New Films 






# 6, October 2004

National Cinema: Pittsburgh Film Colloquium

"Imperial Ectoplasm"

By Nancy Condee (University of Pittsburgh, Director, Graduate Program for Cultural Studies; Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures)

"Movie-making […] was related to the identity of the nation, and there have been very few ‘national’ cinemas […] Italian, German, American, Russian" (Godard).

I am happy that Russian cinema figures among the big four, and remind myself to do nothing in today’s market to endanger its inclusion. I would therefore hope for your strategic amnesia about these remarks, which concern this vernacular use of "nation," its productivity for "national cinema" and its misattributions.

The narrative of Russian national cinema is a familiar one: from Lumičre’s 1896 Coronation of Nikolai II through Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko to Balabanov, Rogozhkin and Mikhalkov. It is the story of a robust production, distribution, and exhibition system that at its height in the 1960s and 1970s claimed the highest annual per capita attendance in the world, at 20 visits a year (Dondurei) excluding newborns. Comparable figures for the US in these years were 4.5 visits annually (Christie, "The Cinema" 43). A Soviet hit in the early 1980s could expect 80 million viewers or more; average attendance was 40 million for a steady consistent production rate of 150 films a year over two decades. All this and more, which neither interest nor time permits, underscore Godard’s comment that "when countries were inventing and using motion pictures they needed an image of themselves." So far, so good.

When we turn to related knowledge systems, however, everything goes wrong. For once, we do not even need Benedict Anderson, with his concept of the national as a "deep, horizontal comradeship," an imagined community, limited and sovereign, to see the misalignment between familiar theorizing on nation—Gellner, Kedourie, Kohn, Hobsbawn, Deutsch—and the imperial structure of Russia, whether we are speaking of the dynastic or the socialist empire over four and a half centuries. Drawing on studies of empire by Doyle, Pagden and others, political cultural theorists such as Ilia Pritzel and Terry Martin, have struggled with this mismatch between nation and empire—hyperbolically, perhaps, the absence of the nation, the hypertrophic empire—as well as its attendant implications for cultural production. Nor do we even need these new-fangled theorists to help us out, when Stalin in Marxism and the National Question has gently reminded us that "Austria and Russia are stable communities, but nobody calls them nations."

The Austro-Hungarian Empire followed its own destiny, but "Russia"—a catch-all term for all three states— was more resistant to nationhood, and that resistance was scripted into its very size: the stretch of eleven time zones from one end of just its formal, internal empire to the other is greater than the distance from Moscow to New York, an expanse compounded by sparse population, underdeveloped infrastructure, and material scarcity, all of which militate against a sustained drive to nation formation—that is, to the independent, autonomously functioning horizontal ties, simultaneously consecrating the state and yet operating distinct from the state in its own self-confirming practices that most modern-day contructivists, despite their great diversity, agree is common to the very idea of nation.

My argument, however, is not that empires cannot have strong national identities—Britain is often cited as a case in point—but rather that, for Russia, circumstances militated in favor of a strong state and imperial identity, reflected even in the very word "Russian," which is not one word but two in the original language: one word for the state and (erstwhile) imperial structure; the other, for a more limited and amorphous, ethnic and linguistic category, not identical to the territorial boundaries and also not identical to nation.

Unlike the thallasocratic empires, such as Britain, the overland empire, wherein distinctions between self and other are incremental as well as hybrid, renders the modernizing project of nation-building problematic if not impossible. Cinema’s many figurations, say, of political exile to its periphery; return to the metropolitan homeland; incursions of the other into the space of the center all play out across a vast contiguous territory without that discreet "third space" of ocean between, say, London and Bombay. Moreover, as the last scene of Chiaurelli’s Fall of Berlin ceaselessly reminds us, Soviet anti-imperialism is meticulously intertwined on the screen with a libidinal appreciation of its own imperial grandeur.

