Storing and Restoring History: Gosfil'mofond and the 10th Belye Stolby Archival Film Festival

By Vladimir Padunov (University of Pittsburgh)

Established in 1997, the annual Belye Stolby film festival takes place at the end of January-beginning of February on the territory of the State Film Archives (Gosfil'mofond), located in Domodedovo, a village fifty kilometers outside of Moscow. The name of the festival (literally “White Pillars”) is derived from the name of the train station closest to the archives and refers to the groves of white birches that blanket the area. The brainchild of Vladimir Malyshev, the General Director of Gosfil'mofond from 1990 until 2001, Belye Stolby has become the single most popular and beloved festival amongst Russia’s film critics and journalists, historians and theorists, as well as directors and scriptwriters, in no small part because it was created exclusively for them. Indeed, between 30 January and 4 February 2006 the only attendees of the festival other than the groups listed above were the film archivists, catalogers, preservationists, and restorers who are directly employed at Gosfil'mofond (600 employees, of whom 450 are women).


Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records (1998) as one of the three largest film archives in the world, Gosfil'mofond contains more than 55,000 film titles. Its history goes back to the turbulent 1930s, when the Soviet film industry was repeatedly re-organized. On 11 February 1933 the Soviet of Peoples’ Commissars [Sovnarkom] resolved to establish a national film library within GUFK [Chief Directorate of Film and Photo Industry], the newly created state agency for the film industry that replaced Soiuzkino. In the spring of 1934 Sovnarkom issued its resolution “On Improving the Work of and Developing Soviet Filmmaking,” calling on GUFK

to undertake wide-ranging scholarly investigations concerning technical matters and problems of the technologies of cinema and photography so as (a) to study the organization and economics of film production by establishing a qualified scholarly center with a film museum; (b) to establish an All-Union film library of all films. (quoted Malyshev, Gosfil'mofond 57)

In its December 1935 resolution “Concerning a Fund for Film Negatives,” the Organizational Bureau [Orgbiuro] of the Bolshevik Party [VKP(b)], after soundly criticizing the deplorable conditions under which film negatives were stored in the studios, resolved “to preserve the film negative of Chapaev [dir. Georgii and Sergei Vasil'ev, 1934] in a special safe at GUFK under the direct responsibility of comrade [Boris] Shumiatskii,[1] without whose authorization no one will be allowed access to the negative” (quoted Malyshev, Gosfil'mofond 60). In addition, all of the negatives of documentary footage of Lenin and Stalin were to be stored in the safe, as well as the negatives of several films considered especially important, including Fridrikh Ermler’s Peasants (Krest'iane, 1934), Georgii Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s The Youth of Maksim (Iunost' Maksima, 1934), Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Aerograd (1935), and a number of documentaries.

On 2 February 1937, Sovnarkom issued Resolution 189-43c (“Concerning a State Film Preservation Center”), mandating that a national film preservation center be built in Belye Stolby, although—unbeknownst to them—that the presence of underground springs would make it impossible to build storage chambers below ground or to control the humidity, thus forcing the archivists to struggle continuously with the resulting dampness. This resolution was ratified on 17 February 1937 by the Politburo of the VKP(b) and signed by Stalin. The new center was to house not only film negatives, but also positive prints of Soviet films. More importantly, it also became the storage site for all “shelved films,” many of which were removed from the screen by direct orders signed by Stalin—including Aleksandr Zarkhi’s and Iosif Kheifits’ My Motherland (Moia rodina, 1933), Aleksandr Razumnyi’s Kara-Bugaz (1935), Ivan Kavaleridze’s Prometheus (1935), Iakov Protazanov’s Love’s Strangeness (O strannostiakh liubvi, 1936), Margarita Barskaia’s Father and Son (Otets i syn, 1936), Aleksandr Stolper’s Law of Life (Zakon zhizni, 1940), and others (Malyshev, Gosfil'mofond 70). Not surprisingly then, the preservation center was a closed institution, accessible only to members of the film profession and by permission from “higher authorities.” Indeed, through the 1940s all projectionists had to sign oaths of secrecy, promising never to reveal the titles of films screened during professional showings, and anyone working with Nazi “trophy films” had to receive special clearance from the state security agencies (Malyshev, Gosfil'mofond 99).

