KinoKultura: Issue 37 (2012)

Lenfilm Lives On! The Charm and Curse of Continuity

By Jeremy Hicks (QMUL)

Report on “RealAvantGarde—With Lenfilm Through the Short Twentieth Century,” (Symposium held at goEast: 12th Festival of Eastern and Central European Film, Wiesbaden, 18-24 April)

At the time of writing, Lenfilm studios is threatened with imminent closure and disappearance, making Russia’s, and the USSR’s, second biggest studio a fitting and highly topical subject for a historical retrospective (Kozlov 2012). Previous symposiums organized at Wiesbanden’s goEast festival of Eastern and Central European film have traced a common thread in the cinema of a number of countries. This year, however, in a bold and wildly successful departure, the symposium was devoted not just to the cinema of a single country, but to that of a single city. What’s more, one that no longer exists: Leningrad. Unlike the city, which physically lives on, but under a different name, the Lenfilm studio, initially founded in 1918 as the Petrograd Cinema Committee, has retained its link with Lenin in a Russia where the leader of the Russian revolution is more reviled than Stalin, Hitler, Genghis Khan or even Vlad the Impaler. A powerful symbol of the city’s commitment to cultural continuity, the Lenfilm moniker has apparently become an albatross in a post-Soviet world which values a new kind of forgetting. GoEast’s provocative symposium confronted these issues of identity and tradition in a program that combined intellectual rigor with political relevance.

Yet, despite its newsworthy nature, the rationale for the Symposium was first of all an intellectual one: a sense that all roads lead to, or at least through, Leningrad. Whatever the era or topic, be it the avant-garde, socialist realism, the Thaw, popular and genre cinema of the 60s and 70s, the glasnost era, at each point an analysis of Russian film history comes up against Lenfilm productions, suggesting that the studio made films which are central to the understanding of Soviet cinema. We might quibble of course: it might be argued that the circumstances of the wartime siege meant that Leningrad film was truly cut off from that of the rest of the country and was unable to contribute as much to film history in that period, even if the city’s filmmakers attempted to make an extraordinary documentary about the experience of the blockade, eventually released in a watered-down version, and evacuated Leningrad filmmakers, such as Fridrikh Ermler, made important contributions to Alma-Ata based productions.

But even if we concede that Lenfilm productions played a pivotal role in Soviet film history, then do they share common characteristics? Was there a Lenfilm touch, approach or sensibility? The curators of the symposium, Barbara Wurm and Olaf Möller attempt to argue that the studio tended never quite to fit in to the prevailing ethos, but was avant- or arrière-garde, either anticipating or lagging behind prevailing aesthetic norms. This formulation suggests not a single unifying style or essence in the studio, but a relation or orientation to the norm, to Moscow, and to the time. It might equally be argued, that Lenfilm loosely encompassed a cluster of concerns: above all they tended to address issues of cultural continuity, and the role or place of the intelligentsia, more insistently than other Soviet movies, and often used the Petersburg cityscape in order to articulate these themes, as can be illustrated though a brief historical overview of the studio’s output.

youth of maximThis narrative begins with the avant-garde proper: while the prevailing emphasis was upon the break with pre-revolutionary culture, as suggested by the title alone of Pudovkin’s commemorative film, The End of St Petersburg (Konets Sankt Peterburga, 1927) the work of Grigorii Kozintsev and Il’ia Trauberg as the FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) suggested the enduring presence of the city, with its associations, by addressing the St Petersburg literary heritage, through their 1926 adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat (Shinel’). Here a story which foregrounds the city and its myth is appropriated as an eccentric, proto-avant-garde text: Leningrad becomes a Caligari-like expressionist landscape, a character in the drama. The same is true, but even more so of the same directors’ Devil’s Wheel (Chertovo koleso, 1926), in which a Red sailor is drawn into the corrupt and disturbing underground world of Leningrad, which is itself fascinatingly grotesque. In the symposium, however, the 1920s were represented by the rediscovered filmmaker, Evgenii Cherviakov, and by a number of animated films including two films by animation pioneer, Mikhail Tsekhanovskii, with music by Dmitrii Shostakovich (another symbol integrating Leningrad, the avant-garde and cultural continuity) and the same animator’s The Post (Pochta, 1929) which originally featured a sound voice-over by Daniil Kharms, the absurdist writer, of the last Soviet avant-garde movement, the OBERIU. Sadly this version was destroyed during the Blockade, and we saw the still stunning silent version.

