KinoKultura: Issue 34 (2011)

The Socialist Avant-Garde at the 33rd Moscow International Film Festival

By Julie Draskoczy (Stanford U)

Unlike the opening feature of the 33rd Moscow International Film Festival Transformers 3, “The Socialist Avant-Garde” sidebar offered moviegoers in the Russian capital a complex and historical viewing experience. Now in its fourth year at the Moscow Film Festival, “The Socialist Avant-Garde” has included films from a variety of time periods and regions of the former Soviet bloc. Vladimir Terdatev’s incredible talent for improvisational piano playing accompanied the silent films in the program. [1] This year’s line-up featured under-appreciated classics such as: Ol’ga Preobrazhenskaia and Ivan Pravov’s The Last Attraction (Poslednii attraktsion, 1929) and Vasilii Fedorov’s House of the Dead (Mertvyi dom, 1932); colorful ethnic films such as Rezo Esadze’s Love at First Glance (Liubov’ s pervogo vzgliada / Erti nakhvit shekvareba, 1975) and Khodzhakuli Narliev’s Daughter-in-Law (Nevestka, 1972); and international films, including Iurii Ozerov’s The Great Road (Velká cesta, 1963), with a total of fifteen films screened. The program’s organizer, well-known film historian Evgenii Margolit, acknowledges little cohesion between the films, claiming that the notion of the socialist avant-garde is a “brand” rather than a semantic category unto itself. The moniker, therefore, allowed him to incorporate a variety of films from the Soviet period for the program, with the sole commonality that they are aesthetically interesting works. [2]

last attractionWhile this inclusive approach has its advantages—and Margolit certainly has excellent taste—it is the viewer’s, and more particularly the reviewer’s, job to categorize and qualify. And so while the program’s organizer may have declined to highlight larger commonalities between the films, this writer will. Nearly every film in the series underscores the liberating potential of art, whether it comes from the twangy notes of a dutar or the acrobatic acts of a circus performer. The aesthetic not only frees the protagonists from their immediate environments but also offers access to a second plane of existence. A type of mise en abyme or perpetuum mobile then follows: the liberating capacity of art is itself demonstrated in the artistic format of filmmaking. When there is not a direct artistic reference, love and the emotions that accompany it often serve as an alternative pathway to this elevated state of being.

last attractionBesides this schematic cohesion, many of the films also fall into sensible sub-groups. Perhaps the most overt thematic connection is between the two circus-based films, The Last Attraction and Lev Kuleshov and Nina Agadzhanova’s Two-Bul’di-Two (Dva-bul’di-dva, 1930). Both are touched by the participation of Russian cultural giants: Viktor Shklovskii wrote the screenplay for the former, and Lev Kuleshov directed the latter. The Last Attraction, which enjoyed great success on the Soviet screen, documents the infiltration of a traveling circus group by the political agitator Kurapov against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War. The two seemingly opposed camps soon merge and begin helping one another. Kurapov dresses up in a muscle shirt and learns how to tame a horse thanks to the pretty performer Masha; the troupe acquires the new name of “Red Harlequin” and re-paints the side of their circus wagon to read, “the enemy brings slavery, hunger, and death.” Kurapov’s full initiation into the troupe occurs with his performance as a muscle man, after which the circus organizer shakes hands with him as “an artist to an artist.” Perhaps the most entertaining performance in the film comes when the troupe’s clown appears as a spider named “capital” struggling in a giant web on a makeshift stage. Masha accompanies him dressed as a peasant with a hammer and sickle, and the hammer-toting worker kills the “capital” spider as well as a neighboring, costumed pig. When an invading officer interrupts their performance looking for the commissar, the circus troupe stands together as a unified collective, claiming the official has run away. The incorporation of art and politics seems complete, with the circus troupe protecting the political agitator and the political agitator accepting the circus troupe. 

buldiNevertheless, the art of performance continues to reside on a separate, higher plane. At the army headquarters where the troupe is questioned, an officer asks Masha if she is a Bolshevik. Winking, she responds that she is an artist. It becomes clear that being an artist is a separate category unto itself, one that is beyond the division of Reds and Whites, politics and ideology. Yet realizing Masha’s potential error by not subscribing to the Bolshevik worldview, the troupe’s clown tries to qualify her assertion by insisting that they are “people of a revolutionary formation.” At the final attraction that gives the film its name, Masha dances and waves the tricolor Russian flag in a pantomime performance titled the “saving of Russia.” When the group announces that the “final attraction has ended” they are referring not only to the spectacle but also to the situation: the agitator has been killed, an officer is dead, and Masha and Serzh leave the circus. While art once offered an escape from politics—the circus performers entertained both Reds and Whites and occupied a neutral zone—by the end of the film it is clear that such separation is not possible and that the full integration of the aesthetic with the ideological has dangerous consequences.    