After the end of World War II and the return of all film materials to Belye Stolby from their evacuation to the film studios in Novosibirsk, Kazan', and Sverdlovsk, the USSR Soviet of Ministers issued Resolution 3698-1510c (“Concerning an All-Union State Film Fund”) on 4 October 1948:

1. To establish on the basis of the existing film preservation center an “All-Union
State Film Fund” (Gosfil'mofond) under the Ministry of Filmmaking and directly answerable to the Ministry.
2. To gather at the State Film Fund all negative and positive prints of Soviet feature films and of more significant foreign films; to ensure their reliable preservation for many years, as well as scholarly and technical processing, and the continuous addition of new films to the fund;
3. To include the State Film Fund of the USSR Ministry of Filmmaking in the list of especially important sites. (quoted Antropov 4-5)

Finally, on 18 October 1950 the USSR Soviet of Ministers issued Resolution 4337-1820c (“On Improving the Preservation, Restoration, and Expansion of the Fund of Soviet Films in the All-Union State Film Fund”), requiring an all-union inventory of films within three months and the transfer to Gosfil'mofond of any prints not already in its collection by the first quarter of 1951 (Malyshev, Gosfil'mofond 97). The sole exception to this new policy of creating a centralized film archive was the instruction by the Ministry of Internal Affairs [MVD] that all film documents concerning Stalin currently stored at Gosfil'mofond be transferred immediately to the State Archive of Film and Photo Documents in Krasnogorsk.

At the same time, however, Gosfil'mofond continued to serve as the storage site for “shelved films,” initially those denounced on 4 September 1946 by the Resolution of the Central Committee of the VKP(b) “On the Film A Great Life,” including the second part of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1945; released 1958), Grigorii Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s Plain People (Prostye liudi, 1945; released 1956), the second part of Leonid Lukov’s A Great Life (Bol'shaia zhizn', 1946; released 1958), and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Admiral Nakhimov (1946; revised version released 1947). While many of these films were released after Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev’s Secret Speech at the XX Party Congress (1956) denouncing Stalin’s “cult of personality” led to the withdrawal from distribution of many popular historical films that featured Stalin. Some of these films were withdrawn temporarily so that they could be “restored”—that is, so that all images of Stalin could be either cut out or obscured before the films were re-released—for example, Mikhail Kalatozov’s Valerii Chkalov (1941; restored 1962), Kozintsev’s and Trauberg’s Maksim trilogy (1934/restored 1965; 1937/restored 1965; 1938/restored 1968), Mikhail Romm’s Lenin in October (1937; restored 1956) and Lenin in 1918 (1939; restored 1956), and Igor' Savchenko’s The Third Blow (Tretii udar, 1948; restored 1964). [2] Other films that featured Stalin prominently were withdrawn for longer periods of time, sometimes permanently—for example, Mikhail Chiaureli’s trilogy The Vow (Kliatva, 1946), The Fall of Berlin (Padenie Berlina, 1949), and The Unforgettable 1919 (Nezabyvaemyi 1919-yi, 1951), as well as Vladimir Petrov’s Battle of Stalingrad (Stalingradskaia bitva, 1940) and Sergei and Georgii Vasil'ev’s The Defense of Tsaritsyn (Oborona Tsaritsyna, 1942). In either case, however, the prints of these films, on either negative or positive film stock, continued to be stored in Gosfil'mofond.

Indeed, Gosfil'mofond would continue to fulfill this function—preserving and protecting hundreds of “shelved films”—throughout the Thaw and Stagnation periods of Soviet history, at times demonstrating acts of outright heroism; for example, despite specific instructions to destroy Aleksandr Askol'dov’s Commissar (1967; released 1987), workers at Gosfil'mofond preserved a print that was restored at Mosfil'm studios prior to its internationally acclaimed release. Between 1986 and 1989, the Conflicts Commission of the Union of Filmmakers and Goskino—chaired by film critic Andrei Plakhov [3] —released more than 300 “shelved films,” all of which had been stored in Gosfil'mofond. [4]

The Thaw and Stagnation periods, however, were also instrumental in allowing Gosfil'mofond to break out of the isolated, fortress-like strictures that had been imposed by the mandated secrecy of the Stalin years. In May 1957 Viktor Privato, the General Director of Gosfil'mofond from the moment of its founding, formalized its entry into the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), thereby opening its doors—and safes—to film archivists from around the world. Since the value of “access” is linked directly to the quality of inventory and cataloging, Gosfil'mofond (together with Iskusstvo publishers) undertook its first major publication project in 1961—the release of the first three volumes of Soviet Feature Films: An Annotated Catalog, 1918-1957 (Sovetskie khudozhestvennye fil'my: Annotirovannyi katalog, 1918-1957). [5] These volumes (and the subsequent ones) contain detailed entries on every film—including all of the “shelved films”—made in the USSR, providing complete cast and production credits, as well as detailed plot summaries.

