Only a few months ago, a committee of international film historians and directors at the Brussels World Fair unanimously placed Battleship Potemkin atop the list of ‘great films of all Time’. Soviet Cinema can be said to have truly arrived on the world screen with Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Hardened critics and seasoned craftsmen the world over were overawed with the film’s magnificence and epic quality. Nothing like it had ever happened before. The echo of this mute masterpiece resounded round the world with the might of a great symphony.
I could not for the life of me persuade our Soviet production-in-charge to get me half a kilo of lard since I forgot to include it in the original list. That is one reason why Soviet directors are not given to last-minute improvisation.
What followed Potemkin is screen history. For over two decades, Russia became the spiritual home of cinema, and Sergei Eisenstein (Potemkin, Strike, October, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible), Vsevolod Pudovkin (Mother, Deserter, The End of St.Petersberg and Suvorov) and Alexander Dovzhenko (Aerocity and Earth) became the most highly regarded triumvirate in screen history.
Pudovkin pronounced the first ‘Ten Commandments’ of film technique, and Eisenstein soon established his reputation as the major theoretician and thinker of cinema. Classic after classic from the Soviet Union dazzled audiences and technicians alike. If Eisenstein ‘removed all the annoying trivialities, cheap passions and genteel fancies from the ledgers of the cinema’, Dovzhenko and Pudovkin ‘penetrated into the very depths of the human mind and caught the minutest vibrations of the human soul’. No other country could boast of such an impressive array of films.
As a member of the Pardesi (KA Abbas, 1957 – a film also titled, Journey Beyond Three Seas) team- the first Indo-Soviet co-production – I worked in the Mosfilm Studios for nearly a year. During this period, I had the opportunity of studying Soviet Cinema at fairly close quarters.
Mosfilm, the largest of the Soviet Union’s nineteen feature film studios, employs a staff of 3500 persons. Last year, it produced twenty-two feature films in its seven pavilions, which are big enough to hold sets of the largest dimensions. Eighty per cent of the production was in colour and quite a few in widescreen. Although the Soviet Union has 62,500 cinemas, only half a dozen are equipped with widescreen and stereophonic installations. Mosfilm Studio has everything, literally everything, required for the production of motion pictures. The workshops range from carpentry and mechanics to make-up, where both ordinary and plastic make-up material is manufactured. It has the most up-to-date black-and-white and colour laboratories, where after turning the film to the shop, the producing unit can have the positive print in colour for viewing within eighteen to twenty hours.
The sound department has its own separate building. Orchestral or choral music is recorded in two large studios equipped with the latest stereophonic recording outfit. There is one studio specially fitted for generating different noises and sound effects - a storm may be raised at the mere turn of a handle or the trot of a horse may be produced if you tread on a specially laid out floor.
The working of the studio, though efficient, is highly departmentalized and somewhat bureaucratic, which has both advantages and disadvantages. There are no short-cuts to get a job done. I could not for the life of me persuade our Soviet production-in-charge to get me half a kilo of lard since I forgot to include it in the original list. That is one reason why Soviet directors are not given to last-minute improvisation.
The head of the studio is known as the director. He has a number of vice-directors who are directly responsible for (a) script department, (b) preparatory, (c) finance, and (d) workshop. Each vice-director has his own ‘sphere of influence’. Each production is allotted a certain budget, which the head of the unit receives from the State Bank. After the film is ready, it is made over to the main Distribution Office, which pays to the studio the actual cost of the film plus 5 percent profit.
Students of cinema from far-flung corners of the world made pilgrimage to Moscow to acquire the mystique of their calling at the feet of the masters. My turn to visit the Soviet Union came at a time when Soviet Cinema was under a cloud. With the triumvirate gone, it had lost much of its initial revolutionary fervor, and avant-garde spirit; instead, it had become stuffy, pompous and cliché ridden. However, Moscow still held its ‘old-world’ charm for me.
As for censorship, there exists none in the sense we understand it in India. Yet, each studio has self-imposed censorship which operates through a body known as the Art Council. The Council in the Mosfilm studio included the chief of studio heads of various departments and top-flight directors like Alexandrov, Romm, Roshal, Yutkevitch and Pyriev. I had the opportunity of participating in its proceedings once. After a preview of the film, each member of the council gives his candid opinion, criticizing or condemning it, as the case may be. The opinions of the members are quite often sharply divided and give no indication of their ‘thinking alike’. Finally, the director of the film is called upon to put forth his ‘defence’. The verdict of the council, however, is final and irrevocable. Needless to say, the council has as many political as aesthetic considerations.
