KinoKultura: Issue 57 (2017)

The Soviet Program at the 1932 Venice Film Festival

By Evgenii Margolit

The first film festival in Venice, which took place within the traditional Venice Bienniale in 1932, was for the Soviet Union an event to which the authorities did not pay much attention, unlike the following festival in 1934. The question of the participation at the second festival was decided at the level of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and the joint report of the head of cinema, Boris Shumiatskii, and the chairman of the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries VOKS [Vszesoiuznoe obshchestvo kul’tornoi sviazi s zagranitsei, est. 1925] Aleksandr Arosev from 28 June 1934 noted that “the organizing committee of the international exhibition already widely advertises the participation of the USSR in this event and suggests that a Soviet film would receive an award this time …” (Anderson et al. 2005, 237).

venezia 1932So the echo of the success (if not triumph) of Soviet cinema at the first Venice film festival reached the USSR with considerable delay. Suffice it to say that a first mention in the Soviet press appeared only on 2 January 1933, in Izvestiia TsIK [News of the Central Electoral Committee], that is five months after the event. And the text of this note reveals that it was not first-hand writing. The report informs the readers that “at the international film exhibition in Venice, Soiuzkino and Mezhrabpomfilm were awarded a gold medal for the high quality of film production.” Meanwhile, no medals had been issues at this film festival, there was no jury, and the results were conducted on the basis of an audience questionnaire, where in the column “the most talented director” the greatest number of votes went to Nikolai Ekk, the maker of Road to Life (Putevka v zhizn’). Obviously, the “gold medal” arose in association with the Paris exhibition of 1925 where such awards were given to Soviet films.

In reality, the Soviet film program consisted of the works created at three and not two film studios: besides Road to Life from Mezhrabpomfilm, and And Quiet Flows the Don (Tikhii Don) from Soiuzkino, directed by Ol’ga Preobrazhenskaia and Ivan Pravov, the program included also The Earth (Zemlia) from the Kiev film studio VUFKU, directed by Aleksandr Dovzhenko, which is not mentioned in the text.

Some words about the content of these films are in order. In terms of subject-matter, they differ: Road to Life is the story of the re-education of children-offenders in a new kind of state. Instead of prison they find themselves in a commune-style hostel, which they transform into an enterprise. They successfully resist the intrigues of the former gang leader, despite the fact that the protagonist perishes in a final fight with him. The Earth also tells about the struggle for a new society, this time in a Ukrainian village, where the enthusiasts of collectivization, led by a komsomol tractor driver, hit the resistance of the more prosperous peasants (kulaks). The kulaks kill the hero, but his death convinces the majority of the inhabitants of the necessity to rally for this struggle. And finally, there is And Quiet Flows the Don, the screen version of the first book of the novel by Mikhail Sholokhov. The action takes place in the world of the Don Cossacks in the pre-revolutionary era, on the eve and during WWI. At the center of the narration stands the passionate love of a young Cossack and his neighbor, a married women.

This program, in my opinion, is put together brilliantly in every respect. It presents a certain stylistic unity, whilst also offering a variety of individual hallmarks of each filmmaker. There are two key moments here: the immersion of the central characters in the sphere of non-professional actors (the inhabitants of the Ukrainian village in Earth, the inhabitants of the Don Cossack village in And Quiet Flows the Don, the homeless children in Road to Life); and the introduction of nature as an elementary force, not just as a background, but as a significant moment that shapes the plot. These general and common features link the films to one of the main variants of Soviet screen Utopia, where the ideal man is likened to a faultlessly functioning part in a huge mechanism (its most radical expression can be found in the works of Dziga Vertov, Symphony of Donbass [Simfoniia Donbassa], for example). Films of this group are governed by the poetics of classical montage.

In counterbalance, along the other axis, the films in the Soviet program in Venice reveal an image of society and nature that is the result of a common language (the clearest example is Dovzhenko’s Earth). Here, the human community should be rendered in the ideal through an image not of mechanical, but organic unity. Hence the permanent correlation of social rhythm with natural rhythm, which creates a more elongated frame in comparison to the canon of montage and, accordingly, slows of pace in general. 

Most important, despite the distinct poetics of these films, each of them evidently affects the ritual-mysterial character of the narration. In And Quiet Flows the Don it is shown (as in The Peasant Women of Riazan [Baby Riazanskie, 1927] dir. Preobrazhenskaia and Pravov) at the level of a keen interest in ethnographic detail. Dovzhenko directly interprets Earth through the memoirs of his assistant Lazar Bodik—as a ceremony of familiarizing both as the peasant-participants and the onlooker with the new world. At a closer examination of Road to Life, this motive can also be discerned here. The plot is effectively constructed as a ritual of initiation: the heroes lose the paternal home, undergo a series of trials and, as a result, they mature and become full members of society.

