KinoKultura: Issue 28 (2010)

Asymmetric Warfare: The Vision of the Enemy in American and Soviet Cold War Cinemas

By Andrey Shcherbenok (U of Sheffield)

Unlike the strikingly asymmetric conflicts of today's world, the Cold War is often perceived as a largely symmetric confrontation in which two antagonistic, yet in many respects comparable, socio-economic systems vied for global dominance. The two superpowers not only co-inhabited technological modernity and sustained military balance, they also shared many foreign policies, as well as cultural and political trends that made the Iron Curtain much less impervious than it might appear; thus, for all the obvious differences, the transition from late Stalinism to the Thaw maps well on the transition from McCarthyism to the Sixties. In a way, the Cold War itself was a form of interaction and communication between the two superpowers, its history of oscillations between tensions and relaxations necessarily involved both parties, thereby creating common agendas and shared urgencies. One would expect, therefore, to find many parallels between Soviet and American Cold War cinemas, which, due to the popularity of the medium on both sides of the Curtain, played a major part in both overt political propaganda and in more subtle ideological interpellation.

Yet, it is difficult to think of two more different cinematic traditions pertaining to the same conflict than Soviet and American Cold War cinemas.[1] In both countries cinema worked to help create and sustain the framework within which the Cold War was interpreted  by cinema's mass audiences, but the ideological ramifications of the Cold War in the US and the USSR were very different, which is quite evident in their respective cinemas. In this article I will analyze the differences between the ways in which Soviet and American cinema represented and thereby waged the Cold War. This analysis is inevitably sketchy, as the Cold War cinematic traditions—especially the American one—are vast and include hundreds of films. Nevertheless, I will try to identify the main trends by focusing on the most famous films and concentrating on one all-important issue that can serve as a litmus test of the ideological structure of most Cold War film—the portrayal of the enemy "Other" in its opposition to "us." Although the portrayal of the enemy varied greatly from film to film and from one historical period to another, the relationship between "us" and "them" reflected deeper and much more persistent ideological matrixes. This continuing persistence allows me to maintain that each side's Cold War films were not merely ad hoc propaganda statements designed to promote this or that expedient political agenda, but reflected fundamental differences in the way both sides conceptualized themselves and the world in general. It is these differences that determined the strikingly unequal conditions of ideological possibility within which Soviet and American Cold War propagandas had to function, which, among other things, had a major impact on their effectiveness.

In The Paranoid Style of American Politics Richard Hofstadter argues that in paranoid political thinking "the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent" (Hofstadter 1966: 30). This aptly describes the portrayal of  the Soviet enemy in many American films from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s. The main characteristic of this enemy is its total absence of internal differences: Soviet government, Soviet Union as a nation, Russians as the people, former or current members of American Communist Party and other leftist organizations in the United States, are all portrayed as units of a totality whose main and only goal is the total destruction of the free world and enslavement of freedom-loving Americans.

Although the unmasking of this goal is often supported by reference to the Marxist thesis that the global victory of communism is inevitable, this reference strategically omits its supporting argument of the internal crisis of capitalism. On the contrary, American society is portrayed as devoid of inherent contradictions, and any apparent signs of the labor movement or racial conflicts quickly prove to be provocations organized by Soviet agents. Thus, the bloody fight between workers and the police in I Was a Communist for the FBI (Gordon Douglas, 1951) turns out to be staged by the Communists: not only do they incite the workers to go on strike, but they also play the part of the cruel police by dressing up as policemen and beating the workers with steel pipes. When in Invasion, USA (Alfred Green, 1952) California is being bombed by Soviet planes and some workers confront a local factory owner, it is quite clear that the rhetoric of class struggle is merely a disguise for their real desire – to deliver America as a slave nation to the USSR.

rednightmareThe paranoid homogenization of the enemy in American films correlates with the utopian harmonization of American society, which is represented as an upper middle-class paradise in which problems, if they exist at all, are emphatically minor. Before Jerry, the protagonist of Red Nightmare (George Waggner, 1962), has his terrible dream, his main problem in life is that his daughter wants to get married, in his opinion, too young. Such problems, as the film's narrator reassures us, "will work out. Somehow, things always work out" in America – that is, if only we manage to keep the Reds from taking over the town. Jerry may have minor quarrels with his wife and daughter, but there is no real conflict between them, until, in his nightmare, he "wakes up" to discover that his family has turned communist. As Jerry walks into the town square, he sees the townsfolk gathered to listen to a Communist in uniform, who arrives in a military truck surrounded by soldiers. "Now that you have become acquainted with the enlightened communist system in contrast to an outdated capitalistic way of life," he announces, "you are now prepared for the next step of your indoctrination." Predictably, Jerry is sentenced to death that very day for trying to resist the Party line, and his indoctrinated wife supports the verdict.

