Tolstoy on the Cinema

Source: David Bernstein (trans.), ‘Tolstoy on the Cinema’, New York Times, 31 January 1937, p. 158, supposedly quoting Leo Tolstoy in conversation August 1908

Text: Tolstoy on the Cinema

He Foretold the Future of the Medium While It Was Still in Its Infancy

Although Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is one of the four or five novels that have been made into moving pictures more often than any others, the sage of Yasnaya Polyana never had to go through the torture that is scenario writing in Hollywood. But Leo Tolstoy had his own troubles with the movies, nevertheless. All through the last years of his life, when his writings and philosophy were revered the world over, Tolstoy was bothered by an unceasing flow of visitors, who questioned him on all sorts of things, from literature to vegetarianism. And, on the eve of his eightieth birthday, in August, 1908, the motion picture camera men flocked into his home for a few historic shots. Said Tolstoy on that occasion to his friend I. Teneromo and the visitors:

“You will see that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life-in the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary. I have thought of that and I can feel what in coming.”

“But I rather like it. This swift change of scene, this blending of motion and experience – it is much better than heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.

“When I was writing ‘The Living Corpse,’ I tore my hair and chewed my fingers because I could not give enough scenes, enough pictures, because I could not pass rapidly enough from one event to another. The accursed stage was like a halter choking the throat of the dramatist; and I had to cut the life and swing of the work according to the dimensions and requirements of the stage. I remember when I was told that some clever person had devised a scheme for a revolving stage, on which a number of scenes could be prepared in advance. I rejoiced like a child, and allowed myself to write ten scenes into my play. Even then I was afraid the play would be killed.

“But the films! They are wonderful! Drr! and a scene is ready! Drr! and we have another! We have the sea, the coast, the city, the palace – and in the palace there is tragedy (there is always tragedy in palaces, as we see in Shakespeare).

“I am seriously thinking of writing a play for the screen. I have a subject for it. It is a terrible and bloody theme. I am not afraid of bloody themes. Take Homer or the Bible, for instance. How many bloodthirsty passages there are in them- murders, wars. And yet these are the sacred books, and they ennoble and uplift the people. It is not the subject itself that is so terrible. It is the propagation of bloodshed, and the justification for it, that is really terrible! Some friends of mine returned from Kursk recently and told me a shocking incident. It is a story for the films. You couldn’t write it in fiction or for the stage. But on the screen it would be good. Listen – it may turn out to be a powerful thing!”

And Leo Tolstoy related the story in detail. He was deeply agitated as he spoke. But he never developed the theme in writing. Tolstoy was always like that. When he was inspired by a story he had been thinking of he would become excited by its possibilities. If some one happened to be near by, he would unfold the plot in all its details. Then he would forget all about it. Once the gestation was over and his brain-child born, Tolstoy would seldom bother to write about it.

Some one spoke of the domination of the films by business men interested only in profits. “Yes, I know, I’ve been told about that before,” Tolstoy replied. “The films have fallen into the clutches of business men and art is weeping! But where aren’t there business men?” And he proceeded to relate one of those delightful little parables for which he is famous.

“A little while ago I was standing on the banks of our pond. It was noon of a hot day, and butterflies of all colors and sizes were circling around, bathing and darting in the sunlight, fluttering among the flowers through their short – their very short – lives, for with the setting of the sun they would die.

“But there on the shore near the reeds I saw an insect with little lavender spots on its wings. It, too, was circling around. It would flutter about, obstinately, and its circles became smaller and smaller. I glanced over there. In among the reeds sat a great green toad with staring eyes on each aide of his flat head, breathing quickly with his greenish-white, glistening throat. The toad did not look at the butterfly, but the butterfly kept flying over him as though she wished to be seen. What happened? The toad looked up, opened his mouth wide and – remarkable! – the butterfly flew in of her own accord! The toad snapped his jaws shut quickly, and the butterfly disappeared.

“Then I remembered that thus the insect reaches the stomach of the toad, leaves its seed there to developed and again appear on God’s earth, become a larva, a chrysalis. The chrysalis becomes a caterpillar, and out of the caterpillar springs a new butterfly. And then the playing in the sun, the bathing in the light, and the creating of new life, I begin all over again.

“Thus it is with the cinema. In the reeds of film art sits the toad – the business man. Above him hovers the insect – the artist. A glance, and the jaws of the business man devour the artist. But that doesn’t, mean destruction. It is only one of the methods of procreation, of propagating the race; in the belly of the business man is carried on the process of impregnation and the development of the seeds of the future. These seeds will come out on God’s earth and will begin their beautiful, brilliant lives all over again.”

Comments: Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a Russian novelist and political thinker, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy is known to have gone to the cinema on more than one occasion, and was acutely aware of the new industry because in his last years he was regularly pursued by newsreel cameramen. There are accounts of him reacting to the average cinema fare with disgust, and this interview needs to be treated with caution. It is a record of a conversation supposedly conducted with Tolstoy on his eightieth birthday in August 1908 by Tolstoyan acolyte Isaak Teneromo, but Tolstoy’s daughter told film historian Jay Leyda (in his book Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film) that “there are several aspects of this record that make it suspect, but that it incorporates remarks that Tolstoy may have made, either to Teneromo or others, but not on his eightieth birthday”. Teneromo subsequently wrote the screenplay for Ukhod velikovo startza (The Departure of a Great Man) (Russia 1912), a film dramatising Tolstoy’s life.

Links: Copy at New York Times Archive (subscription site)

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