Instead of showing their silent masterpieces, Kozintsev and Trauberg’s work was discussed by John Riley, with regard to Shostakovich’s collaboration with the pairing, beginning with New Babylon (Novyi Vavilon, 1929) and their later work illustrated a screening of Youth of Maxim (Iunost’ Maksima, 1934) the first of the director’s famous Maxim trilogy. Even if this was not an avant-garde film as such, Shostakovich’s “Song of Maxim” cemented the importance of song in Soviet popular film, just as the film itself and Lenfilm’s most famous product, Chapaev (Georgii and Sergei Vasil’ev, 1934) anticipated and defined socialist realism in film.

fans dreamOne of the keys to Lenfilm’s success in this period, was the way in which both Chapaev and Youth of Maxim used often innovative musical scores as part of an effective marriage of high and low cultural elements, itself an aspiration of the FEKS. This combination was illustrated beautifully in a short entitled A Fan’s Dream (Son bolel’shchika, 1953) directed by Gerbert (aka Herbert) Rappoport, an Austrian exile who found refuge at Lenfilm, and had co-directed the most important pre-war Soviet anti-Nazi film, Professor Mamlock, in 1938. In A Fan’s Dream, an agitated football fan runs down the terraces to the touchline gesticulating wildly, and when the ball comes his way, heads it back, only to pass out from the contact (this was in the days of heavy leather balls). He then has a dream in which the football players dance around him and the pitch in perfect, balletic unison. Unwittingly, Rappaport had produced the supreme visualization of fictional West Ham fan Alf Garnett’s famous nostrum: “football is working class ballet.”

playgroundHowever, for all the significance and persistence of avant-gardist heterogeneity, Lenfilm productions of the post-war period were notable, above all for a kind of realism - here we have arrière, rather than especially avant-garde tendencies, and Möller and Wurm see the Thaw theme of conflicts between generations, work and intimate concerns, private and public space, pioneered by the likes of Fridrikh Ermler and Iosif Kheifitz during the Thaw, as being continued through the “Stagnation” years most effectively by Lenfilm directors Il’ia Averbakh and Vladimir Vengerov, a line continued into the present by Svetlana Proskurina, whose 1986 film Children’s Playground (Detskaia ploshchadka) was shown here. In this film too, however, there is a kind of anticipation of the imminent, as Proskurina’s realism starts to become the kind of dark naturalism, or chernukha associated with glasnost and early post-Soviet cinema.

amphibian manThese authorial works by highly distinctive directors often pose questions of private versus public space, of continuity, and of the intellectual’s place in society, through reference to the familiar setting of Leningrad itself, a city whose very presence suggests such an interrogation. Yet in post-Stalin genre films, too, Lenfilm productions were magnetized to these themes, even when set elsewhere. Genadii Kazanskii and Vladimir Chebotarev’s The Amphibious Man (Chelovek-amfibiia, 1961) was an enormously popular science fiction adaptation about a professor whose experiments enabled his own son to breath underwater. The story turns into one of the persecution of outsiders and intellectual innovators, as well as of the violation of private space. In a no less successful foray into genre film, Igor’ Maslennikov’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Prikliucheniia Sherloka Kholmsa i Doktora Vatsona, 1979-86), which ran to eleven made for TV films, uses the perceived conservatism of the English as a setting through which to reflect on the pace of political, social and technological change: Holmes’ ability to negotiate these shifts, while seeming outwardly wedded to habit and tradition, is made a central part of these films’ appeal. The use of real locations is one of the films’ attractions, but despite their supposed British setting, the films show characteristically Petersburg architecture and an equally Lenfilm mindset.

holmesWhile the science fiction of The Amphibious Man had been rare for Lenfilm productions, the glasnost era saw the studio move away from realism to more stylistically extravagant fare, as with the works of Konstantin Lopushanskii and Alexander Sokurov, whose Days of the Eclipse (Dni zatmeniia, 1988) was screened here. This anti-realist thread bordering the avant-garde, regains prominence with the works of Sergei Ovcharov, whose reworkings of the rich vein of Russian folkloric and literary satire echo the eccentric comic world of the FEKS. The return to the avant-garde is still more present in the works of Oleg Kovalov, best known internationally for his compilation film The Autobiography of Sergei Eisenstein (Avtobiografiia Sergei Eizenshteina, 1996), made not at Lenfilm but with Sergei Selianov’s highly influential CTB production company. Kovalov's earlier experiment in rethinking the compilation film: Gardens of the Scorpion (Sady skorpiona, 1991) was shown at the symposium. Kovalov’s novel approach here consists in taking a rather conventional Cold War Soviet-era educational film about the peril facing Soviet man of becoming romantically entrapped by a Mata Hari figure posing as a regular Russian girl. Kovalov intercuts the film with no less stilted films about alcoholism, newsreels of parades, state visits, including that by Yves Montand, folkloric performances, and Red Army oil painting initiatives. The overall effect is broadly to fragment and ridicule that which had seemed coherent and unquestionable, but also to reflect upon film history, and in this respect served as a fitting way to conclude the Symposium.

