KinoKultura: Issue 26 (2009)

Monumental Sculptures in Soviet Cinema of the 1920s

By Evgenii Margolit (Moscow)

octoberIn Soviet cinema of the 1920s, monumental sculpture of the previous era soon became the most frequent and comprehensive symbol of an imperial past that had been overturned by the Revolution. Stills from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) or October (1927), Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The End of Saint Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga, 1927), or the FEKS’s The Overcoat (Shinel’, 1926) are frequently reproduced and still used as illustrations in most studies of the history and poetics of Soviet cinema. Of course, for reasons which we try to explore here, it was the avant-garde, with the addition of the filmmakers Fridrikh Ermler, Aleksandr Dovzhenko and Ivan Kavaleridze, that discovered the use of monumental sculpture for this purpose.  However, it is significant that the so-called “traditionalists” were also quick to adopt these images and to use them as signs of the empire. Examples here include Vladimir Gardin’s Poet and Tsar (Poet i tsar, 1927) and Iakov Protazanov’s White Eagle (Belyi orel, 1928). In cinema, images of monumental sculpture of the past appear in this capacity up until the early sound era: Vasilii Fedorov’s Dead House (Mertvyi dom, 1932) and Grigorii Roshal’’s Petersburg Night (Peterburgskaia noch’, 1934) are late examples, based respectively on biographical material and the early works of Dostoevskii. The use of symbols drastically changes their nature, and this development will also be explored.

Surprisingly, most Russian researchers have overlooked the subject of this article. There are only two works worth mentioning here that touch on the topic: Naum Kleiman’s “The Roaring Lion” (Kinovedcheskie zapiski 1, 1988) and Mikhail Iampol’skii’s “Broken Monument” (Kinovedcheskie zapiski 33, 1997). Both articles are devoted to the semantics of sculptures in Eisenstein’s Strike (Stachka, 1925) and Battleship Potemkin.

How does one explain the widespread use of footage of sculptures and monuments in Soviet cinema of the 1920s, and the reason for these choices, indeed why monuments and not, for example, architecture? Especially since examples of architecture can be found in Russian cinema, which function as stable signs (the Winter Palace, Peter-and-Paul Fortress, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and so on). In fact, the first attempts to treat historical-revolutionary material in the mid-1920s (mainly by directors with experience in the pre-revolutionary cinema) are built on the symbolic character of architecture, as is signaled in the title of one of the successful early films, Aleksandr Ivanovskii’s The Palace and the Fortress (Dvorets i krepost’, 1923). And yet, the key symbol of 1920s cinema, starting with Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, is precisely the statue.  

Without doubt, the discovery of unusually rapid foreshortening as a new and extremely effective means of cinematic expression plays a major role here. The transitional nature of catastrophic revolutionary change in itself, the era as a complete break, often enhances the sensation of accelerated historical time that jolts the objective world out of the automatism of habitual perception. At such moments, immobile objects (or objects that move very slowly) become the ideal objects for estrangement through foreshortening; the character of the times itself suggests the method. Monuments filmed in this way lose both their usual context and sense of stability. The sudden foreshortening exacerbates the sensation of the massive texture and arouses the feeling of a threat emanating from a monument that is about to collapse onto man and crush him with all its force. This is the embodiment of the autocratic yoke. In his article, Kleiman cites a typical example when he considers the creation of the “image of suppression” on the basis of the monument to the Duc de Richelieu in the scene of the mass shooting on the Odessa steps. The frame is constructed in such a way that the small statue on a modest base turns into a huge figure that fills the cinematic space and towers menacingly over the steps and the harbor. Most importantly, the peaceful gesture of the donor here becomes the threatening and commanding gesture of a Bronze Idol who has ordered rows of punishing soldiers down upon the peaceful crowd.

This motif of total oppression literally dominates the first part of Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg, where monuments, replacing each other in expressive foreshortening shots, gradually, through a fade-in, transform into the monumental figure of the governor as a general substitute for all monuments—a character explored as a symbol of power and, in a similar context, in Pudovkin’s previous film, Mother (Mat’, 1926).

The juxtaposition (mainly within one frame) of the scale of a statue and of a man reduced to the size of an insect is applied widely in the well-known FEKS film The Overcoat, “a film novella in the Gogolian manner,” as the titles suggest. Gogol’’s name as the author of the Petersburg tales emerges here intentionally: the expressivity of the foreshortenings of Gogol’’s Nevskii Prospekt is a favorite Kozintsev usage and later, during the campaign against Formalism, his answer to accusations of a “distortion of the real character of the primary source.” Indeed, behind Kozintsev’s observation we discover a very important aspect of the theme under consideration here.

We see that foreshortening, as a newly discovered cinematographic technique, is preferred to the weighty tradition of Russian culture of the previous century. The theme concerns animated sculpture—the best known and most expressive example of which is, of course, Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman. Kleiman astutely observes that the gallery of monuments in 1920s Soviet cinema begins not with Eisenstein’s monument of the Duc in Battleship Potemkin, but with the frame of Étienne Falconet’s sculpture in the episode “Dead Petersburg” from the project for the film epic, The Year 1905, which precedes Battleship Potemkin. In his seminal work, “The Statue in Pushkin’s Poetic Mythology,” Roman Jakobson argues that, in the poet’s major works such as “The Bronze Horseman,” “The Stone Guest,” “The Tale of the Golden Cockerel,” the motif of the statue is connected with the theme of power and its fatal threat to the hero’s life.

