The Movies in Moscow

Source: V.P., extract from ‘The Movies in Moscow’, The Manchester Guardian, 5 January 1927, p. 16

Text: Since the vogue of “Potemkin” it has been recognised that we must reckon, both artistically and politically, with the Russian historical film. It is well to remember that under the Romanoffs historical drama was practically forbidden on the Russian stage; Alexis Tolstoy’s “Czar Feodor” was an exception, and even it was cut. With such a past, is it to be wondered at that among the hundred films made this year by the Soviets’ two big companies the majority are historical? Consider some of the titles: “The Year 1905,” “The Ninth of January,” “Pushkin and Nicolai the First,” “Rasputin’s Plot,” “The End of Koltchak,” “Ivan the Terrible,” “The Decembrists,” “Black Sunday,” “The Wings of the Slave.” As for the historical accuracy of these stories, we say the Soviets distort. The retort that they merely correct a previous distortion which silence has shaped, as a hole in the ground shapes the earth about its mouth.

When I asked my Russian friends on a recent visit to Moscow “What motion pictures are on now, and what shall I see?” they answered, “Our beautiful new film ‘Matt’ you must see. It is beautiful, as splendid as “Potemkin”; but of course it is about the revolution. It shows us again our sorrows. So we ourselves like best our newest comic picture ‘The Case of the Three Million.'”

The seats at the “Kino” were from forty kopecks to a rouble, and, wishing to be as inconspicuous a stranger as possible, I compromised on a fifty-kopeck place. Yes, said the girl at the window, the picture had just begun, but, of course, I could enter. And would I not like her to keep an extra five kopecks of the change and give me this postcard instead? The extra was for the British miners – it was not obligatory, but it would be gracious of me. The postcard was a picture of Lenin making a speech.

Then I went upstairs and found myself in a long foyer, where I was made to understand that I must wait for the next show because it was taken for granted no one would care to see a picture in the middle or disturb others already arrived. After two hours I was admitted, and found myself unpleasantly conspicuous as the only person sitting in the cheap seats; three or four rows behind me the audience began to appear, and far back, where the view was good, were all the rouble places – full. As for “The Case of the Three Million,” it was a bad film, but interesting, about a comic thief whom, at the end of his nefarious adventures, we saw tailored into a serious, self-satisfied bourgeois and sending a pitiful pickpocket who had inefficiently filched his white gloves to gaol. Another day I saw a new picture, not yet released, called “The Wings of the Slave” – of little interest, except that it was incredibly cruel. The slave was a sixteenth-century peasant who made himself a pair of wings that worked and, before the Czar and his Court, flew to the ground from a high tower, proved the principle of the airplane, and was persecuted by the Czar. He was imprisoned and his wings were smashed because it was believed that such intelligence could only come from the Devil. But this flying scene was but one scene in thousands of feet of film unwinding one horror after another – stupid horror that showed all nobles cruel and all peasants kind, and showed these things without beauty or reticence or any hint of any principle of art. This indescribable picture was shown us in a little room in a school building, and as its horrors accumulated I heard the voice of little children raised in repeating lessons, and after a little while some of them came and watched with us. Could this thing be made by men of the same community as those who had made “Potemkin”? But apparently it was the public, not the company, that knew how to appraise “Potemkin.” “Its success was a great surprise to us,” said the Sov-Kino, “a great triumph.” I was told many interesting things. The great popularity here of the American films is permitted because it was felt after the Revolution that kinos must be kept open at all costs, and there were no Russian pictures to fill them, so the American pictures were freely cut and recaptioned and distributed. Now the Russians make films of their own; but a film that only runs in Russia earns only one-third of its cost, so a foreign market will be acceptable. No noticeable stars have arisen in the Red film firmament, nor are the 300 student-players now studying in Moscow at the Kinema University encouraged to aspire to stardom, nor the stage stars encouraged to come to the screen. Balanovkaya is a name to remember; and, after Eisenstein, who is now in the provinces making a new historical film, the three best producers are Ivonosky, Kilischoff, and Pudolfkin. It was Pudolfkin who made “Matt.” …

Comments: The article is signed ‘V.P.’. Among the films mentioned are Bronenosets Potemkin / Battleship Potemkin (USSR 1925), Devyatoe yanvarya / The Ninth of January (USSR 1925), Poet i tsar / Poet and Tsar (USSR 1927), Konets Sankt-Peterburga / The End of St Petersburg (USSR 1927), Dekabristi / The Decembrists (USSR 1927), Krylya kholopa / Wings of a Serf (USSR 1926), Mat / Mother (USSR 1927), Protsess o tryokh millyonakh / The Three Million Case (USSR 1926). The Year 1905 was a planned multi-episode history from which Battleship Potemkin was the only outcome. Ivan the Terrible was title given to Wings of a Serf when shown outside the USSR. I cannot identify Rasputin’s Plot or Black Sunday. The film directors mentioned are Sergei Eisenstein, Alexander Ivanovsky, Lev Kuleshov (presumably) and Vsevolod Pudovkin. The article continues with a review of Pudovkin’s film Mat.

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