The period from 1924 to 1930 is often called “The Golden Age of Soviet Cinema.” During this time, Soviet filmmakers made breakthroughs in visual effects and editing styles. At the same time, they rejected the bourgeoisie trend in Western films of psychologizing characters and focusing on individuals. Instead, Soviet directors often focused on people in groups and used character types.1
Several great films emerged from this tradition. In 1924, Lev Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks satirized the attitude of Western countries toward Bolshevik Russia. In 1925, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, widely praised by both modern critics and its contemporaries, utilized Eisenstein’s idea of “dialectical montage.” In 1929, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, crowned best documentary film of all time by Sight and Sound, featured astounding visual effects and editing in its depiction of Soviet life. The next decade, however, saw a significant change in the style of Soviet film.
Trailer for a restoration of Man with a Movie Camera, courtesy of the British Film Institute.
Clip from The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History Youtube channel.
Trailer by Kino Lorber for restoration of Battleship Potemkin, published on chatsdeamerica Youtube channel.
Boris Shumiatskii became head of the Soviet film industry in the early thirties. He had the power to suggest topics or stop production of a film at anytime he wished, and opposed the extravagance of the editing and at times avant-garde style of these directors. In 1935, the Party held a conference in which the great filmmakers of the twenties were forced to renounce their previous style and criticize each other’s films.2 Shumiatskii wanted films more accessible to wider audiences, as he called it, “cinema for the millions.”
Whereas Soviet cinema had been distinct and world-renowned in the twenties, during this era it became based in socialist realism, and took a Western approach to character and plot.3 A notable example was the film Chapaev (1934), directed by the Vasiliev brothers. This film emphasizes its protagonist’s humble beginnings and dedication to the Bolshevik cause in the Civil War. Its focus on Chapaev’s personality resonated strongly with audiences, making it the most popular film of this era. Shumiatskii called it “the best film produced by Soviet cinema in the whole of its existence.”
Another Western style of film that gained popularity was the musical comedy. In the early thirties, Grigorii Aleksandrov visited the United States alongside Sergei Eisenstein. There he discovered this genre, which he brought back and used in many of his films. On this same trip, Aleksandrov met Charlie Chaplin. A boat ride on the Mississippi River with the comedian alongside a joking comment by Chaplin inspired Aleksandrov’s most popular film, Volga-Volga.
In 1938, Stalin’s favorite movie premiered. Volga-Volga, a musical comedy starring Liubov Orlova, follows a woman as she tries to get her village’s artistic talent recognized. There are numerous reasons Stalin would like this film. The peasant characters are upbeat and patriotic – nothing of the horrors of collectivization is mentioned. Furthermore, the antagonists – a band of performers they are racing to Moscow – are obsessed with bourgeois classical music, but eventually come around to the patriotic song written by one of the peasants. Lastly, both the film’s cinematography and characters extol the physical beauty of Russia. Stalin reportedly sent a copy of Volga-Volga to Franklin Roosevelt.
Overall, the thirties began an era of extreme censorship in the Soviet film industry. Directors like Eisenstein and Kuleshov struggled under the repression, while more conventional filmmakers flourished. However, while the quality and uniqueness of films certainly fell, the movies of this era are fascinating and quirky in their own right. Lastly, it’s truly amazing that a society of such repression would create one of history’s most innovative directors, Andrei Tarkovsky, just a couple of decades later.
Bonus Video: Though not a Soviet filmmaker, Charlie Chaplin was mentioned in this post. Watch the Tramp do the Oceana Roll.
A few great Soviet films you can watch on Kanopy:
- Man with a Movie Camera – Vertov
- Battleship Potemkin – Eisenstein
- Strike! – Eisenstein
- The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks – Kuleshov
- Earth – Dovzhenko
- Solaris – Tarkovsky
- David Gillespie, Early Soviet Cinema: Innovation, Ideology, and Propaganda (London: Wallflower Publishing Limited, 2000), 8-10.
- Peter Kenez, Cinema and Soviet Society: 1917-1953 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 130.
- Ibid, 128-9.