Forgotten early Soviet sound films

Three Forgotten Early Soviet Sound Films on the Electrification of the USSR

(This is a revised version of the talk I gave at the BFI Southbank on 1st June 2011 as part of the Soviet season, to introduce Macheret’s Men and Jobs and an extract from Shub’s K.Sh.E. Here I also discuss Dovzhenko’s Ivan.)

The early years of the Soviet Union are represented in the cinema by a small number of justly famous films and directors universally recognised as landmarks in the history of cinema. With one or two exceptions, this comes to end with the coming of sound, which was introduced in the USSR a little later than in the West. But there are three forgotten films made within a year or so of each other in the early 1930s, which are among the first sound films made in the Soviet Union, and which make extremely interesting viewing not only for their imaginative treatment of the soundtrack but also because they all deal with the same subject—the electrification of the USSR. The films (all dated 1932) are Esfir Shub’s K.Sh.E. (Komsomol: Patron of Electrification), Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Ivan and Aleksandr Macheret’s Men and Jobs.

Communism is Soviet Power + Electrification

The background to these three films is the same: the first Five Year Plan, the forced programme of industrialisation, and the udarniki, or shock workers, who carried it through. This also means the heroic image of labour to which artists in all media contributed. None of these films, however, is an example of the conventional heroic worker of socialist realism, which had not yet fully taken hold in the early 1930s, which at any rate in cinema was still a period of experiment. The films by Macheret and Dovzhenko have a style of acting and narrative rhythm which might seem gauche or ponderous only if it’s judged by some extraneous model. Shub’s documentary is simply ahead of its time in its use of direct sound, eschewing commentary and bringing the voices of ordinary people to the screen.

All three are of special interest for their soundtracks, which are constructed with an artistry that comes out of the Soviet debates about film sound over the previous few years following the short ‘Statement on Sound’ by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov. The conversion of cinema to sound had not been envisaged in the first Five Year Plan, but this was quickly rectified. According to Alexandrov, when their little group took a trip to Hollywood to investigate, Stalin told them, ‘Study the sound film in detail. This is very important for us. When our heroes discover speech, the influential power of films will increase enormously.’

The ‘heroes’ of these films, however, are not yet drawn in a Stalinist mould. Shub has no individual hero figure at all but real workers talking to camera at their work station or in political meetings (what they say is always exemplary). In Macheret’s case he is able to count on a terrific performance by the wonderful comic actor Nikolai Okhlopkov as the foreman Zakharov, a lanky figure with a mobile face closer to Stan Laurel than, say, John Wayne. Dovzhenko’s Ivan is perhaps closer to the ideal of shock-worker. The narrative is a kind of political bildungsroman, the progress of a peasant lad towards membership of the Party, but the subtext is a telling one which makes for a Lacanian narrative: the lad has to contend with a drunkard for a father, whose authority he will exchange for that of the Party. But since this is a film about electrification, the Big Other, guarantor of the symbolic order, is not yet Stalin but is still Lenin.

The films by Macheret and Dovzhenko both have a strong documentary ethos with extensive scenes of location shooting of industrial construction sites. In fact all three films centre on the same location—the hydro-electric power station of Dnesprostroi, the great hydro-electric power station on the River Dnepr, the largest of its kind in the world when it was inaugurated in 1932. Shub’s film concludes with the inauguration of Dnesprostroi. Macheret’s Sakharov and Dovzhenko’s Ivan are both sent to work on its construction.

The documentary feel of the two fiction films is enhanced by the use of direct sound (studio or location), which is a special feature of Shub’s K.Sh.E. Three years ahead of Housing Problems, which all the history books declare to be the first documentary with sync interviews, Shub has extensive sequences of sync interviews, musical performances and political meetings. The histories of early sound documentary need rewriting. For his part, Macheret is fascinated by close recording techniques for gathering the detail of real location sounds, which he then puts to narrative use. But he also has several different ways of using off-screen sound which make this forgotten film particularly interesting.

All three films portray a crucial but largely forgotten aspect of the way that labour was conceived in early Soviet Russia, the belief that the collective ownership of the means of production would disalienate labour, because it removed the capitalist exploitation of labour power which lay at the root of the worker’s alienation. These are not films about the stereotypical happy worker as such, but about workers and peasants in the process of discovering their own capacities.
All three utopian in spirit, they also represent machinery and modernisation as progressive forces on the way to the good society.

Their utopianism is expectable, but two of the films also share a curious subtext, the theme of Americanism (which isn’t found in Ivan). Men and Jobs stages an amusing encounter between Sakharov, the foreman of a team of shock workers, and a visiting American industrial advisor. K.Sh.E. includes a number of scenes where we see the real American advisors of the day on the job and even relaxing. (In both cases the Americans are accompanied by what seems to have been the requisite appurtenance of modern life at the time—a wind-up portable gramophone playing jazz, which as Walter Benjamin observed in his Moscow Diary, was a very popular musical style in Moscow in the late 20s.)

Behind this Americanist theme there is a hidden and far from innocent history, which involves the largest US corporation of the day, General Electric, and one of the first Stalinist show trials.

GE was involved in the design and construction of Dneprostroi, it was built under GE supervision, and they supplied seven of its twelve generators. In other words, the American corporation was a key element in the electrification of the Soviet Union according to the plan announced by Lenin in 1920, known as the GOELRO Plan, and its slogan, “Communism = Soviet Power plus electrification”. (The whole story is told in my own film The American Who Electrified Russia.)

In 1931, however, before these films were made, a number of Russia’s leading electrical engineers, along with several foreign advisors, were arraigned for sabotage in one of the first of the Stalinist show trials, accused of belonging to the Promparti, or Industrial Party, which historians agree was a fabrication. The trial was broadcast live on the radio and filmed for the newsreels, and formed part of the xenophobic turn which Stalin employed to help him consolidate his power. Yet here we have two films made in 1932 which do not knuckle under and excise the Americans from the picture, but on the contrary, evoke the affection that developed between the Russians and their American guests. But perhaps this is also why they disappeared and have only recently re-emerged, to remind us that there is always another history hidden away in the archives.

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One Response to Forgotten early Soviet sound films

  1. Bobby Wise says:

    Great article. Indeed, perhaps the histories of early sound documentary do need to be rewritten.