KinoKultura: Issue 23 (2009)

The Image of Germans in Russian Cultural Space

By Evgenii Margolit (Moscow)

The events of the Second World War both consolidated and foregrounded the image of Germans in Soviet cinema from a political (and/or political-psychological) perspective. The harbingers of this were present both in early Russian cinema (anti-German agitation sketches of the First World War) and in the cinema of the 1920s and 1930s (films about the revolutionary struggle of the German proletariat).

However, another parallel tradition existed in Soviet cinema, originating in classical Russian culture of the 19th century, where the image of Germans is primarily fashioned from a historical and cultural perspective. This tradition reemerged in the early sound cinema of the 1930s, and again in post-Soviet cinema of the 1990s. In contradistinction to any classical heritage, its reworking in Soviet cinema was quite spotty; nevertheless it remains just as significant, if not more so. This would be particularly evident in any representative list of films from either period, given their common desire for cultural self-definition.

I would like to entitle these notes along the lines of “Overcoming Muteness,” bearing in mind that etymologically the word nemets (German) stems from the word mute (nemoi). In Vladimir Dal''s dictionary the entry reads: “nemets: see nemoi.” Dal' gives the following definition in full: "nemets, nemka (an obsolete usage, but regionally prevalent today in folk parlance), nemoi : Barely competent in Russian; Any foreigner from the West, a European (or Asian Muslim); Germans in particular."

Such definitions usher in a plethora of tense, if not dramatic cultural dialogues; the search of Western European cultures for their place within Russia's own cultural sphere; and the role that German culture itself began to play in this period.

Early sound cinema: the German as a music teacher

Before tackling the core subject of this article, I shall briefly explore the situation in Soviet cinema of the early 1930s, especially from the period that marked the arrival of sound.

Paradoxical though it may seem, with the arrival of sound in cinema there arose a simultaneous potential for intensifying the muteness (or "dumbness") that loomed over world cinema. This had two root causes, which were probably interrelated: we'll discuss the first of these anon, but the second was linked to the fact that talkies had destroyed any preexisting international film language, which could be understood regardless of local parlance. The resounding, new, and locally specific language of cinema left audiences mute in each other's presence, if not raising new barriers between different peoples. A word spoken aloud became a divisive factor, something that had to be overcome.

This process of overcoming linguistic difference was quickly noticed and became increasingly relevant in early sound film—especially in Soviet cinema, where the proletariat's solidarity as a class was a decisive thematic issue. The best-known, but by no means isolated case would be Boris Barnet's Outskirts (Okraina, 1933). Analogous examples are rare in other cinematic traditions, but—remarkably —they can be found in German cinema, for example in G.W. Pabst's Comradeship (Kamaradschaft, 1931) and Victor Trivas's Hell on Earth (Niemandsland [No Man's Land], 1931).

It goes without saying that vaguer notions of unity inform any specific declaration of class solidarity in Outskirts. Mankind is presented as a united organic entity, a cohesive whole that overcomes social and linguistic barriers—in fact, as some kind of integrated, almost biological organism. (By comparison, any supposed totality of this cohesiveness in its cankerous early stages is shown to be a sham.) With regard to how any overcoming of differences might be shown artistically—an overcoming of broadcast, spoken language with its emotional nuances and musicality— these problems are uppermost in the 1920s. They emerge alongside an interest in the aesthetics of the close-up, especially of the human face.

This was the time when films started to employ several languages—even without translation—above all in early Soviet sound film. Apart from Outskirts we can point to Ivan Kavaleridze's Mass Struggle (a.k.a. The Kolii Rebellion [Koliivshchina] 1934), Prometheus (Prometei, 1935), Aleksandr Zarkhi and Iosif Kheifits's My Motherland (Moia rodina, 1933), or Semen Dolidze's The Last Crusaders (Poslednie krestonostsy, 1935)—all seminal films for their time. In all of these movies, it is not only the direct significance of an utterance that is important, but its inner musicality, too. We could even say that the musicality of speech subordinates and breaks free from the literal word; hence the important role of songs for characterization, presaging the role of music in early Soviet talkies.