The theme of the statue that comes alive—the embodiment of firmness and stability, which is magically destroyed— is as widespread in Russian culture as it is ambiguous. Jakobson cites as an example the line about Falconet’s statue by Petr Viazemskii, Pushkin’s friend and contemporary, from his poem “Petersburg”: “Ready to fall on them (past’ na nikh) with gallant steepness.” There is a deliberate play here on the two meanings of the word “fall” (past’) as falling (upast’) and attacking (napast’). The meanings coexist, but both connote the theme of threat, a threat for man.

briullovAt the same time, in the late 1830s, the public exhibition of Karl Briullov’s enormous canvas, “The Last Day of Pompeii” (1830-33), caused a sensation. In the painting the apocalyptic motifs are rendered precisely through the image of falling statues. In a sense, this image can be seen as an anticipation of the cinematic discoveries of the 1920s. It is also possible to draw a parallel between the falling statues and the theme of the inundation of St Petersburg in the literature of the 1840s and 1850s, as noted in an unpublished work by the Leningrad film historian Leonid Muratov, entitled “Petersburg—Petrograd—Leningrad in Soviet Cinema.” The motif of the fall of the empire as “Petersburg rule” apparently emerged after the fall of the Napoleonic Empire and acquired a special topicality in pre-revolutionary culture, from Blok and Belyi to Maiakovskii and Khlebnikov; it is precisely this culture that was the base from which the Soviet film avant-garde of the 1920s would develop.

In this context, the famous frames of the collapsing and crumbling statue of Aleksandr III in the first frames of Eisenstein’s October may be seen as an expressive device, taken to its logical conclusion by the avant-garde: the destabilizing of the ultra-stable through unexpected foreshortening—also a carnivalesque dethronement. An episode from Fridrikh Ermler and Eduard Ioganson’s Kat’ka’s Reinette Apples (Kat’ka bumazhnyi ranet, 1926) may be considered an example of carnivalisation and travesty that remains within the same classical cultural tradition. In this film, the poor intellectual haplessly tries to find a place for the night at the feet of the statue to Catherine II: it begins to rain and the drops trickle down the statue onto the vagrant. Shaking off the water, he rises to his feet and through clenched teeth mutters, “wretch.” This is a clear reference, albeit in a lower register, to the hero’s final threat in “The Bronze Horseman”: “I’ll show you!”

Also relevant here is the carnivalesque frame from Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1928), showing a crowd of soldiers who, nibbling sunflower seeds, saddle the rider’s statue of Bogdan Khmelnitskii erected in Kiev at the end of the 19th century. The scene is accompanied by the following dialogue: “Do you know who this is, this Bogdan Khmelnitskii?—Some khokhol general.”

arsenalClearly, the motif of the innate strangeness of empire vis-à-vis man is shifted to the foreground. This motif is strengthened by another factor: often the hero arrives at the empire’s centre from the periphery. Thus the expressivity of the foreshortenings in The End of St Petersburg is motivated by the fact that Petersburg is seen through the eyes of the hero, a peasant fellow who comes from afar to the imperial capital to find a job. The allegiance to another social class and another world is read as allegiance to another culture. This is a very important detail simply because, as Jakobson has pointed out, Russian culture—independent of whether this is realized by the artist or not—is based on orthodox traditions and shows (as opposed to catholic traditions) an animosity towards sculpture, which it considers to be a pagan and satanic object. The term “idol” (kumir, idol) in Pushkin’s texts points eloquently in that direction. Hence the originally demonic character of monumental sculpture in classical Russian literature. The imperial image turns into images of chthonic monsters and chimeras. From this follows the observation of the Ukrainian culturologist Vadim Skuratovskii on the “Egyptology” of Petersburg in the works of Andrei Belyi, “with endless likening of Petersburg with its imperial sclerosis to ancient Egypt.” This comparison explains the dominant theme of sphinxes in the FEKS’s Overcoat, continuing—and this is essentially the only instance of a shift of this device onto foreign material—in the chimeras of the Parisian churches in the FEKS’s New Babylon (Novyi Vavilon, 1929).

All this, in turn, is connected to the special situation of Soviet cinema in the system of a new revolutionary culture, in which the transition from one condition to another evokes not only a change of the markers for orientation, but also an 180 degree carnivalesque turn. Eccentrism as a “displacement of the center” acquires literal meaning. Hence the shift of the capital from Petersburg to Moscow; hence cinema’s new position in the cultural hierarchy, considered essentially fairground entertainment in the Russian empire, but designated the “most important of all the arts” by the Soviets. The margins move to the center, conquering and transforming it. These are some of the most significant plot turns in Soviet films of the 1920s and a biographical theme for an overwhelming majority of the cinematic avant-garde, as well as a general principle in the new system of the arts.

