The publishing house "New Literary Review" published a translation of the book by Maria Belodubrovskaya "Not according to plan. Cinematography under Stalin ”. The author of this detailed study, a film critic and lecturer at the University of Chicago, talks about how the party policy regarding cinema changed during the Stalin years, what happened to Soviet people who wanted to make films. And how did this affect domestic films.
In 1952, New York Times columnist and expert on the Soviet Union Harry Schwartz reported the "decline of Soviet film distribution":
“A case worthy of surprise. Even the most venerable Stalinist dialecticians are unlikely to turn Hollywood Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller into a communist propagandist. Edgar Rice Burroughs' work on the forest savage is replete with thrills and adventure, but hardly has the social significance that is so prized in the Kremlin. But the fact remains. In Moscow, they dug up old films about Tarzan, showed them in cinemas and found that the audience adored them. And this is after many years of denunciations of Hollywood and its "bourgeois decay". "
The reason for such a sharp change in the policy of film screenings, according to Schwartz, was the hopelessness of the situation. The Soviet government had almost no new films of its own production.
Indeed, the most striking feature of Soviet cinema under Stalin was the decline in productivity. The purpose of this book is to explain it. First, it is necessary to define the settings of Soviet cinema politics. Was the plan part of the cut in productivity that caused the release of old American films, or was it a side effect of poor management? We now have access not only to public statements by Stalin, but also to internal discussions in the Central Committee of the CPSU (b). If we examine government regulations in the field of cinema, as well as the industry's attempts to comply with them, we can see that neither low productivity nor Tarzan were in the plans.
The goal was "the cinematography of millions," a concept both quantitative and qualitative. The government under Stalin, as well as before and after him, needed a lot of good propaganda films.
Both quantity and quality were necessary to convince domestic and foreign skeptics of the superiority of Soviet power. Thus, the Stalinist Central Committee pursued two tasks. The maximum program required the film industry to produce hundreds of mainstream films and compete with Hollywood. The minimum program required the release of at least several political and artistic masterpieces per year.
The realization of this double goal was in leaps and bounds and depended on current successes. As the number of paintings grew, the authorities demanded better quality and more careful selection. When quality improved, filmmakers were instructed to increase productivity.
But the Soviet way of filmmaking slowed down the execution of both programs. At the beginning of the Stalinist period, the industry functioned for the most part in an artisanal filmmaker-based regime that was established in the 1920s. From 1930 to 1937, the new head of the Film Committee, the proactive leader and a big fan of genre cinema B.Z.Shumyatsky, unsuccessfully tried to reform this regime.
In 1935, he proposed to modernize cinematography on the Hollywood model and build a film city, Soviet Hollywood, in southern Russia. This proposal, initially approved by Stalin, was in line with the course for the maximum program and could potentially increase both quantity and quality.
But in 1936 the political pendulum swung back to masterpieces, and Stalin abandoned Shumyatsky's plan. The failure of the initiative to create Soviet Hollywood, which promised full control and mass production of films, determined the path of Soviet cinema once and for all. The existing mode of production could not provide quantitative growth, which excluded the implementation of the maximum program.
It was also not possible to implement the minimum program, and the Stalinist period ended in a hopeless small picture. Each time, the bias towards selectivity was accompanied by demonstrative prohibitions and harsh criticism of the "average" and "bad" films, which made up the majority.
Quality was always the main thing for Stalin, but his intolerance for shortcomings only grew over the years. The attacks on the industry reduced productivity, and eventually only a few films were released.
In 1948, realizing that the industry could not create "good" pictures on a massive scale, Stalin resigned himself to a heavily curtailed version of the minimum program.
One of the first Soviet texts on the significance of mass cinema was an article by L. D. Trotsky, "Vodka, Church and Cinematography," published in Pravda in July 1923. Unlike Lenin, who, according to his memoirs, considered cinema the main means of education, "The most important of the arts," Trotsky believed. That cinema is a key instrument of the party and the state in providing the working class with educational entertainment outside of working hours.
Moreover, Trotsky argued that cinema can compete with pubs both as a form of leisure and as a source of income for the state. This was a very bold statement, given that in 1927-1928. the state revenue from the sale of vodka reached more than 600 million rubles, while the profit from cinema in 1926-1927. amounted to less than 20 million rubles.
