Ermler, Stalin, and Animation: On the Film The Peasants (1934)

By Peter Bagrov (St. Petersburg)

Fridrikh Ermler’s The Peasants is such a strange and unexpected film that it is impossible to decide on how to approach it, especially when the focus will be on such an exotic topic as Stalin’s animated representation. It is unclear where one should begin: with the film itself? with Ermler? with Stalin? or with the animation sequence?

Stalin (let’s start with him) first appeared as a character in feature films in 1937 in Mikhail Romm’s Lenin in October. To be completely accurate, however, we should also include Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1927), although the future “father of the people” appeared only as a face in mass scenes. This was noticed for the first time, I believe, only two years ago by filmmaker and film scholar Oleg Kovalov (117). So the film does not really count. In the cast credits for Lenin in October, Stalin’s name was already in second place, immediately after Lenin’s. The role, however, was only episodic and was performed by a type-cast actor who was discovered in the provinces—Semen Gol'dshtab. [1]

The following year Mikhail Chiaureli’s The Great Dawn (Velikoe zarevo) was released, where the role of Stalin was performed for the first time by Mikhail Gelovani, an interesting character actor and highly original director. Gelovani was immediately given a monopoly on playing the leader (vozhd'). It was only natural that Iosif Vissarionovich was much more impressed by a scion of Georgian nobility, by a handsome man, and, finally, by a stunning actor—than by an unknown provincial who was a Jew on top of everything else. Gelovani’s career was terminated in a very unusual way: he received every conceivable award, including four Stalin Prizes, the title of People’s Artist of the USSR, etc.; he was accepted into the most prestigious theater in the country, the Moscow Art Theater; and, after The Great Dawn, he appeared in 17 more films in the next 15 years… but in each of them he played one and the same role. After Stalin’s death, Gelovani hoped to return to genuine acting work. Yet his career and life ended abruptly, unfairly, and with predictable irony: Mikhail Gelovani died in 1956, the same year as the 20th Party Congress and the denunciation of the “cult of personality.”

Admittedly, for a very short period of time (1947-1949) Gelovani gave up his place to Aleksei Dikii. This was the time of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign, a time of the idea of “Greater Russia,” and Gelovani’s strong Georgian accent probably seemed inappropriate. Dikii, a famous theater actor and director of the Moscow Art Theater school, with his noble, aristocratic appearance and purest Russian accent, was more suitable. Stalin probably did not know about his Jewish heritage. Or maybe he knew and simply closed his eyes. But this was only a brief episode: Dikii was allowed to return to the theater, while Gelovani continued to carry his burden.

If we add Andro Kobaldze’s role of Stalin in Sergei Iutkevich’s Iakov Sverdlov (1940), we have a complete list of the performers of the Main Role during Stalin’s lifetime. [2] Usually, the “Main Role” was a term reserved in articles or books for those actors performing the role of a different leader—Lenin. But that was in the 1960s and 1970s. During Stalin’s lifetime, however, with the exception of Romm’s diptych, Lenin in October and Lenin in 1918 (1939), the real Leader on screen existed in the singular. “Keep in mind: there cannot be two suns in the sky,” Lavrentii Beriia explained clearly to director Mark Donskoi, who attempted in 1949 to represent Lenin as a sacred being. Lenin was assigned the role of Stalin’s “amusing sidekick”—a character who is almost comical, who resolves day-to-day (bytovye) messes, but who fully depends on Iosif Vissarionovich in all serious political affairs (Margolit 69-70). [3] For this reason Lenin was played by character actors of varying talent, ranging from Boris Shchukin (the famous actor of the Vakhtangov Theater) and Maksim Shtraukh (the no-less famous actor associated with Meierkhol'd), to actors like Nikolai Kolesnikov and Mikhail Kondrat'ev, who flashed on the screen in one or two films and disappeared into obscurity.

Lenin’s very character gave actors lots of space for fantasy, places to improvise. Even viewers today (for example, students in various film studies departments) are intensely interested in and amused by the scenes with Lenin in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, in ways that are not at odds with the directors’ intentions. At the same time, the on screen Stalin elicits the deepest incomprehension and boredom inasmuch as he is an object of divine worship—not an icon, but simply an “alabaster idol,” as one of my friends (a cameraman who started his career in the immediate post-war years) put it. It is not surprising that the term “Leniniana” had long been a commonplace in Soviet literature on film, while “Staliniana” never took root. The alabaster idol remained an alabaster idol to the end, and it is impossible to speak of any development of the image, only of its trimming―the varnishing changed (the disappearance of his accent, allusions to his sense of humor, and, finally, his humane surroundings). For this reason, “Staliniana” films are not even suitable as kitsch. With one exception.

Stalin appeared as a character in a feature film back in 1934, not in a regular feature film, but rather in an animation sequence. Stalin as a character in animation is something that is closer to a postmodernist film: the very idea is simply absurd. Yet the director of the film, The Peasants, was the most dyed-in-the-wool realist, a Bolshevik and Party member—Fridrikh Ermler (1898-1967).

It is extremely difficult to write about Ermler. His name fades and fades with each passing year. It is possible to explain why Ermler is being forgotten in Russia: on the one hand, during perestroika, Party pathos at first elicited anger, then revulsion; on the other hand, the naïveté and conviction that were characteristic of Fridrikh Markovich are also not held in high esteem nowadays. But why Ermler is unknown in the West is a mystery. If we put aside ideology (and in his case, this is by no means unambiguous), we are left with his artistry. And Ermler—this cannot be denied him—was one of the greatest masters in the history of Soviet and—I shall not shy away from saying it—world cinema. This was acknowledged by such filmmakers as Eisenstein, Chaplin, and Pabst. He belonged to that breed of madmen like Vsevolod Pudovkin, Ivan Pyr'ev, Mark Donskoi—unbalanced, explosive, eccentric, foolish, naïve, and stubborn—who turned out to be the most sensitive psychologists, far ahead of their time and yet at the same time recording their time more accurately than can be imagined. Pretty legends were not constructed around these kinds of people; instead, barely believable stories and anecdotes were told about them. Yet—such is the iron logic of historical development—while the former forever remained a part of their personal legends (almost as if imprisoned by them), the latter continue to live in spite of the anecdotes. All of the films of these directors, without exception, have to be watched without any faith in the accuracy of reviews or film monographs; it is possible to find a breakthrough into today’s contemporary cinema in the most unexpected places. At the same time—and this is the inevitable flipside—even the most universally recognized chef d’oeuvre of such masters can turn out to be hopelessly behind the times.

Ermler was the most straightforward director of this group and his films—the most tendentious. He was perhaps the sole member of his generation who never strove for generalizations, never aspired to a “higher truth” or objectivity. And, inevitably, he turned out to be more objective than anyone else, something he not infrequently discovered for himself—each time with the most profound horror. The subject of Ermler’s biography lies in the absence of a subject, in the co-presence of contradictions that appear everywhere in what would seem to be an ideally “made” biography of an artist Party member.

