Soviet Cinema was considered “the most important of the arts” by Lenin. Soviet cinema was the most effective instrument in projecting communist goals. In the early periods of Soviet rule, movie projectors were transported to the fields to encourage collectivization and Soviet goals. During the Late Stalinist era the Soviet Film industry dismally floundered and the films lost their revolutionary ardor. The film industry was plagued by damage from the war, low production, and Stalin’s cult of personality. Films were lifeless and boring. Stalin’s death in 1953 and Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 gave the Soviet cinema much needed breathing space.
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During the period of 1954-1964 the Soviet Union and Soviet Cinema witnessed a thaw. Party control of cultural activity became much less restrictive and the film industry flourished. Thaw cinema sought to reject monumentalism, which dominated film for so long, and focused on the individual. This essay plans to examine three films that were completed during the early thaw period; Spring on Zarchania Street, The Cranes are flying, and Ballad of a Soldier. These three films illustrated the essence and character of “the thaw” right at the onset of the change. These films were chosen for examination because the “thaw” in cultural policies did not last forever. These films illustrate this period of cultural relaxation at its birth and its zenith. These films focused on the individual’s plight and seemed somewhat apolitical. The Cranes are Flying and Ballad of a Soldier addressed the Great Patriotic War in a whole new light. Wartime dramas were no longer focused on the triumphalism of the war, but they focused on the individual plight of a Soviet citizen or soldier.
The Thaw period was also a very interesting period in the Cold War. The Thaw period witnessed many hot and cold periods in American Soviet relations. During the early period of the thaw, there was a degree of openness with the United States. During this period, there were several cultural exchanges between the Soviet Union and the United States. There were film exchanges, film festivals, and a youth festival. Soviet film, during this earlier period in the thaw, reached a broader audience. The Cranes are Flying and Ballad of a Soldier both received international recognition and awards.
The Soviet film industry of the late Stalinist era 1945-1953 produced few films during this era. Peter Kenez stated, “According to the Catalog of Soviet Feature Films, the studios of the country in 1945 produced 18 films; in 1946, 22; in 1947, 22; in 1948; 16; in 1949, 17; in 1950, 12; in 1951, 9; in 1952; 23; and in 1953, 44.” What was astonishing about these numbers was that many of these films were not released or they were not seen until the death of Stalin. Also many of the films consisted of theatrical plays that were simply just filmed. The film industry suffered intensely from external and internal influences.
The Soviet Film Industry, like Soviet Union, suffered greatly during the Great Patriotic War. Equipment, raw-film factories, and studios were destroyed during the war. Major Soviet studios in Kiev, Odessa, and Yalta were destroyed and had to be rebuilt. Also, many of the major movie studios from Moscow and Leningrad had to flee to Central Asia during the Great Patriotic War. The long trip there and back resulted in massive damage to priceless movie equipment. The reconstruction of the Soviet Cinema system was not a predominant concern of the government. It took many years for Soviet cinemas to recover from the damages from the war.
The Soviet film industry suffered intensely from the strict political policies and intervention. The whole process of making and writing films was plagued by strict government intervention. From the onset of the process central committees had to approve everything. Peter Kenez stated, “The political requirements for a scenario and the difficulties between the acceptance of the literary work and the completion of the film became so extraordinary that scenarist became discouraged; projects remained unfinished.”The process of turning a scenario into a film, which had been complex in the past, became even more complex during this period.
One of the weak points of the work of the Ministry of film industry of the USSR and the Republics is the preparation of scenarios. Deadlines are not fulfilled because of insufficiently prepared scenarios. The scenario departments of the ministries and of the studios do not attract writers and dramatist for this work. Because of the small circle of scenarist such an unhealthy situation is created that on the success or failure of the scenarist depends the enormous collective of the studio with its many sections and departments. The work has to stop and everyone wait for the finished scenario. It is obvious for everyone that the cost of one day of waiting is far greater than the making of many scenarios. The Ministry must greatly expand preparation of scenarios, must attract authors and carefully work out thematic plans.”
Many writers chose not to write any movies, and there was a general “film hunger” in the Soviet Union.
The film hunger in Soviet society was fulfilled in two ways. Many movie houses simply just played old movies from the 1930’s. Films such as Volga-Volga and Happy fellows played for months at a time and were practically at every cinema. Also ironically during this period many foreign “trophy films”, that were captured during the war, were shown to Soviet audiences. Some of the trophy films consisted of German comedies and Hollywood wartime Tarzan adventures.  Party officials also noticed that Soviet culture was barren.
