KinoKultura: Issue 38 (2012)

The Greatness of the Small: Episodes and Supporting Roles in Soviet cinema of the 1950s-1970

By Maria Kondratova (Moscow)

bulgakovaMaia Bulgakova, Vladimir Kashpur, Liubov’ Sokolova, Valentina Telegina, Gennadii Iukhtin, Aleksandr Ianvarev, Boris Iurchenko, Valentina Vladimirova... The list could continue, and everyone would add a different name, depending on memory, erudition and taste. Indeed, the names would be recalled only by the true lovers of Russian cinema, while the roles and faces have remained in the memory of a range of Soviet viewers. They were the “supporting actors” in Russian cinema of the 1950s-1970s with a rather unique history of careers and talents. In accordance with Stanislavsky’s overvalued statement about small roles and small actors, they managed to place an enormous human destiny into a few minutes of screen time. But it is impossible to examine the scale of such supporting roles in films of this period in general terms of an actor’s intuition and talent.

The successes of supporting actors came after a radical revision of the dramatic canon. If we compare the distinct “linear” structure of the films made during the years of cine-anaemia (malokartin’e) to the first masterpieces of the Thaw, such as The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957) and The Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, 1959), the increased importance of the episode in the script, which has remained at a high level well into the 1980s, is immediately visible. According to Evgenii Margolit, the “first swallow” of such episodic cinema can be discerned in Simple People (Prostye liudii, 1945) by Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, even if the phenomenon became more than an “exception to the rule” only in the post-Stalin era. The episodes in Thaw and later films can partly be explained by the “external” influence of Italian neo-realism, which enchanted almost all Soviet directors to a greater or lesser extent; no less (and, possibly, even more) important is the “internal reason.” The relaxation of censorship during the Thaw allowed scriptwriters and directors to address themes that had, until then, more or less been “forbidden” or “dubious” from the point of view of the classical, socialist-realist canon; but this free thinking had its limits: the limit of the episode. In films of this period the subplots show people with ambiguous social and moral features and, for the first time in Soviet cinema, they are not “negative” or “re-educated” characters, but stand on a par with the main participants of the action.

telegina dozhivemThe striking images of the “supporting actors” frequently border on “anti-Sovietness:” the woman who has given birth to a retarded child fathered by a hereditary alcoholic in We’ll Live till Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel’nika, dir. Stanislav Rostotskii, 1968); the peasant who has run away from a village that has been ruined by the Bolsheviks, who from hunger is prepared to serve anybody, alongside the Red Army nurse of dubious moral conduct in No Path through Fire (V ogne broda net, dir. Gleb Panfilov, 1968); the sectarian in Workers’ Quarter (Rabochii poselok, dir. Vladimir Vengerov, 1965); the Soviet soldier telling of his adventures with the another man’s wife, whose husband is at the front in Ballad of a Soldier; the woman stealing dough from a factory to feed her hungry children in The Breakfasts of 1943 (Zavtraki 43-ego goda, dir. Inna Tumanyan, 1966); and the mother accused by her own daughter in Other People’s Letters (Chuzhie pis’ma, dir. Il’ia Averbakh, 1976).

kashpur Not only morally, but also physically and corporally the supporting characters are on the whole appreciably more relaxed, more negligent than the main characters. They scratch themselves, they spit out, they stretch their legs, they fight cruelly and harshly, they appear before the spectator half-dressed, unkempt, lewd and drunk. In the protagonists, a similar ambiguity would not have been tolerated even by the most liberal socialist censorship; but supporting actors got away with it.

Moreover, such an “ordinary” and deliberately banal human background provided a verisimilitude of life in Soviet cinema that had not been seen hitherto, creating a natural balance to the almost inevitable idealism of the “main line.” Thus, the chastity of Tania Tetkina (No Path through Fire) and the anxiety of the protagonists of Ballad of a Soldier do not look false simply because they are surrounded by real life with indecency, harassments and ordinary human bestiality. This balance between ideal and natural is unfortunately absent from the dramatic structure of Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying; therefore, this visually innovative film paradoxically looks more out of date than the quite traditionally filmed Ballad. In the same way, the heroines Sokolova (Levikova) and Telegina (the technician) in the film We’ll Live till Monday bring the melodramatic love story of a very young “English girl” and an idealist “historian” onto the “sinful earth.”

However, the word “balance” all the same insufficiently distinctly defines the significance of the episode in the dramatic structure of the films of that time. Polemicizing, or even directly clashing with the basic subject-matter, the episode (at first sight unessential, almost casual) gives the film volume, existential depth, and polyphony.

sokolovaThis can be demonstrated on the example of a scene with the mother of a pupil lagging behind, Levikova (Sokolova) in the film We’ll Live till Monday. At first sight, the only dramatic problem of this fragment is to show that the history teacher (Tikhonov), despite his principles, is no dogmatic man made of stone, but someone capable of sympathy and deviation from the rule. But if we look more widely and closely, then one of the narrative lines is the theme of motherhood; and one of the conflicts in the plot is the opposition of the schoolgirl who dreams of giving birth to four children and the elderly teacher who has missed her chance of motherhood. This scene, brilliantly played by Liubov’ Sokolova, then acquires another meaning: the wife of an alcoholic and mother of a retarded child, Levikova depicts in a few phrases the reality of marriage and motherhood, which considerably differs from the radiant dream of the young and elderly women, and highlights the price that a woman has to pay to follow her natural calling.