According to Trotsky, cinema could also replace the church. Indeed, unlike the church, he tells a new story every time. In order to squeeze out the church and alcohol, cinema, in his opinion, had to provide not only education and entertainment, but also a large number of new stories on many venues.
It was supposed to be massive.
In the 1920s. Soviet cinema seemed to have such potential. In the conditions of the pseudo-free NEP market (1921–1928), most of the studios were self-financed and sold their products to large regional distributors on a contractual basis. The distributors, in turn, provided films to cinemas. Domestic films fought for the viewer not only among themselves, but also with foreign films, and some of them quite successfully.
The only significant change that the First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932) brought in comparison with the NEP was to restrict the import of foreign films in 1930. The measure was introduced in order to save money - the country experienced a shortage of foreign exchange, which was used to purchase much more important goods than motion pictures. But the ideological calculation was also present - in this way the Stalinist authorities managed to monopolize the dissemination of cultural and political information.
Nevertheless, the attitude of the authorities to cinema as a potential source of income persisted both in Stalin's time and after.
Combined with the grandiose intention of the Bolsheviks to transform everything, from the economy to the human psyche, this resulted in the maximum program of Soviet cinema: "One hundred percent ideology, one hundred percent entertainment, one hundred percent commerce."
In 1927, in the Political Report of the Central Committee at the 15th Party Congress, Stalin recalled Trotsky's idea to replace vodka with "such sources of income as radio and cinema." In November 1934, when the profit from cinema amounted to 200 million rubles, Stalin told Shumyatsky that this was not enough: "You must seriously prepare to replace receipts from vodka with income from cinema." Earlier in the same year, Shumyatsky submitted a plan to the Central Committee for consideration, according to which this goal could be achieved by the third five-year plan (1938-1942), when the profit from cinema would amount to 1 billion rubles.
In 1930, guided by the conviction that cinema is a powerful cultural force, the Central Committee subordinated all but one Soviet film studio for the production of feature films (there were 14 of them) to one department - the All-Union Film and Photo Association (Soyuzkino). Shumyatsky was appointed its head. The predecessor of "Soyuzkino" - "Sovkino" - was in charge of film production and distribution only on the territory of the RSFSR. Soyuzkino united Mosfilm (Moscow), Lenfilm (Leningrad) and Vostokfilm (which in 1930-1936 included the Yalta film studio) in the RSFSR, as well as the studios of the union republics - Odessa and Kiev (Ukrainian SSR), Belgosfilm (located in Leningrad, but representing Belarus), Georgia-Film (Tbilisi), Azerfilm (Baku), Armenfilm (Yerevan). Turkmenfilm (Ashgabat), Tajikfilm (Stalinabad, now Dushanbe) and Uzbekfilm (Tashkent).
Only the Mezhrabpomfilm studio (Moscow), founded in 1922 by the Berlin-based German-Soviet communist organization International Workers Aid, affiliated with the Comintern, did not obey Soyuzkino.
Initially it was called "Mezhrabpom-Rus", in 1928 it was renamed "Mezhrabpomfilm". By the 1930s. it has become a leader due to its high revenues from ticket sales and experience of international cooperation. The best Soviet filmmakers - V. Pudovkin, L. Kuleshov, Y. Protazanov - worked here, as well as immigrant directors such as Erwin Piscator, who fled the Nazi regime.
It was one of the bastions of Soviet internationalism. Mezhrabpomfilm and Vostokfilm were closed in 1936. Soyuzdetfilm, formed on the basis of Mezhrabpomfilm, inherited the Yalta film studio from Vostokfilm. In the 1930s. Mosfilm, Lenfilm, Kiev and Odessa film studios and Mezhrabpomfilm / Soyuzdetfilm produced the overwhelming majority of Soviet films.<…>
Under Shumyatsky, the USSR began to make film, cameras and projectors, albeit of a lower quality than imported ones. Vigorous steps were also taken towards cinematography, and the number of installations for displaying silent films, nominally, at least increased from 7 thousand in 1928 to 28 thousand in 1940.
