KinoKultura: Issue 59 (2018)

The Metamorphosis of a Model: The Development of the Spy Film from the 1930s during the early Thaw

By Evgenii Margolit

The history of Soviet film has known two periods when the cinematic process was on the verge of complete stagnation, or “freeze.” First, the threshold of the 1920s and 1930s, the so-called era of agitprop (agitation-and-propaganda or political-educational film); and second, the threshold of the 1940s and 1950s, the so-called epoch of cine-anemia (malokartin’e). Both periods are characterized by a subsequent prevalence of the agitation-and-propaganda function in cinema to the detriment of other functions, including aesthetic and entertaining, and by an externally prescribed model of the screen world, which totally unifies film language and practically cancels out any genre variety. Both periods were, of course, moments of crisis, and in both cases the way out came through the recognition that cinema may not only educate, but also entertain. In both cases, one of the results was a gradual return to traditional genre models: in the mid-1930s above all to comedy (mainly musical), and later to adventure films (basically on the material of work by state security agents, security officers or border guards). On the genre system that has developed during this period leans the early Thaw cinema of the 1950s (adding to it social drama, often with elements of melodrama).

zavtra voinaSpeaking about the adventure genre, I deliberately avoid the term “detective film.” The model of the “spy film,” as it was formed in the 1930s and is re-used in the 1950s, arises as a thematic (not genre) version in the unified system of the agitprop film, which rejects such genre distinctions. The agitprop film represents, above all, a cinematic instruction piece. Such a direct instruction about how to reveal and expose a spy at the front during the future war is the “defense film,” made in 1931 in Leningrad at the studio Belgoskino, Who is She? (Kto ona?), with the alternative title Enemy at the Gate (Vrag u poroga) and directed by the godfather of films about the future war, Lazar’ Antsi-Polovskii. Later he would participate in the making of the well-known film If War Comes Tomorrow (Esli zavtra voina, 1938). For some time, until 1936, the “defense film” was not intended for wide distribution: as a film-instruction it was aimed at the display in military units only.

When this model returned to repertoire in the second half of the 1930s, on another wave of Stalinist repressions and trials of “enemies of the people,” it was modified and further complicated, but its essence and purpose as film-instruction remained the same. As paradoxical as it may seem, in its thematic structure the “spy film” is closer to an industrial drama. As a matter of fact, it represents an obvious demonstration of how one or another production functions, and how manufacture can be improved by eliminating temporary malfunctions and defects. This may be an industrial enterprise that fulfils and exceeds the plan, or a department of state security neutralizing agents of foreign services which have come into the country, as well as their helpers within the country—the latent Soviet class enemies. (I add in brackets that the organs of state security received plans on disclosing the enemy in the same way as plans were sent to any enterprise with the instruction to execute and exceed in fulfilling the plan). Actually, the motive of the spy’s exposure did not necessarily have to form the narrative. It arose also in films about socialist construction, i.e. industrial films such as Aerograd (aka Frontier, dir. Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1935), In the Far East (Na dal’nem vostoke, dir. David Mar’ian, 1937), The Frozen North (Komsomolsk, dir. Sergei Gerasimov, 1938); in films about Party building, such as The Party Card (Partiinyi bilet, aka Anna, dir. Ivan Pyr’ev, 1936), Great Citizen (Velikii grazhdanin, dir. Fridrikh Ermler, 1938); and even in comedies, notably those about advanced workers, such as A Girl with Character (Devushka s kharakterom, dir. Konstantin Iudin, 1939) or Arinka (dir. Nadezhda Kosheverova, Iurii Muzykant, 1939). In the overwhelming majority of cases the main task of the enemy is not the gathering of confidential information, but the exercises of diversions: this explains any technical malfunctions and accidents in production, and even acts of nature.

Therefore the model of the spy film does not fit into the classical structure of the genre of the detective film, but frequently stands in juxtaposition to it. So, the confronting sides are not only immediately identified for the spectator of the spy film, but they are personified from the very beginning. That deprives the narration of the secret, one of the key elements of the detective genre, where the villain remains faceless almost up to the end. In the spy film, meanwhile, the enemy is normally designated from the first appearance, no less than is his antagonist, as for example in The Locked Border (Granitsa na zamke, dir. Vasilii Zhuravlev, 1938), High Reward (Vysokaia nagrada, dir. Evgenii Shneider, 1939), or Engineer Kochin’s Error (Oshibka inzhenera Kochina, dir. Aleksandr Macheret, 1939).