rednightmareThe totalitarian vision of Communists as an undifferentiated mass of like-minded monomaniacs is not employed in American Cold War films merely for the sake of clarity. Its important ideological function is to prevent the politicization of the Cold War conflict. In these films, Communists' striving to establish communism in the United States is not a political goal (the word "revolution" is never mentioned), but rather a sort of mass mental disorder. Indeed, any political explanation of why the Soviet Union and its communist agents inside the USA want to destroy the American way of life could undermine the monolithic unity of the free world, while paying close attention to communist ideology with its centrality of class struggle would have raised questions about social antagonisms in America. Representing the desire of the Communists to take over America as an unarticulated thirst for power avoids any such complications. In the documentary What is Communism? (Jerry Fairbanks, 1963), an anti-communist crusader, Herbert A. Philbrick, systematically defines communism as a "lying, dirty, shrewd, godless, murderous, determined international criminal conspiracy." It suggests not that Communists merely possess these qualities; rather, moral vice is the very essence of communism. Not surprisingly, when a Soviet pilot in Jet Pilot (Joseph von Sternberg, 1957) mentions her honor as a Soviet soldier, Americans cannot help laughing.

Since the communist project in these films is depoliticized, the dividing line between Communists and good Americans is defined by their differences in character. The general concept that the Soviet Union stands for slavery and the United States for freedom is supported by the contrast between normal, freedom-loving Americans, who are individually psychologized, emotional, and prone to independent reasoning (although all of them arrive at the anti-communist consensus) and the Communists, who are either unthinking automatons, like the Soviet pilots in Invasion, USA, or monomaniacs, whose determination to advance their cause at any price is nuanced only by their inborn preference for lying and foul play. In either case, they adhere to the strictest discipline within their ranks and obey orders unquestioningly. In this context, the very idea that someone who is not by nature a Communist could become one, is nearly inconceivable. An honest person can, of course, be temporarily duped by lying Communists–without this possibility it would be difficult to sustain dramatic intrigue–but this does not make him or her a genuine Communist; such a  gullible person simply fails to realize, up to a certain point, what communism is really about. Even so, the transition into communism is normally not shown and, as in Red Nightmare,communist-leaning Americans have always already taken the crucial steps of their indoctrination. The opposite is not true: seeing the light of truth can occur on-screen, sometimes very dramatically, as in My Son John (Leo McCarey, 1952), where the dying protagonist, a repentant Communist, tape-records his final confession on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The incomprehensibility of communist indoctrination generates anxiety, and this anxiety lies at the core of what is probably the single most important plot of early American Cold War cinema–the insidious takeover. The political identity of the Other directing the takeover may be more or less explicit–from actual Soviets in Red Nightmare to unidentified aliens manifestly mapped on the Communists in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1956), to concretized humanoids with a spaceship, whose similarity with Communists is merely metaphoric in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (Gene Flower, 1958). What these films have in common is that the moment of transformation of a freedom-loving American into a Communist/monster is either not shown at all or is attributed to obscure extraterrestrial technology, and goes unnoticed by everyone except the protagonist, who gradually starts to suspect the terrible truth.

bodysnatcherThus, in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)–a film that became a cult classic–the alien body snatchers grow an exact physical copy of an actual person and, when this person is asleep, substitute the copy for the original. The new humanoids look and behave like human beings but display familiar communist traits: above all, they are deprived of emotion (except rage) and dedicated to the common cause—converting everyone into their likes. In one of the most striking scenes of the film, the protagonist and his girlfriend—the last remaining humans in town—are hiding in a cave pursued by the frantic collective of humanoids. They know that they must not sleep, lest they be transformed as well, but the exhausted girl closes her eyes for a second. When she opens them, still lying in her boyfriend's arms, he immediately knows, by her cold and hating expression, that she is no longer his loving girl: she has become one of "them." The uncanny transformation of your loved one into a monster resonates deeply with common human anxieties, thereby naturalizing Cold War sentiments. This is even more the case with I Married a Monster from Outer Space, in which the aliens snatch the body of a bridegroom right before the wedding and the young wife must gradually realize that her cold unloving husband is not the man she fell in love with.