Whatever else the short-comings of Soviet films, their technical excellence and enterprise is undoubted. I saw Grigory Alexandrov, colleague and pupil of Eisenstein, at work on his new film Man’s Gift to Man (1958). The story is presented as a journey of performers of different countries through the Soviet Union, from the Far East to Moscow. The characters of the film travel in time and space from Lake Baikal to Moscow and continue their journey as passengers of an inter-planetary ship. Alexandrov shot his scenes against an ‘infra-screen’ (used for ‘colour masking’). With the help of this process, human figures may be mounted against any separately photographed background. Thus an Indian Bharatnatyam dancer, though actually photographed against this screen in the studio, may finally appear to be performing before the workers of a hydroelectric plant in Siberia or in outer space.
At the Cinema-Photo Research Institute in Moscow, I saw the Soviet version of Cinerama (Cinerama as shown in New York, London and Paris, was invented by Fred Waller, head of Paramount’s Special Effects Department), employing three 27mm lenses approximately the same focal length as that of the human eye, covering a field 146 feet wide and 55 feet high, the resulting films give the spectator the feeling of ‘being in the picture’. The Russian system, known as Panorama, employs three projectors and three connected screens, totaling approximately 81 feet by 29 feet with a curvature of 145 degrees.
Nine soundtracks are used to feed stereophonic sound to nine loudspeakers. Five are placed behind the screen, three around the theatre and one in the ceiling. The Panorama screen is solid in the middle, the sides consisting of thin white plastic strips. The film shown was Wide Is My Country, produced by Roman Karmen, who last year made a feature-length colour documentary in India - Dawn Over India. Wide is my Country takes the spectator on a whirlwind tour of the Soviet Union by road, sea and air. As the ‘three-eyed monster’ spreads in front of you the vast expanse and enchantment of the Soviet landscape, seascape and airspace, the effect is truly overwhelming.
I remember seeing Louis de Rochemont’s Cinerama Holiday in London and the trouble I had in adjusting my vision once I had moved from the initial position. I experienced no such inconvenience with the Soviet Cinerama. In fact I saw it more or less like a normal film with complete ease of movement.
During my stay in the Soviet Union I saw the new films of Romm, Roshal, Gerasimov and Alexandrov. I must confess to having the uneasy feeling that almost the entire old guard of Soviet Cinema, despite their undoubted technical supremacy, appears to have ‘dried up’. Now they are merely repeating themselves.
The encouraging feature however is the emergence of a completely new set of film-makers. Grigory Chukrai, whose film The Forty-First (set in the early period of the revolution, the film tells the story of a communist girl falling in love with an anti-communist white Russian officer) won a special prize at the Cannes Festival in 1957, is one of the ‘new school’ of film makers, as is Samsonov, who directed an adaptation of Chekov’s The Grasshopper, which also won a prize at the Venice Festival. Vasili Ordynsky, who made A New Man is Born, is yet another promising director.
Some of the recent films have dealt with such varied subjects as juvenile delinquency, black marketing, unmarried mothers and red tape. The films of some of these young directors show flexibility, boldness and subtlety of approach. A few are really non-conformist in outlook and have managed to escape, to a degree, the austerities of ‘Socialist Realism’.
As a result of the ‘thaw’, a comparatively little-known director Mikhail Kalatozov has produced a remarkable film, which in one leap has placed him among the foremost film-makers of the world. His film, The Cranes Are Flying, a hauntingly beautiful piece of work which reasserts the rights of the individual, picked up the Grand Prix at Cannes film Festival in 1958 which comparative ease. A wartime love story, it strikes a highly personal note. All the ‘don’ts’ are ignored, including the cherished theory of ‘positive’ heroes and ‘negative’ renegades. When the film was released in Moscow, it raised a hornet’s nest of controversy. A critic in London described it as the Not By Bread Alone (Vladimir Dudintesev, 1956; a novel) of the Soviet cinema.