"Ermler was an artist of the Party” (Sepman 8). This assertion comes at the opening of Izol'da Sepman’s article, to this day the best study of Ermler, published at the beginning of the 1970s. Sepman (who regrettably died in April 2005) was one of Petersburg’s most intelligent and cultured film scholars, a leading researcher and the soul of the Russian Institute for the History of the Arts, located in the famous “Zubovskii house on Isaakiev Square.” She was a direct descendent of the traditions of Adrian Piotrovskii, Iurii Tynianov, and other founders of Russian film scholarship as a science. She had absolutely no patience with any officious slogans. But when this phrase about being “an artist of the Party” (an obligatory phrase that is sounded as the introductory or concluding chord in every article on art and cultural history published between the 1930s and 1950s) is applied to Ermler, it is transformed from a hackneyed cliché into a maximally precise and capacious definition. That is why Sepman did not shy away from using the phrase in 1974.

Georgii Zhzhenov, a veteran actor of Leningrad cinema, once said to me: “At the beginning of the 1930s there were three giants at Lenfilm—Kozintsev and Trauberg (as one director), Ermler, and Cherviakov.” This is quite accurate. The careers of Kozintsev and Trauberg are well-known: boys from cultured Jewish families, who—but for the Revolution—were assured a peaceful, intellectual life in the Pale. For Evgenii Cherviakov (now forgotten and most of whose silent films have been lost), surrounded by the arts from his very childhood and who fought in the White Army, the Revolution was a blow that threw him out of his life into total oblivion. I am convinced that his sole surviving silent film, Cities and Years (Goroda i gody, 1930)—one of the most sensitive and unexpected films about the intelligentsia and the Revolution—will yet return into the history of cinema and come to occupy its own unique place.

To Ermler, the Revolution gave everything. “October. I experienced the great events in my own way: the Revolution was for me,” he wrote many years later (93). The son of a joiner who grew up in a poor Jewish settlement, who spoke Russian badly, who worked from the age of 12 as an errand boy in a provincial drug store… This is the source of his pseudonym (his real name was Vladimir Breslav): “Ermler” in German means “poor man.” He fell in love with cinema when he was 15; he dreamt of becoming a film actor—probably because he knew no other form of art. He subsequently wrote about this: “Perhaps if I had been able to hear symphonic music during those dark years, I would not have tied my life, my destiny, to cinema” (93). To the end of his days, Ermler remained extremely receptive to music; he wanted to make a film about Beethoven, planned a third film in his series A Great Citizen (Velikii grazhdanin, 1937-1938) about the Party’s guiding role in music (thereby combining his two favorite themes). Two of the best composers in Soviet cinema—Dmitrii Shostakovich and Gavriil Popov—worked ardently with Ermler, frequently considering their scores for other films to be mere hackwork in order to earn money (which is how, for example, Shostakovich referred even to some of his compositions for Kozintsev and Trauberg). I should point out that until the 1960s the relationships between directors and composers were very complex: music was rarely taken into account in the periodic reforms of film language and composers were simply unable to keep up in mastering the latest stage of film art. Lastly—and not accidentally—Ermler provided his son, the wonderful conductor Mark Ermler, who worked for many years at the Bolshoi Theater, with a musical education.

This is not the place to retell the entirety of Ermler’s personal and creative biography. Those who are interested can turn to the collection of articles, Fridrikh Ermler: Dokumenty; Stat'i; Vospominaniia, to which I have already referred several times. Or they can wait for the first publication about him—long overdue—in the West. [4] I shall limit my discussion to those aspects of Ermler’s biography relevant to The Peasants.

Ermler’s revolutionary activity began with the CheKa. Years later he recalled those years with tenderness and spoke simple-heartedly of how, when signing necessary documents, he would think about whether he should write “eXecute” (rAsstreliat') or “eKSecute” (rOsstreliat'). According to other sources, however, Ermler’s work in the CheKa was strictly limited to administrative duties; he had no connection either to “eXecutions” or “eKSecutions” and was simply fabricating myths about his past. But even if these other sources are more truthful, this sort of auto-mytho-creativity does not reflect well on him.

The history of Ermler’s first steps in the world of art is equally exotic. In 1923, after returning from military service, he enrolled in the Institute of Film Art in Petrograd. He showed up for his entrance exam in his military uniform with a mauser on his hip. Not surprisingly, they enrolled him on the spot without any unnecessary discussion. Most of the people at the Institute were bourgeois—children of NEPmen (and their far-from-youthful parents), people of the past. Ermler’s first task was to “Sovietize” the institute—that is, to purge non-Soviet elements. He demanded to be admitted to the executive bureau of the student civic organization. “You have to be elected,” he was informed. “He’s already elected me,” declared Ermler and put his mauser on the table. The non-Soviet elements evaporated. At the same time, “criminal activity” by a Masonic organization was uncovered (one of the members of which was Sergei Vasil'ev, the future director of Chapaev). This, too, was accomplished by Fridrikh Markovich. And there is more in the same spirit.

The institute, naturally, did not provide any instruction in filmmaking. The main subject—acting—was taught by the famous pre-revolutionary theater actress Aleksandra Glama-Meshcherskaia, who confessed with touching naïveté that she had not been in the “sinemo” for a decade. Glama-Meshcherskaia was openly afraid of Ermler and, just in case, declined to allow him to kiss her hand (and every lesson began with this ritual). So, having learnt virtually nothing, Ermler left the institute and decided to study on his own. In 1924 he organized an experimental film workshop, which he abbreviated KEM (kino-eksperimental'naia masterskaia), an acronym that closely resembles FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor [Fabrika ekstsentricheskogo aktera]). Ermler never denied that he set up the workshop under the clear influence of Kozintsev and Trauberg; he openly imitated them and envied them. Kozintsev and Trauberg, despite their lack of any formal education, had a superb “cultural basis”: they could permit themselves to reject and to turn the old art inside out precisely because they had grown up with that art and knew it thoroughly. Ermler’s shattering pathos, however, had no firm ground on which to stand. And KEM did not have a firm program. Inasmuch as the FEKS proclaimed an “art without a capital letter, a pedestal or a fig-leaf,” juxtaposing this kind of art to the chansonnière, the circus, the music-hall, and boxing (Kozintsev, et al. 4; Taylor and Christie 58-59), KEM also came up with a slogan: “Without any feelings or any transformations.” But what was to take their place? There were no answers to this question.

