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Russian Cinema: 1921-1930 Making Movies That Changed the World

Updated on September 1, 2012
The Stairs scene from Battleship Potempkin
The Stairs scene from Battleship Potempkin

Russian Cinema 1921-1930

This is the short and sweet about 9 years of The Bolshevik revolution happened in 1917, but its leader, Lenin really didn’t involve himself in the film industry until years after that. He was too involved with the famine that broke out in the newly formed USSR to deal with movies. Instead, he enacted a law which allowed for some private ownership of companies to form in 1921 in an attempt to kick start the economy.

The years between 1917 and 1921 were about stabilizing the country and not about making movies.

Lenin Sees the Value of Film

It wasn’t until 1922 that Lenin inserted himself into the film industry. He proclaimed that films should balance the output of film. There should be as any films with a high educational value as there are with entertainment value. But, it was his second proclamation that changed the momentum for the industry. He said according to Anatoli Lunacharsky, the commissar of Narkompros, “Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.”

It isn’t a surprise Lenin saw film’s potential. Once the movie was made, they didn’t need a ton of man power and time dedicated to showing it, like theater did. These silent films could also be enjoyed by the illiterate, which would mean that the majority of citizens from the USSR could understand the content, unlike books. In short, Lenin could spread propaganda to more people at a lower cost.

The Germans See the Value of the USSR

The film industry was still in the dumps and though there was an attempt to nationalize distribution, the privately owned companies that Lenis allowed made it impossible to corner the market for the government.

It was in 1922, that the Treaty of Rapallo made it possible for Russia to open her boarders and begin to trade with western countries again. The first to jump on this was Germany, who gave the USSR credit, film stock, equipment and an influx of new films into the country. This trade between the countries allowed the film industry to get back on its feet, though they still struggled. It was also beneficial for Germany, who had been going through some issues of their own. A change in government? A fluctuating film industry? They understood and wanted to change their situation as much as the Soviets did.

Film for the Non Russians

The influx of raw stock allowed films to be made outside of Russia and the first popular film to arise was Red Imps (Perestiani, 1923), which was made by the Georgian branch of Narkompros.

The film is about a brother who loved adventure books and a sister who loved her anarchist book. They join the military after their father is killed and get to live the lives they read about in their books. This would be the first of many propaganda films that would flood the USSR.

Aelita, The Queen Of Mars
Aelita, The Queen Of Mars

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Old School Directors Still Got It

Yakov Protazanov, who gained fame during the Tsar era, directed the infamous Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) a sci-fi based on Tolstoy’s book of the same name in which the common people of Mars must stand up to the King of Mars and his council of Elders who rule with an iron fist.

Aelita was released with a lot of fanfare, similar to what Orson Welles would do for War of the Worlds. They used the radio to ‘decipher’ messages from Mars, which said, “ANTA ... ODELI ...UTA” and drummed up anticipation for a film that would have as much visual impact in the USSR as Metropolis had on the world.

Watch the first part of Aelita: Queen of Mars below. The rest can be found in pieces on You Tube.

Constructivism and the Machine

The Constructivist movement was based in pre-revolution Cubo-Futurism. This Cubo-Futurism was based off of French Cubism and Italian Futurism, which went contrary to any traditional forms of art. They were the artist’s revolutions that preceded the Bolshevik revolution.

Most of these artists didn’t sway in one political direction or another, but fell in line with the new government very nicely. Many were given teaching positions and influential roles. Lunacharsky allowed them to create as they please, for the most part.

The Constructivists believed that art was like parts of a machine and piecing their work together was like a montage or from the French word meaning “an assembly of parts into a machine”. This was then taken and used by the filmmakers in regard to the editing process. These artists and filmmakers used the machine as a visual method of portraying their creative output. This was perfect, since the USSR wanted to push the industrial sector. The workers and peasants see machines in their art and film and then understand they must see it at their job. Even creativity had its purpose within the USSR.

The Montage Movement Makes its Mark

In 1923, theater designer and director Sergi Eisenstein helped reedit Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler for consumption in the USSR. It wasn’t soon after that he saw the importance of film. He directed his first film, Strike, in 1925 entirely set in a factory. That very same year he directed Battleship Potemkin and with the release and acclaim the movie received worldwide, the montage group was on its way.

Not to be outdone, Vsevolod Pudovkin directed his first feature film in 1926. Mother tells the story of woman caught between her husband, who supports the Tsar, and her son, who is a rebel. The people really identified with it and it was the most popular amongst workers and peasants of the USSR. It helped that the imagry and meaning were easily discernable to a group who couldn’t really read. It is a prime example of effective propaganda and the way Lenin felt he could use film to speak to all of the people.

One of the most avant-garde directors to come out of this era was Dziga Vertov. He was a committed Constructivist and felt that society must be a contained unit. His vision is made clear, machines and all, in his monumental film, The Man with a Movie Camera made in 1929.

Below is the full film on You Tube. It is worth watching from beginning to end.The music is by Alloy Orchestra and is a perfect fit for the mechanical way the film is made.

This documentary was a day in Russia, from waking up to falling asleep, from a wedding to a funeral, from work to fun. In this film, Vertov showed how a film could be a ‘montage of attractions’ or a series of visually stimulating scenes molded together with a deft hand. Not only does he show Russia, he takes it further by showing the man behind the camera (his brother Mikhail Kaufman) and the editor (his wife Yelizaveta Svilova) who cuts the film. He really did show the Montage theorists manifestos in motion.

The Revolution Still Lived On

Lenin died in 1924 and, sadly, did not see the results of what film could do for his message. The people had so much faith in his vision, that even after his death, his belief in the film industry influenced public policy. The government pushed film into the most rural regions of the country where people had little money and time to see them. Most of these theaters did not make a profit and usually were in the red. The government paid for these losses from imported film, which did make a profit.

The problem with have a strong ideological base (in this case a Marxist ideal and communism) is that showing films glamorizing an opposing ideal would be detrimental to the cause. For that reason, the imports began to trickle into the country. But since the Montage movement’s films were so popular abroad, the government still made a profit and was able to subsidize new ventures.


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    • vmartinezwilson profile image

      Vanessa Martinez Wilson 6 years ago from Vancouver, WA

      Hi Sueswan,

      I appreciate it immensely! Thanks for checking it out!


    • profile image

      Sueswan 6 years ago

      Hi vmartinezwilson,

      I found this very informative and enjoyable to read.

      I admire your knowledge and the amount of work you put into this hub.

      Voted up and away.