‘Tendencies in the Soviet Film’ by Harry Alan Potamkin from The New Masses. Vol. 7 No. 12. June, 1932.

‘Tendencies in the Soviet Film’ by Harry Alan Potamkin from The New Masses. Vol. 7 No. 12. June, 1932.

The film was immediately recognized by the revolutionaries of October as a singular instrument for the enlightenment of the Russian masses. There was more impulse than thought in the production, which was at first entrusted to a cinematographic committee. The initial picture was conceived in scenario by Lunacharsky: it dealt with the appropriation of a bourgeois apartment by workers transferred from unhealthful quarters. In 1922 a corporation was established for film-making, and the fierce experience of the famine, among other themes, was reconstituted. Although no concrete philosophy of the cinema had been defined, the instincts at least were pertinent. They were directed upon profound and common realities. It is true that there were contradictions to this central direction, as for instance the film Aelita which dealt with the mundane revolution through the “futurism” of a Mars locale.

The content of the early Soviet film was essentially correct as far as the source of the theme was concerned. But it was oppressed by immaturity into bluntnesses that wearied the idea with false values. The first false value was that of an extreme proletarianism that was really a petty-bourgeois self-consciousness; the second was literalism. The films were agitated by a species of performance known in America as “mugging”: emphasis on the actor’s self-esteem. They were stodgy through lack of leavening. They needed two trainings: ideological and technical.

Not to understand this period as an historical pre-nativity is to err in the direction of snobbery. We may call this the automatic period, when without preparation the Soviet cinematographers transferred old acquaintances to new themes. Soon, however, the automatism was annulled by an awakened purpose, and the consolidation of the film-forces took place. It is, therefore, not incorrect to call Polikushka the first Soviet picture: it was the first film to have its entity comprehended. But still this was not the revolutionary experience reenacted, elucidated and transfigured. That was first articulated in the films of Pudovkin (Mother) Eisenstein- Alexandrov (Strike and Potemkin), Raisman (In Old Siberia), and others. In this period too the Soviet film took up the extension of film aesthetics from where it had remained standing in the splendid provincial cinema of Sweden, the German kino’s “golden age,” and the folk-utterances and Griffith platitudes of the U.S.A. movie. As Comrade Leon Moussinac has said, the Soviet film has extended the motion picture through its participation in the Revolution.

It is not surprising, considering the world role of this Soviet kino, that it should have become interested in a production principle which at times distracted the director from the content- experience. This principle called “montage” has indeed become, outside of the Soviet Union, a cult that frequently passes per se, not only for the Soviet film, but for the entire cinema. It is, in reality, an emphasis superseding the previous emphases, such as the actor, the camera. Today the Soviet kino is recognizing these for the instruments they are and is arriving at the terminal contact, which is, after all, the human experience. This does not, however, come about without a debt to the primitive period; for the source is identical. Indeed we find that, just as today, we have a Road to Life , yesterday there was The Deserted Children; just as today there is Siberian Patrol , yesterday there was The Red Partisan , The Red Gas, dealing with the self-formed worker-peasant armies that drove out the interventionists. But the difference between them is great: it is the difference that maturity has produced. Instead of the actor, there is the character, the human personality. Instead of the oratory of the “grand” films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, there is intimacy of contact. The arbitrary syllogism that led from petty-bourgeois individualism (actor-inflation) to impersonality is declared archaic, and instead we get a Road to Life and a Golden Mountains in which collectivism is experienced through its florescence, the human personality.

Pudovkin’s ‘Mother.’

Unfortunately, the transference of Soviet pictures to the U.S.A. is not always wholly successful in these days speaking films. Insufficient quantity and inept quality of titles falsify, to an extent, the intelligence of these pictures and make them sag in places. Still, if one can deduce the intention from the progression before one, the picture becomes luminous with a new reality, that of the advance of Soviet culture. This may seem an ambitious assumption, but I support it in this borrowed phrase, “ideological rearmament.” That is what is taking place in the Soviet film concurrently with the evolution of Soviet society. The exceptional social relationships that were inevitable, stringently necessary, in the first fourteen years of the Soviet Union are now being dissolved in the new momentum discharged by the successful establishment of the social framework. The social steel-skeleton is there; now build the human multiplicity upon it. In this work the film is as important as it has been in the establishment of the social base. It will help to re-arm the Soviet citizen with a more detailed arsenal of understanding. That, we may say, is the general direction.

The film has not waited until today to assume this function. Since it has always been current in the educational practice of the Soviet Union, it has anticipated and helped to effect the need for this rearmament, the wish for it. A film like A Fragment of an Empire, by utilizing the lessons of the “oratorical” film in a positive study of a widespread state of mind through the representation of one character, stimulated the Soviet film to a richer purpose than “the making of masterpieces.” It is not accidental that this picture was created by an unequivocal Communist.

‘Fragment of an Empire.’

Today the Soviet film can turn to the pre-revolution for its themes. It has done so in the past, but then mainly as a general statement; today as a particularization through human details.

In Soil is Thirsty, made in 1930 in the indeterminate moment when the Soviet film was ceasing to be mute and had not yet become audible, we see the traces of the idyllic in the epic, which in this case tends to make intimate a large and even remote adventure. Raisman, the director, had already, in In Old Siberia, revealed his ability, through non-intrusion, to evoke charm. In Soil is Thirsty there is, in the play of the epileptic idiot, a fault, remnant from the histrionic era, a “cosmic” commentary in a film whose proportions have been put entirely within the reach of one’s fingers. But the enjoyable importance of the picture is its vivacity, its homeliness that achieves with small means, the telling of a major social event, and renders it human.

In the progress of the Soviet film one may also study the career of the individual artist. Take Protozanov: he directed Aelita, also The Man from the Restaurant, one of those very bad films of German influence belonging to the false-proletarian category; but since then he has made one of the finest of comedies, The Holiday of St. Jorgen, and that detail of the intervention, Siberian Patrol , which seems curtailed in the American presentation. Protozanov is one of the granddaddies of the Soviet film; he antedates “montage.” It is true he will never obliterate traces of the primitive past, but nevertheless he can go on vitalizing the film with his own personal talent for humor and folk-essence, which he has been given the opportunity to discover in himself.

‘Enthusiasm: The Symphony of Donbas’ by Dziga Vertov, 1930.

Of Road to Life I have spoken very fully in Workers’ Theatre; of Golden Mountains I must say summarily that whether it is the greatest or the worst of films is of minor importance. It is a pivotal film that will make film-direction more, rather than less, difficult in the Soviet Union. Eisenstein said before his return to the USSR that he doubted the feasibility of films of “concrete evidence”; he thought the movie better suited to the “general statement.” I am ready to agree that the general statement, the broad canvas, is “easier,” just as melodrama is easier, but not better; that is better which is more complete. And Golden Mountains indicates the more complete film, in which a variety of minds, social groups, inter-refer through one mind, the mind of change. And it does not matter whether the event is of 1914 or of 1941, it is present — the experience of the proletarian revolution is se- cure in its dialectic understanding. This type of film is not a sudden outshoot, it is itself a dialectic eventuality. In many Soviet pictures we have seen the climactic development of a benumbed mind to awareness and assertion: The End of St. Petersburg, Storm Over Asia, A Fragment of an Empire, etc. In the first two, however, the mass events either overwhelm the insistence of the development, or the individual concentration wanders from the mass-meaning. Today there is coordination.

The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1932/v07n12-jun-1932-New-Masses.pdf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s