Ermler’s first film, Scarlet Fever (Skarlatina, 1924) was a blatant imitation of Kozintsev and Trauberg’s The Adventures of Oktiabrina (Pokhozhdeniia Oktiabriny, 1924). Ermler had been commissioned to make a health-education film about the dangers of illness, the need for preventive measures, and the need to seek the advice of a physician, instead of a sorcerer or magician. This last point was especially appealing to a beginning filmmaker and most of the film was devoted to “unmasking” these sorcerers and magicians. The film turned into a catalog of various stunts and absurdities. The funeral procession provides a typical example of this: the decorum of a funeral procession is disrupted by the deceased herself. A girl who died of scarlet fever suddenly jumps up in her coffin as the frightened priest intones “Salto mortale.” Now that’s circus for you! That’s eccentricity! But these words were not present in KEM’s manifesto, and probably Ermler himself did not know what the point of this was, especially since these kinds of exotic episodes were accompanied by semi-documentary scenes that were shot conscientiously and intelligibly.

This tendency―to copy the achievements of FEKS―would have continued. Indeed, the criminal melodrama Kat'ka’s Reinette Apples (Kat'ka―bumazhnyi ranet; co-directed Eduard Ioganson, 1926) was in danger of becoming a refrain of Kozintsev and Trauberg’s The Devil’s Wheel (Chertovo koleso, 1926), which had just caused a stir. But two meetings changed this course of events―one with Eduard Ioganson and the other with Fedor Nikitin.

Speaking broadly, Ermler was extremely fortunate in his meetings with people, though this had less to do with fortune than with Ermler’s talent to be attuned to and to take in the new. Ermler was more receptive to cultural matters than any other Soviet filmmaker. Admittedly, he only read Homer, Aeschylus, and Euripides for the first time in his life when he was 25, but having read them he composed his own prose-poem play about a revolt of slaves. Admittedly, he encountered symphonic music late in his life―and, when he first heard it, he fell into a faint―but he was virtually the first Soviet filmmaker to write a screenplay that was entirely built around music (that is, his unrealized project for the film The Song [Pesnia, 1930]). This also applies to the FEKS. Why, for example, did Ermler―who initially dreamt of a career as a salon film star like Osip Runich or Vitol'd Polonskii―follow in the footsteps of the FEKS, rather than the much more popular and box office successful directors-traditionalists like Aleksandr Ivanovskii or Viacheslav Viskovskii (in whose films, by the way, Ermler appeared at the start of his acting career)? Or another example: while working on his film Counterplan (Vstrechnyi, 1932), Ermler set to work with Sergei Iutkevich, an aesthete and formalist―a duo that is more than strange. Yet precisely while working on this film, Ermler learnt the subtleties of musical montage and, at the same time, managed to lure Iutkevich’s best actor, Boris Poslavskii, and his friend and composer, Dmitrii Shostakovich, to work with his crew.

The meeting with Ioganson and Nikitin was probably the most determining one in Ermler’s biography. Actually, Ermler had worked with Ioganson in the security agency and in KEM, but they met each other as coequal authors only in their work on Kat'ka’s Reinette Apples. Ioganson’s role in the history of Soviet filmmaking is seriously undervalued. One of the most cultured and intelligent film directors in Leningrad, who had grown up in a German family in Petersburg, he was equally distanced from the inherited clichés of pre-revolutionary cinema as from the excesses of the avant-garde. A partisan of viewers’―that is, plot-driven―filmmaking, Ioganson did not put a gripping plot at the center of his films. Instead, the center was occupied by a living, full-blooded being. And when a director settles living beings into a genre film, the work inevitably goes beyond the limits of the genre, into a completely different dimension. Although Soviet filmmakers recognized this only in the 1960s, the first attempts occurred in the 1920s―for example, in comedies (and, therefore, not merely comedies) by Boris Barnet like Girl with a Hatbox (Devushka s korobkoi, 1927) and The House on Trubnaia (Dom na Trubnoi, 1928), or melodramas (is it really a melodrama?) like Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (Tret'ia Meshchanskaia, 1927). Kat'ka’s Reinette Apples was the first film in this series: it broke all box office records in 1927, is still remarkably contemporary today and capable of “waking up” drowsing students in Russian film courses. The opening titles clearly announce a new, previously unseen genre―“a comic melodrama.” Ermler did not continue in the footsteps of the FEKS: Ioganson infused the film with humane humor, which produced unexpected results when conjoined with Ermler’s straightforward and grotesque social thematics. Even if Ermler did not understand this, he sensed it perfectly well. In his own way, he never forgot Ioganson’s contribution: he never mentioned Ioganson’s name when speaking about the film and, towards the end of his life, he openly asserted that he alone had made it.

Fedor Nikitin’s contribution was no less important. Initially, Ermler reacted with open, unconcealed irritation to Nikitin, a theater actor of the Moscow Art school. Ermler valued only Meierhol'd’s acting system; he had contempt for the Stanislavskii method (many years later he confessed that he had seen no performances by either). In Kat'ka’s Reinette Apples, Ioganson shot all of the scenes with Nikitin while Ermler and his students in KEM snickered. Iakov Gudkin, one of Ermler’s very first students, recalled:

We, the old-timers in KEM, preserved from the workshop a kind of workman-like, devil-may-care attitude to our profession. “As someone who is trained, I can laugh when needed, or if necessary I can cry. You need me to die? Here you go. To jump over my head? There you are.” And suddenly a man arrives who experiences sincere trepidation about what he is doing and does it with great concentration; who tries to inhabit an image rather than perform it. (128)

In other words, Nikitin did everything contrary to the KEM slogan: there were feelings and transformations. Nikitin’s performance as Vad'ka Zavrazhin―a down-at-the-heels intellectual, who is funny, has no willpower, and is endlessly kind―was not only much more appealing than the romantic criminals in Ermler’s part of the film, but was also high above them in a human way, especially in those scenes where he was portrayed as weak and seemingly pitiful. This directly contradicted both the director-Chekist’s creative frame of mind and his view of humanity. During the shooting of the film Ermler and Nikitin quarreled bitterly, but Ioganson (who was parting forever with Ermler) reconciled them, and henceforth Nikitin became Ermler’s main actor. And not just his main actor: this orthodox disciple of the Stanislavskii method introduced into the KEM collective the program―that core―that had been lacking. The other actors remained ideally trained models, the effectiveness of whose performances was strongly enhanced by montage, as a consequence of which their characters were merely masks and background figures. Amidst these masks Nikitin performed as a living human being.

As a result, Ermler’s films conjoined montage filmmaking (even if only as a background) with acting. Only Pudovkin was also able to accomplish this. But one detail differentiated Ermler from Pudovkin, at that time still a rare quality: Ermler’s films were political. This already made him a unique figure in Soviet filmmaking.