A remarkable detail: the state security officer is the only character who may take the role of a detective, and he appears on screen exclusively in uniform. Neither the creators nor the character ever seem to think of the possibility of changing the uniform, even for the purpose of disguise. Meanwhile, according to the fine observation by Roger Caillois in his 1941 essay “The Detective Story as Game” (1983), the genre “has emerged thanks to new circumstances which emerged at the beginning of the 19th century. By creating the political police, Fouché replaced speed and force with cunning and privacy. Until this time, the representative of authority wore a uniform. The policeman rushed in pursuit of the criminal and tried to catch him. The secret agent replaced the pursuit with investigation, speed with intelligence, and violence with reserve.”

vysokaia nagradaAccordingly, the spy film lacks the game that is vital for the detective story, both between the detective-hero with his opponent-villain, and between the author and the spectator. The scenario with a false lead that the detective may follow for a while is impossible: the representative of state security cannot be mistaken. From the very beginning he knows the full truth. For a certain (but normally short) time only a simple Soviet citizen helping the hero may remain ignorant. But since the event is absolutely unequivocal, this ignorance looks blissfully child-like, also in the literal sense: therefore, possibly, one of the most common characters in the spy film is the child in The Locked Border; The Train goes to Moscow (Poezd idet v Moskvu, dirs. Al’bert Gendel’shtein, Dmitrii Poznanskii, 1938); and High Reward; or the naive scientist in High Reward; or the equally naive representative of the national minorities, such as the Chukcha in the film The Visitor (Gost’, dirs Adolf Minkin, Gerbert Rappoport, 1939).

The fact that the spy film is not a full-blown genre was already understood in the 1930s by perceptive contemporaries. Enthusiastically praising Engineer Kochin’s Error—the only film in this category that is really (and skillfully) built according to the laws of the classical detective—Mikhail Romm entitled his review of the film “Return of a Genre” (“Vozvrashchenie zhanra”). Thus he evidently confirmed that all previous films on this material had no direct relationship to the canon of the detective genre.

vysokaia nagradaThis model of the spy film of the 1930s is transferred onto the early Thaw cinema of the 1950s, at first sight without any fundamental changes. The appearance in 1955 of the film The Adventures of Corporal Kochetkov (Sluchai s efreitorom Kochetkovym, dir. Aleksandr Razumnyi), which was aimed at screenings in military units as film-instruction about the preservation of a military secret from a possible enemy agency, is indicative of this trend: it begins with the lecture of the deputy political instructor on the topic. The overall objectives of the enemy are the same: to prevent the spread of the strategically important offensive: Dangerous Paths (Opasnye tropy, dir. Aleksandr and Evgenii Alekseev, 1955); Tracks in the Snow (Sledy na snegu, dir. Adolf Bergunker, 1955); Ghosts Leave the Peaks (Prizraki pokidaiut vershiny, dir. Erazm Karamian, Stepan Kevorkov, 1955); or to arrange diversion, as in The Shadow Near the Pier (Ten’ u pirsa, dir. Mikhail Viniarskii, 1955); Above the Tisza (Nad Tissoi, dir. Dmitrii Vasil’ev, 1958). The last films of the 1950s are entirely archaic. The criminal world appears as direct helper of an enemy agency: The Drummer’s Fate (Sud’ba barabanshchika, dir. Viktor Eisymont, 1956); Case No. 306 (Delo No 306, dir. Anatolii Rybakov, 1957); The Variegateds’ Case (Delo pestrykh, dir. Nikolai Dostal, 1958). Especially touching look the intrigues of an enemy agency towards the ideological field of the young architect in the Uzbek film by Kamil Iarmatov, The Rakhmanov Sisters (Sestry Rakhmanyvy, 1954); they fall under the influence of the instructor-nationalist, who acts directly on the command of a foreign spy.