Party members complained the films that were produced; during the late Stalinist era were quiet boring. Party members were concerned that films would no longer serve the agitational needs of the Party. The party members did not cast blame on previous cultural policies, but they blamed the filmmakers. In 1952 an editorial in Pravda expressed some of the party members concerns. Pravda was the leading newspaper of the Soviet Union and an official organ of the communist party. Peter Kenez noted that, “The editorial “Overcome the lag in dramaturgy” criticized films for being boring, for having no conflict, and for having one-dimensional characters.” G.M. Malenkov addressed some of the culture concerns in a report made to congress in 1952. He called for filmmakers to make more films, but he emphasized that all the films must be masterpieces. The ideas looked better on paper than reality.
What was interesting about the Soviet Union was that the Cold War never penetrated the culture like it did in the United States. There were no epic atomic bomb movies, mass building of bomb shelters, or celebratory atomic bomb cakes. But during the Cold War the character of “the enemy” changed in films. This shift in who was the enemy was best captured in the film, Meeting on the Elbe. Meeting on the Elbe portrayed the Soviet version of what lead to the outbreak of the Cold War. The American soldiers were portrayed in two ways; they were portrayed as the naÃ¯ve character, or as imperialist enemies. The naÃ¯ve characters were portrayed as Americans that were unaware of the great power of communism, and they were portrayed as being easily swayed. The imperialist American characters were shown as the Nazi were on film. They were the looters, the rapists, and the barbarians.
The nature of the American imperialist enemy was illustrated best by this quote. The wife of general Macdermat (American General) says to her husband, “Be a man, not a chicken in uniform. You are not in a general’s uniform in order to nurse the Germans. There is a beautiful forest around us and the leaves murmur like dollars. Cut down the forest and sell the wood to the British before it’s too late.” The Soviet soldiers were shown as liberators and they were concerned for the common good of man. Kenez stated, “The Red Army brought peaceful reconstruction to inhabitants of an imaginary German town, Altenstadt. In the Soviet Zone munition factories are converted to the production of consumer goods.”
One of the major figures present in early as well as late Stalinist film was Stalin himself. Many wartime dramas featured Stalin as the supreme figure. The plights of individual soldiers or Soviet citizens were not seen on the movie screen during this period. The Fall of Berlin was the epitome of Stalin’s Cult of personality films. The film had two interconnected stories; one part of the story was a love story and the other was about the Great Patriotic War in general. But the second story overshadowed the first and highlighted Stalin’s efforts to win the Great Patriotic war. Stalin was shown to make all the important strategic decisions during the war. In the film, Stalin was the general, the peacemaker, and with his effort alone Stalin ultimately won the war. Peter Kenez stated, “The enemy was also in awe of Stalin’s great military genius. The German generals tell Hitler that a war against Stalin is hopeless.” He was also shown to be a Sage like figure that connected to the common man. He was tending to his fruit trees while birds were singing. In another scene, Stalin gave advice to Aleksei, one of the young lovers, to follow his heart. This film effectively diminished the role of the ordinary Soviet citizen during the war. Stalin was shown as a god-like figure head who with his will alone he won the Great Patriotic War. In Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, Khrushchev sought to diminish Stalin’s cult of personality in films, book, and plays.
Two major events shook the Soviet cultural world. In 1953 Stalin died and his successor Nikita Khrushchev began the process of de-Stalinization with his secret speech in 1956. Khrushchev’s secret speech on February 25, 1956 sought to legitimize his rule, condemned Stalin’s cult of personality, and emphasized the need to return to Leninist principals. He emphasized that Stalin created the term “enemy of the People” and he condemned Stalin’s purges of party members. He stressed that “cult of personality” exaggerated the role of Stalin in the Great Patriot War. Khrushchev stated,
“When we look at many of our novels, films, and historical scientific studies, the role of Stalin in the patriotic war appears to be entirely improbable. Stalin had foreseen everything. The Soviet army on the basis of a strategic plan prepared by Stalin long before, used tactics of so-called active defense, i.e., tactics which, as we know, allowed the Germans to come up to Moscow and Stalingrad. Using such tactics, the Soviet Army, supposedly, thanks only to Stalin’s genius turned to the offensive and subdued the enemy. The epic victory gained through the armed might of the land of the Soviets, through our heroic people, is ascribed in this type of novel, film, and scientific study as being completely due to the strategic genius of Stalin.”
Khrushchev also said that the cult of personality was against Marxist-Leninist principals. He emphasized that there was much work to be done to return to Leninist principals. Khrushchev stated that, “In this connection we will be forced to do much work in order to examine critically from the Marxist-Leninist viewpoint and to correct the widely spread erroneous views connected with the cult of the individual in the sphere of history, philosophy, economy, and of other sciences, as well as in the literature and the fine arts.”
Khrushchev sought a different relationship with the United States than that of the Stalinist era; he wanted “peaceful co-existence.”