On 18 March 1966 the Moscow City Council [Mossovet] transferred the least attended movie theater in the city, The Banner (Znamia), to Gosfil'mofond. Located on Kotel'nicheskaia naberezhnaia in one of the seven (in)famous post-war Stalin “wedding-cake” high-rise buildings, the theater was renamed Illusion and quickly became a center not just for screening films (it premiered with Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin [1925]), but also for exhibits of photographs and film posters (Malyshev, Gosfil'mofond 145). In effect, Illusion was the first movie theater in the Soviet Union that was not subject to the state’s censorship agencies because it existed outside of and independently of the state distribution system for films. The programmers at Illusion made maximum use of their unique status within the film industry, screening many films that until then had not been permitted in Soviet theaters, including series on the post-war “Polish school,” Japanese films (Kurosawa and Mizoguchi), and Italian films of the 1950s and 1960s (Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini) (Antropov 9). More recently, after the conclusion of each Belye Stolby festival, Illusion holds screenings for the general public of the films shown at Gosfil'mofond (“Echoes of Belye Stolby”).

Throughout its history, Gosfil'mofond has been actively engaged in the restoration of the classics of Soviet filmmaking, for example Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Kozintsev’s and Trauberg’s Overcoat (Shinel', 1926) and S.V.D. (1927), and Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (Tret'ia meshchanskaia, 1927) (Malyshev, Gosfil'mofond 159), to name just the most famous. Perhaps its greatest achievement in film restoration, however, occurred in 1989 at the Pordenone Film Festival, where almost 70 pre-revolutionary silent films—all restored at Gosfil'mofond—were screened on new prints to international acclaim. [6] In addition, in 1997 Gosfil'mofond restored the original color prints of Aleksandr Rou’s The Hump-Backed Pony (Konek-gorbunok, 1941) and Igor' Savchenko’s Ivan Nikulin—A Russian Sailor (Ivan Nikulin—Russkii matros, 1944) (Malyshev, Gosfil'mofond 210).

Apart from restoration, Gosfil'mofond has also undertaken the reconstruction of lost or uncompleted films. After the unedited footage shot by Eisenstein for Que Viva Mexico! (1930-1931) was returned to the Soviet Union in 1975, his co-director, Grigorii Aleksandrov, edited and released his version of the film in 1979 (Malyshev, Gosfil'mofond 159-160). A more radical reconstruction was undertaken in the early 1990s with Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s last film Goodbye America. Dovzhenko started work on the film in 1950, but when production was banned in April 1951, he had managed to shoot only about a third of the film (six reels), mostly set in the US Embassy in Moscow. Gosfil'mofond released the reconstructed version of the film in 1995 and it was included in the 1996 Berlin Film Festival (Malyshev, Gosfil'mofond 214-216).

In the post-Soviet period, Gosfil'mofond became an “open” institution: on 30 December 1994 the government of the Russian Federation issued a resolution declaring that “Gosfil'mofond’s collection may be used by citizens and legal entities of the Russian Federation and other countries for scholarly, cultural, and educational purposes” (quoted Malyshev, Gosfil'mofond 241-242). Since then its collection has served as the basis of a number of new compilation films, including Ivan Dykhovichnyi’s A Role for Women (Zhenskaia rol', 1994), Sergei Sel'ianov’s The Russian Idea (Russkaia ideia, 1995), and Oleg Kovalov’s Sergei Eisenstein: Autobiography (Sergei Eizenshtein: Avtobiografiia, 1996) and Sergei Eisenstein: Mexican Fantasy (Sergei Eizenshtein: Meksikanskaia fantaziia, 1998). [7] The founding of the Belye Stolby archival film festival in 1997 was simply the latest step in Gosfil'mofond’s opening itself up as a public institution.

The Belye Stolby Festival

Belye Stolby is a non-competition festival. The only prizes awarded are to the best film historian/theorist of the year, film critic/journalist of the year, television program of the year devoted to cinema, the Victor Demin Prize (since 2001) for contributions to film studies, and occasional special prizes to directors, actors, or film scholars who have worked with Gosfil'mofond (see the end of this article for a complete list of prizes awarded since the founding of the festival). The winners (except for the special prizes) are elected, not selected: all of the attendees—in particular members of the Guild of Film Scholars and Film Critics of the Russian Union of Filmmakers—vote by secret write-in ballot for each category during the days of the festival. The winners, therefore, receive their awards directly from their colleagues in recognition of their work during the preceding year.

The screenings at the festival are divided into a number of programs that recur from year to year—“In Memoriam,” “Great Anniversaries,” and “Confrontation.” In addition, each year there are several special focus programs. This year they included “Cinema of the Thaw,” “The Year of Mozart and Shostakovich,” and “Films Made with Support from Gosfil'mofond.” Finally, there are always separate programs for animation films and film shorts.

