On the situation of Russian cinema art

Carlos Fajardo (Reviews Journal)
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By WALTER BENJAMIN*

Soviet cinema as a political piece of the popular revolution

The best of the Russian film industry can be seen more easily in Berlin than in Moscow. Already in Berlin, a selection of these films arrives that we would have to make in Moscow ourselves. In this case, the advice cannot be followed without further ado: “Russians confront their own films in a very uncritical way” (it is known, for example, that the great success of The battleship Potemkin was decided in Germany). Reason for this uncertainty in the judgment: the lack of the European criterion of comparison. In Russia, you rarely see good foreign films. In its purchases, the government takes the view that the Russian market is so important for competing international firms that, in a sense, they should send advertising prototypes at reduced prices. In this way, the good and expensive films remain, indisputably, out. For Russian artists themselves, the ensuing public disinformation has its advantages. Iljinsky works with a very inaccurate copy of Chaplin, accepted as comic only because he is unknown here.

Russian internal conditions put more serious and profound pressure on the making of most films. It's not easy to get good scripts because the choice of stories is subject to strict control. Literature enjoys greater freedom of expression in Russia. The theater is more rigorously monitored and, quite rigorously, the film. This scale is proportional to the dimension of the mass of spectators of each one. Under this regime, most productions are now based on episodes from the Russian revolution; films that hark back to the distant past constitute an insignificant middle zone, and comedies, by European standards, cannot be counted at all.

The core of all the current difficulties of Russian filmmakers, then, is that the public, in its own domain, follows less and less the political play of the people's revolution. With a high number of death and horror dramas, the political-naturalist period of Russian film reached, approximately a year and a half ago, its culmination. Such themes, meanwhile, lost their grace. Everywhere, words of inner satisfaction are heard. Film, radio, theater distance themselves from all propaganda.

The attempt to approach certain more peaceful stories led to a notable technical device. Because, for political and artistic reasons, filming of the great Russian novels was generally prohibited; some of their known types were taken from them, “mounting” them in an updated, freely invented action. From Pushkin, Gogol, Gotscharow, Tolstoy, figures are removed, often preserving their names. Rather, these new Russian films look to the Russia of the Far East. This means that “for us there is nothing 'exotic'”. This concept is properly valid as part of the counterrevolutionary ideology of a colonized people. Russia cannot use the romantic concept of a “Far East”. This one is close to him and economically connected. At the same time, this means: “we are not dependent on foreign countries and landscapes, for Russia is the sixth part of the Earth! We have everything earthly on our own soil and ground.”

Therefore, it debuted a little while ago sixth part of the earth, an epic film from the new Russia. Director Dziga Vertov did not rise to the challenge of showing, in characteristic images, the entire enormous Russia in its conversion through the new social order. The film's colonization of Russia failed, but it managed to emphasize the demarcation of borders in relation to Europe very well. This film begins with that demarcation. In fractions of seconds, images of workplaces (circular pile drivers, day laborers during the harvest, transport workers) and places of entertainment in the capital (bars, restaurants, clubs) follow each other.

Specific, minute snippets (often just details of a stroking hand or dancing feet, part of a hairstyle or a string of pearls on a fragment of a neck) have been taken from society films of recent years and assembled in such a way. so that they were sandwiched, without interruption, between images of enslaved proletarians. Unfortunately, the film soon drops this scheme to devote itself to a depiction of the Russian landscape and people, whose relationship to their economic production base is hinted at rather obscurely. The extent to which solutions are still being sought and uncertainty is shown by a single situation in which images of cranes, levers are represented, and the transmission of a chorus with themes from Tannhäuser and Lohengrin is played.

Even so, these shots are characteristic of the desire to deduce the films from one's own life, without a decorative and dramatic apparatus. One works with masked equipment, while, in front of a simulation, the primitive ones (Primitive) assume any pose. They are actually filmed just moments after they believed it was over. The good new formula “Take off the masks!” it has no greater value anywhere than in Russian films. Hence, nowhere else is the significance of movie stars and stars so small. We are not looking for an actor for all cases, but the type required on a case-by-case basis. Yes, it goes even further. Eisenstein, the director of The Battleship Potemkin, prepares a film based on the lives of peasants, in which there should in no way be professional actors.

Peasants are not only one of the most interesting objects, but the most important audience for Russian culture films. Through films, an attempt is made to bring them historical, political, technical and hygienic knowledge. But, in view of the difficulties that stand in the way of this attempt, one is still quite disoriented. The peasants' way of understanding is radically different from that of the urban masses. It has been shown, for example, that rural audiences are not in a position to capture two simultaneous action sequences, as every film contains innumerable times. Only a single sequence of images is projected which, in complete chronological order, as both reassuring and terrifying images, must unfold before them.

After repeatedly observing that passages considered serious acted on them as irresistibly eaten and, on the contrary, the comic as serious, to the point of commotion, the production of films appropriate for those itinerant cinemas that eventually advance to the most extreme frontiers began. extremes of Russia, which have not yet seen either cities or modern means of transport. Letting film and radio work on such a collective is one of the greatest experiments in social psychology that is now being carried out in that gigantic laboratory that is Russia. Naturally, in country cinemas, enlightenment films of all kinds play a leading role.

Practices such as defense against locust plagues, tractor handling, and alcoholism treatment stand out. Much of what the programs of these itinerant cinemas contain remains, however, incomprehensible to the great mass and serves as educational material for the most progressive: members of the rural soviets, correspondents in the countryside, etc. Today, it is thought, in this context, to found an “Institute for the study of the spectator”, in which it would try to research, experimentally and theoretically, the reactions of the public.

Therefore, the last great solution, With the face in the province!, went on to act in films. Politics provides here, as in literature, the strongest impulse, with directives that are passed, monthly, like couriers, from the central committee of the party to the press, from there to clubs, from there to theaters and films. However, it may also happen that serious obstacles arise from such currencies. A paradoxical example is offered by the slogan “industrialization”. Given the passionate interest in everything technical, one would think that the preferred films would be the grotesque.

But, in reality, this very passion now excludes the comic from technique, and the eccentric comedies coming from America were a Fracasso resounding. The new Russia cannot understand ironic and skeptical feelings about technical things. For the rest, Russian films overlook the problems and material of bourgeois life as a whole, that is to say: no love drama is allowed in the film. Dramatic and even tragic accentuation of love situations is frowned upon throughout Russian life. Suicides by betrayal or unhappy love, such as still happen here and there today, are judged by the public opinion of communism as nothing less than the grossest excess.

All the problems that are at the center of the discussion are for the film – exactly as for literature – problems within the scope of the matter of the stories. Thanks to the new age of civil peace [Ära des Burgfriedens] they entered a difficult stage. Russian film can stand on a secure foundation only if relations in Bolshevik society (not just in city life!) are stable enough to support a new “social comedy”, new cartoons and typical situations.

*Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was an essayist, literary critic and philosopher. Author, among other books, of Essays on Brecht (Boitempo).

Translation: Ernani Chaves
Zur Lage der Russian Filmkunst
Originally published in the magazine Die literarische Welt, on March 11, 1927.

 

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