Nonetheless, it was only in the second half of the decade that song became a compulsory component in cinema; and at that point its role changed entirely. Here we should recall Chapaev (Vasil'ev Brothers, 1934), Maxim's Youth (Iunost' Maksima, dir. Kozintsev and Trauberg, 1934), The Accordion (Garmon', dir Igor' Savchenko, 1934), and—of course—The Path to Life (Putevka v zhizn', dir. Nikolai Ekk, 1931).

As a result, it bears remembering that the music of speech is different from music per se, which fulfilled essentially the role of a meta-language in early sound cinema. In short, music—rather than the word—assumed a leading role in early Soviet sound film. Not illustrating, but commenting on events and underlining their deeper meaning, the music of early Soviet sound film was perfected both on a symphonic level (Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Popov) and through lighter melodies (Dunaevskii).

Protagonists representing music took center stage in Jolly Fellows (Veselye rebiata, dir. Aleksandrov, 1934) and Song about Happiness (Pesnia o schast'e, dir. Donskoi, 1934), while remaining somewhat shrouded in works like A Strict Youth (Strogii iunosha, dir. Room, 1936)—where the role is given over to a German musician. This nationally specific practice has a deep and long-standing tradition, rooted in over a century and a half of classical Russian literature: we only need recall Ivan Turgenev's Lemm from The Nest of Gentlefolk (Dvorianskoe gnezdo). Estranged from the everyday world, badly mastering its language, he is an outsider and undeniable outsider. He comes from another world, replete with markers that always reveal themselves in both his appearance and behavior.

These figures emerge directly from German romanticism, above all from Hoffman—who greatly influenced the establishment of Russian realism (Gogol', Turgenev, Dostoevskii, Tolstoi)—rather than coming from Russia's own, fleeting dalliance with Romanticism. The outstanding Russian scholar Naum Berkovskii advances this viewpoint in his excellent book Romanticism in Germany.

Along with the baggage of Romanticism per se, Hoffman interprets music as a unity or “integrity” of life's totality. Behind the appearances of imaginary isolation there lies a full existence that is falling by the wayside. Music divulges a secret hidden in the core of [these sociocultural] spaces: music is a “Sanskrit of culture” whereby the inaccessible becomes accessible through sound. In music you hear the song of the trees, flowers, animals, stones and water. (Berkovskii)

In this context we encounter the eccentric gestures of an eccentric character—in Aleksandrov's equally eccentric comedies! Figures are supposed to move like birds arranged neatly on a wire, just like the poetic heroes of supremely poetic novels, as, for example, in Nest of Gentlefolk. This was so clear in the novel's screen adaptation by Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii's (Dvorianskoe gnezdo, 1969). That kind of hero can never be central because of his estrangement from worldly matters. His place in any sophisticated realm will be small, but—nonetheless—something of huge thematic significance. He'll be a composer/commentator, an interpreter of core events in the narrative. Even his odd distortion of language may suggest a bird's twitter or children's gobbledygook.

The latter here is important, if we remember the general situation of the early 1930s. This, as suggested, was the time when cinema was only beginning to learn how to speak. It was learning how to deal with language per se . It is both important and instructive that a number of films with childlike heroes appear in this period. Among them is the feature Torn Shoes (Rvannye bashmaki, dir. Margarita Barskaia, 1934): the childlike rambling of our three-year-old heroes comes across as a kind of foreign accent, particularly if we recall that the film is set in Germany. Even the verbal delivery of the most popular film heroes of these years—Mustafa, Chapaev, Maksim—is a clear departure from the literary norms of pronunciation. It underscores a hero's past and roots, and his beginnings as a callow champion.

Another aspect here is noteworthy: the language of the German musician, so distinct from the central hero of comparable films. It is juxtaposed with an entirely strange and hostile word, embodying both strangeness and hostility. In The Nest of Gentlefolk it is French—the language of the Russian aristocracy—that had lost touch not only with its national roots, but also separated the same people from any kind of vivid human emotion (another long-standing tradition of Russian classics).