“In Memoriam” honored the passing of cameraman Tonino delli Colli—the short William Wilson (dir. Louis Malle) from the anthology film Spirits of the Dead (Tre Passi nel Delirio; also dir. Federico Fellini and Roger Vadim, 1968; France and Italy) and the short Ricotta Cheese (La Ricotta; dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini) from the anthology film RoGoPaG (also dir. Jean-Luc Godard, Ugo Gregoretti, and Roberto Rossellini, 1962; France and Italy); as well as director Iulii Karasik and actor Georgii Zzhenov with a screening of The Man I Love (Chelovek, kotorogo ia liubliu, 1966), which was directed by Karasik and starred Zzhenov, and could just as easily have been included in the “Cinema of the Thaw” program. Indeed, as many film critics argued passionately during the Thaw roundtable, it is a mistake to conflate the distinctions between the political culture of the Thaw (that is, Khrushchev’s stewardship of state from 1953 to 1964) with the cultural politics of the Thaw (which endured to the late 1960s and early 1970s).

The Man I Love is a pure melodrama, the hallmark genre of Thaw film culture, complete with a broken family, ordinary people, and heavy doses of “sincerity” (iskrennost'). A middle-aged single father lives with his two sons in a town far from Moscow. He works as an engineer but is not interested in professional advancement or promotion, content to be the idyllic parent to his boys. The older son, Kostia, by contrast, is an ambitious medical student seeking to make his name and reputation. His latest girlfriend, Sasha (Tamara Semina), however, begins to fall in love with the father, which brings the family into crisis: Kostia marries a girl for her Moscow residence permit and moves to the big city. That’s it. While there are a few diversionary plot turns—the younger son’s unsuccessful courtship of a classmate; the father’s and younger son’s unsuccessful trip to Moscow to visit Kostia; Sasha’s departure when she realizes that although her love for the father is returned, nothing will come of it—everything to do with love or romance is always secondary to the domestic bliss of the all-male household, achieved at least in part by the absence of all women, starting with the mother. Indeed, by the end of the film even Kostia is reconciled with his father, opening the way for a total restoration of the harmonic note on which the film opens.

The “Great Anniversaries” included homages to director Sergei Gerasimov—Masquerade (Maskarad, 1941), Old Guard (Staraia gvardiia, 1941), and his short Hope (Nadezhda) from the anthology film Rose of the Winds (Die Windrose; also dir. Joris Ivens, Yannick Bellon, Alberto Cavalcanti, and Alex Viany; GDR, 1956); actress Vera Maretskaia—Love and Hate (Liubov' i nenavist'; dir. Al'bert Gendel'shtein, 1935); director Igor' Savchenko—Bogdan Khmel'nitskii (1941); documentary cameraman Roman Karmen—Moscow Kara-Kum Moscow (1933); director Ladislao Vajda—The Miracle of Marcelino (Marcelino pan i vino; Spain, 1954); director Roberto Rossellini—The Greatest Love (Europa ’51; Italy, 1952); director John Huston—The African Queen (USA, 1951); director Jacques Becker—Golden Marie (Casque d’or; France, 1952); director Anthony Mann—The Tin Star (USA, 1957); and director Luchino Visconti—his short Il lavoro (Labor) in the anthology film Boccaccio 70 (also dir. Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, and Mario Monicelli; Italy, 1961).

While the Russian critics were delighted with the bountiful harvest of European and American films, they were especially drawn to the screenings of Gerasimov’s films and Gendel'shtein Love and Hate, if only because these four films are so rarely available for viewing. Since his death in 1985, Gerasimov (born in 1906) has become a major fixture in the official landscape of Russia’s film industry: the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) was named in his honor in 1986, and Belye Stolby devoted a segment of its 2004 festival to his films and published a special brochure about him and his films in 2005. Masquerade, a screen adaptation of Mikhail Lermontov’s verse-play about love, jealousy, and the murder of an innocent wife, has held up remarkably well: despite its length (123 minutes) and its post-production work during the early days of the Nazi invasion, the film is tightly structured, beautifully shot, and maintains a steady narrative rhythm; the costumes are impeccable and the dialog—whether passionate or contemplative—is arresting. Indeed, the most frequently heard opinion (voiced by critics in the foyer of the screening hall) was how well the film had aged, rather had not aged. By comparison, Old Guard, which was shot in the same year, seemed flabby and poorly constructed even though it runs for only 27 minutes, almost as if it had been shot by a different—and much older—director. Perhaps this is inevitable considering that it was shot in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, when film production became part of the overall war effort, calling for self-sacrifice and the defense of the Motherland. The film’s plot is banal, almost poster-like: a retired steel foundry worker sends his sons off to the war and returns to resume work at the steel mill.