Ermler did not become a political filmmaker right away. His formation as a political filmmaker was completed after Nikitin’s departure―not simply as an actor, but also as Ermler’s fully valued co-author, one who by no means shared Ermler’s point of view. But while working with Nikitin, Ermler’s films became gradually more politicized: the examination of an individual personality gradually gave way to an examination of more general problems. Initially, this was the problem of the status of art at a critical historical moment―House in the Snow Banks (Dom v sugrobakh, 1927). In this willful screen adaptation of Evgenii Zamiatin’s short story “The Cave,” Nikitin played a musician dying of hunger in his large, unheated Petersburg apartment because he was not needed in the revolutionary city. He firmly recognized that he was not relevant and nothing was capable of convincing him otherwise. There is a wonderful episode in the film that captures this: the musician leaves his cave for the first time, walks along a city that seems to be eternally covered with snow, and comes across a poster for a concert by Shaliapin. “The great artist is misguided!”―he says to the first passerby. But when general Iudenich’s army is routed and Petrograd is freed from the dangers of the White Army, there is a day of festivity and festivities require music… And the old musician plays “Ekh, iablochko!” for the people. So the real pathos of the film lies in the fact that the musician himself is misguided. Admittedly, by 1927 Shaliapin had not been in Russia for a long time and Ermler knew this perfectly well. So it was impossible to make the point any more explicit, either with a period or an exclamation mark.

At the end of his next film, The Parisian Cobbler (Parizhskii sapozhnik, 1927), a question mark was quite prominent. This was a genuine “problem film” in its purest form. The film had enormous social resonance, as attested by the endless number of discussions it engendered, in particular among Komsomol viewers, because of the issue it raised about the new Komsomol morality, especially in the sphere of personal relations. The Komsomol hero of the film not only abandons his beloved, who is pregnant, but even incites the local ruffians to attempt something like a gang rape (this scene is alluded to very obscurely) in order to blacken her reputation and to protect himself from public opinion. Nikitin played an eccentric deaf-mute cobbler in the film, Kirik, an unwitting witness and the heroine’s defender, who at the decisive moment throws himself into the fight and accidentally kills the leader of the gang. At a meeting of the Komsomol, the members passionately discuss Kirik Rudenko’s crime—prefigured in Nikolai Nikitin’s (a member of the Serapion Brotherhood) short story “Kirik Rudenko’s Crime” (“Prestuplenie Kirika Rudenko”), which served as the basis for the screenplay—but no guilty party is singled out. Clearly it was not the cobbler, certainly not the girl, and even not the guy. The camera peers into the faces of the Komsomol members at the discussion and freeze-frames on the face of the secretary of the Komsomol cell. Then comes the final intertitle: “Who is guilty?”

As usual with Ermler, the film is not only about a problem, but is also about everyday life. In addition, extremely touching and endearing scenes―for example, the foppish drive through a quiet provincial city by a fireman’s brigade or the nighttime meeting of the main characters on a lubok-like sloping knoll―share the screen with scenes that are physiologically distasteful. Ermler had a definite inclination for directorial sadism. If, in Kat'ka’s Reinette Apples, the scene of the brutal murder of the landlady was totally outside of the film’s stylistics, then by House in the Snow Banks the famous episode with the parrot was shot with the same calm camera stylistics as the lyrical episodes in the film. Let me pause on this episode: two children, who live in the same building as the musician, have a street organ and an old parrot to remind them of their father who has left for the frontlines. Unable to find anywhere a chicken to cook for his ill wife’s birthday, the musician steals the parrot from the children. When they return home, the children immediately understand what has happened and run in tears to the musician… but they, too, are hungry… and the girl, with her tears still not dry, smiles as she caresses a drumstick.

During the shooting of the next film, Fragment of an Empire (Oblomok imperii, 1929), a similar naturalistic episode became the cause of serious conflict between Ermler and his cameraman, Evgenii Mikhailov, who had worked with Ermler on the three preceding films as well. Mikhailov categorically refused to shoot the scene in which the Red Army soldier, tormented by thirst and sick with typhus, pushes away newborn puppies and begins greedily to suck milk from the dog that is lying nearby. Ermler refused to budge and Mikhailov left the collective forever. Obviously this was not the sole reason. To Mikhailov, a Petersburg aristocrat and nephew of Somov, the famous painter, Ermler’s Chekist pathos was profoundly alien. At the end of his life, Mikhailov openly accused Ermler of being responsible for the arrest of several Leningrad filmmakers. It is now difficult to establish whether he was speaking the truth; these kinds of rumors had always circulated. But all of the filmmakers at Lenfilm Studio called Ermler “Fridushka,” and it was devilishly difficult to earn an affectionate nickname at Lenfilm! Kozintsev―a man not known for his sentimentality or love of humanity―recalled that when Ermler joined the studio he addressed everyone by the familiar “ty”: “He was a man who could never address anyone as vy because he saw a comrade in each person” (293). Ermler was loved, although this love was initially mixed with fear, and later with pity and condescension.

Fragment of an Empire is probably the only film by Ermler that is well known outside of Russia. On the one hand, it is the film most influenced by the montage aesthetics of the second half of the 1920s advocated by Eisenstein (who was also the peculiar curator of the film) and, on the other, it is Ermler’s first film in which genuine human characteristics―so complex and so alive―appear. And it is also Ermler’s first fully political film, and, therefore, his first overwrought film. More than anyone else in Soviet cinema, Ermler always let the cat out of the bag. As a Party artist and active communist, he sincerely believed that if everything happening in the country was not necessarily good―he was, after all, observant and subtle as an artist―it was nonetheless correct: that is, everything was following the correct path. And since it was correct, there was no sense in distorting or decorating reality. For this reason, Ermler’s films were more precise and more truthful than many of the potentially anti-Soviet films that subtly “gave the finger” (s “kukishem v karmane”).

This is just what happened with Fragment of an Empire. The director wanted to show the renewal of the country, the accomplishments of Soviet power, the liberation and rebirth of people through the eyes of Filimonov (played by Fedor Nikitin), a non-commissioned officer who had lost his memory because of shell-shock during the First World War and who “awakens” ten years later. But what do we see on screen? A man―a living, appealing man, who used to have a personal world, a house, a wife―finds himself in a world of constructivist heaps, which press down on him from all sides, surrounded by faceless (though filled with enthusiasm) members of the Komsomol. “Where is Petersburg?”―he asks in horror. “Who is in charge here?”―he screams hysterically. But there is no Petersburg any more. There is a new, frightful city-hybrid (part of the film was shot in Khar'kov because there was still relatively little constructivism on view in Leningrad). There is no one in charge any more. Now there is only the factory committee. The old owner of the factory and his wife, now stripped of the factory and living out their days in isolation and loneliness, are the only people who have human pity for Filimonov. And viewers experience pity for them as well―unlike for Filimonov because towards the end of the film he disappears: he melts into the Komsomol mass. Even his beard―so out of place, scraggly, and memorable at the beginning of the film―is transformed into exactly the same kind of carefully trimmed beard that all of the workers have. A fragment of the empire appeared in new Soviet Russia, a fragment of the old world that was imperfect but was still human, and Soviet power trimmed him and licked him into shape so that he would not stand out. The film’s final intertitle becomes completely sinister: “We still have much work to do, comrades!”