judge historyHopefully, this brief historical sketch of Lenfilm studios, echoing and inspired by the symposium screenings and discussions, will seem somewhat unfamiliar even to the reader well acquainted with Russian film history, precisely because of its emphasis on a studio. In his lecture, Sergei Kapterev put the case that, by contrast with the West, where studies of Warner or Ealing films are not unusual, the Russian intellectual tradition has tended to neglect the role of studios in favor of the individual creator: be it actor, director or screenwriter. Paradoxically, Svetlana Proskurina demonstrated this prejudice in her talk, claiming that there is no such thing as tendencies and the influence of studios, but that all depends on the individual. Yet for all the symposium’s welcome redressing of this imbalance, it also drew attention to important filmmakers associated with Lenfilm. First of all, with Petr Bagrov’s presentation of fragments from the recently discovered film by Evgenii Cherviakov My Son (Moi syn, 1928) we saw a director whose films echo those of Dovzhenko in their un-Eisenstein like interest in duration. Yet, the symposium also screened Before the Judgment of History (Pered sudom istorii, 1965) one of the least-known films by probably the most important Lenfilm auteur of all: Fridrikh Ermler, whose distinctive brand of political filmmaking is beginning, at long last, to be recognized as one of the great achievements of Soviet cinema (Bagrov 2007). At the heart of his films lies a dialogue between two opposing positions, reminiscent of Dostoevskii, or of Dostoevskii in Mikhail Bakhtin’s account, in that the arguments of the opponents, in Ermler’s case those opposed to Soviet power, are rendered convincingly, and are usually more persuasive than those of its defenders. Possibly the best example of this is The Great Citizen (Velikii grazhdanin, 1939), a fictionalized account of Kirov’s murder, where the conspirators who don’t believe socialism is possible in Russia are highly persuasive. In Before the Judgment of History Tsarist era monarchist politician Vasilii Shulgin conducts a protracted debate about history and politics with an actor playing the role of a historian, an advocate for the orthodox Soviet point of view.  Here the dialogical possibilities of Ermler’s method find possibly their greatest expression. Whereas previously Ermler’s films conducted a dialogue, by introducing characters critical of the correct, Soviet way of thinking, the criticisms were typically expressed only in private, in moments of conspiracy, and only rarely voiced in public to the orthodox characters. Here, by contrast, Shulgin puts his criticisms directly to the very stilted historian. While sometimes, Shulgin’s silences or a sardonic note to his voice imply his skepticism, and his distaste for the Soviet viewpoint, his impeccably dignified bearing, and beautifully nuanced manner of expression weigh subtly in his favor, making this flawed but honorable character strangely attractive, and more convincing than the hectoring and self assured Soviet historian who is his interlocutor. The St Petersburg cityscape that serves as backdrop to the exchanges also seems to back up Shulgin, suggesting the ongoing relevance of the Tsarist past, and the illusory nature of Soviet claims to have initiated a new civilization. In this extraordinary film, a kind of remake of Ermler’s Fragment of the Empire (Oblomok imperii, 1929), this is also his last judgment and testimony, a reflection on the relation between past and present that also constitutes a return to the Lenfilm theme. It does so too, through this confrontation of two intellectuals, implicitly posing the question as to the role of the intellectual, and intellectual enquiry, in Soviet life: is it to question? Or is it simply to repeat orthodoxy?

But it is precisely this emphasis on cultural continuity, and the tradition of the intelligentsia, which seemed to place the studio in an especially difficult position when it was confronted by the new realities of the post-Soviet era, which demanded a radical break with the Soviet tradition of filmmaking, its educational and political tendencies, its methods of working, its genre system, and instead required new ways of reaching spectators who could now watch western films exclusively if they wished. Curiously, Aleksei Balabanov, the filmmaker who probably adapted to the new commercial and generic realities best of all, while retaining an authorial stamp, began making films in Lenfilm, but indicatively switched to CTB for his most successful productions. Yet, despite two of Russia’s most prominent contemporary directors, Alexander Sokurov and Aleksei German having both begun and being still associated with Lenfilm, the studio has apparently not risen to the challenge of the new situation effectively, and it would seem that its best years are behind it. All the more tragic then, that, during the chaos of the 1990s, in contrast to Mosfilm, the studio relinquished the potentially lucrative rights to its back catalog.

Yet, whether Lenfilm, the physical entity survives as a studio and filmmaking enterprise into the future is a question we can separate from that of its history, which is still in flux and to be written. In this shrewdly conceived symposium, Möller and Wurm created an intellectually stimulating format, where a morning of lectures on a given period or aspect of Lenfilm, was followed by an afternoon and evening of screenings illustrating the theses forwarded in the morning. The total effect was a inspirational embodiment of what film criticism and film history can and should be: rarely is the gap between film itself and its reflection in words so elegantly closed, producing more than either a regular retrospective or verbal analysis, academic or journalistic, could normally hope to achieve. The effect was to give life to a coherent vision of what Lenfilm was about, and in that sense, Lenfilm lives and will continue to live on.

Jeremy Hicks
Queen Mary University of London

Works Cited

Bagrov, Peter, “Ermler, Stalin, and Animation: On the Film The Peasants (1934),” Kinokultura, 15 (2007).

Kozlov, Vladimir, “St. Petersburg Filmmakers Concerned About Lenfilm”s Future,” Hollywood Reporter, 11 April 2012.


Jeremy Hicks © 2012

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Updated: 06 Jul 12