Love and Hate is also a war film, though it is set in a small coal-mining town in 1919 during the Civil War when all of the men are away fighting in the Red Army. The film traces the resistance by the wives of the absent miners-soldiers after the town is occupied by the Whites and they are forced to take their husbands’ places in the shafts. Informed that the Whites are planning to blow up the mine, several of the women—led by the wife of a commissar—descend into the shafts to disarm the explosives but are shot. At this point Vera—played by Maretskaia (1906-1978)—organizes the remaining women and leads their armed insurrection, killing and driving out the Whites so that they can bury their dead comrades. Like so many films of its time, Love and Hate has a completely predictable plot: heroic resistance in the face of a superior enemy force, a mentor-disciple relationship, the inevitable rise of class consciousness, and the formation and emergence of a positive hero(ine). Unfortunately, it is also constructed and filmed in ways that are entirely predictable: tearful farewells and rear shots of departing husbands-miners-soldiers, cartoon-like caricatures of White officers and soldiers, clandestine meetings in the hut of the commissar’s wife, cramped shots of the women in the mine, and a closure that manages to combine Dovzhenko’s funeral sequence at end of Earth (Zemlia, 1930) with the opening cavalry charge in Chapaev.

Maretskaia’s film career began with supporting roles in several silent-era films by Iakov Protazanov—His Call-Up (Ego prizyv, 1925) and The Tailor from Torzhok (Zakroishchik iz Torzhka, 1925)—and would continue through her starring roles in Aleksandr Zarkhi’s and Iosif Kheifits’ Member of the Government (Chlen pravitel'stva, 1939), Fridrikh Ermler’s She Defends the Motherland (Ona zashchishchaet rodinu, 1943), as well as Mark Donskoi’s A Village Schoolteacher (Sel'skaia uchitel'nitsa, 1947) and Mother (Mat', 1955). Despite Maretskaia’s emergence late in the film as the mainstay of the women’s resistance, Love and Hate is considered her first major acting role. Because the film is so rarely screened (nor has it been released on video or DVD), the opportunity to watch it on a big screen was simply a gift from the organizers.

And, since the music for the film was composed by Dmitrii Shostakovich, Love and Hate was also presented as part of “The Year of Mozart and Shostakovich” program, which included G. Walter Kolm-Veltee’s Don Juan (Austria, 1956) with music by Mozart. This program was filled out with two short fragments: a ten-minute clip from Leo Arnshtam’s first version of Inciters of War (Podzhigateli voiny, shot in 1950-1951; released as Lessons of War [Uroki voiny] in 1957 with different actors and a different musical score), which featured a score by Shostakovich; and a thirteen-minute clip from Viktor Semeniuk’s documentary film about dance, Contrasts (Kontrasty, 1975), which consists of two parts, with music by Mozart and Shostakovich.

By far the shortest program of this year’s festival was “Films Made with Support from Gosfil'mofond,” consisting of only one film—Israfil Safarov’s video-documentary biography of Fedor Kriukov, The Cossack (Kazak, 2005). It is a compilation film, using archival photographs and film footage, and makes a strong—and tendentious—case for Kriukov being the actual author of And Quiet Flows the Don, not Mikhail Sholokhov. In style, format and running time (44 minutes), The Cossack fits the classic model of a “made-for-TV” documentary. This did not prevent the film―and its “proof” that Sholokhov simply stole the manuscript of the Nobel prize-winning novel from Kriukov’s corpse―from precipitating heated polemics when it was screened for the first time in May 2005 at the Vladimir Maiakovskii Museum.

The two most interesting programs at Belye Stolby—“Confrontation” and “Cinema of the Thaw”—both carried historical markers. This year’s “Confrontation” focused on Polish—Russian/USSR relations in the 1930s, when each side vilified the other in the press and in cinema. Two films were shown from each country: from Poland, Joseph Lejtes’ The Young Forest (Mlody las, 1934) and Mikhal Vashinskii’s Heroes of Siberia (Bohaterowie Sybiru, 1936); from the Soviet Union, Mikhail Dubson’s The Border (Granitsa, 1935) and Abram Room’s Wind from the East (Veter s vostoka, 1940). While Dubson’s film is rarely screened and known only to film specialists in Russia, Room’s film is virtually never shown because of its “liberating” portrayal of the Nazi and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, and, not surprisingly, the film made a profound impression on the audiences—less on political than on aesthetic grounds.

Both of the Soviet films focus graphically on the oppression experienced by ethnic minorities under draconian Polish rule: Dubson focuses on Jewish life in a shtetl, Room on western Ukrainian peasants displaced by Polish noblemen. Dubson’s film is structured around a clever opposition: the inaccessible and forbidden beauty of the invisible versus the all-too-present and inescapable ugliness of the visible. The film is set in a shtetl in the cordoned-zone located four kilometers on the other side of the Polish border, where there is nothing to do and no livelihood to be earned because of its isolation and persecution by the Polish army. Located on the Soviet side of the border, but also in the condoned-zone, is a new Jewish collective farm, where life is filled with “milk and honey” and happy, constantly singing Jewish farmers. Or so the viewer is repeatedly told, for this paradise―this “Promised Land”―is never seen on screen and the farmers’ songs are only heard by those Jews who help others slip across the border. The invisible bounty and freedom “over there” is reinforced by the poverty and oppression “back here,” where even the cantor and rabbi work in collusion with the wealthy local Jew and the Polish authorities.

