motif in melodramas. At the same time, Vladimir Korsh-Sablin's My Love (Moia liubov', 1940) was released. Masking the film as a comedy, Korsh-Sablin shot a melodrama about a young woman who passes off the son of her dead sister as her own, an act that momentarily transforms her two suitors—both members of the Soviet Komsomol—into a “hero” and a “villain.” A year earlier, Eduard Pentslin shot Fighter Pilots (Istrebiteli, 1939), the story of a blinded pilot and the young woman who gives him back his sight. No commentaries are needed…

As a whole, the films of 1939-41 seem a bit simplified and partially (only partially!!) ideologized models for filmmakers of the Thaw. This makes perfect sense: the Thaw in filmmaking was as much a reaction to the “Grand style” of the period of cine-anemia (malokartin'e), as the pre-war lyrical films were a reaction to the aesthetics of the “defense films.” It is intriguing to note that even the titles of the films are similar. As Evgenii Margolit has noted, “‘home' and ‘spring' are key words in the titles of Thaw films” (“Kinematograf” 205). [2] In this connection it is worth noting that The Return was initially entitled The Big House (Bol'shoi dom), while Grigorii Aleksandrov's Spring (Vesna, 1947) was conceived of precisely during the pre-war years, immediately after his pompous film The Radiant Path (Svetlyi put', 1940). In the same year, Vladimir Iurenev made his film Spring Stream (Vesennii potok, 1940) about the relationship between a woman teacher and a group of troubled adolescents—a peculiar forerunner of Marlen Khutsiev and Feliks Mironer's Spring on Zarechnaia Street (Vesna na Zarechnoi ulitse, 1956). All of these analogies are especially interesting if we take into account that, during the Thaw, melodrama became virtually the dominant genre. Vasilii Ordynskii's A Man is Born (Chelovek rodilsia, 1956), Iurii Ozerov's The Son (Syn, 1955), Lev Kulidzhanov and Iakov Segel''s The House I Live In (Dom, v kotorom ia zhivu, 1957), Kulidzhanov's When the Trees Were Big (Kogda derev'ia byli bol'shimi, 1961)—as well as Spring on Zarechnaia Street and Forty First —are all melodramas. Even the breakthrough film of this period—Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957)—has a melodramatic structure at its basis. Admittedly, in this last instance melodrama is once again transformed. But that is a lengthy discussion and falls outside of the historical parameters of this article.

If we return to the pre-war years, it is also possible to encounter classical examples of melodrama?for example, Vladimir Batalov's The Women (Baby, 1940). The film is weak and primitive, but at its center is the story of the chairman of a collective farm whose husband abandons her for a wanton woman. By a curious coincidence, the husband and the wanton woman are played by Andrei Abrikosov and Èmma Tsesarskaia, who starred as Grigorii and Aksin'ia in Preobrazhenskaia and Pravov's And Quiet Flows the Don . At the same time, at the Ashkhabad Film Studio, The Prosecutor (Prokuror; dir. Evgenii Ivanov-Barkov and Boris Kazachkov, 1941) was being shot, which in its plot and acting recalls films produced in the 1910s: the woman prosecutor recognizes her son, kidnapped twenty years earlier, as the accused. Ivanov-Barkov, one of the co-directors, who had been virtually exiled to Turkmenistan, had directed popular melodramas at the end of the 1920s—Poison (Iad, 1927) and Judas (Iuda, 1930). Lastly, what if not a classical melodrama is Sergei Gerasimov's The Masquerade (Maskarad, 1941), which was completed in the first days of the war?


During the war years, virtually every appeal to human feelings in cinema took on a melodramatic form. Among these films were also pure melodramas: Aleksandr Stolper and Boris Ivanov's Wait for Me (Zhdi menia, 1943) and Leonid Trauberg's The Actress (Aktrisa, 1943). While both films were indisputably successful at the box-office, they were also subjected to devastating criticism, especially The Actress . An actress in operettas goes to work as a nurse during the war. She falls in love with a blinded major, who in turn is in love with the famous actress but cannot recognize the object of his desire in the clumsy nurse. This was called a “musical comedy.” I should note that the very word “melodrama” disappeared from Soviet usage during the period of the agitprop films, and it disappeared for a long time. In film titles and reviews, the films of this genre were referred to as “dramas,” and later as “film novellas.” Even Kat'ka's Reinette Apples , where the word "melodrama" appeared in the opening credits, is still referred to as a “drama” in reference books.