American Cold War cinema is not separate from other cinematic genres from melodramas to zombie films. There is no clear boundary between films that call communists by their real name with portraits of Stalin on their walls and science fiction horrors. The ideological import of this continuity is paramount: by making sci-fi films resonate with political dramas of the time, American cinema also makes Communists resemble aliens and zombies, which both grounds the fear and hatred of communism in the fantasmatic framework of popular imagination and eliminates the possibility of meaningful political dialogue with its proponents.

This paradigm persists in one of the most significant—and much more complex—American Cold War films, The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962). In terms of its domestic political message, the film is a radical departure from the tradition of the 1950s, as it attacks McCarthyism with its anti-communist witch-hunt and demonstrates that a liberal senator accused of being a communist is, in fact, a true American patriot. However, the film's fantasmatic framework, within which this reversal is accomplished, remains unchanged: in The Manchurian Candidate the Communists are just insidious enough to use anti-communist rhetoric to gain power. As Communists hypnotize American prisoners of war in Korea and program them to become their marionettes back at home, their mode of operation is little different from that of the alien body snatchers. The film's recurring question, "What have they built you to do?" betrays the unchanged conception of the possibilities of communist ideological influence upon freedom-loving Americans—thinkable only as coercive subconscious programming that turns a man into a communist agent and, simultaneously, a murderous automaton. It is in the conflation of the communist agenda and unconscious automatism that the main ideological stakes of the film are placed. This conflation is, of course, an inversion of a paramount Soviet thesis: it is the raising of consciousness that makes a person a Communist.

In the mid-1960s there occurred what seems to be a genuine shift in American cinematic portrayal of the Soviet Other. Such films as Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Norman Jewison's The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) not only satirized American anti-communist hysteria but also humanized the Russians. The destiny of the world in Fail Safe hinges on whether or not the US president will agree that the Russians are reasonable human beings to whom one can talk and whose reactions are human enough to be predicted; he bets on their humanity and saves the world. In Dr. Strangelove, the Soviet, apparently demonic, Doomsday Machine is a mere means to save money so that it may be used to supply the Soviet people with washing machines and other consumer goods. Finally, The Russians Are Coming… presents the loveable—if sometimes grotesque—crew of a stray Soviet submarine on the New England coast and includes a romance between an American girl and a Soviet sailor.

At first sight, a radical change of the Cold War paradigm occurs in these films: the Russians are humanized, while American society splits not into foreign-sponsored Communists and freedom-loving patriots but into right-wing conservative hawks prone to start World War III at any moment and reasonable people who are free of anti-communist hysteria and prepared to communicate with the Soviets. This change, however, is less radical than it might seem. These films do not challenge the previous assumptions about communism; instead, they de-communize the Russians. Although no political dissidence on the part of the Soviet submarine crew is implied, it is Russians, not communists, who are coming to the small American town.[2] A Soviet general, whose family photo the US president contemplates in Fail Safe, is a human being and a military man, with no mention of his communist views. Even the Soviet ambassador and the Soviet premier in Dr. Strangelove are satirized in terms of the big Russian bear stereotype and Khrushchev's hysterical outbursts, not the stereotype of ideology-driven communists. The disappearance of an ideological agenda from the Cold War confrontation of course supports the argument that this confrontation is avoidable, but it also works to naturalize liberal democracy no less than films about "lying, dirty, shrewd, godless, murderous, determined" communist humanoids.

jetpilotThe lack of real contradiction between these two types of films is evidenced by the existence of their hybrids – that is, films that feature both communist ideological maniacs and good, attractive Russians. The aforementioned Jet Pilot is an early example. The film clearly recalls Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939), in which Greta Garbo plays a beautiful Soviet commissar who falls in love with a French playboy in Paris and eventually defects. Jet Pilot retains the plot of the awakening of a Russian woman whose nature is suppressed by communist ideology but is liberated under the influence of a foreign man's love, fashionable clothes, sexual lingerie, spacious apartments, and posh restaurants. Jet Pilot, however, cranks up the anti-communist message of Ninotchka by having the amorous couple of jet pilots travel across the Bering Strait to a Soviet military base. There they witness the barrack horrors of Soviet totalitarianism, where love and religion are forbidden as dangerous knock-offs because they may make one forget one's duty to the State by preventing people from sacrificing one another. Still, human nature lingers beneath this surface, at least in Russian women: not only the slender protagonist, played by Janet Leigh, realizes, thanks to John Wayne's character, that she "was made for love," but also fat Russian baby who work carrying wooden planks around the base, possess the potential to become human: one of them, a hero-sniper who killed one hundred Germans during the war, is said to have suddenly started shooting Russians after her visit to the United States.