While The Last Attraction uses war intrigue touched with love and violence to demonstrate the incompatibilities of art and politics, Two-Bul’di-Two [3] centers its circus narrative around a family saga. Bul’di the clown is a famous circus performer and much-loved by the admiring audience members who cheer him. Yet his greatest performance is still to come—the famous clown announces that on the following day he will have the honor of performing with his son in a show called “Two-Bul’di-Two,” making his dream come true. Yet here again politics gets in the way of circus performance given the backdrop of the Civil War—the son decides to fulfill his revolutionary duty and reports to army headquarters. When the Whites arrest the son after a shoot-out in the streets, Bul’di senior searches out the revolutionary committee to free Bul’di junior. Like Masha in the The Last Attraction, the clown defines himself as an “artist,” and he uses his artistic, acrobatic skills to amuse the officers in hopes of freeing his son. Just as Bul’di senior uses his performance skills to his advantage in the political realm, so does Bul’di junior use his incredible gymnastic feats to stun the Whites during his escape.[4] In both circus films, politics and art are forcibly brought together—a combination that again has drastic consequences.

Unlike many of the other films screened in the program, House of the Dead received much acclaim upon its release. With another script by Viktor Shklovskii—this project an unusual choice for the author—and its focus on Fedor Dostoevskii, the film was perhaps guaranteed a certain amount of success. A professor’s monologue opens and closes the film, with his explanations establishing the proper Marxist point of view regarding the film’s content. These talking head scenes seem awkward and out of place, a too-obvious mixing of art and politics.

In the film’s opening action scene, Dostoevskii appears giving a pubic speech next to a bust of none other than Pushkin. The audience is intoxicated by the author’s spiritual portrayal of Russian socialism, with one audience member crying out “prophet” from among the masses. As with his real-life counterpart, the filmic Dostoevskii emphasizes meekness, humility, and art’s power as a moralistic weapon. He refutes violence and strong political associations. A stunning scene of a public whipping visually articulates his worldview—while the audience cries “Kill him!”, Dostoevskii holds his ears and grimaces with emotional pain. Shots of the suffering victim are intercut with shots of angels atop statues, the montage sequence alluding to God’s watchful eyes—and higher moral values—in the sky. This scene is echoed later in the film after Dostoevskii’s own imprisonment. Shots of a horrifically graphic bathing scene in which naked, chained prisoners are viciously scrubbing themselves like animals are intercut with shots of angel figures. When questioned after his arrest, the Dostoevskii character claims he is not a socialist but rather simply enjoys socialist literature. He compares socialism to “chemistry before chemicals” (chaos, disorder, and unrealized), perhaps making the necessity of the Marxist professor’s ideological introduction and conclusion more apparent. By placing art, moralism, and non-violence before politics in the film, the fictional example of Dostoevskii offers the viewer yet another instance in which the ideological and the aesthetic are largely incompatible. 

Bulat Mansurov’s The Competition (Sostiazanie / Shukur bakhshi, 1964) was one of the most noteworthy film events of the 1960s,[5] even if it is largely forgotten today. As Margolit explains, the work marks the founding of poetic cinema and focuses on the features of the human face. A similar poetic aesthetic is explored in films like Tarkovskii’s Andrei Rublev (1966) or the work of the author Chingiz Aitmatov.[6] The film follows the story of Shukur, a musician who tries to free his brother imprisoned by the Khan in a dutar duel. The underlying question of good versus evil drives the film, as characters continually question the necessity and role of state power given the supposition that humanity is inherently good.