At the center of the film, of course, is the inevitable rise of class consciousness amongst the Jews and Polish workers, culminating in their joint assault on a Polish police station to free a revolutionary activist condemned to be executed. This moment, too, occurs for the most part off-screen, while on-screen in a cemetery there is a bizarre midnight wedding of an old hunch-backed woman and a deaf old man. This grotesquerie from the Middle Ages―the “black wedding” (chernyi venets)―is imposed on the villagers by the unenlightened, reactionary forces of the past, by those who have yet to attain class consciousness (or, more likely, who will never attain it since they are the enemy―Jew or Pole) in order to rid the shtetl of poverty, want, and misfortune. And yet, as Miron Chernenko has argued convincingly, the film is the single most faithful reconstruction of shtetl life, of Jewish customs and rituals in Soviet cinema (102-107). [8]

As much as the aesthetics and stylistics of Dubson’s film are marked by his time in Germany and exposure to German expressionist cinema (Chernenko 103), Room’s Wind from the East is as clearly marked by the aesthetics and stylistics of totalitarian cinema, whether that of the Third Reich or high Stalinism, a fact that fascinated all of the critics gathered for the screening. As problematic, even odious, as the film’s politics are―Poland actually forces Germany and the Soviet Union to invade in order to protect the very basic rights to survival of its oppressed minorities―its visual composition (organization of indoor and outdoor spaces, positioning of bodies and props, texture of costumes, etc.) is simply stunning. The film is as stark in its use of space as Room’s A Strict Young Man (Strogii iunosha, 1935), which was banned during the Stalinist years but became a cult film in the late Thaw period.

The film’s villain, Countess Pshezhinskaia, a greedy landowner and rabid Catholic, lives in a castle somewhere near the Soviet border, where she tyrannizes the local western Ukrainian farmers under Polish rule after World War I, even confiscating their land in order to build a new road to her castle that will run past a Madonna-monument she has had erected. Her arch-nemeses are not only the underground revolutionaries, but also young Hannah, a devout Catholic who dedicates her life to teaching young students but ends up being taught class consciousness by the revolutionaries and by the Countess’ intolerable treatment of her peasants. Clearly the Polish legal system and courts support the Countess in her disagreements with the peasants, reducing them to virtual livestock, just as the Polish generals do when they impress all of the men into military service once the Nazi army invades. Only the Soviet army can save these men from annihilation by a corrupt Polish military and so it undertakes its act of “liberation.”

Yet Wind from the East is much more visually stimulating than this synopsis suggests. All of the scenes shot on the Countess’ estate are composed on a monumental scale: the interiors consist of stadium-sized rooms with cathedral-high ceilings, dwarfing any puny human who enters the magical space; the floors consist of black-and-white marble squares that are the size of several human bodies; the staircases are endless, sweeping around curves larger than most courtyards; the exterior shots of the gardens and entrances have a grandeur that cannot be found even in Versailles. These vast expanses appear to be virtually bare, even though they contain sufficient furniture or steps or trees and bushes to adorn any mansion. But a mansion is not a castle, and in this film scale is everything. Even when the camera cuts to mid-shots (of the Countess and her steward or the Countess and Hannah), the depth and height of field simply overwhelm the human figures, the tapestries and portraits recede into deep perspective, and the foliage becomes as inconsequential as moss. Human agents in the film are merely microbes caught in a cosmic battle of classes, ethnicities, and religions; as much as the peasants’ humanity is enacted within the domestic confines of their huts, it is all the more forcefully stripped from them once they enter the space of their enemy. The class war is simply bigger than any of them; at best they are pawns in a game they will never fully understand.

Four films were included as part of the “Cinema of the Thaw” program: Aleksandr Alov’s and Vladimir Naumov’s Pavel Korchagin (1956), a screen adaptation of Nikolai Ostrovskii’s classic socialist realist novel How the Steel Was Tempered; Lev Kulidzhanov’s and Iakov Segel'’s It Began This Way (Eto nachinalos' tak…, 1956), about Khrushchev’s “Virgin Land” campaign in Kazakhstan; Mikhail Shveitser’s The Tight Knot (Tugoi uzel, 1956), a screen adaptation of Vladimir Tendriakov’s novella that was severely criticized by the censors, who forced Shveitser to cut parts of the film and re-shoot others, delaying the film’s release until 1957 under the title Sasha Enters Life (Sasha vstupaet v zhizn'); and Vladimir Basov’s Incident in Shaft Number 8 (Sluchai v shakhte vosem', 1957). While the assembled film critics and historians were well-acquainted with the first three films—in part because the explosion of interest in Thaw cinema during the past decade has produced a mass of new studies both in Russia and the West;[9] in part because these films have been widely screened on television and have been released on video or DVD—Basov’s film was a genuine treat for them, both because it is such a quintessentially Thaw film and because it unwittingly lays bare all of the excesses of the Thaw’s obsession with “sincerity.” Indeed, at several moments in the film, the audience broke into laughter when characters absurdly “spoke from the heart.”