As before, the enemy is introduced to the spectator practically at the first appearance: The Partisan’s Children (Deti partizana, dirs Nikolai Figurovskii, Lev Golub, 1954); The Shadow Near the Pier; Above the Tisza. The detective hero would not part with his uniform during the entire action: The Shadow Near the Pier, Above the Tisza, Case No 306, The Variegateds’ Case, and Operation ‘Cobra’ (Operatsiia Kobra, dir. Dmitrii Vasil’ev, 1960) are examples here. The simple Soviet man is represented as a naïve creature in The Partisan’s Children, The Secret of Two Oceans (Taina dvukh okeanov, dir. Konstantin Pipinashvili, 1957), and The Drummer’s Fate, which places him close to destruction. He reminds us in this naivety of Red Riding Hood from Charles Perrault’s classical fairy tale (which is directly played upon in the text when the villain-spy floutingly addresses the heroine in The Shadow Near the Pier). He/she may be enamored for some time with the enemy, as for example in The Shadow Near the Pier, The Road (Doroga, dir. Aleksandr Stolper, 1955), and The Adventures of Corporal Kochetkov; this motif also goes back to the 1930s (High Reward, Engineer Kochin’s Error). An amusing detail: the female spy (or the helper of spies) in the 1950s, unlike the 1930s, works mainly in the area of public catering or trade, as we see in The Adventures of Corporal Kochetkov, The Shadow Near the Pier or The Variegateds’ Case. So, what essentially changes is the context in which the spy film is set.

Of course, above all the socio-political context is different. In “The Man of the Thaw (1950s)” [“Chelovek ottepeli (50-e gody)”] Vitalii Troianovskii makes a fine observation on the domestic film-production of this period: “It seems that the majority of plots are set in 1954–1956 through the same phase: exposure.” The researcher puts the exposure of enemy agents and bureaucrats, who have torn themselves from the collective, on to the same level as false shock workers and calculating careerists, businessmen and those who infringe moral-ethical standards. He explains this phenomenon with the “participation of cinema in the secrets of changing collective moods.” The wave of screen exposures of 1954–1956 updates the theme of “ours” vs. “theirs.” It brings out the fear of a possible loss of integrity, when inside what appears to be “ours,” unexpectedly—and contrary to historical laws— something is found to be “other,” containing a moral or ideological flaw that here is indiscernible.

engineer kochinIndeed, the criminal in the cinema of these years is also a slanderer, whose victim is one of the characters—a situation that did not arise in the cinema of the 1930s (except for Engineer Kochin’s Error and Party Card). In the most basic variant the enemy tries to send the detective on a false trail (so, for example, the spy-murderer in Tracks in the Snow simulates the robbery of a safe with classified documents and throws the money that is stored there to an incidental character). However, the ruse of the enemy is instantly exposed here. The fullest development of this line is found in plots where the criminal is not connected with the enemy environment, such as Two Captains (Dva kapitana, dir. Vladimir Vengerov, 1955), or The Rumiantsev Affair (Delo Rumiantseva, dir. Iosif Kheifits, 1955); instead the criminal is propelled by personal reasons, unlike the spy who requires no motivation. In these cases, the hero combines both functions of victim and investigator. But the traditional espionage plot also resounds in a more contemporary manner fashion, as in the screen version of Arkadii Gaidar’s story Drummer’s Fate. Practically, the story’s and film’s young hero is compelled to combine these two functions: having lost his parents, he can only rely on himself; under the spell of the criminal world he becomes the instrument of an espionage game, where the spy pretends to be the hero’s uncle. Comparing the facts, towards the end of the story the boy guesses the ploy and stands in the way of the criminals. However, the hero’s father is a victim of repressions and thus the shadow of the accusation (made already before the war: a success of children’s literature, this story scared the regime with its acute plot and the printing was stopped, the books removed from libraries, and the contract on the script terminated) weighs on the child from the outset.

Another feature in this connection is indicative for the image of the criminal: the slanderer becomes a demagogue and continuously says the “correct” words, masking them through his criminal business. This is often the foundation for the image of the enemy. The well-known actor and director Rolan Bykov remembered how at the Moscow Theatre of the Young Spectator (TYuZ), in first half of the 1950s, he acted in a play about the participation of children in the Civil War, where a Cheka officer appeared, whose unique function was to teach the young characters: “By the middle of the second act, the auditorium buzzed with the word ‘spy’.” (Bykov 2010)

But things were not limited to a socio-political context. The entirely positive review of Engineer Kochin’s Error in the newspaper Kino by journalist, scriptwriter and critic Oleg Leonidov ends with a significant phrase: “Many articles and brochures about the methods of espionage do not possess such a convincing force as the live images of a genuine work of art...” The article is remarkable in its comparison of the film not with art, but with instructive textbook literature. Strangely enough, at first sight the literature of the 1930s—unlike cinema or theatre—hardly knows about spies. The espionage plot is intertwined with fantasy for children (the novels of Grigorii Adamov, Nikolai Trublaini), and “defense” prose (In the East by Petr Pavlenko, 1936).