By the 1960s, defection, understood as the happy liberation of one's consumerist human nature, became a staple of American Cold War films, from One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961) all the way to Moscow on the Hudson (Paul Mazursky, 1984). Wilder's comedy is especially significant in this respect, as it shows the defection not only of grotesque Soviet bureaucrats (these defect gladly, even though they know that, should they do so, all their in-laws in Russia will be shot—in Wilder's comedy, this fact makes at least one of them want to defect even more) but also of a young, passionate, and attractive East-German Communist. Under the influence of love for the daughter of an American millionaire and pressed by circumstances, he makes a remarkably swift if reluctant transition from a casual young man exclaiming that "Capitalism is like a dead herring in the moonlight. It shines—but it stinks!" to a suit-clad top executive of the Coca-Cola company. One, Two, Three, of course, makes fun of everyone, but it, too, operates within the "nature vs. ideology" framework.

What persists in American Cold War cinema despite all its dramatic vicissitudes is the refusal to conceive of the conflict as between two competing ideologies; the Soviets may or may not be ideological maniacs, but good, freedom-loving Americans are always just "natural" human beings, whether they fight the Commies or befriend the Russians. In the same move, this cinema supports the view that the dividing line splitting American society is not between classes but between ideological freaks, be they American communists or right-wing conservatives, and the moral majority that subscribes to the fundamental values of American consumerist society just because they are consistent with human nature. The persistence of this ideological matrix explains why it was possible for American Cold War cinema to vacillate between the two opposite conceptions of the Soviets and even conflate them. Whether the Soviets are portrayed as sympathetic human beings or maniacal agents of the ideological Evil Empire, their portrayal works to naturalize the American liberal consensus.

The first thing that strikes one about Soviet Cold War films is the near absence of the strong propaganda effects profusely employed by American films that show direct military confrontation between the US and the USSR. Unlike American films like Red Dawn (John Milius, 1984) or Invasion, USA (Alfred Green, 1952; Joseph Zito, 1985), Soviet films do not show American soldiers shooting Soviet children or raping Soviet women, and swarms of American planes do not cross the border to bomb Leningrad or Kiev. The few military confrontations that do occur in Soviet Cold War films take place away from the Soviet land and are quite limited in scope. The furthest Soviet cinema ever went in this direction was in two films made at the beginning and at the end of the Cold War: In the Days of Peace (Vladimir Braun, 1950) and Solitary Navigation (Mikhail Tumanishvili, 1985). In the earlier film, a Soviet submarine is hit by an old German submarine commissioned by Western intelligence to scout the maneuvers of the Soviet Navy "by all means possible" and overstepping its mark as its crazy commander (a former Nazi) declares that "the war is not finished yet". In Solitary Navigation, a Soviet Navy ship and its crew destroy a secret American nuclear military base on a Pacific island. However, the targeted military base is no longer an integral part of the US armed forces, as its personnel, too, veer out of control, and the US high command itself sends a strategic bomber to destroy it. In the absence of American bombs and marines on Soviet soil, the only immediate threat to Soviet civilians is posed by American spies and saboteurs who do appear in Soviet political detective films. However, more often than not, they are miserably unsuccessful and fail to provoke fear in the spectator. In short, compared with American Cold War cinema or with Soviet films made during World War II, Soviet Cold War films are strikingly "cold" for propaganda cinema in a country that, to all appearances, took the threat of World War III extremely seriously. 