Yet the main genre of Soviet cinema—the “transformed melodrama”—continued to live. One of its last (and greatest!) examples was Abram Room's The Invasion (Nashestvie, 1944). The story of man who returns from the camps, is rejected by society and his own family, and voluntarily goes off to die, the film was cast in the framework of a family melodrama, with all of the characteristic attributes of the genre: a prodigal son who is unjustly convicted, unending accidents that impede the revelation of the truth, and, finally, the belated repentance of his relatives.

The wartime period came to an end somewhat strangely, but effectively, for melodrama. Guilty without Guilt (1945), a screen adaptation of Ostrovskii's play by Vladimir Petrov, a student of Gordon Craig, shot meticulously and masterfully, with an excellent sense of style, may be the only melodrama par excellence in Soviet cinema. Based on provincial Russian theatrical life of the 19th centuryso distant (immediately and obliquely) from the realities of contemporary life—it was the box-office hit of the year. The reason is obvious: for a generation that survived the war, a film about the reunion of a mother and son was extremely topical.


The cine-anemia of the immediate post-war years was a much more threatening blow to film art than the dominance of agitprop films or the flood of defense films. Kozintsev referred to this epoch as “a dark and evil time.” In fact, he could not tolerate the new aesthetics and abandoned cinema for the theater, returning only with the onset of the Thaw. Only one film was released during this period that corresponds to the definition of a melodrama—again, in a transformed way—and, strangely enough it was Pyr'ev's well-know The Ballad of Siberia (Skazanie o zemle Sibirskoi, 1947). At the center of the film is the story of a brilliant pianist who loses his ability to play after being wounded, who abandons his musical career (and beloved woman) and leaves for the backwoods. And many years later, this woman, now a famous singer, arrives in the backwoods… It is a classical story, but one thing prevents it from being a melodrama: its scope and monumentality. And, of course, its adherence to conflictlessness (bezkonfliktnost' )?the backwoods of Soviet Russia are not simply a backwoods, but the “Land of Siberia.” And everyone in these backwoods is obliged to be fortunate. Even the pianist, a folk musician, is fully happy without any singer. But since she—the singer—has come, he writes an oratorio for her, which she solemnly performs in what seems to be the Bol'shoi Theater. So if the pianist experienced idyllic happiness before the arrival of the singer, now comes an apotheosis. All of this is done with great pageantry, in its own way with quite a bit of talent. But it bears no relation to human emotions and, as a consequence, it does not appeal to viewers' feelings.

According to Evgenii Margolit, during the epoch of cine-anemia “the viewer's needs for a genre with sensitivity was fulfilled by the so-called ‘trophy' films that had been produced in the USA, Germany, and Italy in the 1930s, amongst which were a series of historical and costume melodramas, and, naturally, musical films, including such famous films as Waterloo Bridge [dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1940], That Hamilton Woman [dir. Alexander Korda, 1941] with Vivian Leigh, Camille [dir. George Cukor, 1936] with Greta Garbo, and others” (“Melodrama” 230). While this was suitable, viewers experienced a need for a human cinema that was grounded in more recognizable, domestic material. But this did not and could not exist in the epoch of “the triumphal Stalinist Grand style, with its strict regimentation of everyone and everything (including feelings)” (230).

But after every frost comes a thaw. We have already observed this process more than once in the history of melodrama. And the thaw arrived this time as well. In fact, it arrived not only before the Twentieth Party Congress, but even before the death of Stalin. Vsevolod Pudovkin's The Return of Vasilii Bortnikov (Vozvrashchenie Vasiliia Bortnikova, 1952) is considered to be the first film of the Thaw. After being shell-shocked, losing his memory, and spending several years in a hospital, the main character returns to his collective farm. His wife, who believed that he had been killed, is now married to another man… Note in passing that the conflict precisely repeats the plot of Fragment of an Empire. But that is not the main thing. It naturally follows that the hero is a model chairman of the collective farm and busies himself restoring agriculture—this was mandatory because, after all, it was 1952! And the social is higher for him than the personal. That is how he has been educated. But the rub is that the social does not bring him any happiness. There is a stunning scene—and a very courageous one—in which, during the harvest, the collective-farm workers joyfully burst into another harvesting song just as the chairman receives a telegram informing him that his father has died. And as the off-screen voices sing of “the great Stalin,” the chairman comes down to earth and with an estranged look gazes off into space. He does not hear the words of the song. In addition to everything else, this scene is shot in an interesting way: as in musical comedies, the song is sung by all of the collective-farm workers to the accompaniment of an orchestral recording and, as in musical comedies, it is not simply a song, but the expression of their feelings. But when the chairman receives the telegram, for him it is simply a song because he does not have collective feelings; his feelings are individual, personal. Let me quote Margolit once again: “The last film by the director of Mother essentially begins the process of rehabilitating the world of emotions—one of the most important of the many rehabilitations of those years” (205). On the one hand, recall the link of Pudovkin and Mother with Griffith's melodramas; on the other, Bortnikov contains virtually all of the main tendencies and motifs of Thaw melodramas. It was not even shot by Anatolii Golovnia, Pudovkin's constant cameraman, but by Sergei Urusevskii, who four years later will shoot The Cranes are Flying.