In Jolly Fellows we encounter yet another foreign musician: the conductor on tour, who has arrived from abroad. Our main hero is twice mistaken for a foreign conductor during the film. The only characteristic feature of this character is speech: his text sounds like gibberish, detached from music. In both cases the language is wholly phonetic and characterized by its strangeness.

The most important here is that we have not only a German musician, but a music instructor, too. His student is no professional but—on the contrary— strives to join the lofty sphere of music. This oddity has, as I indicated earlier, a direct relation to the general cinematic milieu. From the point of view of those who, in the 1920s, had created the language of silent cinema as “high art,” the arrival of sound was comparable to an invasion of barbarians who destroyed any communicative system that had been created, thus condemning cinema once again to silence.

An audible word—in the imagination of the 1920s' cinematographers—threatened to turn cinema into some kind of theatre recorded on film. It could return cinema to the position of a novel—and merely technical—attraction, the role it had occupied during the first years of its existence. During those same years Chaplin had responded to the arrival of sound with an article bearing the telltale title “The Suicide of Cinema.”

For Eisenstein, Aleksandrov, and Pudovkin with their famous “Statement on Sound” (1928), the main threat lay in the synchronization of sound with action. Any comparison of silent cinema and talkies was like a conflation of high art and the fairground booth; this would be discussed even a decade later in the Grigorii Kozintsev's memoirs—The Deep Screen (Glubokii ekran): “It seemed that not everything was lost, that the situation could still be saved, … but masses of spectators already had stormed the cinemas. Grubby orphans from the Path to Life sang their criminal songs.”

The power of music was called upon to pacify and unite (trying to remove any high/low antithesis, to use Bakhtin's terms). In this respect, most typical was a film released at the same time as Jolly Fellows, Mark Donskoi's first talkie (made together with Vladimir Legoshin), the Song about Happiness. Both movies, although coming from different genres, were nonetheless compared, thanks to a single central narrative tension: a man from the lower echelons becomes a famous musician.

It is significant that both films had been made by directors who moved to the forefront of public attention at this time. They may both be considered as answers to a new, barbarian generation. Moreover, according to their original concept(s), the main actor should have been the poet Iyvan Kyrla, a well-known student of Moscow's Film Institute (at least since Path to Life). A piper from pagan peoples was the foremost composer of Marii El, whose melodies become the central theme of a symphony in the finale. It is a German musician/professor who again becomes his tutor and instigates the action.

Typically, the representation of traditional art here will start with some portraits of the great German composers, Beethoven and Wagner. Our German professor, almost joining the portrait gallery, both continues and negates this tradition in the brilliant performance of Vladimir Gardin. He is a living embodiment of the spirit of music, dying among parades of stark portraits.

This confluence of high and low culture originates, of course, in the spaces of a utopia that “erases borders”—one of the main postulates of Soviet ideology. In other words the border is erased between mental and physical work, between town and countryside, etc. This time the border concerns high and low culture. Repercussions of this theme extend right to the end of the pre-war era. In the film comedy Anton Ivanovich is Angry (Anton Ivanovich serditsia, aka Song of Spring, dir. Aleksandr Ivanovskii, 1941)—based on a script by Evgenii Petrov, one of the co-authors of The Golden Calf (Zolotoi telenok) and Twelve Chairs (Dvenadtsat' stul'ev)—the story ends with a strict conservatoire professor's young daughter dreaming of a starring role in an operetta. It is written by a young composer who is in love with her.

Needless to say, the professor is adamantly opposed. The arbitrator in the dispute is… Johann Sebastian Bach, who descends from his portrait (another echo of Song about Happiness) and confesses to the old professor that he's bored sick of writing church chorals; he has dreamt of writing a cheery operetta his whole life. The great composer's decision solves everything. Bach is also played by Gardin: both roles, as it were, influenced each other.

