KinoKultura: Issue 28 (2010)

Restoring Images: Belye Stolby 2010

By Birgit Beumers (U of Bristol)

The festival of Gosfil’mofond’s archive films in Belye Stolby took place from 1-6 February 2010. As in previous years, a number of Russian scholars presented their findings, restored films and other discoveries from the vaults of the state archive to an audience of critics, scholars and film historians.

The programme also included a range of films, mostly lesser-known features, to pay tribute to the many great actors who passed away in the previous year: Viacheslav Tihhonov and Isaak Shvarts (Family Happiness [Semeinoe schast’e], 1969), Oleg Iankovskii (in Igor’ Maslennikov’s Darkness [T’ma] 1992), Sergei Mikhalkov, Vasilii Aksenov; and Ivan Dykhovichnii whose film Women’s Role (Zhenskaia rol’, an anthology of women’s roles in cinema commissioned by Gosfil’mofond in 1995) was screened.

Also, as is customary for the festival, a section was devoted to foreign cinema and to Russian filmmakers in exile, including Wladislaw Starewicz’s Winter Carousel (Carrousel boréal, 1958) and Viktor Turzhanskii’s Volga on Flames (1934). Starting last year (2009), the seven war years (1939-1945) are commemorated annually, to mark the 70th anniversary of the War. The second war year, 1940, was brought into focus through screenings of films from that year, including documentaries from the archive in Krasnogorsk; a round table was organised by film historian Valerii Fomin.

The screenings also included two rare films by Efim Dzigan. North, South, East and West (Na severe, na iuge, na vostoke, na zapade, 1972) looks hilarious from today’s perspective, viewing the way in which American spies were allowed into Soviet space whilst under close observation, until one of them is betrayed by his American colleagues and saved by the Soviet secret service. This spy film is almost as swish as the popular television serial Seventeen Moments of Spring, but lacks the romantic element. Dzigan’s The First Cavalry (Pervaia konnaia, Mosfilm 1941) presents the feats of the Red Army in the Civil War, and Stalin as the paternal military leader, who never loses his calm and is a friend of the ordinary people, in contrast to the Party officials who are shown to be thinking of their own advantage first.

Anton Chekhov’s 150th anniversary was commemorated through a series of film adaptations, including some German films by Ol’ga Knipper’s niece and the mistress of Mikhail Chekhov, Ol’ga Chekhova [Tschechowa], Der Narr seiner Liebe (1929), as well as Herbert Vesely’s Das Brot der frühen Jahre (1962) and Karl-Georg Külb’s Mit den Augen einer Frau (1942).

Archival discoveries abounded at the festival, mostly co-ordinated and presented by Sergei Kapterev, Nikolai Izvolov, Aleksandr Deriabin and Nikolai Maiorov. Restored by Maiorov, the colour animation film The Magic Traffic Light (Chudesnyi svetofor, 1938) represents a huge achievement in the restoration of early colour films.The Magic Traffic Light tells of the invention of a traffic light to regulate the movement of animals on a forest crossing: an owl accidentally catches a drop of paint in one eye, so it has one green and one red eye. As the owl blinks, it turns into a living traffic light. All sorts of animals populate the film: goats, storks and a bear who acts as traffic warden; when the street is cleaned, a hedgehog functions as a brush whilst an elephant splashes water.

Maiorov has also restored two very early works: a Drankov-produced film entitled Big Grief (Bol’shoe gore) featuring the estrada artists Boris Kuziukov and Makushev, known as the clowns Bob and Alex; and L’Khaim (To Life) by Maurice-André Maître and Kai Hansen, made in 1910 for Pathé Brothers. The film is based on a Jewish folk song about an unhappy marriage, in which the wife eventually leaves her husband and daughter to live with her beloved.

Nikolai Izvolov showed some restored film “declamations,” based on the short stories of Anton Chekhov. For The Dacha Husband (Dachnyi muzh, 1911) he had the narrative recorded and laid over the original film; for Lawlessness (Bezzakon’e 1915), about an illegitimate child who causes pangs to the father, he restored the plot through some intertitles.

Incredible, but True (Neveroiatno, no fakt, 1932) by the Vasil’ev Brothers, shown in a special screening, is a propaganda film using an animated rabbit to show how useful the rabbit can be: its meat is tasty, its skin can be turned into warm fur and into wool. The animated rabbit advertises itself for these various uses.

The highlight was the closing film of the festival, Red Tie (Krasnyi galstuk 1948), restored to its original version and including all the references to Stalin (eliminated after 1953). The film was scripted by Sergei Mikhalkov, in whose honour the screening was held. The orphan Shura, whose father died at the front, is a model child and a young pioneer, while the son of factory director Vishniakov has surrendered his red scarf and does not want to integrate into the collective. Once adopted by Vishniakov, Shura encourages his friend and newly-found brother to join the pioneers. Their ultimate exchange of red ties resembles the symbolic gesture of sharing fate, signified in orthodoxy by the exchange of crosses. The references to the rituals and punishment of unorthodox pioneers, down to themes of denunciation and spying, echo the cultural ethos of the late 1940s in a most concise fashion.
Additional screenings included Boris Stepantsev’s test films for Scarlet Sails (Alye parusa, 1977), with a mix of live-action as the seaman Longren returns home to his daughter Assol, and animation for the story he tells her. Also shown was Iurii Norstein’s third film for the trilogy of revolutions—begun with 25—The First Day (25-e. Pervyi den’, 1968) and continued in Battle of Kerzhenets (Secha pri Kerzhentse, 1971)—which should have covered the French Revolution. Intended to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1977, the French Revolution was, however, considered an unsuitable event, as it did not serve the cause of socialism. Both films were presented by Georgii Borodin, who had found these fragments at Soiuzmul’tfil’m. Also presented were three parts of the film Sleeping Beauty (Spiashchaia krasavitsa, 1930), scripted by Grigorii Aleksandrov and the Vasil’ev Brothers, showing stage performances of The Sleeping Beauty (opera and ballet) at various moments in history: during key moments of the Revolution, the Civil War, and after the Congress of Soviets—echoing the demise of bourgeois art and the need for new forms.

All in all, the festival once again presented some rare films and the archival discoveries of a number of scholars of the NIIK Research Institute, whilst opening the doors to the film archive and the editing tables to the festival guests— and this is one huge privilege: the collection of Gosfil’mofond is indeed unique. Most impressive are the restorations undertaken by Maiorov, whose patience at the frame-by-frame scanning in order to preserve and restore images, and reinstate colour, is truly amazing.

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol

Birgit Beumers© 2010

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Updated: 24 Mar 10