Elite interests, subordinated to state formation, found no exception in cinema production. It is inaccurate merely to say that, except for the early years of Russian and Soviet cinema, the state controlled every detail of national cinema production, distribution, and exhibition; this implies there was a cohesive "national" distinct from or resistant to state supervision. One could safely wager that such a degree of subsumption to state desire was to be found nowhere except perhaps in North Korea, and was surpassed only after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Turkmenistan, one of its emergent nation-states, so effectively controlled its own cinema that movie-making stopped altogether.

We are not therefore talking about national cinema, but about state cinema and imperial cinema, a cinema the economic structures of which, similar to the structures of state time, railroads, food distribution, airplane schedules and the like, are radically centralized in the metropole with differentiated access at the peripheries, which are themselves mediated and inter-related almost exclusively through the center, rather than autonomously and in relationship to each other.

The inheritance after 1917 is articulated in the cinema system through the key institutions of a highly centralized film industry, largely located in Moscow and Leningrad/St. Petersburg: Mosfil’m, Gor’kii Film Studio, Lenfil’m; the state distribution monopoly, Goskino; and sole existing film school, VGIK; and even the huge metropolitan cinemas, with their 800-seat capacity: these are, so to speak, the eye of the needle through which cinema must pass.

This high degree of centralization served many ends beyond the imperial legacy: ideological control, a command-economy for marshalling the sparse resources of the periphery under conditions of perpetual scarcity, and so forth. These factors do not cancel out, but rather undergird the imperial project, contributing to the logic of a composite state with highly unequal territorial access to goods and privileges, even as it has paradoxically striven to eradicate notions of privilege historically associated with economic class. By extension, the collapse of Russian cinema did not so much mean the collapse of a distribution network—although of course it did collapse—as the collapse of the center, without which the periphery was not structured so as to sustain independent links. The freefall of the cinema, whether in its production, which fell to 28 films in 1995, or in attendance, which by the same year fell to one cinema visit every four years, could, without whimsical precision on my part, be traced to a single time and place: the May 1986 Fifth Congress of the Soviet Filmmakers’ Union on Third Vasliev Street in Moscow. This precision is not whimsical because it does not need to be; the system itself provides the whimsy.

A kind of discursive schizophrenia, therefore, sets in when one speaks of Russian "national" cinema. The gulf between the metropolitan elites, including the cinema elite, and the demotic periphery is unbridgeable without the necessary collapse of national impulse into state desire to engage in practices associated in the West with cinematic nation-building. Paradoxically, the most effective unifying mythologies are precisely those that underscore the imperial past: war, the Orthodox church, and the two and a half centuries of Mongol rule, whose 16c. destruction both marked the emergence of the Russian empire and provided many of the cultural categories of its structure. These mythologies at the same time strengthened Russia’s exceptionalist status vis-ŕ-vis Western Europe around its most vexing question: how does Russia participate in the family of nations? Its solution, wherein nationhood is largely one of internal differentiation of nations under the larger imperial rubric, left Russia in a familiar position of grandiosity and deferral, supra-nationalism and pre-nationalism, that has accompanied it since its early state relations with Byzantium.

Clips are usually either too obvious or too attenuated; this one may be both. I have chosen Tarkovskii’s 1974 film Mirror, which is, of course, like all Tarkovskii’s films until Nostalghia in 1983, a Mosfil’m production. Three things interest me about the clip, which I would argue, circulates in this larger discussion of how "Russia," under Soviet times and tsarist, struggles to cohere as a collectivity. [CLIP 2 ˝ min.]