The film’s plot is transparent and typical of the period: a forceful director of a huge coal combine who has lost touch with the needs of his workers and who falsifies reports to over-fulfill the Plan; a young geologist who arrives from the big city, quickly establishes close ties with the miners, and is elected Secretary of their Party Committee; the director’s attractive daughter who is torn between her love for her father and love for the young geologist; the inevitable clash between the two men and equally inevitable meeting of the regional Party Committee which sets everything aright. The visual aesthetics of the film are also impeccably from the Thaw: a stable camera, a consistent use of establishing shots, alternating long- and mid-shots with very few close-ups; contrasting shots of the cramped workers’ quarters and the director’s spacious house; the angled-shots inside the geologist’s room, into which more and workers settle to live. But it is the film’s dialogs—especially the numerous declarations of affection and concern, of indignation and right-mindedness—that have not aged well: though these dialogs always resonate with the Thaw’s “sincerity,” they are also always stilted, inauthentic, and downright comical. No one has ever spoken like this, regardless of whether they are educated or not, defending themselves or attacking another. This blatant falsity essentially strips the film of all “sincerity” much more than the clichéd plot and visual structure.

Although hundreds of film festivals are held around the world each year, archival film festivals are extremely rare. In its comparatively short history, however, Belye Stolby has become one of the most important such festivals, not just because of Gosfil'mofond’s holdings and its willingness to screen very rare films, but also because of the festival’s atmosphere and concern for its guests. Nikolai Borodachev, the General Director of Gosfil'mofond since 2001, and Vladimir Dmitriev, the Artistic Director of the Belye Stolby festival since it was founded, were admirable hosts, providing both non-stop screenings for four days and three meals each day for all of the attendees, accompanied by an inexhaustible supply of the festival’s brand-name vodka. In addition, the café in the screening hall’s foyer provided a space for film critics, historians, and theorists to sit and talk—surprisingly, always about cinema!—as they were served with an unending stream of coffee and beer. While this space and these conversations were a gift from the festival’s organizers, their greatest gifts were the film programs themselves.

Vladimir Padunov (University of Pittsburgh)

A History of Belye Stolby Prizes













1] Boris Shumiatskii (1896-1938) was head of the Soviet film industry (Soiuzkino, GUK, and GUKF) from 1930 until his arrest and execution in 1938. He is perhaps the most excoriated figure in the history of Soviet filmmaking, in no small part because of his role in the destruction of Sergei Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow (Bezhin lug, 1933-35). For a more balanced appraisal of his role in administering the Soviet film industry, see Richard Taylor, “Boris Shumyatsky and Soviet Cinema in the 30s” and “Ideology as Mass Entertainment.”

2] See the Epilog section of Oksana Bulgakowa’s and Frieda Grafe’s documentary film Stalin: Eine Mosfilm Produktion (1993), where they demonstrate how Stalin was cut out of certain scenes of Romm’s Lenin in October and how other scenes were re-shot by having studio extras filmed standing in front of the screen to block out Stalin’s on-screen image.

3] Plakhov was appointed chairman of the Conflicts Commission during the Fifth Congress of the Union of Filmmakers in May 1986 by Elem Klimov, the newly elected head of the Union. While the Congress itself was seen at the time as a revolutionary event in the history of Soviet filmmaking, within a decade it was consistently denounced as a total betrayal of the industry. Ironically, at the time of his appointment Plakhov was regarded with a fair amount of suspicion because he was the film critic for Pravda, but within a decade had established a reputation in Russia and abroad as the country’s most fair-handed and least tendentious critic. He is currently the President of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI).

4] For additional information on the history of “shelved films” in the Soviet Union, see Margolit and Shmyrov; for information on films “shelved” during the Stagnation era and released by the Conflicts Commission, see Fomin’s Polka and Zapreshchennye fil'my. For additional information on the work of the Conflicts Commission, see Faraday (130-31), Horton and Brashinsky (35-44), and Lawton (57-60).

5] A fourth volume (covering 1958-1963) was published in 1968 and the fifth (1964-1965) in 1979, at which time a decision was made to suspend further publications in order not to have to omit the growing number of films that were being “shelved” during the Stagnation period. The series was resumed in 1995 with individual volumes covering a two year span. At present the series covers all films through 1987. In 2005 Gosfilm'ofond issued a sort of supplement to the series that lists all of the Russian films that were screen adaptations of literary works (by 900 authors): Feature Films: A Catalog of Literary Adaptations, 1908-2005 (Khudozhestvennye fil'my: Katalog literaturnykh ekranizatsii, 1908-2005).

