KinoKultura: Issue 32 (2011)

Gosfilmofond Celebrates: Belye Stolby 2011

By Sergei Kapterev (Moscow) and Birgit Beumers (Bristol)


This year’s festival “Belye Stolby” was accompanied by a lot of noise—largely from the helicopter of Prime Minister Putin, who visited Gosfilmofond for a meeting with his governmental Film Council to discuss the development of the film industry and inspect the enormous state-owned property.

In this context it was quite understandable and appropriate for Gosfilmofond to do a bit of self-advertising and celebrate its own achievements with two documentaries films about the archive, both made by Ivan Tverdovskii; they offered interesting insights into the work of the archive and its role in the country’s film training. And Gosfilmofond presented its “American project:” popular films of the 1920s preserved at the archive, such as Rex Ingram’s The Arab (1924) and John B Grey’s Canyon of the Fools (1923).

Memories

The film program included archival discoveries and restored films, and—as is long-standing practice—films commemorating filmmakers and actors who have passed away, or —on a more cheerful side—recently celebrated anniversaries. Thus, the program included a rare Czechoslovak film featuring Arkadii Raikin (1911-1987), titled A Man with Many Faces (Chelovek s mnozhestvom lits), which showed Raikin while on tour in Prague. In memory of Sergei Stoliarov’s birth (1911-1969) the archive screened The Death of the “Eagle” (Gibel’ Orla, 1940), a children’s film about a captain who sinks his ship that is forced to carry White émigrés fleeing the Red Army across the Black Sea in 1920. It is the captain’s son, an outstanding diver, who finds the wreck and the logbook many years later to discover the truth—that the captain sank the ship rather than facilitate the escape of the Whites. Vladimir Motyl’, who had recently passed away, was remembered with a screening of The Children of the Pamir (Deti Pamira, Tajikfilm 1963) about the establishment of Soviet power in the Pamir mountains, where the children first rebel, but an understanding and kind teacher makes all the difference and even manages the integration into the collective of the son of a former prisoner. In an interesting twist of events, the plot aligns itself with Soviet film history of the 1930s in dwelling on the shocking nature of Lenin’s death as the teacher leaves the village to attend the funeral, connecting centre with periphery.  

A star actor of Russian cinema, Nikolai Kriuchkov (1911-94), was remembered through a rare film titled On the Tracks (Na putiakh, 1940). One of the first films shown at the festival, the 37-minute Soviet drama was a worthy introduction to a celebration of archival preservation and research. This story of a conflict between familial love and duty, directed in 1940 for the Mosfilm studios by A. (full name not found) Kaplan and Naum Trakhtenberg, is presumably largely unknown to film historians. On the Tracks is quite typical of Soviet cinema of the last pre-war year in that it focuses on conflicts of the everyday, as if demonstrating that—as a result of economic advances, political cleansing and diplomatic successes—Soviet society reached a high level of stability.

tracksSchematically, On the Tracks may be referred to the category of Stalinist films aimed against professional inefficiency equated with sabotage. However, the film’s masterful presentation of personal experiences, its successful attempts at character study, restrained tonality and dynamic structure effectively overbalance didactic components and, one may claim, put it above other, more prestigious films of the pre-war period. The work/family conflict unfolds in the film on two parallel planes, in a manner worthy of D.W. Griffith’s shorts. The main protagonist—played by Stalinist cinema’s star Nikolai Kriuchkov, is unaware of the fact that his sense of professional duty may slow down his wife’s race against time: their daughter needs urgent, life-saving surgery, and the wife desperately tries to get her to a faraway doctor. Suspense increases by the fact that the beginning of the film is characterized by a certain generic vagueness, mostly manifested in the initial ambiguity of the character played by Kriuchkov.