There are many reasons for Soviet Cold War cinema's failure to employ the means at its disposal to foster fear and hatred towards the United States—the attitudes, whose absence surprised many American visitors to the USSR expecting to find an anti-Americanism symmetric to American anti-Communism. An all-important reason for this is probably the legacy of World War II and the vibrant tradition of its cinematic representation: it is problematic to show the fictional bombing of a city by the Americans when this city was really bombed by the Nazis just several years ago and this bombing has been cinematically represented in all its horrific reality. Invasion was so firmly established in Soviet mentality as something intolerably painful and to be avoided at all costs, that a fictional representation of American attack on the USSR would not work: while there are two American films called Invasion, USA, a Soviet film Invasion was made in 1944 by Abram Room; it is impossible to imagine a Soviet film Invasion, USSR set after the end of World War II. In addition, Soviet Cold War cinema existed in a totally different cinematic tradition which did not allow free crossing of the genre boundaries between political drama, war movie, and science fiction. Soviet Cold War cinema had to abide by a general framework of realism, and this requirement ruled out films in which the Soviet army would be shown in major combat with the United States. Finally, with the real Soviet battles in places like Korea or Afghanistan, which could otherwise be easily integrated into a Cold War narrative, the notorious reticence of the Soviet government did not allow making films about them.  

Consequently, Soviet military might is rarely flaunted on Soviet screens. There is no Soviet analog of Rambo III (Peter McDonald, 1988), in which a Soviet hero would be shooting US soldiers like rabbits from two machine guns at once, nor is there much use of the Soviet cinematic tradition of portraying military heroism. This dearth existed despite an unsatisfied public demand for seeing the Soviet army in action here and now, rather than in the ever more distant battles of World War II – a demand evidenced by the tremendous popularity and cult status of films like In the Zone of Special Attention (Andrei Maliukov, 1977) or Countermove (Mikhail Tumanishvili, 1981) which merely show Soviet troops engaged in routine maneuvers. In a way, the overproduction of Soviet films about World War II can be regarded as an attempt to make up for this deficiency—an attempt which could not play a major part in fighting the ideological Cold War.

russianquestionThere are, however, other and possibly deeper differences between the two Cold War cinemas than the frequency and scale of military operations involving the two superpowers. Let us consider this important fact: from the very beginning, many Soviet Cold War films were set in Western terrain: West Germany (They Have a Motherland, dir. Vladimir Legoshin, 1949), the United States (The Russian Question, dir. Mikhail Romm, 1947 and Silvery Dust, dir. Abram Room, 1953), or the American embassy in Moscow (Goodbye, America!, dir. Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1951). Consequently, they feature many American characters, and some have no Russian characters at all. Instead of the monolithic and largely undescribed Soviet Union in American films, Soviet Cold War cinema from its very inception represents American society as a detailed arena of struggle between rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, whites and blacks. This elaboration was not a mere tribute to the Russian-Soviet realist tradition: just as the homogenizing totalitarian vision of the Soviet Union in American cinema had a distinct ideological function, so did the differentiating vision of the United States in Soviet films. Whereas American films used the geopolitical Other to naturalize liberalism and gloss over America's social contradictions, Soviet films employed Marxist analysis of American society to inscribe the Cold War into familiar patterns of class conflict. A telling example is The Conspiracy of the Doomed (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1950). This film, set in the late 1940s in some South-European country, focuses on the political conflict quite familiar for Soviet viewers of historical films about revolutionary Russia, including the details of the party struggle in the Provisional Government, the difference being that in the Cold War film, the pro-capitalist foreign influence of the United States (playing the part of the old Entente) is matched by the pro-communist foreign influence of the Soviet Union. In Soviet Cold War cinema, the polarization of Western societies between the left and the right, and the identification of the Soviet Union with the former, worked to reaffirm the working class identity of the Soviet government and the progressive nature of the Soviet state, also making Cold War patriotic sentiments dependent upon the revolutionary worldview.

russianquestionMarxist demand for socio-historical analysis makes Soviet representation of its Cold War enemy a great deal more realistic than American representation of the USSR. This applies not only to the representation of "good" progressive Americans but to staunch agents of American imperialism as well. American capitalists in these films may be considered stock, flat, and predictable by some cinema-vérité standards, but they are not so much different in this respect from many positive Soviet characters in late Stalinist cinema; and, when compared with staunch Communists in American Cold War films, capitalists and their agents in Soviet films strike one as possessing an almost Tolstoyan complexity and realism. The same is true of Soviet cinematic depiction of the United States and other Western countries: it is, of course, selective and ideologically tendentious, but it often evinces nuance and detail unthinkable in the American portrayal of the USSR. The Russian Question, with its brilliantly constructed New York City settings, is particularly authentic: not only does the film look as if it were shot on location, it also successfully imitates the style of classical American cinema, which at the time was widely accessible to Soviet audiences thanks to the so-called "trophy films" brought from Europe and showed across the Soviet Union. Were it not for its Russian language and political message, The Russian Question could probably pass for an American film of the same period.