Apart from what does not need to be said, three things interest me here. First, and most ephemerally, is the highly stylized use of light and extra-diegetic sound by Rerberg and Litvinov (1), creating what might be described as a metaphysics, not unique to Mirror in Tarkovskii’s work, of spirits present but invisible in the cinematic space, suggestive of elusive but enduring systems of knowing, a cognitive ectoplasm haunting the material present tense. Second, for those who know the film, is the utter superfluity of the scene, in which an unknown woman from an unidentified historical past appears miraculously in the Soviet apartment to request a passage from an antique book. Pushkin’s letter to Chaadaev responds to Chaadaev’s polemics that sparked the Westernizer-Slavophile debate, so central to the elite’s uneasy relation to demotic culture. We do not "need" this scene, so to speak, in order to track what passes for the narrative; instead it comments on constitutive features of imperial identity and its spectral participation in the Soviet present, here an apartment in the early 1970s. Third, Tarkovskii’s strategic inclusion of Pushkin’s cloying homage to the tsar, an instance of Aesopian language, suggests, at least to its educated Soviet viewer, that Tarkovskii, like Pushkin, occupies a precarious position vis-ŕ-vis the autocratic party elite, including the cinema administration itself, without whose censorship approval Tarkovskii’s films—like Pushkin’s poems, like Chaadaev’s letters—would not circulate.

A tentative conclusion concerns the present decade. With the collapse in 1991, the "social command" to write the—now, "real"—genesis story of Russian national cinema has become more urgent: Mikhalkov, we are told, or Balabanov, or Rogozhkin is where to look for national identity, the new national hero, the birth of the nation. This project is a noble one; smart people have undertaken it, and perhaps it will be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Despite the same infrastructural barriers, powerful production companies such as NTV-Profit and STV seem to have weathered the economic default. Yet, curiously, the very substance the emerging national cinema is haunted, as if by Tarkovskii’s specters, by its own imperial legacy. Rogozhkin’s Blokpost, Bodrov’s Captive of the Caucasus, Abdrashitov’s Time of the Dancer, and Balabanov’s War return to the colonial wars; Mikhalkov plays a cameo role as Aleksandr III. Lebedev’s new World War Two film, Star, euphemistically displaces Russia’s colonial war onto the anti-fascist one.

Meanwhile, in central Moscow, Chechen nationalist—so-called terrorists—seized hostages in a drama theatre last year. The Chechens presumably did not seize a movie theatre because its potential hostages were home watching pirated videos. The sober critic, in both senses, might predict that movie theatres will become vulnerable targets long before the Russian cinema industry itself becomes a self-sustaining, independent national entity. At the very least, these two processes are intimately related.

As we rush to tell the "new," national story, the imperial periphery—eager to gain national freedom at any cost—plots its genocide in the metropolitan house of culture. What if, in 1991 as in 1917, an empire had fallen, but the structural and thematic components remain? The project here is not to resolve this discursive schizophrenia between "national cinema" and Russia’s imperial preoccupations. It is precisely this stubborn contradiction, rather than its availability for resolution, that has value, as new production companies such as NTV-Profit and STV take on the Herculean task of building a profitable national imaginary.

If Marcia’s remarks reference the global, hybridity and nomadism, here the reference is to a more molecular, originating misunderstanding, located in grammar itself. Godard says "when countries were using motion pictures they needed an image of themselves." So they did. Only, in Russia’s case, the "they" of the state and "themselves" are two entities with a very different relation than is implied by this simple, reflexive sentence. If we assume that "nation" is adequate to capture that dynamic, it ensures only that we will be missing a great deal of the fun.

To reduce national cinema to false category is to overlook its productivity as a hysterical and imaginative erasure of one way of knowing in favor of another: the underscoring of a "daily plebiscite," to quote Renan, where there is none. Nevertheless, how would we know that cinema differently if we did not erase its two key features: state control and imperial continuity. From this perspective, "national cinema" is a patch that both conceals and calls attention to an impossible ambition: how the skin of the nation, as Anderson puts it, might be stretched across the imperial body.


1. Georgii Rerberg (Pliumbum 1986; Doroga [Pribytie poezda] of Khotinenko, 1995-96) is the cameraman; Semen Litvinov sound. Mosfil’m.