The characters played by Nikitin in Ermler’s films form a rather curious series. Back in 1988, Natal'ia Nousinova wrote that the musician in House in the Snow Banks makes a huge compromise (94): the piece by Chopin that he plays at the revolutionary festivities is absolutely not needed by the people and so he is forced to play “Ekh, iablochko!,” a song that certainly does not belong to the category of high art. Subsequently, Evgenii Margolit developed this idea in an article about Nikitin that remains unpublished. All of Nikitin’s heroes make such compromises, and the moral lesson that follows from this is that there is simply no place in the society for an intelligent, reflective, individual hero. The compromises keep getting bigger: if Vad'ka in Kat'ka’s Reinette Apples for the first time in his life punches in the face the man who has victimized him, then the musician plays “Ekh, iablochko!” instead of Chopin, and the cobbler commits murder. Non-commissioned officer Filimonov completes this series: he loses his individuality and thereby ceases to exist as an individual.

Undoubtedly, Ermler would be horrified by such a hypothesis. Yet in everything that concerned the Party or him personally, Ermler was a committed and orthodox Freudian. He became swept up in Freudian theory shortly before beginning Fragment of an Empire and this had direct impact on the most famous episode in the film: the return of Filomonov’s memory. Seeing the reflection of a woman’s face in a train window, Filimonov freezes and, deeply shaken, slowly walks back to his little house. He lowers himself onto a stool in front of a sewing machine and automatically begins to turn the handle. He turns it faster and faster, while on screen the needle jerks up and down. The sewing machine is transformed into a machine gun. And after the machine gun, there is another shot of the woman’s reflection in the train window. And now, here she is in her wedding dress… Filimonov turns the handle with even more passion and suddenly falls off the stool because of the tension. The cross he wears beneath his undershirt slips out and becomes the Iron Cross of the World War! And along the floor the spool with thread rolls straight towards the camera, including an extreme close-up. With the same foreshortening, a canon rolls toward the viewer. And then a tank, rolling straight at Filimonov, who is running away from it along a snow-covered field. And sees a cross. And on the cross: Christ in a gas mask…

In rehearsing this episode, Nikitin entered into the role so deeply that it was necessary to stop filming. Unable to bring the actor back to rational consciousness, Ermler escorted him to a dark corner outside the set and quietly said: “I’m asking for the last time: are you ready for the take?” “No,” answered Nikitin. Ermler took the famous mauser out of his pocket and whispered, foaming at the mouth: “I’ll shoot you.” And it worked. Perhaps this is the incident that subsequently made Ermler so solicitous in his relationships with actors. He was terribly afraid of hurting an actor’s feelings during try-outs, was afraid to tell an actor that he was unsuitable. This is why he would first observe an actor through a keyhole; then send in an assistant; and finally he would accidentally enter the dressing room to look for something. Only then would he get the courage to go up to the actor and begin a conversation.

Nikitin and he parted forever. I should note that partings in Ermler’s biography were as unconditional as meetings. He was racing to keep up with the times, racing sincerely, and those who were not following his path were left aside―aside from Ermler and, usually, outside of art. Such was Ioganson’s fate, who was driven out of filmmaking and who died during the blockade of Leningrad (it is worth mentioning that Ermler was one of the people responsible for the evacuation of Lenfilm Studio). Such was the fate of Mikhailov, who voluntarily abandoned filmmaking but was still unable to avoid being arrested. Though he lived to a ripe old age, he categorically refused to write his reminiscences for the collection devoted to Ermler. He was not alone. Nikitin returned to the theater, only to come back to cinema many years later, old and tired. Although he was magnanimous and benevolent, and always recalled Ermler with deep gratitude, Nikitin had virtually no contact with Ermler, even when he appeared in another of Ermler’s films. It is hard to point an accusatory finger at Ermler because he was the first to suffer. He continued to address everyone using the familiar “ty,” to work with young people, but he was lonely. And frightened.

Fragment of an Empire concludes the first stage, the silent stage, of Fridrikh Ermler’s filmmaking career. His next film, The Counterplan (Vstrechnyi, 1932) was his first sound film. It was also his first film without Nikitin and first film without a real social problem. Quite probably it is also Ermler’s most famous film in the Soviet Union, and yet, there is nothing that can be said about it, at least within the framework of this article. Shostakovich wrote his famous “Song of the Counterplan” for the film: “Morning Greets Us with a Chill.” This film also begins the yardstick by which to measure the impact of Socialist Realism on cinema. And yet, whether because of the anxiety occasioned by the arrival of sound, or because of his studies in a strange institution that was called the Communist Academy, or because of his discomfort in working with a co-director (the film was co-directed by Sergei Iutkevich, a director with a completely antithetical frame of mind), or, finally, because of the elementary need to hurry (the film had to be finished in time for the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution)―in any case, viewers will not find any political passion or psychological depth in the film, not even any of the naturalistically shocking scenes that are typical of Ermler’s films. This is especially noticeable if one compares it to Ermler’s next film, The Peasants (1934).

The Peasants belongs to an entirely different discussion and here I shall end my biography of Ermler. Ahead lies a completely new stage: The Great Citizen (1937-1938), a polemical film shot using “the aesthetics of a Party meeting,” with “eye-witness testimony” and “accusative verdicts.” At the same time, the film is entertaining in its suspense and tension, which in several scenes is no less effective than the films of Hitchcock or Orson Wells, filmed using long-shots and using the editing principles of the 1960s. And then followed another stage, and then another… Finally, at the end of his career there was an unexpected shift to documentary filmmaking, to a reinterpretation of history―specifically In the Judgment of History (Pered sudom istorii, 1965), in which history is shown through the eyes of Vasilii Shul'gin, Ermler’s most ardent political opponent―a member of the State Duma, a monarchist, and an anti-Semite. Paradoxically, Shul'gin turns out to be closest of all to Ermler in a purely human way, perhaps because in his haste to keep up with the times Ermler, like Shul'gin remained in the past, while most of his less “progressive” contemporaries―Kozintsev, Khiefits, Raizman, and even Pyr'ev and Donskoi―once again found themselves in the avant-garde. Ermler no longer had the strength for this.