Attention must be drawn to the circumstance that the Soviet program at the festival was the only one which included, along with the sound film Road to Life, two silent films; the programs of the other countries consisted only of sound films. Moreover, both silent films were created two years before the event, in 1930. And both silent films had difficulties in reaching the screen: concerning Earth, on 16 April 1930 the specially assembled Organization Bureau of the Central Committee of VKP(b) decided not to release the film before several episodes had been excised (e.g. the scene of refueling the radiator of a tractor with urine and some shots of the naked bride), while the screen version And Quiet Flows the Don was released into distribution over a year after completion, in May 1931, after intervention of the novel’s author Mikhail Sholokhov.

How can such a selection principle for the Soviet program be explained: why does the Soviet program, unlike the programs of other countries, contain two films that are two years old and, besides, silent? This is not only a matter of comparison with other countries, where in the USSR the release of sound fiction films was delayed by about one to two years (and their weight in the overall mass of Soviet film-production of 1931/32 was insignificant), but also of the technical quality of sound films which proved imperfect in comparison with western standards. No less relevant is another circumstance: in 1930/31 Soviet cinema boasts a rise of the mechanistic kind of Utopia, unconditionally and consistently.

venezia 1932This spreads precisely in the form of the so-called “agitprop-film,” that is agitation and propaganda film, “a strange hybrid of old propaganda material with traditional feature film,” by a later definition from the contemporary, well-known Soviet film critic and theorist Mikhail Bleiman (1973, 323). Its aesthetic Bleiman considered as a “imitative and primitive […] attempt to popularize the montage system” (Bleiman 1973, 324). The Soviet management itself, in the figure of Boris Shumiatskii, was compelled to recognize that the unsuccessful practice of the agitprop film brought “not only multi-million losses, but also tiresome simplistic films, which were essentially neither agitation nor propaganda, but only covered themselves with these weighty labels” (Shumiatskii, radio report of 5 April 1933: in Anderson 2005, 192). Accordingly, from the films made in 1931, practically none could be selected, except for Road to Life by the debutant in fiction filmmaking, Nikolai Ekk: a film that exploded on the dim cinematic sky of 1931 “just like a comet, injudicious, Amidst the planets, calculated”, to speak with the words of Aleksandr Pushkin (“The Portrait,” 1828). Films of 1932 that were considered to overcome the aesthetics of the agitprop-film, such as Fridrikh Ermler’s The Counterplan (Vstrechnyi), Dovzhenko’s Ivan, Aleksandr Macheret’s Men and Jobs (Dela i liudi), were not finished for the Venice event. Therefore, resorting to earlier films seemed reasonable and indicative of the quality of the agitprop film at the time.

Moreover, the names of the directors of And Quiet Flows the Don and Earth were by this time familiar to the western spectator, at least to the cinephile. Preobrazhenskaia’s and Pravov’s ethnographic drama from the rural life of pre-revolutionary Russia, The Peasant Women of Riazan (1927), had been distributed with tremendous success in Western Europe and the US. Dovzhenko’s Earth had become well-known and highly ranked in international film circles after the director’s visit to Germany and France in the middle of 1930.

Another explanation for the choice of silent films for the Soviet program is suggested by the British scholar Jeremy Hicks (2007) in his fine work on the foreign reception of the early Soviet sound film Chapaev in Britain and America. He reminds us that in the West aesthetes appreciated above all silent Soviet cinema, while the attitude to sound was rather strained.

In such a context Road to Life would evidently connect the tradition of silent Soviet cinema—world-wide recognized as classical by that time—with the emergent sound film. Suffice it to compare the finale of Ekk’s and Dovzhenko’s films: the finale of Road to Life contains a reference to The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, dir. Eisenstein, 1925) in the frames of the dead Mustafa and the dead Vakulinchuk, underlined though an echo in the inter-titles: “He who first raised the revolt, first falls by the hand of the executioner” in The Battleship Potemkin, rhymes with “And the first on the first locomotive” in Road to Life .

In Road to Life one of the major motives of classical Soviet cinema emerges: of the recognition of one’s own in what is first presented as “other,” as threatening (suffice it to remember the ending of Potemkin: “A shot? Or...”, followed by “Brothers!”). With this theme., in Road to Life echoes the scene of the first meeting of the homeless children with the chief of the commune, Sergeev (in the lead roles, the 20-year-old student of the acting department of Goskino’s Technical College, the Mari poet Jyvan Kyrlia, and the remarkable actor of the Moscow Art Theatre Nikolai Batalov). The well-known leader of the theatrical avant-garde Vsevolod Meyerhold (whose pupil Nikolai Ekk was in his time) subtly noticed that the success of the film relies on two smiles: that of Kyrlia and that of Batalov (cited in Isimetov 2003, 25). In the certain sense, Road to Life concentrated the main features of the entire Soviet program in Venice and, in broader terms, of the idea of the West about the originality of Soviet cinema that emerged in the 1930s.

The question arises as to who carried out the final selection of the Soviet program. Considering that there was no reaction to these events at top level, the question was probably resolved at the middle level. Obviously, the selection of works for an international review was guided by their success abroad: Earth in the cinematic circles of the Western Europe, as we already remarked; the wide popularity of And Quiet Flows the Don, and especially Road to Life among the mass audience in Western Europe.