Soviet Cold War cinema does not adhere to the universal law of American Cold War cinema according to which a Russian is either friendly or repulsive. (On those rare occasions where a communist in an American film is good-looking yet hostile, you may be almost certain that he or, rather, she is going to defect by the end of the film.) In Soviet Cold War films one often encounters an attractive person who, nevertheless, dreams of destroying the Soviet Union and remains firm in his or her anti-communist stance. Thus, in Grigorii Aleksandrov's Meeting on the Elbe (1949), the main Soviet enemy, a special commissioner of the CIA, is played by the glamorous Liubov’ Orlova, the super-star of Stalinist musicals. Through most of the film, Orlova's character works undercover, but she becomes most glamorous when her identity is revealed and she is standing, an unbent and staunch CIA officer, on the ladder of a US Air Force cargo plane. This unexpected conflation is understandable, however, if we remember that in Soviet films anti-communism stems from particular socio-political circumstances and class interests rather than personal vileness or temporary delusion. This is made particularly clear in The Russian Question, in which the main anti-hero is a humanly rather sympathetic American media magnate who does not hate the Soviet Union—he, in fact, supported it during World War II —but who is drawn into virulent anti-communism by a political climate that leaves him no choice except moving his newspaper's position to the extreme right. In short, to return to Hofstadter's thesis at the beginning of this article, in Soviet cinema the USA was most explicitly shown as "caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history," so the Soviet concept of its geopolitical enemy was anything but paranoid.

serpylMarxist analysis of American society that inaugurated Soviet Cold War cinema had one all-important effect: from the very beginning, Soviet films responded to the themes delineated by American anti-Soviet propaganda. A Soviet spectator was routinely invited to understand what it is that American anti-communists believed, why they believed what they believed, and why their ideas were wrong. Indeed, the central theme of many Soviet films is the exposure of American lies about the Soviet Union. The Russian Question is about how and why the American media create hysteria about the (non-existent) Russian desire to attack the United States; Farewell, America! is about how and why American diplomats in Moscow deliberately misrepresent Soviet reality in their press reports. The related theme of the United States’ provocations designed to spoil the international image of the Soviet Union starts there and runs through Soviet Cold War cinema up to the aforementioned Solitary Navigation, which begins with a CIA undercover operation—an attempt to sink a passenger liner and lay the blame on the Soviet Navy.

Here lies a fundamental difference between Soviet and American Cold War cinemas: in American cinema there is little attempt to seriously represent, explain, and refute communist ideology. While there are many slandering communists and KGB provocateurs in American Cold War films, denouncing Soviet propaganda is never a concern, since this propaganda is so manifestly absurd and evil. The main message of "red scare" films like Red Nightmare or Invasion, USA (1952) is not to prove that communism is bad but rather to urge Americans to take its threat seriously and to contribute to the US Cold War effort. Although staunch Communists in American cinema possess a recognizable set of ideas (most importantly, they invariably hate freedom), no plausible explanation of why they came to believe in their cause is provided. By not presenting an analysis of the enemy, American cinema avoids the potentially unsettling implication of the Soviet emphasis on disproving capitalist lies about the USSR: the polemical outlook of Soviet films effectively renders socialism a subject of debate rather than a self-evidently natural social order. Although Soviet Cold War cinema does represent Soviet society as by and large united in a common cause and emphasizes the family life of the Soviet military, it conceives of the Cold War not as a conflict between natural society and ideological abnormality but as a conflict between two antagonistic yet comparable and, in the mathematical sense of the word, equivalent socio-political systems.

Whose side the implied spectator is supposed to take in this conflict is quite clear and strongly supported by poetic justice, but, unlike in American cinema, the possibility of an alternative allegiance is not structurally excluded. This possibility becomes ever more palpable in later Soviet Cold War films in which the icons of depraved American consumerism (strip clubs, luxurious cars, commercial advertisements, etc.), along with the images of West European "high culture," become increasingly fetishized objects of spectatorial desire, transforming the West into one indivisible fetish and thereby undermining the films' argument that Western society is torn apart by class struggle and inequality. (See, for example, The Destiny of the Secret Agent, Veniamin Dorman, 1970.) Even more strikingly, the objects of fetishization in late Soviet Cold War films include the symbols of American imperial might, from the US Navy squadron in Solitary Navigation to the US flag on the posh Cadillac of the American ambassador in the opening tracking shot of TASS Is Authorized to Announce (Vladimir Fokin, 1984)—the Cadillac that stands out impressively on Moscow streets next to the Volgas driven by Soviet officials.