In order to clarify slightly Ermler’s status in the Olympus of filmmakers and before turning to The Peasants, I would like to quote from a satirical wall-newspaper (stengazeta) from 1933 that parodies the film directors’ meetings, which were coming into fashion:

Chairman: The floor (applause) is given (furious applause) to the director Ermler (an ovation).
Ermler (furious applause): Comrades… (the furious applause continues). I have finished… (furious applause).
(Leaves the stage. Applause). (The people in the hall stand up, bare their heads, and sing: “Morning Greets Us with a Chill.” When they are finished singing, only one voice can be heard, singing to the end of the song. It is the voice of the Chairman).
(Butovskii 198)

And so, The Peasants―a film about the new Soviet countryside.

An exemplary collective farm does not have sufficient feed for its enormous herd of pigs. The collective farm workers are in despair: it is a shame to have to sell the magnificent herd and yet it is impossible to divide the herd up amongst their own yards because that would mean becoming kulaks. Shakespearean passions erupt around the pig-sty. The secret is that the senior pig-breeder, Gerasim Platonovich, a former kulak, has purposefully organized such an explosion of piglets in order to explode life on the collective farm. “A bounty, you say? They’ll choke on this bounty! I’ve bred the piglets for them and they’ve poured in their bread, money, their human souls into these piglets, but there’s not enough feed. And they’ll rip each others’ throats apart because of these pigs! They don’t have enough gold to settle accounts with me. They’ll pay for it with their own hides, their own hides…” Varvara, Gerasim’s wife, is the collective farm’s best swineherd, who loves her piglets almost more than her own husband. The film begins with a love scene in the pig shed: “Do you hear? They’re farrowing!”―Varvara says to her husband in blissful oblivion.

With exactly the same intonation she tells him that she is pregnant. They are lying together in bed and Varvara voices her dreams aloud: how their son will be born, how he will travel to Moscow, how he will stand on Red Square. “And they’ll ask us: ‘Whose son is this?’ And we’ll answer: ‘The collective farm’s.’ ‘And who is his father? Who is his mother?’ ‘We are,’ we’ll answer… ‘Give them a medal for having given birth to such a hero of Soviet power.’”

And here Varvara has her dream, which is shown as an animation insert. Next to her portrait in a newspaper article there is a headline: “I congratulate Varvara Nechaeva, the best swineherd in the Swan Hills Collective Farm on the birth of her child. Signed, I. Stalin.” And so she walks arm-in-arm with Stalin through the collective farm and Stalin carries her son in his arms. And in the background tractors roll along.

But the dream is interrupted because her husband, who loves her and who can no longer conceal the truth under the circumstances, confesses to her about everything: “I can’t keep it a secret any longer! I don’t want to! I don’t want such a son! Cain and Abel can’t live together. We are being deceived by dope on the collective farm!” At this point Varvara leaps up―forgetting about her dreams, her son, her love for her husband―and runs to unmask the enemy, to inform “who needs to be.” And her husband kills his pregnant wife, hangs her in a barn, and tries to make it look like suicide. Varvara hangs in a beam of sunlight, while below her feet is grows a sprig― a collective farm saint.

What is striking is that the viewer feels pity in this scene for Gerasim, not for Varvara, because she is no longer a person, because the collective farm’s pigs are dearer to her than her own husband―and this, no matter how you cast it, is disgusting to human ways of seeing the world. And the viewer feels pity for Gerasim because he loves only Varvara and, having killed her, he kills his final hopes for personal happiness.

The following commentary was written neither recently, nor during perestroika:

Precisely because the film carefully and realistically conveys life from day to day in the middle levels of the collective farm, it is worth paying attention to. We have read about this more than once, but we have not seen it. And it is important to see it.

I must confess that the film creates a strange impression. If it was made in Russia and sent to Europe with goals that are even distantly agitational, then the abyss between the psychology there and ours here is truly very deep and it will not be easy to fill in the “gap”… From our point of view, this is unmitigated horror, an animal pen, an evil life, animalistic enmity. Man is a wolf to man as never before, in ways that he was not under any form of capitalism.

Denunciations rule the day. People are ready to sink their teeth into each other’s throats. Of course, on one side there are the kulaks, on the other the poor peasants (bedniaki). On screen we see the class struggle in the countryside. Yet Lenin’s commentaries have remained far behind; they pale in the face of living reality; and reality is such that even enthusiastic supporters of the Soviet order become uncomfortable. For a moment it is possible to admire the stalwart, heroic commissar, it is possible to take joy from the fact that the number of pigs or cows has increased in the collective farm. Life has become so prosperous that collective farm workers stuff themselves, just as in days of old the merchants on Okhotnyi Riad used to do during Shrove-tide … Let us assume that all of these are “positive developments.” But the chomping of mouths, filled with pel'meni, will not drown out the sound of tears and curses. (Adamovich 4) [5]

This is from a review by Georgii Adamovich, published in the émigré Parisian press back in 1936.

Irina Golovan', who eventually became the chief editor at Lenfilm, experienced approximately the same feelings upon viewing the film in 1935, when she was a 20 year-old researcher in a Leningrad House of Culture. She recently told me how she went to see the film several times in a row because she simply could not understand how such a film had been released onto Soviet screens!

And yet, it was released. And it was released with a lot of fanfare. More than that, the first Soviet film archive in Belye Stolby―today’s State Film Archive (Gosfil'mofond)―was created in December 1935 especially to “preserve in a special safe” the negative of Chapaev, documentary footage of Lenin and Stalin, and only eight other films, including The Peasants (Malyshev 61).

All of this has to do with what I wrote about earlier―about Ermler’s overwrought films, about the filmmaker who lets the cat out of the bag, and about how a man who was frightened in his daily life―almost cowardly―can turn out to be in his creative work more brave and open than many of his contemporaries, especially those who understood much more than he did.

Now let us return to the episode of Varvara’s dream, which occasioned this article. But that is the problem: it is impossible to establish any theoretical-philosophical basis for this intriguing animation. The animation sequence of Varvara’s dream noticeably falls outside of the generally grim stylistics of the film’s representation of daily life. Mixing genres and, especially, eclecticism are extremely uncharacteristic of Ermler, at least in the 1930s. Ermler, as we should recall, was always in step with the times, and mixing genres and eclecticism were not typical of the film art of this period. In the 1920s, the insertion of animation sequences into feature and documentary films―particularly into serious, dramatic, and even political films―was, if not fashionable, then a generally accepted practice. Virtually the first director to come up with this device was Dziga Vertov in 1923 (if, that is, we do not count the famous pre-revolutionary attempts by Wladislaw Starewicz).

Ermler’s idea, however, is understandable: for Varvara, Stalin is an unearthly being whom she cannot dare even to imagine―or perhaps simply cannot imagine―in ordinary human form. This fully coincides with the state of the epoch: Stalin as an icon. And one must pay Ermler his due: in the cinematic history of this iconography, he was the pathfinder.