At the same time, film production, which was a key factor in the project to create mass cinema, began to decline from 1931. In 1930, 108 films were released, in 1931 - 100, in 1932 - only 75, and in 1933 - 33. This decline ran counter to the clearly stated goals of the leadership.<…>One of the reasons for the decrease in the number of films released was economic in nature. In addition to the import of films, by 1931 the import of film was also sharply reduced. Since the production of domestic film barely began, in 1931 and 1932. there was a shortage of it, which manifested itself in 1933<...>
And yet, as Maya Turovskaya argues, “party criticism” of most Soviet films has undoubtedly contributed to the decline in production. Member of the Central Committee L. Kaganovich in 1931 considered the situation with the cinema "ugly" - for the previous several years they did not make "any serious picture." According to him, in Europe, cinema is developing "with giant strides", and Soviet artists are not fulfilling the plan. Kaganovich believed that it makes no sense to write resolutions and set quantitative goals, since the situation is so bad that “even a couple of [good] films” would significantly improve it.
Shumyatsky picked up this assessment and characterized the tapes of 1932 of which, according to his calculations, there were 79, as follows - 5 "good" ("Counter", "Deeds and People", "Twenty-six Commissars", "Three Soldiers" and "Ivan”), 36 were“ satisfactory ”and were only released because there was nothing better. And 38 paintings were "unconditionally bad" or unsuitable for release.
Already at the turn of the 1920s – 1930s. there was constant debate about whether the quality of Soviet cinema should be higher than in the West. At the 1928 All-Union Party Conference on Cinema, the largest industry event of the time, two opposing positions were voiced. IP Trainin, a member of the Sovkino board, known for his practical and commercial savvy, believed that one could not expect an above average level from every film. In his opinion, most Western films are of mediocre quality, there are many "failures" and very few "action films". The deputy head of the propaganda department of the Central Committee, P.M.Kerzhentsev, argued that Soviet cinema should not repeat the Western model, which Trainin defended as natural. Kerzhentsev suggested following the example of the theater, where the performance has been played for 20-30 years. Soviet cinematography must also create films that can be shown for a decade or two.Moreover, according to his remarks, it was quite possible: "Battleship Potemkin" by Sergei Eisenstein is a film for centuries.
Trainin's position was realistic, Kerzhentsev's position was absolutely divorced from reality. Works of the level of "Potemkin" appeared rarely.
Moreover, although Potemkin was a masterpiece, it was not in demand by the wide Soviet audience. The film was shown in two Moscow cinemas for four weeks, while the popular American film Robin Hood (1922) with Douglas Fairbanks was shown on eleven Moscow screens for several months.
Even if a hundred Potemkins were filmed a year, Soviet cinemas would not show them. In 1931-1938. the screening was decentralized, and the halls were under local government (regional, municipal and departmental). With an interest in profit, they generally preferred films with commercial potential, including older foreign films. As Jamie Miller wrote about the 1930s, "From the commercials of the films, it was clear that cinema in cities still had a commercial face." But despite the unrealistic and categorical nature, Kerzhentsev's orientation towards masterpieces corresponded to the idea of the superiority of the Soviet system: if Soviet society is better than the capitalist West, then all Soviet films should also be better. As will be shown below, after unsuccessful attempts to go the other way under Shumyatsky, from 1936 Soviet cinema began to focus specifically on masterpieces.
Kerzhentsev's statements were consistent with the radical rhetoric of the First Five-Year Plan. It was the time of "socialism in a single country", when the authorities switched to central planning, cost accounting, forced industrialization and ruthless collectivization. This was also the period of the "cultural revolution", when attempts were made to create a new socialist art, designed to ensure the enthusiasm and political education of the masses and to abandon the traditional "passive" bourgeois entertainment. In feature films, such art was represented by Eisenstein's formalist avant-garde, in non-fiction - by Dziga Vertov's film report.
At the same time, a less well-known but historically significant genre of propaganda films developed - political education film, or propaganda film (a continuation of the culture film tradition of the 1920s). Their plots didn't really matter. They were generally shorter, combined documentary and fiction, had a low budget, and were produced by less experienced filmmakers.
<...>Campaign films met the goals of the "cultural revolution", but, like Potemkin, could not take a noticeable place in the film screening market. It was not entertaining enough, and theater managers were reluctant to include such films in the repertoire. Of the 95 propaganda films approved by the General Repertoire Committee in 1929–1930, only 36 made it to the screen.