While the narrative of the provincial man in Moscow is the perfect topic for a comedy or a lyrical drama—as in Boris Barnet’s The Girl with a Hatbox (Devushka s korobkoi, 1927) or his The House on Trubnaya Square (Dom na Trubnoi, 1928), or in Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (Tret’ia Meshchanskaia)—, for St Petersburg the analogous plot evolves either in the genre of an historical-revolutionary epic (as in Eisenstein and Pudovkin) or as a psychological drama (in Ermler’s films). It is actually impossible to inhabit the imperial centre: its ruins must be destroyed before a new city may be constructed in their place. Does not the title, The END of St Petersburg, point in this direction? The change of the city’s name is a magical act that turns one city into another. Cinematographically, the same happens in Ermler’s film A Fragment of the Empire (Oblomok imperii, 1929), about a soldier from Petrograd who loses his memory during WWI for ten years and returns not to Petrograd but to Leningrad: in the place of one city, he finds a completely different one. In this new city not a single one of the previous monuments remains, and none of the former buildings; therefore the director simply moves the Vesnin Brothers’ famous constructivist building from Khar’kov to Leningrad. Following Ermler, the directors of Lenfilm strip Leningrad of its previous sculptures when the action of their films unfolds in contemporary Leningrad. This also applies, for example, to Ermler’s co-director of Kat’ka, Eduard Ioganson, in the fine lyrical comedy The Prince-Heir to the Republic (Naslednyi prints respubliki, 1934).

oblomokFrom the context of films about contemporary life of the period in question, we see that sculpture is not represented as an archaic or bourgeois-feudal art form, as is, for example, ballet (see the Vasil’ev Brothers’ film Sleeping Beauty [Spiashchaia krasavitsa, 1930], based on a script by Grigorii Aleksandrov), but is figured rather as imperial sculpture through the prism of a concise national-cultural tradition and social status. In A Fragment of the Empire the hero’s dazed look at the statue of Lenin at the Finland Station in Leningrad, with its base shaped in the form of the armored car from which Lenin alighted when returning from his emigration to Russia, is one of the first impressions of an entirely transformed Leningrad, where the hero arrives. Ivan Kavaleridze, beginning his historical-revolutionary epic Perekop (1930) with a series of frames of imperial Petersburg sculptures, completes his film with an idiosyncratic self-citation—of his own sculpture of the Bolshevik Artem, which stands in the town of Slaviansk on the Donbas. Here the antithesis is rendered through the opposition of the contemporary cubist style that characterizes Kavaleridze’s monument to traditional and classical sculpture. At the time, Kavaleridze was one of the most outstanding Ukrainian avant-garde artists who had moved into cinema as a means of bringing sculptures to life.

Yet the overall context of avant-garde cinema in the USSR of that period suggests that the depiction of monuments was unintentional and contradictory. The combination of the living person with the monument nolens volens directs attention to the juxtaposition of these two components. This unplanned juxtaposition, hidden in the poetics of montage cinema, can be found in the satirical grotesque by Ivan Pyr’ev, The State Official (Gosudarstvennyi chinovnik, 1930). In A Fragment of the Empire the frame with the monument also resonates unintentionally with the episode in Ermler’s earlier film, Kat’ka, where the main part is played by the same actor, Fedor Nikitin. In Pyr’ev’s film a satirical character stands near the same monument, an “unchanged fragment of the empire”—the “state official”.  However, the principle of the juxtaposition remains the same, right down to the night filming that clearly refers to Overcoat, an allusion which provoked the well-known theatre and film critic Boris Al’pers to comment condescendingly on the association with the same Bronze Horseman. These associations determined the film’s fate: it was banned and released only half a year later, after extensive changes. Among those changes was the removal of the episode discussed above.

Mikhail Iampol’skii explains this paradox in his essay, “The Broken Monument,” which is devoted to the semantics of sculpture in Eisenstein’s October. He ponders the historical transition which is expressed in the cinema of its time as reception of a situation. Since the fall of an empire is historically inevitable and predetermined—hence the instability of its monuments—, the revolution is not a fight against an enemy power, but a filling of a “void that is left by the fall of power.”  The monument, as symbol of the new power, emerges with the same historical inevitability. The famous frame depicting Lenin on the armored car appears in Eisenstein, Iampol’skii argues, as a direct echo of the frames of the collapsing statue of Alexander III. This echo acquires a special meaning if we bear in mind that the notorious statue at the Finland Station was unveiled in 1926, at least a year before the creation of October. These frames begin to sound like a prophecy, one that turned very quickly into the truth.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Evgenii Margolit

Works Cited

Kleiman, Naum, “Vzrevevshii lev,” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 1, 1988.

Iampol’skii, Mikhail, “Razbityi pamiatnik,” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 33, 1997.

Jakobson, Roman, “Statuia v poeticheskoi mifologii Pushkina,” v knige Raboty po poetike, Moskva 1987 (“The Statue in Pushkin’s Poetic Mythology” in Jakobson, Pushkin and His Sculptural Myth, translated by John Burbank, The Hague: Mouton, 1975).


Evgenii Margolit © 2009

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Updated: 30 Sep 09