Kriuchkov’s understated performance reflects the film’s overall quality of acting. The actors get skillful assistance from veteran set designer Vladimir Balliuzek (his credits included such visually accomplished works as Iakov Protazanov’s 1916 version of The Queen of Spades); Boris Vol’skii, who wrote the film’s score and who, as sound engineer, was to control complexities of the soundtrack in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible; and cinematographer-cum-photographer Iakov Berliner. On the Tracks may be regarded primarily as a tight ensemble movie, the modesty of which probably helped its authors to attain a high level of perfection.

The War

The 70th anniversary of the first year of the war was remembered through some newsreels from Russia and Germany. Material shot by UFA cameramen in 1941 for use in newsreels and documentaries, preserved by Gosfilmofond together with other cinematic trophies of the Soviet Army and shown at the festival under the cumulative title The German Invasion of Russia, provided a striking contrast to the structural and tonal achievements of On the Tracks. Basic editing and brutal imagery—such as the almost pornographic shots of dead civilians—separate this material from more streamlined German cinematic documents of World War II, such as the record of Wehrmacht’s campaign in the Balkans or the Panorama newsreels (whose color has been digitally restored, to remarkable effect, by Gosfilmofond). The German Invasion of Russia is an example of narrative and cinematic movement which, to use Paul Virilio’s words, takes place “in intensive time similar to the real time of Blitzkrieg, to the actual speed of military technology.”[1] A chilling document of war, both in the selection of material and the deceptively simplistic manner of its organization, this propagandistic abstraction of military offensive is as provocative and dangerous today as when it was crafted.

Restoration

godunovRecent achievements in film restoration, reconstruction and identification of lost items formed another important and fascinating part of the program. Following last year’s presentation of declamations, Nikolai Izvolov had restored yet another film declamation, Boris Godonov, using old film fragments with a newly recorded voiceover narration. The Petersburg scholar Petr Bagrov presented a “lost” film by Evgenii Cherviakov, My Son (Moi syn, 1927), fragments (48 of 70 minutes) of which had been discovered in Argentina’s film archive where the lost footage of Metropolis was also found a few years ago. Cherviakov here attempted to make a drama about a woman who gives birth to a child and tells her husband that the boy is not his son. In a sense, the dilemma of the woman between two men is reminiscent of Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (Tret’ia Meshchanskaia); however, the story here has the added twist of social prejudice as the woman is ostracized by neighbors and friends. Rather than working with interiors and living spaces, however, Cherviakov—in typical FEKS-style—uses close-ups of faces and emphasizes facial and corporeal expression to underline emotional tension. During the dramatic scene of a house fire, it is the true father who saves his child while the husband had tried to dump the infant into the stairwell so he would perish in the flames.

A further major reconstruction effort has been accomplished by Nikolai Maiorov, who has restored some animated films made in the 1930s with three color filters. Last year, he had already showed a taster, Miraculous Traffic Light (Chudesnyi svetofor), which was followed this year with Pushkin’s The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish (Skazka o rybake i rybke, 1937) made in the style of Palekh lacquer boxes. Several animated films were made at Mosfilm during the late 1930s in the three-color system, which means that there are three prints in different colors (green, yellow and red), which need to be superimposed to reconstruct the film; the peculiarity of the Moscow productions under the supervision of Pavel Mershin was that no black-and-white copy was ever printed, so color restoration is the only way of accessing and viewing these films.

The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish is a fine piece of puppet animation, beginning with a book of the fairy tale with illustrations that come to life. The underwater world is explored and contrasted with the life of the fisherman on the shore. There is a fine touch of humor when even the chicken leave the new house in an orderly manner to live in the yard; the dogs bark at fisherman as if he no longer belonged to the new, rich world of luxury and is eventually kicked out of own house by his own wife, craving for more and more material possessions and power. The repeated question of the fisherman “is your soul happy?” elicits only further requests from his wife. The wishes are fulfilled, one after the other, and only the last one—to dominate the water world—causes nature’s anger and the elements show their displeasure with thunder, lightning, rain, and storm. At the end of the tale, we return to book with the same image that also marked the opening: the tale has been read, the book is closed. The idea of a journey into the world of a book is typical for early Soviet animation, and can be found in such cartoons as Senka, the African Boy (Sen’ka Afrikanets) and other films of the 1920s; so, whilst technically innovative, the narrative devices adhere to Soviet conventions.