Lev Ovalov’s well-known stories about “Major Pronin” would be parodied two decades later, but in 1940 their publication as a separate book was far from straightforward. This is no coincidence; neither is the fact that Ovalov was subjected to repression three weeks after the beginning of the war on charges (as he subsequently stated) of “disclosure of work methods of the Soviet counter-espionage.” The description of the work of high-ranking security officers (unlike border-guards, for example) was definitely not encouraged, and neither was the detective genre itself. So the appraisal of Engineer Kochin’s Error by Romm (and Sergei Eisenstein, by the way) as a work corresponding to the genre canon remains their personal opinion. Leonidov’s evaluation returns the film to the group of works from which it so successfully departed thanks to the genre perfection.

delo 306The situation in the 1950s is diametrically opposite. Instead of “articles and brochures” there is an abundance of fiction from the category “about spies.” If the films of the 1930s were, as a rule, based on original scripts (frequently quite imperfect) of professional scriptwriters, then at the basis of the majority of espionage films of the 1950s are the usual models of spy fiction by Georgii Briantsev (Tracks in the Snow), Nikolai Shpanov (Shadow Near the Pier), Matvei Roizman (Case No. 306), and Arkadii Adamov (The Variegateds’ Case), which were in great demand by the mass reader at the time. The books from the series “Library of Military Adventures,” published by the Soviet Ministry of Defense’s publishing arm Voenizdat, had print runs of over 100,000, which sold out instantly.

Describing this period in her book The Soviet Adventure Film, the film historian Valentina Kolodiazhnaia remarked: “If for a long time the adventure genre held the position of the stepchild, it would soon be the spoilt child who is forgiven any sins.” That is: faster and more principally than the actual model of the spy film changes its perception, both from spectators and critics. The requirement of genre purity, which was so diligently renounced during the previous period, now becomes the distinguishing feature. In 1948 in the foreword to a separate script publication of the well-known Secret Agent (Podvig razvedchika, dir. Boris Barnet, 1947) the authors Mikhail Bleiman, Konstantin Isaev and Mikhail Makliarskii—unconditional experts in the detective genre—find it necessary, obviously conforming to the conditions of the time, to specially stipulate: “the ideological plan of the script is realized in the plot, in which [...] all traditional methods of the detective intrigue play absolutely no role.”

The pathos of Kolodiazhnaia’s book written, basically, in the 1950s, consists in the following appeal to the authors: “Only studying the genre laws will allow [the authors] to discover in the adventure film the struggle of people with different world views and aspirations, to create an image of a hero who really evokes sympathy, love or hatred. The use of expressive means inherent in the adventure genre will relieve the works of improbability and will make them engaging.”

Essentially, the same plots are perceived by the spectator not at all as instructions on how to catch and expose a spy (which was an indispensable condition for the formation and perfection of the model of spy films in the 1930s), but exclusively as an entertaining film show. In this context the wide release of the above-mentioned film-instruction The Adventures of Corporal Kochetkov is indicative: now it is advertised as adventure film. Understandably the loud success of the fantasy film Secret of Two Oceans based on Grigorii Adamov’s novel that had been published in the late 1930s is not at all due to the espionage theme (especially since the allegiance of one of the spies to the Japanese espionage looks entirely archaic and is practically not read). The spectators enthusiastically observe the numerous underwater adventures and miracles of the only-just introduced electronics on the super-modern submarine Pioneer. In short, the vector of movement changes from the 1930s to its direct opposite in the 1950s. This movement is in the direction of genre. Therefore the highest achievements during this period are the works of directors of a new generation: Case No. 306 (1956) by Anatolii Rybakov and Miles of Fire (Ognennye versty, 1957) by Samson Samsonov—when the overwhelming majority of the films listed above is directed by filmmakers working in cinema since the 1930s.

However, for the sake of fairness, we must note the film The Road from 1955, based on a genre script by one of the oldest Soviet scriptwriters, Sergei Ermolinskii. Here, practically for the first time, a man from state security, accompanying a caught spy, hides his job and consequently appears without uniform: this is one of the driving forces of the plot. Particularly since hero’s task is to reveal a disguised enemy messenger who is supposed to make contact with the spy in a large group of people as hey try to get over a mountain pass covered in snow by car. The identity of the messenger—by all rules of the genre—is unknown to the hero and the spectator. Unfortunately, the film did not become a major success due to the somewhat languid direction of the otherwise experienced Aleksandr Stolper, gravitating to detailed realistic narration that is alien to the open genre stylization.