6] See the festival’s catalogue of Russian pre-revolutionary films— Silent Witnesses, edited by Paolo Cherchi Usai and Yuri Tsivian. A Russian version of the catalog appeared in 2002: The Great Kinemo: A Catalog of Surviving Russian Feature Films, 1908-1919 (Velikii Kinemo: Katalog sokhranivshikhsia igrovykh fil'mov Rossii, 1908-1919).

7] Perhaps the most famous compilation film made using Gosfil'mofond’s archive is still Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism (Obyknovennyi fashizm, 1965), which was assembled from hundreds of hours of Nazi documentary and feature films.

8] See also J. Hoberman, “Beyond the Pale: Soviet Jews and Soviet Jewish Cinema.”

9] See Fomin’s Kinematograf, Prokhorov, Troianovskii, and Woll.

Works Cited

Antropov, A. N., et al., comp. Gosfil'mofond Rossiii. N.p.: n.p., n.d.
Bulgakowa, Oksana and Frieda Grafe, commentators. Stalin: Eine Mosfilm Produktion. West 7 / WDR, 1993.
Cherchi, Paolo Cherchi, et al., eds. Silent Witnesses. London: BFI and Edizioni Biblioteca dell'Immagine, 1989.
Chernenko, Miron. Krasnaia zvezda, zheltaia zvezda: Kinematograficheskaia istoriia evreistva v Rossii. Moskva: Globus Press, 2001.
Faraday, George. Revolt of the Filmmakers: The Struggle for Artistic Autonomy and the Fall of the Soviet Film Industry. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State UP, 2000.
Fomin, Valerii. Polka. Moskva: NII Kinoiskusstva, 1992.
—. Zapreshchennye fil'my. vyp. 2 of Polka. Moskva: NII Kinoiskusstva, 1993.
Fomin, Valerii, ed. Kinematograf ottepeli: Dokumenty i svidetel'stva. Moskva: Materik, 1998.
Hoberman, J. “Beyond the Pale: Soviet Jews and Soviet Jewish Cinema.” In The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1998. 67- 92.
Horton, Andrew and Michael Brashinsky. The Zero Hour: Glasnost and Soviet Cinema in Transition. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.
Ivanova, V., V. Myl'nikova, S. Skovorodnikova, Iu. Tsivian, and R. Iangirov, compilers. Velikii Kinemo: Katalog sokhranivshikhsia igrovykh fil'mov Rossii, 1908-1919. Moskva: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2002.
Lawton, Anna. Kinoglasnost: Soviet cinema in our time. NY: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Macheret, A., et al., eds. Sovetskie khudozhestvennye fil'my. Annotirovannyi katalog. 1918-1965. 5 vol. Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1961, 1968, 1979.
Malyshev, Vladimir. Gosfil'mofond: Zemlianichnaia poliana. Moskva: “Pashkov Dom,” 2005.
Malyshev, V.S., et al., eds. Sovetskie khudozhestvennye fil'my. Annotirovannyi katalog. 1966- 1987. 11 vol. Moskva: Gosfil'mofond Rossii, Niva Rossii, and “Sovremennye tetradi,” 1995-2003. Ongoing.
Margolit, Evgenii and Viacheslav Shmyrov. iz"iatoe kino. Moskva: Dubl'—D, 1995.
Prokhorov, Alexander, ed. Springtime for Soviet Cinema: Re/Viewing the 1960s. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Russian Film Symposium, 2001.
Shatina, Z. G. Sergei Apollinarovich Gerasimov: Zhizn' i tvorchestvo (K 100-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia. Moskva: Gosfil'mofond Rossii, 2005.
Shatina, Z. G. and V. N. Antropov, comps. Khudozhestvennye fil'my, 1908-2005: Katalog literaturnykh ekranizatsii, 900 imen. Moskva: “Golden-Bi,” 2005.
Taylor, Richard. “Boris Shumyatsky and Soviet Cinema in the 30s: Ideology as Mass Entertainment.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 6.1 (March 1986): 43- 64.
—. “Ideology as Mass Entertainment: Boris Shumyatsky and Soviet Cinema in the 1930s.” Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema. Ed. Richard Taylor and Ian Christie. London: Routledge, 1991. 193-216.
Troianovskii, Vitalii, ed. Kinematograf ottepeli. Kniga pervaia. Moskva: Materik, 1996.
—, ed. Kinematograf ottepeli. Kniga vtoraia. Moskva: Materik, 2002.
Woll, Josephine. Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.


Vladimir Padunov© 2006

Updated: 31 Mar 06