One could argue that the fetishization of the West is a result of reading these films against the grain by skeptical late Soviet audiences (although the possibility of such a reading is itself significant), were it not firmly inscribed in the diegesis. The West is constructed as the object of desire not just by the film but also in the film: some diegetic characters, namely, the accessories of American spies, often submit to its temptations. Whereas in early Cold War films these accessories are usually the remnants of the old regime in the new Soviet territories and/or former Nazi collaborators, in later films the legacy of the accursed past is largely replaced by the seduction of American consumerism.[3] This move not only introduced a disquieting split in Soviet society that was not likely to "wither away" with time, but also placed the spectator in the uneasy position of having to resist the visual temptation of consumerism that, in the context of a Cold War spy-detective film, amounted to becoming a traitor's accomplice. As in the case of the discursive arguments of anti-Communists that a Soviet spectator must be able to controvert, by openly displaying the seductive potential of the West, Soviet Cold War cinema demands from the Soviet spectator a superior level of consciousness. This makes the propagandistic effect of this cinema precariously dependent on spectators' achieving this superior level. Such dependency does not exist in American cinema, in which  both the hostile Communists and their totalitarian country are so morally appalling and aesthetically disgusting that a spectator is quite unlikely to be tempted to have anything in common with them.

The emphasis on ideological polemics, both on screen and in the spectator’s mind, is closely linked with the underplaying of the military dimension of the Cold War in Soviet cinema. The Russian Question, in which the Soviet Union functions only as a political, ideological, and moral reference point and all the rumors about Soviet military operations turn out to be deliberate libel of American propagandists is, therefore, not just the first but also a paradigmatic Soviet Cold War film. However, unlike in the military confrontation, where the Soviet block was holding its ground quite well, its hopes for victory in the ideological battle with the West after the 1960s were becoming ever slimmer. Correspondingly, there were fewer and fewer Westerners who took the Soviet side in Soviet Cold War films. While the tradition of representing ordinary Americans as potential allies of the USSR persisted to the very end, in late Soviet films these people no longer dare to speak up. Thus, in The Incident in Sector 36-80 (Mikhail Tumanishvili, 1982), American and Soviet military pilots behave like friends: they see each other often in maneuvers and communicate about their families. However, when the American pilot is ordered to bring his friend's plane down, he does his best to execute the order. This film, along with Solitary Navigation, represents a belated attempt to boost the military dimension of the Cold War, an attempt all the more understandable given the demonstrated failure of international working class solidarity.

A strikingly prescient articulation of the potential consequences of the Soviet propensity to stage its cinematic Cold War in the realm of discourse is offered as early as 1949 by Aleksandr Faintsimmer's film They Have a Motherland. The film is set in a West Germany controlled by the British and the Americans, and deals with the problem of returning Soviet children, shipped to Germany by the Nazis, to their relatives in the USSR. These children are kept in an orphanage controlled by the British Red Cross, which is unwilling to let them go. For the length of the film we watch two Soviet military officers from the Soviet mission being humiliated by the British commission that keeps cynically rejecting all the evidence of the children's origin and their relatives that the Soviet officers present. One might safely speculate that, should a symmetrical situation arise in an American film, a heroic commando detachment would land near the orphanage, kill a couple of hundred enemy troops and heroically rescue children from the hands of the beastly Communists. A Soviet film, however, must remain realistic and cannot picture a Soviet military operation in West Germany in 1949. In despair, one of the officers exclaims that it was easier when they had weapons in their hands, to which his superior replies that they still have weapons—their just cause. If anything, the film clearly demonstrates that a just cause is not a very effective weapon against the British—and that was right after the war, when Soviet international appeal was very strong.