From the first to the last frame the frank elements of genre game triumph in Case No. 306 and Miles of Fire. At night, in the shine of lightning, a car knocks down a woman while driving at full speed and carries on (Case No. 306). Against the background of a blood-red sunset, the train speeds along, shot from an angle; both color and mise-en-scene suggest that a murder has happened on the train (Miles of Fire). The witness of the crime and the most active assistant to the hero-detective is, in the end, the sought-after criminal, while the initiator of the murder is exposed directly at the end, in a moment unbeknown to the hero and the spectator (Case No. 306).

The undercover man from the White Guard is suspicious from the start through his behavior; nevertheless he becomes a fellow traveler for a large part of the narration and even for some time the hero’s ally, as the purpose they pursue is known only to the filmmakers: he makes his way to the city to head an intrigue which the hero-Chekist has to expose and break up (Miles of Fire). Continually there are various signs of a game, on which Case No. 306 is constructed.

ognennyeBoth in the beginning and in the end of the film, the hero, who embarks on the next assignment, playfully complains to his colleague that their joint departure is accompanied every time by bad weather. The hero’s fight with the criminal he exposed is traditionally accompanied by disturbing dramatic music. At the end of the episode the spectator hears: “We suppressed the music of Soviet composers:” the scene was apparently accompanied by a broadcast (a similar method is used for the same purpose in Engineer Kochin’s Error in a scene where the spy hastily makes a copy of confidential drawings). The real name of the spy exposed in the finale is Magda Totgast (guest of death).

Miles of Fire, integrally uniting signs of two genres—detective and western—with professional foppery transfers the model of a concrete work, namely John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), on to the material of the Civil War. At the outset of the narration the hero is warned: “The road will be dangerous.” Actually this is a warning to the spectator; or more precisely, a hint at the primary source of the plot: under the title The Road will be Dangerous (Doroga budet opasnoi) Ford’s classical film was released during the 1940s and 1950s in Soviet distribution.

The last circumstance is especially telling: at the basis of a film on a historical-revolutionary topic lies the model—repeatedly cursed by Soviet criticism—of a “bourgeois” genre: the western. The rigid genre structure finally and without remainders dissolves the ideological component. The socio-historical reality appears in these cases as complete stylization, while the genre stylization becomes eventually a unique and authentic reality.

The spy film, which was actively produced during the era of the early Thaw at all studios in the country, goes to the periphery of the cinematic process at the end of the 1950s, and also to peripheral studios. Its popularity in the film-repertoire of the 1960s is low. This model is superseded by another: the model of the retro-film about the Soviet scouts in the enemy’s rear. It is an extremely interesting theme, but that is the topic for another research. The spy film will come to a close with Gennadii Poloka’s masterpiece One of Us (Odin iz nas, 1971)—a thin stylization, which represents an ironical portrait of the consciousnesses of the 1930s that generated the model of the spy film.

Translated by Birgit Beumers


NB The high-ranking employee of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) was an atypical hero for the literature of the time not because security officers were not a topic earlier, but because the description of work methods of the NKVD, even if in the artistic field, was a dubious and partly risky activity.


Evgenii Margolit

Works Cited:
Bleiman, Mikhail; Konstantin Isaev and Mikhail Makliarskii. 1948. Podvig razvedchika.

Bykov, Rolan. 2010. Ia pobit – Nachnu snachala! Moscow: AST

Caillois, Roger (1983). “The Detective Story as Game,” in The Poetics of Murder, 1–12, edited by Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe. San Diego, New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Kolodiazhnaia, Valentina. 1965. Sovetskii prikliuchencheskii fil’m. Moscow: Iskusstvo.

Leonidov, Oleg. 1939. [review of Engineer Kochin’s Error]. Kino 17 November.

Romm, Mikhail. “Vozvrashchenie zhanra” [review of Engineer Kochin, 1939]

Troianovskii, Vitalii. 1996. “Chelovek ottepeli (50-e gody).” In Kinematograf ottepeli. Kniga pervaia. Moscow: NIIK & Materik.

Evgenii Margolit © 2018

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Updated: 2018