A word or two is warranted with regard to the personalities of those actors who played German musicians in Jolly Fellows and Song about Happiness. At the beginning of the century, Gardin was involved with the great theatre actress Vera Komissarzhevskaia. Subsequently he became a director of early Russian cinema, adapting Russian classics for the screen; by the end of the 1920s, he had moved entirely into acting and became a leading character artist. Throughout the 1930s he played the part of a German at least five times: from the professor and Bach to a pedantic lycée governor in Tsarskoe Selo —and a White Guard Ostsee Baron. Robert Karlovich Erdman also played two interrelated roles — in Jolly Fellows and Outskirts—without any professional qualifications. He did so simply as a German who had spent most of his life in Russia… yet had not entirely lost his German accent. He would later make another contribution to Russian culture with his two sons: the great dramatist Nikolai Erdman and the talented artist Boris Erdman.

Finally, Soviet utopia (or at least the utopia of the 1930s) was a world of constant celebrations, or carnival. Its carnivalesque quality also colors the discussion of our characters. The distortion of language, the twisting of words inside out stems from the carnivalesque. But it's even more telling that its characters are always old men. Old age becomes a carnival mask, hiding a youthful soul that is forever reborn. The monologue of Gardin's hero in Song about Happiness is also telling: “What a country, what a time! Aber I'm old. Who said: ‘I'm old?' Wer sagt : ‘I'm old?' No, I am not old...” (“Because everybody's young in our young and beautiful country”—the text of this popular song “Reseda” was printed in 1935 in the newspaper Pravda).

Post-Soviet cinema of the 1990s: the German as language teacher

Since we talked about carnival laugher, I'd like to begin the section on post-Soviet cinema with a remark about carnival laughter as ambivalent. Mikhail Bakhtin, who studied carnival laughter and introduced this term, understood it as a given phenomenon's ability to acquire contradictory meanings in different contexts. What happens with the image of the German in Soviet cinema during the Second World War underscores Bakhtin's idea.

In the 1940s, we see essentially the same trope, but now his looks, eccentric plasticity, and distortion of language testify to non-human qualities. He distorts language because he is incapable of completely mastering human language; therefore in a number of films of the war era, primarily in comedies, the German expresses himself in broken Russian—not only when talking to others, but also when talking to his compatriots. German sounds like complete claptrap and becomes an anti-language.

In The New Adventures of Shveijk (Novye pokhozhdeniia Shveika, aka Soldatskaia skazka, 1943, dir. Sergei Iutkevich), Hitler expresses himself in similarly nonsensical terms, whilst the character of popular tragedy Leonov, categorized in the cast list as a “Gestapo dragon,” changes his human speech into a bestial growl. The assumed German penchant for organization and order, for pedantic and rational behavior, is associated now with the “New Order” which Hitler's army established in the occupied territories.

This period sees—for the first time since the beginning of the century — the re-publication of Nikolai Leskov's story “Iron Freedom” (Zheleznaia volia), written in the 1870s. It appears first in the journal Zvezda (Star) and later amid his selected writings. Leskov here created a hero, a young German engineer in Russia, in a hyperbolic style. He has an almost maniac obsession to follow orders to the letter. Thanks to his abilities, the hero quickly makes a career as an engineer in Russia and soon owns a production company; by the story's end, however, he suffers a major crisis and perishes while trying to bankrupt a local competitor, a drunkard and slob. Ultimately he fails because of an unsuccessful attempt to force the unpredictable patterns of Russian life into some kind of orderly scheme.

During the war this story was interpreted exclusively as Russia's ability to disgrace Germans. After almost half a century, this same cultural collision has recently become the basis for a shrill epitaph to Soviet cinema. It reappeared in a feature by that master of cinematic eccentrism, Gennadi Poloka, more specifically in The Return of the Battleship (Vozvrashchenie bronenostsa, 1996).