tassAs this appeal gradually weakened, Soviet Cold War cinema also began to lose ground. Symptoms of this internal weakness can be found in the waning of Marxist analysis and in the attempts to find support for the Soviet cause not among the withering American left but among honest Americans who, although they had no class reasons to like the USSR, still had enough decency to object to the foul play of American extremists. TASS Is Authorized to Announce, the swan song of the Soviet Cold War spy-detective genre, goes so far as to portray a CIA resident, Lorentz, as a de facto Soviet ally, since he has the interest of his country in mind and supports the status quo, whereas his subordinate is ready to start a disastrous war in Africa just to increase his personal wealth. This situation closely resembles that of the contemporaneous Solitary Navigation, in which the Soviet Navy destroys the unruly base before a US bomber arrives to do the same. The goal of the USSR here is not to win the Cold War but to maintain the status quo, which effectively makes the KGB and the Soviet Army natural allies of the more "reasonable" voices in American establishment.

The anxiety of escalation led Soviet cinema finally to create a film involving total nuclear destruction, the ever present horizon of American Cold War cinema. This film, The Letters of a Dead Man (Konstantin Lopushanskii, 1986) is, however, very different from American atomic bomb films of the 1980s, such as The Day After (Nicholas Meyer, 1983) or Testament (Lynne Littman, 1983). Unlike the American films, which idealize their emphatically grass-roots American settings and characters, The Letters of a Dead Man is a philosophical parable about humanity and civilization set in an undefined country and populated by people of quite cosmopolitan cultural background. Like the American films, the Soviet film demonstrates that nuclear war is terrible and has to be avoided, but, unlike them, The Letters of a Dead Man cannot possibly work to delineate Soviet people as a society with shared values which must be defended in the face of global nuclear threat.

Although both American and Soviet Cold War cinemas are propaganda cinemas that played an important part in shaping the ideological framework of the conflict, they are quite different not only in the propositional content of their ideological messages but also in their basic ideological structures. Despite striking vicissitudes in its portrayal of the Soviet enemy and an astonishing variety of genres, American Cold War cinema displays remarkable consistency in using the Cold War to promote liberalism and consumerism as a set of ideology-free values consistent with human nature. This is achieved by strategic de-politicization of Cold War conflicts, which are invariably presented as conflicts between the natural and the ideological, and the mobilization of the audience’s fundamental sentiments to foster unequivocal support for the former. Soviet cinema, on the contrary, systematically inscribes the Cold War into the Marxist paradigm of class struggle, demanding from its spectator a conscious choice of Soviet ideology based on the realization of its veracity rather than fear and hatred of the enemy, and even despite the obvious attractions of the enemy side. Whereas in American Cold War cinema the enemy is used to promote (liberal) ideology, in Soviet cinema (Marxist) ideology is used to define the enemy.

This asymmetry explains the fate of the two cinematic traditions after the official end of the Cold War. American tradition was never overly dependent on the ideological content of the conflict and could largely continue into the present by replacing Communists with Arab terrorists, international mafia, transnational syndicates and other enemies of the free world. The Soviet Cold War cinematic tradition was, on the contrary, predicated on a particular ideological configuration of the conflict and could not survive it. As a result, post-Soviet Russian films about international struggle either in the past or present resemble their American counterparts much more than their Soviet predecessors. Even though in today's Russian cinema one can find the KGB/FSB and the Soviet/Russian Army fighting demonic Americans, the portrayal of this combat evidences Soviet defeat in the Cold War rather than a resurgence of the twentieth century conflict.

Andrey Shcherbenok
University of Sheffield


1] By "Cold War cinema," I mean here mainstream films that reflect the Cold War, its immediate origins or possible aftermath, either directly or metaphorically, but with a degree of political concreteness that allows for the geopolitical identification of the enemy.

2] It is telling that when Red Nightmare was released on video in 1985 it was given the title The Commies Are Coming! The Commies Are Coming!— in clear contrast with the 1966 classic.

3] The plot was trite enough to be made fun of by Vladmir Vysotskii in "The Parody of a Bad Detective Story": "'And for this, my drunken friend,' he would say to Epifan / 'You will get money, a house in Chicago / Many women and lots of cars.'"

Works Cited and Further Reading

Dobrenko, Evgeny. “Late Stalinist Cinema and the Cold War: An Equation Without Unknowns,” The Modern Language Review, 98. 4 (2003), pp. 929-944.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays. New York: Knopf, 1966.

Turovskaia, Maia. “Fil'my kholodnoi voiny,” Iskusstvo kino 9 (1996), pp. 98-106.

Andrey Shcherbenok © 2010

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Updated: 23 Mar 10