There is an old cinema anecdote about the director who, wishing to give multidimensionality to a sugary happy ending with an enamoured couple kissing on the deck of a ship, asked for a lifebuoy to be placed next to them with then inscription “Titanic.” Levikova-Sokolova, with her sad fate, is such lifebuoy for the film, which would otherwise look plain. The two banalities—semi-official, in the women’s happiness found at the workplace; and everyday, in the women’s happiness that lies in children and love—form the conflict. Yet a genuine and terrible human destiny hints at what one is even scared to think or voice: that happiness in fact may be in neither one or the other, but that there may be no happiness at all, and that nevertheless one has to live…

yurchenkoThis observation brings us to another, undercover and unarticulated feature of the best, memorable supporting roles of that time. The incidental heroes of the films of the 1950s-1970s are often (not always, but frequently) profoundly unfortunate people. Maybe therefore they spectators grew so fond of them. In Russian, “to love” (liubit’) means “to pity” (zhalet’). Yet this gloomy, tragic reflection has probably determined the circumstance that the majority of these fine and talented supporting actors were never honoured with leading roles.

In the cinema of the Thaw and later, the main heroes continued to bear the burden of the “image of Soviet man;” although this image grew more complex and more humanised in the films of the 1950s-1970s, right down to the 1980s (e.g. Dream Flights/ Polety vo sne i naiavu) the protagonist of a Soviet film, as a rule, could not be entirely unhappy, and he could certainly not be reconciled with his misfortune. His dissatisfaction could be the result of some discontent in his personal or social life, he could be searching for himself, or doubt and suffer from loneliness or unreciprocated love, but in the end he had to give the image of the “ideal” man filled with social optimism and belief in the bright future—if not for himself, then for the other Soviet people. “Hopelessness” as a feeling or condition stood in contradiction to the ideological basis of the Soviet State, but did not cease to be a natural part of many lives. The tragic dimension, alongside the everyday, moved to the background, raising the latter to inconceivable existential heights. Almost every other success of supporting actors cannot be called other than “shrill:” the mother who finds out that her son has been killed (Sokolova in Workerds’ Quarter); the last surviving soldier of a battalion demanding a shell from his lost comrades (Boris Iurchenko, At Your Threshold / U tvoego poroga, dir. Vasilii Ordynskii, 1964); the woman who in tears digs out the stolen dough from the naked corpse (Maiia Bulgakova in The Breakfasts of 1943); the convict Korableva (Valentina Telegina in Resurrection/ Voskresen’e, dir. Mikhail Shveitser, 1960). The heroes of Soviet cinema are normally more reserved than frank and they rarely display personal feelings (except for patriotism or enthusiasm for work); only few characters express feelings of empathy, when their emotions and pain are not hidden in the subtext. People loved the supporting actors last not least for their ability to endure suffering, and for the readiness to open up to the end and respond to the hero’s pain.

cranesOf course, not all episodes in the films of this era carry such an existential load, but the ones that do define the true face of post-war cinema. Time Forward! (Vremia vpered, 1965) by Mikhail Shveitser, for example, shows a brilliant but absolutely traditional ensemble of supporting roles of heads of production. And as good as Vladimir Kashpur in the role of Khanumov may be when he defends the brigade’s right to the challenge banner, this role is neither in scale nor human content comparable to the role of the hungry and sharp-witted peasant Nikolai from Gleb Panfilov’s film (No Path through Fire), protesting against the revolutionary truth where it stands in contradiction with human emotions. The convincing role of the conscious Kapustina (Sokolova) is sufficiently engaging, while serving the main subject lines of the film: the transformation of the blind worker Leonid Pleshcheev and the restoration of the factory destroyed by the war. Artistically (not professionally) the episode “Kapustin learns about his son’s death” is a masterpiece of acting. Here, it is possible to speak of some law: the more detached episodes and incidental roles stand from the rigid dramatic scheme, the stronger they are, as a rule, both dramatically and in terms of acting, and the more they have an authentic and life-like feel.

Speaking about Christian motifs in Soviet cinema: researchers tend to limit their analysis to symbolical and plot elements, which the erudite cinema-goer finds easily in many Soviet directors from Eisenstein to Tarkovsky and Abuladze. But the true Christian roots of Russian cinema lay much more deeply than these superficial borrowings.

yurchenkoCommunistic ideology and art insisted on a vigorous reorganization of the world and of man’s destiny. But alongside the essentially pagan cult of the hero-superman, rushing towards an embrasure or campaign, Soviet cinema gradually created another feature: the non-hero, the person who is not acting, not changing, but “experiencing” life with all its often intolerable grievances. This love for the “small things” is perhaps the most Christian feature in Russian cinema. The more daring the protagonists of post-war Soviet cinema are, the meeker the minor characters become. Behind the scared look of the peasant Nikolai (Kashpur) or the loving and suffering look of the mother (Sokolova) we fathom more than a personal destiny; behind them lie centuries and ages of patiently carrying the cross, millions of silent souls that have sunk into oblivion, who have not aspired and are not honoured to do something “great” and “glorious,” but who are no less precious. If we look from this angle at the careers of the supporting actors, the absence in their biographies of the main roles begins to look less like a failure than a special choice.

Without becoming heroes, they have remained among those dozens and hundreds and millions of minor people who live and die in obscurity, who are deprived of the opportunity to express themselves. They have become the voice and the face of a whole generation. The actor in a leading role, as typical as he may be, all the same plays for himself. The supporting roles were played for the people, and the spectator responded with gratitude and love.

There is a theological theory that is unpopular in Orthodoxy, which considers secular culture with disdain, but which is analyzed by Protestant and Catholic theologians: that the Last Judgment will consider not only human souls, but also human achievements from the point of view of their conformity to the divine plan. If this is true, then Soviet cinema will be justified not by the great and atheistic images of the protagonists, but the restrained fates of the minor people, whose faces and fates are today inseparable in our memory from the image of the time and the nation.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Maria Kondratova

Maria Kondratova © 2012

Comment on this article on Facebook
Updated: 21 Oct 12