And so melodrama—the “low” genre” that was a misfit both in terms of the revolutionary avant-garde and the canons of socialist realism—turned out to be not only alive, but also life-giving. And also a foundation stone.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Peter Bagrov
Institute for the History of the Arts, St. Petersburg


1] In all fairness, I should point out that this is also true of film melodramas in the West, even though I shall not be examining them here. If the cultural and, in part, distribution policies of the 1920s allowed Soviet cinema to progress in step with Western filmmaking (at times even march ahead—which is less important than the fact that they progressed with a sense of each other), then in the preceding period—and especially in the succeeding one—the virtual involuntary isolation of Soviet filmmaking led to a profoundly peculiar development.

2] The Russian word dom spans the meanings of both “home” and “house,” an implicit pun in the titles of may films that is lost in English.

Works Cited

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?. Mezhrabpom-Rus': Genre . In O kino - svidetel'skie pokazaniia. Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1973. 96-97.

Eisenstein, Sergei. “Dickens, Griffith and Ourselves.” In Eisenstein: Writings, 1934-1947. Ed. Richard Taylor. Trans. William Powell. London: BFI, 1996. 193-238.

Eizenshtein, Sergei. “Dikkens, Griffit i my.” In D.U. Griffit . Ed. Sergei Eizhenshtein and Sergei Iutkevich. Materialy po istorii mirovogo kinoiskusstva. Moskva: Goskinoizdat, 1944. 39-88.

Ermler, Fridrikh. “Avtobiograficheskie zametki.” In Fridrikh Ermler: Dokumenty; Stat'i; Vospominaniia . Ed. Vera Bakun and Izol'da Sepman. Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1974. 90-96.

Dymshits, Nina. Sovetskaia melodrama vchera i segodnia. Moskva: Znanie, 1987.

"Dlia naroda." Èkran (Moskva), 1921. 2-3.

Gorchakov, Nikolai. Rezhisserskie uroki K.S. Stanislavskogo: Besedy i zapisi repetitsii. 3 rd ed. Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1952.

Kovarskii, Nikolai. “Vmesto vospominanii.” In Fridrikh Ermler: Dokumenty; Stat'i; Vospominaniia. Ed. Vera Bakun and Izol'da Sepman. Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1974. 285-292.

Kozintsev, Grigorii. “A.B.!: Parad ekstsentrikov.” Ekstsentrizm. Petrograd, 1922.

?. “A.B.!: Parade of the Eccentric.” In The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939 . Ed. Richard Taylor and Ian Christie. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988. 58-9.

Lunacharskii, Anatolii. “O frantsuzkoi drame.” In A.V. Lunacharskii o teatre i dramatugii: Izbrannye stat'i . Vol. 2. Zapadnoevropeiskii teatr . Ed. Aleksandr Deich. Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1958. 255-260.

Margolit, Evgenii. “Kinematograf ‘ottepeli.' K portretu fenomena.” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 61 (2002): 195-230.

?. “Melodrama v sovetskom kino.” In Noveishaia istoriia otechestvennogo kino: 1986-2000. Vol. 6. Kino i kontekst: 1992-1996 . Ed. Liubov' Arkus. St. Petersburg: Seans, 2004. 227-237.

Nedobrovo, Vladimir. FEKS: Grigorii Kozintsev; Leonid Trauberg . Moskva-Leningrad: Kinopechat', 1928.

Shilova, Irina. “O melodrame.” Voprosy kinoiskusstva 17 (Moskva, 1976): 112-135.

Solov'eva, Inna and Vera Shitova. Jean Gaben. Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1967.

Peter Bagrov© 2007

Updated: 16 Jul 07