However, from the point of view of Soviet cinematographers of those years, especially the cinematic avant-garde, this program combines things that would appear incongruous. If Dovzhenko was already one of the recognized leaders of the Soviet film avant-garde, then the attitude of Soviet colleagues and critics was skeptical, to say the least, of the creativity of Preobrazhenskaia and Pravov—leaders of commercial production and considered “traditional.” In a letter to Léon Moussinac in the summer of 1928, Eisenstein would take the foreign success of The Peasant Women of Riazan as a slap in the face of revolutionary Soviet cinema (Zabrodin 2009, 441). After Road to Life, and decades later, leading Soviet cinematographers of this generation—including Grigorii Kozintsev, and the above-mentioned critic and scriptwriter Mikhail Bleiman—persistently refused to recognize their advantages (Margolit and Filimonov 1991).

The western film community, on the contrary, objectively assessed from the beginning the artistic level of these works. The appearance of Road to Life was appreciated among foreign cinematographers, and concerning Preobrazhenskaia and Pravov, George Sadoul noted in his Histoire générale du cinéma the parallels of The Peasant Women of Riazan with the poetics that emerged as a consequence of Dovzhenko’s films (Sadul 1982, 469).

This detail gives the rise to the assumption that a key role in the formation of the final version of the Soviet program belongs to the academic secretary of the 1932 Venice festival, the General Secretary of the International Institute for Educational Cinema in Rome (under the auspices of the League of Nations), Luciano De Feo, who supervised the general program of the film festival. Obviously his visit to the Soviet Union several weeks before the opening of the film-show (in mid-July 1932) was connected to the selection of films. The only reflection of this fact in the Soviet film press of the time has been located by the film historian Peter Bagrov: a note in Kadr, the production bulletin of the Leningrad film studio Lenfilm, from 13 July 1932 (Fomin and Deriabin 2007, 179)

In summary, some words are due about the reaction of cinematographers on the Soviet program. Doubtless the prevalence of nature shots and the wide use of non-professional actors tied in with the later discoveries of Italian neo-realism. Equally, there is no direct documentary evidence from the masters of this direction on an immediate influence through the given films. I should note, however, that the festival events were covered by the 20-year-old journalist Michelangelo Antonioni, and that the Italian program included the film What Scoundrels Men Are! (Gli uomini, che mascalzoni..., dir. Mario Camerini, 1932), where the lead role of Bruno is played by Vittorio De Sica: it is unlikely that the future author of Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948) and Shoeshine (Sciuscià, 1946)—a film about post-war Italian homeless children—was not present at this festival.

At the same time there the testimony of Georgii Bogemskii, a well-known Soviet expert on Italian cinema, who communicated closely with its most outstanding representatives: “When in the 1960s Alessandro Blasetti, one of the oldest Italian directors, first visited Moscow to attend a festival, his first desire was to meet N. Ekk: according to Blasetti, it was under the influence of Road to Life that he dared mix actors and non-professionals when working on his film 1860 (1934), aspiring to recreate an atmosphere of ‘chorality’ and of a collective hero.” (Bogemskii 1989)

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Evgenii Margolit

Works Cited
Anderson, Kirill, Leonid Maksimenkov, L. Kosheleva, and L. Rogovaia, eds. 2005. Kremlevskii kinoteatr, 1928–1953. Dokumenty. Moscow: ROSSPEN.

Bleiman, Mikhail. 1973. O kino – svidetel’skie pokazaniia. Moscow: Iskusstvo

Bogemskii, G. 1989. "Sud'by neorealizma" in Bogemskii, ed., Kino Italii. Neorealizm, 5-50. Moscow: Iskusstvo.

Fomin, Valerii and Aleksandr Deriabin, eds. 2007. Letopis' Rossiiskogo kino, 1930-1945. Moscow: Materik.

Isimetov, M. 2003. Iyvan Kyrlia. Ocherk zhizni i tvorchestva. Ioshkar-Ola.

Khiks, Dzheremi [Jeremy Hicks]. 2007.  “Zarubezhnaia retseptsiia rannego sovetskogo zvukovogo kino. ‘Chapaev’ v Velikobritanii i Amerike.” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 83: 66–80.

Margolit, Evgenii and V. Filimonov. 1991. “Proiskhozhdenie geroia (‘Putevka v zhizn’’ i iazyk narodnoi kul’tury.” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 12: 74–99.

Sadul, Zhorzh [Georges Sadoul]. 1982. Vseobshchaia istoriia kino. Vol. 4.2. Moscow: Iskusstvo.

Zabrodin, Vladimir. 2009. "I vse-taki ono budet!" Letters from S. Eisenstein to Léon Moussinac, Kinovedcheskie zapiski 92-93: 438-448.


Evgenii Margolit © 2017

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Updated: 19 Jul 17