Stalin was very supportive of animation. He liked Disney very much; amongst Soviet films he especially cared for Aleksandr Ptushko’s New Gulliver (Novyi Gulliver, 1935)―which he viewed at least four times―and Aleksandr Ivanov and Panteleimon Sazonov’s Quartet (Kvartet, 1935). He was personally involved in establishing the first animation studio in the country, Soiuzmultfilm, which still exists.

The “leader of the people” experienced his personal representation in animation with great curiosity, although not unambiguously. Boris Shumiatskii’s (the director of GUKF―the Chief Directorate for the Kino-Photo Industry) notes made during Stalin’s viewing of the film have been preserved:

Cherniak: What about the animation―the stroll with the child?
Koba: It’s well-made. But people might think that the child is my own.
Cherniak: It’s immediately clear that these are only Varvara’s dreams.
L.M.: No, this seems very pleasant and done with a good meaning.
Koba: Well, alright. We’ll pass this on to Molotov. After all, he’s the one who said that collective farm workers have to give birth to bogatyrs
(Troshin 125) [6]

Iosif Vissarionovich’s instinct did not let him down this time either: of course the child is his! Although not in a literal sense. This is one of the first screen versions of the famous metaphor of “father of the people.” Simultaneously with this conversation, Dziga Vertov was already beginning to shoot The Lullaby (Kolybel'naia, 1937) in Moscow, a film that is directly devoted to this idea.

Stalin liked The Peasants very much. He even invited the director to attend the screening in the Kremlin (an honor that was extended to very few) and conversed with him for 45 minutes. It would be interesting to know whether he recalled this screening when two years later, in his response to Ermler’s next film, he wrote modestly: “It is necessary to delete the reference to Stalin. Instead of Stalin, the Central Committee of the Party should be inserted” (Maksimenkov 383).

Stalin did not appear ever again in animation films until perestroika. Even his static representation can rarely be seen in films. According to legends in the studios, at the end of the 1940s, Iurii Merkulov, the incorrigible avant-garde filmmaker, tried repeatedly to make the First Secretary the main character in an animation film, but all of his attempts were disapproved by the artistic council of Soiuzmultfilm or by review commissions even lower down.

Lenin, too, had little luck with animation (or is it animation had little luck with Lenin?). Back in the 1960s, a youthful Iurii Norshtein tried to open an animation page in the “Leniniana” history book; and two decades later Aleksandr Tatarskii conceived of a plasticine animation film based on Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “Stories about Lenin,” most probably just to cause a sensation. Neither of the projects was crowned with success. Anyone interested in the relationship between Soviet power and animation, and in particular the representation of Soviet leaders in animation should consult the monograph by Georgii Borodin, the foremost scholar of Russian animation―Subordinated Animation (Animatsiia podnevol'naia)―which will be published shortly. In this article I have relied extensively on the already published first chapter of this monograph.

So who made this unique fragment? For a long time this remained a mystery, especially since the version of the film that was re-released for the screen many years after the death of Stalin was severely edited and the animation insert, together with all other references to the name of the leader, had been removed from the film. The issue of the identity of the creators of the animation sequence was more than once discussed during the past three or four years with various film historians. I even showed the clip to Eleanor Gailan, the sole surviving Leningrad animator from that time. Everyone agreed that the artistic level of this fragment was extremely weak and that none of the major animators of the period could have created something comparable. After all, animation in Leningrad grew out of Leningrad’s famous book illustrations, which stood out for its refined taste and mastery… And so, how surprised was I when several years ago I discovered some references to the animation fragment in The Peasants in the archived personal files of Mstislav Pashchenko (1901-1958), one of the most brilliant directors not only in Leningrad, but in all of Soviet animation.[7] In 1934, Pashchenko was working as the chief assistant on Mikhail Tsekhanovskii and Dmitrii Shostakovich’s famous avant-garde animation opera The Tale of the Priest and His Worker Balda (Skazka o pope i rabotnike ego Balde), which was never completed after the infamous lead article in Pravda “Confusion Rather than Music” (“Sumbur vmesto muzyki”). And four years later he released his first independent film Dzhiabzha (1938), which outstripped the development of Soviet animation by many years in its color and rhythmic scheme.

Last year, another name unexpectedly floated to the surface. The journal Kinovedcheskie zapiski published the correspondence between the animators Nikolai Khodotaev and Mikhail Tsekhanovskii from 1935, with an introduction by Borodin. Khodotaev was preparing for publication a collection entitled The Animation Film (Mul'tiplikatsionnyi fil'm) and asked Tsekhanovskii to send him stills from the animation insert in The Peasants. While it is possible that Khodotaev was appealing to Tsekhanovskii simply as the foremost representative of Leningrad animation, there is also a probability that Tsekhanovskii himself participated in working on the animation sequence. At that time, Tsekhanovskii (1889-1965) was already a director recognized around the world as the creator of what was perhaps the best Soviet animation film of the time, The Post (Pochta, 1929), and for Pacific-231 (1931), the experimental sound film that had an impact around the globe.

And so, no matter how authorship for this primitive and rather banal fragment is attributed, one thing is clear: leading artists and major animators of the Soviet Union took part in its creation. Is this a paradox? Not at all! It simply means that the creator―regardless of who it was―clearly understood the task he was assigned. What was needed was an icon. And―as I mentioned above―not just an icon, but an alabaster idol. The more primitive, the better. And the fact that it turned out not only primitive, but also rather crass… well, that, probably, is a reflection of the irony brought to it by talented artists!

In Pashchenko’s (and, possibly, in Tsekhanovskii’s) biography, the Stalin animation is simply an oddity, nothing more, just as it is an oddity in the history of Soviet cinema. And it should be viewed as an oddity. It elicited no resonance. Only two responses by contemporaries have survived to this day. The first is to be found in the review by Adamovich that has already been quoted. He venomously describes it as “the dream of a pregnant woman: who dreams of Stalin, as the symbol of the highest happiness, carrying her child in his arms. The child pats Iosif Vissarionovich with his puffy arm on the cheek, while Stalin graciously smiles.” Adamovich refers to this episode as “highly comic in its mandated sentimentality” (4). The second reference is to be found in Aleksandr Fadeev’s letter to documentary filmmaker Esfir Shub:

I recently saw Ermler’s The Peasants and was disappointed that my opinion of the film differed from Eisen’s.[8] With the exception of two or three moments everything else was boring and a lie. And the animation sequence is simply crass… In general, I have always actively disliked all of Ermler’s films, even though I personally find him to be a pleasant man. This dislike is evidently not accidental. (43-44)

Fadeev’s affection for Ermler as a person and his dislike of his films is not accidental, as he correctly notes. This comes back to the main paradox in Ermler’s biography, to the confrontation between a personality and an artist. I have spoken of this more than once. For Fadeev, however, the animation sequence with Stalin is nothing more than an absurdity, an oddity. How curious that this oddity is at the intersection of so many different topics!