A bird motif—which immediately brings to mind the Thaw-era classic The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, Kalatozov, 1957)—dominates the film. People are compared to them; both are said to rarely disturb one’s peace. The dying elder in the film wants birds to sing above his grave and the imprisoned brother is compared to a bird in a cage. What will free people to fly like the birds so often featured in the film? Music. In adopting good over evil, the dutar becomes a symbolic weapon of positive change. Shukur wants to free his imprisoned brother with the power of art by engaging in a musical competition with Gulam, the court musician who represents the Khan. He is successful in his quest: he wins the contest, his brother is freed, and the camera moves to a graceful and appropriate bird’s-eye-shot after his victory.

love at first sightIn films where the overt inclusion of the power of art or performance is absent, the emotional attachment of love serves as a substitute. Similar to the power of art, the feelings of love can grant access to a higher plane of reality that lies beyond political entanglements. In Love at First Glance, the ending of the film poetically articulates a dream-like vision of the main character’s love obsession, beautifully rendering the ethereality of an emotional otherworld. This Georgian film, banned for five years because of a scene entitled “how to kill a ram” found offensive to Russians, narrates a sweet love story (entirely one-sided) between a young boy and an adolescent girl two years his senior. Despite her numerous refusals, Murad insists on following the girl not only around their native city but even to Belarus, where his love object moved after her mother’s death. Yet only in the red-filtered, final scene do the two touch, performing an imaginary dance of longing. The Daughter-in-Law highlights a consummated but similarly impossible love—that of a daughter-in-law for her husband killed on the front. In another example of poetic cinema, this Turkmen film highlights the emotional escape—and obstacles—of love. The daughter-in-law, refusing to believe in the death of her husband, patiently awaits his return and jumps at every sound that could be an airplane. Her husband torn away by the political involvement of war, the daughter-in-law must substitute imagination for reality as she strokes his war medals and envisions scenes in which they are together.

nevestkaWhile both art and love offer potential outlets from the highly charged political atmosphere of the Soviet landscape, their exploration on the big screen demonstrates that the combination of the aesthetic and the ideological can have disastrous after effects. It is impossible—even when films are chosen exclusively for their artistic qualities—to ignore politics in Soviet film. Although “The Socialist Avant-Garde” was originally predicated on the idea of screening films that were “the antithesis of Socialist Realism,” films that had been criticized or forbidden by the government, it soon became apparent to the program’s organizers that such a criterion would be impossible to maintain.[7] Ultimately, it is an artificial approach to assume that what is state-approved is necessarily in poor taste. Yet whether the limits of art or love are explored, whether the filmmakers are believers or non-believers, whether the journeys are successful or not, all of these films are unbelievably poetic in their approach, visual gems from their respective countries and time periods. No matter what you call the aesthetic at work here: “pure cinema,” where the viewer loses himself in identifying strongly with the protagonist;[8] or “poetic cinema” like Competition and Daughter-in-Law; or a colorful “street film” (fil’m ulitsy) like Karen Gevorkian’s Here, at this Crossroad (Zdes’, na etom perekreste, 1975) and Love at First Glance, a paradoxically realist-but-ethereal style dominated the screen at “The Socialist Avant-Garde.” This commonality speaks to the power of film more as an artistic, rather than political, weapon even if the two might be inseparable in what Lenin called “the most important of all the arts.”[9]

Julie Draskoczy
Stanford University


1] With no score or sheet music, Terdatev simply observed the screen while performing, playing according to the emotion and action in the film.

2] From an interview with the author. 28 June 2011, Moscow, Russia.

3] Released just one year after The Last Attraction, this film served as a response to the earlier circus film, as Margolit noted in his introduction to the screening.

4] The film contains stunning acrobatic feats without special effects or camera tricks; in one scene, four men stand shoulders on top of shoulders with no nets below them.

5] According to Margolit’s introduction to the film.

6] A Soviet and Kyrgyz author best known for his novel The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years [I dol’she veka dlitsia den’, 1980].

7] In our interview, Margolit locates the separation of such films instead between “believers and non-believers,” those who genuinely bough into the system versus those who did not, ultimately defining Soviet cinema as an impossible-to-categorize mixture.

8] As Shpagin defines Two in the Steppe [Dvoe v stepi, 1962] in his introduction to the screening.

9] From a conversation with the Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatolii Lunacharskii.

Julie Draskoczy © 2011

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Updated: 09 Oct 11