The title alone belies its source: a story of the same name from Soviet scriptwriter Aleksei Kapler, author of Mikhail Romm's famous Lenin dilogy, Lenin in October (Lenin v oktiabre, 1937) and Lenin in 1918 (Lenin v 1918g., 1939). The plot develops as follows: in the mid 1920s, a communist and Civil War veteran is posted to Odessa as Head of Prosredrabis, an establishment in charge of finding work for artists. In his new function, our hero enters the fray together with the film crew of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925), because Eisenstein is—against all orders—working not with professional actors on the payroll, but local “types.” Only after seeing the finished film is our hero persuaded—and then admits his error.

Kapler's hero is a man from the lower echelons of society, self-taught and bookish, a former teacher. Poloka replaces him with a teacher of Russian from Göttingen, in whose mouth he places Kapler's phrase: “He read Nietzsche, Bakunin, and Berdiaev, and understood that the teachings of Marx are the only true teachings.” This conclusion leads the German in the film to Russia and onto the fields of the Civil War, in fact into the lines of the First Cavalry. In the mid 1920s, during NEP, he continues to live according to the law of war communism, without changing either his attire or his principles.

The fact that the hero is a teacher is something of huge importance. There is no question of an accent, since Johann Franzevich Herz—as he is known— expresses himself in impeccable Russian, in a classical language that conforms entirely to literary norms. Herein lies a core paradox: the hero is located in a specific linguistic sphere of Southern Russia —where his impeccable, ideal and utterly correct Russian seems, in fact, like a foreign language. Throughout the film he constantly corrects those around him, and is exasperated by the local mutilation of language. For this, he receives this compassionate remark: “A good man, but he doesn't understand Russian.”

"High" and “low” culture again speak different languages. The hero bears an imprint of Leskov's protagonist, but also embodies classical Russian motifs, which have a particular significance. Göttingen will be immediately associated by any literate spectator with Pushkin's description of the poor poet Lenskii in Eugene Onegin: “His soul in a Gottingen key”. On the other hand, Herz clearly reflects some characteristics of Don Quixote. Gradually he becomes more sympathetic to the spectator, as he is Russified before our eyes.

Notably, in parallel to Don Quixote, we can also cite the Pushkinian ballad “A poor knight lived upon this earth” (Zhil na svete rytsar' bednyi). This is especially so once we consider that, according to the film, he falls in (reciprocated!) love with a woman/actress who had appeared as the famous mother, cradling her murdered child, from Potemkin: the echo with a Madonna figure here is obvious. In the meantime, the author forces his hero to renounce his beloved, all in the name of his pure, openly confessed principles. Seeing Eisenstein's finished film, Herz realizes how wrong he was. But it is too late: he loses his loved one, going mad from both ardor and loneliness. This conjures associations with poor Evgenii in Pushkin's Bronze Horseman (Mednyi vsadnik). Such is the price the hero pays to find his place in Russian culture.

The representation of Eisenstein's film is of the utmost significance. Poloka resorts to a daring move: choosing his cast with types similar to the massed actors of Potemkin, he combines frames from Eisenstein's film with portraits of his own characters—and does so rather skillfully. People from everyday life, with vaguely clownish make-up, appear on screen next to participants of a universal historical tragedy. In amazement they look at each other, trying to comprehend one another. “High” and “low” are again united in the screen's utopian spaces, though not in any external, surrounding reality. Eisenstein's film here becomes not an ode to class struggle, but a hymn to universal brotherhood, not unlike the “Ode to Joy”, sung by our inspired hero in one scene. Eisenstein's crew in Poloka's film might be deliberately positioned in the same role as the young barbarians of early sound film.

Translated by Birgit Beumers, edited by David MacFadyen

Evgenii Margolit

Works Cited

Berkovskii, Naum, Romantizm v Germanii, Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1973 (republished St. Petersburg: Azbuka, 2001)

Eisenstein, Sergei, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigori Aleksandrov, “Zayavka” in Zhizn' iskusstva, 5 August 1928, translated in R. Taylor and I. Christie, The Film Factory, London 1988, pp. 234-5

Kozintsev, Grigorii, Glubokii ekran, Leningrad: Iskusstvo 1971.

Evgenii Margolit© 2009

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Updated: 07 Jan 09