Click on the icon for the video of Pashchenko's animation for Ermler's The Peasants.

Chronological List of Performers of the Role of Stalin in Soviet Feature Films (1937-1953)

Lenin in October (Lenin v oktiabre; Mikhail Romm, 1937): Semen Gol'dshtab
The Great Dawn (Velikoe zarevo; Mikhail Chiaureli, 1938): Mikhail Gelovani
On the Vyborg Side (Vyborgskaia storona; Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, 1938; released 1939): Mikhail Gelovani
The Man with a Rifle (Chelovek s ruzh'em; Sergei Iutkevich, 1938): Mikhail Gelovani
Lenin in 1918 (Lenin v 1918 godu; Mikhail Romm, 1939): Mikhail Gelovani
The Rout of Iudenich (Razgrom Iudenicha; Pavel Petrov-Bytov, 1940; released 1941): Mikhail Gelovani (the episode was cut from the film)
The Siberians (Sibiriaki; Lev Kuleshov, 1940): Mikhail Gelovani
Collection of Films for the Armed Forces 1 (Boevoi kinosbornik 1): the short film Meeting with Maksim (Vstrecha s Maksimom, 1941): Mikhail Gelovani (using clips from On the Vyborg Side)
Valerii Chkalov (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1941): Mikhail Gelovani
First Cavalry (Pervaia konnaia; Efim Dzigan, 1941): Semen Gol'dshtab (the film was banned)
Iakov Sverdlov (Sergei Iutkevich, 1941): Andro Kobaladze
Aleksandr Parkhomenko (Leonid Lukov, 1942): Semen Gol'dshtab
They Call Him Sukhe-Bator (Ego zovut Sukhe-Bator; Aleksandr Zarkhi and Iosif Kheifits, 1942): Semen Gol'dshtab
The Defense of Tsaritsyn (Oborona Tsaritsyna; Georgii and Sergei Vasil'ev, 1942): Mikhail Gelovani (the second part of the film was not released)
The Big Land (Bol'shaia zemlia; Sergei Gerasimov, 1944): Mikhail Gelovani (the episodes with Stalin were not included in the film)
Plain People (Prostye liudi; Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, 1945): Mikhail Gelovani (the episode with Stalin was not included in the film)
The Vow (Kliatva; Mikhail Chiaureli, 1946): Mikhail Gelovani
Private Aleksandr Matrosov (Riadovoi Aleksandr Matrosov; Leonid Lukov, 1947; released 1948): Aleksei Dikii
Light Over Russia (Svet nad Rossiei; Sergei Iutkevich, 1947): Mikhail Gelovani (the film was not released)
The Third Blow (Tretii udar; Igor' Savchenko, 1948): Aleksei Dikii
The Fall of Berlin (Padenie Berlina; Mikhail Chiaureli, 1949; released 1950): Mikhail Gelovani
The Battle of Stalingrad (Stalingradskaia bitva; Vladimir Petrov, 1949): Aleksei Dikii
The Miners of Donetsk (Donetskie shakhtery; Leonid Lukov, 1950): Mikhail Gelovani
The Fires of Baku (Ogni Baku; Aleksandr Zarkhi and Iosif Kheifits, 1950): Mikhail Gelovani (the film was released in 1958 after all of the scenes with Stalin were removed)
Unforgettable 1919 (Nezabyvaemyi 1919-i god; Mikhail Chiaureli, 1951): Mikhail Gelovani
Dzhambul (Efim Dzigan, 1952): Mikhail Gelovani
Feliks Dzerzhinskii (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1953): Mikhail Gelovani (the film was released in 1956 in a re-edited version as Hostile Whirlwinds [Vikhri vrazhdebnye], with all of the episodes with Stalin removed)

Mikhail Gelovani also performed the role of Stalin in Sergei Vasil'ev’s Our Songs (Nashi pesni, 1950). Work on the film was never completed, but the material that was filmed is stored in Gosfil'mofond.


1] Gol'dshtab reprised his role as Stalin three more times in his career, most notably in Efim Dzigan’s First Cavalry (Pervaia konnaia, 1941), which was immediately banned and not screened until the 1990s. He also played Stalin in brief episodes of Leonid Lukov’s Aleksandr Parkhomenko (1941), and Iosif Kheifits and Aleksandr Zarkhi’s They Call Him Sukhe-Bator (Ego zovut Sukhe-Bator, 1942).

2] Starting in the late 1950s—that is, after Stalin’s and Gelovani’s deaths—and through the 1970s, Kobaladze became the actor most associated with the role of Stalin in Soviet films.

3] This observation was first voiced about 15 years ago by film scholar Evgenii Margolit, and in the intervening years it has consistently appeared in the studies of many of his colleagues—including the author of this article. Margolit himself, however, finally put it into writing only in 2004.

4] Apart from Fragment of an Empire, the only articles (there are no monographs!) published in the West and devoted to Ermler are John Wakeman’s “Ermler, Friedrich Markovich,” and Denise Youngblood’s “Cinema as Social Criticism” and “Fridrikh Ermler and the Social Problem Film.”

5] I am grateful to film scholar Rashit Iangirov for making this review available to me.

6] A few essential comments: “L.M.” is Lazar' Moiseevich Kaganovich, the People’s Commissar of Communication; “Cherniak” is the director of the Third Artistic-Production Collective at Lenfilm Studio, where Ermler worked; and “Koba” is Stalin’s old Party nickname.

7] M.S. Pashchenko’s personal files are held in the Central State Archive for Culture, St. Petersburg (TsGALI-SPb), f. 257, op. 23, e.x. 185.

8] “Eisen” was Sergei Eisenstein’s nickname. Eisenstein was one of Ermler’s few friends, responded to his films with great interest, and, it could be said, “supported” him. Ermler, in turn, had the greatest respect for Eisenstein.

Works Cited

Adamovich, Georgii. “Ceux du kolkhoze.” Poslednie novosti (Paris). 10 April 1936: 4.
Bakun, Vera and Izol'da Sepman, eds. Fridrikh Ermler: Dokumenty; Stat'i; Vospominaniia. Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1974.
Borodin, Georgii. “Animatsiia podnevol'naia.” Kinograf 16 (2005): 54-153.
Borodin, Georgii, intro. Prilozhenie to “Istoriia ‘nekhrestomatiinoi’ kartiny: Skazka o glupom myshonke M.M. Tsekhanovskogo v dokumentakh.” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 73 (2005): 235-237.
Butovskii, Ia, comp. and commentary. “Smeshno v kino. Satiricheskii vzgliad na sovetskoe kino, god 1933-i.” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 40 (1998): 187-210.
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Translated by Vladimir Padunov

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

Peter Bagrov © 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07