landThe Land of Youth (Zemlia molodosti) is a 38-minute concert-film created by Andrievskii for Soiuzdetfilm in 1940, originally as stereoscopic cinema. Nikolai Maiorov has managed to restore the stereoscopic effect of the film and project it digitally onto a new 3D-screen now owned by Gosfilmofond. Furthermore, he has experimented with the reconstruction of kinopanorama cinema of the 1950s and reconstructed the panorama film Dangerous Turns (Opasnye povoroty, Tallinnfilm 1961). Panorama films can only be viewed on panorama screens, and are projected from three projectors simultaneously; however, digital processes allow partial editing of the three parallel film strips into one frame, whereby part of the panorama effect (achieved through the screen size) is lost, but which makes it possible to view these films on a normal screen. Dangerous Turns impresses with car races that form an attraction in the panorama versions, clearly aimed to shock the viewer who must have felt that the cars were driving into the audience. The film’s plot is conventional and typical of the Thaw, dwelling on the lack of moral values of a race driver who makes a pass at his team-mate’s girlfriend, Mareike. She, in turn, plays tricks both on her suitor and her boyfriend with the help of her twin sister, adding yet another technical feat to the film’s making: that of doubling the same actress in two roles in the same frame.

The wide range of the Gosfilmofond festival’s interests and ambitions was highlighted by a special event which centered on the recently colorized version of Spring on Zarechnaia Street (Vesna na Zarechnoi ulitse, 1956) and included fragments from other colorized Soviet films, as well as a heated debate over the problem of colorization and its value for contemporary Russian culture. A key work of the post-Stalin “thaw,” Spring on Zarechnaia Street is inseparable from its realistic black-and-white photography, both for film scholars and for several generations of Soviet and Russian film fans. The film’s new color packaging has been approved by its co-director Marlen Khutsiev and is presumably aimed at younger spectators, who, it was argued, have difficulties in understanding and appreciating “old-fashioned” products. Currently the company Formula Tsveta is restoring six films in color for Channel One, including the smash hit Three Poplars on Pliushchikha Street (Tri topolia na Pliushchikhe). Krupnyi Plan is working on the colorization of Aleksandrov’s musicals Jolly Fellows (Veselye rebiata) and Volga-Volga.

opasnyeThe post-viewing discussion of the introduction of color into Spring on Zarechnaia Street and other specimen of black-and-white cinematook the shape of a confrontation between pragmatists’ efforts to update the cinematic heritage and preservationists’ willingness to defend both historical precision and the abilities of today’s audiences. It demonstrated that the issue of recontextualization of archival cinema for entertainment purposes is as controversial in today’s Russia as it was in the United States of the 1980s. 

Colorization is clearly an issue that will be much discussed in years to come, but the restored color experiments of the 1930s, brought back to life by Nikolai Maiorov, are clearly a much more profound discovery for film scholars and technicians alike. Maiorov’s work on reviving lost technologies made this a true festival—the restoration not just of images but the way in which they were produced. And it was more than deserved that the moguchaia kucha of five film historians and restorers (Petr Bagrov, Nikolai Izvolov, Nikolai Maiorov, Aleksandr Deriabin and Sergei Kapterev) received the honorary awards at the festival for their work on re-discovering cinematic heritage.

 

Sergei Kapterev, Moscow
Birgit Beumers, Bristol


Notes

1] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. Translated by Patrick Camiller (London and New York: Verso, 1989), 56.

 

Sergei Kapterev, Birgit Beumers © 2011

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Updated: 11 Apr 11