The “thaw” period was a very interesting point in the Cold War. The “thaw” during the Cold War was series of hot and cold points between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the early periods of the “thaw” Cold War tensions with the United States began to cool down. Khrushchev, unlike Stalin, wished for Cold War tensions with the United States to be diminished. Khrushchev promoted a theory of peaceful co-existence. He felt that the two superpowers, despite their ideological differences, could get along without any instances of war.
The “thaw” in Cold War relations brought on a series of exchanges between the United States and Soviet Union. Vice President Nixon visited the Soviet Union during the American Nation Exhibition in 1959. The visit resulted in the infamous “Kitchen Debate.” Khrushchev and Nixon argued about the superiority of their economic systems inside the General Electric model kitchen. Khrushchev then visited the United States in September, 1959. Khrushchev toured New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Pittsburg, and Washington D.C. Khrushchev also toured a corn farm in Iowa. He also met with President Eisenhower at his home in Gettysburg. The visit resulted in an informal agreement that there would be no firm deadline on Berlin, and that the powers would meet about the issue at a later point.
Also during the early period of the “thaw” there were a series of cultural exchanges between the superpowers. In 1958, the two nations signed a cultural agreement that provided not only for the exchange of broadcast, but also films, airline flights, magazines, and people, including students, athletes, and artists. The exchanges served as a gauge of U.S. -Soviet relations; when the relations were chilled cultural exchanges suffered. The cultural exchanges provided a step toward a more open exchange between the two countries.
In 1957 Moscow held the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students. Over 34, ooo people from 130 countries attended the festival. The festival demonstrated to the world the changes that had taken place since the death of Stalin. Soviet citizens were exposed to films, music, and the fashions of the world that they have never seen before. Yale Richmond stated, “The tens of thousands of Soviet youth who attended the festival were infected with the youth styles of the West- jeans, jazz, boogie-woogie, and rock and roll.” The festival was monumental, because it was the first time Soviet students had unstructured contact with students from the West. The open- dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union not only manifested in festivals, but it created an international venue for Soviet film.
Soviet Cinema received a substantial amount of international exposure during the early “thaw” period. In 1958, The Cranes are Flying was shown in the United States as part of the 1st cultural exchange program facilitated by the thaw. Also two film festivals were established; the All Union Film Festival was established in 1958 and the Moscow International Film Festival in 1959. The Moscow International film festival was established to promote cultural exchanges and cooperation between filmmakers. The Moscow International film festival featured films from the United States, France, Great Britain, and many other countries. The Thaw not only facilitated a change between the superpowers, but the thaw was felt throughout Soviet culture.
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The thaw in Soviet cinema did not begin with the death of Stalin in 1953. It took filmmakers and directors a couple of years to catch up with the new ways of the thaw. But when the filmmakers caught up with the new values of the thaw it was revolutionary. Filmmakers began to work on films that were much more meaningful and expressive. The film makers were able to make better films because Party control of cultural activity became much less restrictive. Also during the late fifties the centralized approval of film scripts was abolished. The film studios had more control over their work, not total control, of the movies that they produced.
Director Mikhail Kalatazov gave viewers the gift of his Cranes are Flying in 1957, a visually powerful and emotionally rewarding story of young woman’s attempt to live her life during the war. The lyrical and tender love story opening in Moscow in the days before war struck, presents full-blooded characters and moral dilemmas. The heroine Veronika was wrong for Soviet cinema; capricious, untamed, self-centered, she is also capable of great self-sacrifice. Played by Tat’iana Samoilova, daughter of the great acting family, she was paired with Aleksei Batalov, himself scion of an acting tradition. His noble character Boris, son of a doctor, volunteers for the front immediately, and loses his life as the unguided army stumbles toward Moscow in retreat. This leaves Veronika to the arms of his cousin Mark, a spoiled pianist incapable of sacrifice or love. Although the movie chronicles the failure of Soviet leadership in the first days of war, shows people whose sole concern is themselves, and even delves into such topics as the wartime black market, it did so free of moralizing or political harangues. Coupled with stunning black-and-white photography and daring editing unseen since the innovative 1920s, the movie was memorable for Soviet viewers, and enough so to carry away the Golden Palm at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.
Ballad of a Solider (1959). DVD. Directed by Grigori Chukhrai. Soviet Union: Ministerstvo Kinematografi, 1959.
Khrushchev, Nikita. Secret Speech. Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 84th Congress, 2ndSession (May 22, 1956-June 11, 1956), C11, Part 7 (June 4, 1956), pp. 9389-9403. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/coldwarfiles/files/Documents/KhrushchevSecretSpeech.pdf (accessed November 15, 2009).
Spring on Zarechnaia Street (1956). DVD. Directed by Marlen Khtsivev and Feliks Mironer. Soviet Union: Odessa Film Studio, 1956.
The Cranes are flying (1960), DVD, Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov. Moscow: Criterion (2002 DVD release date).
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