The rise and fall of Soviet cinema

April 5, 1995

As it Happened: The Last Bolshevik
Thursday, April 13, 8.30pm (8 Adelaide)
Reviewed by Neville Spencer

This documentary traces the life and work of Russian film director Alexander Medvedkin (1900-1989), whose experience as a film maker covered and was profoundly influenced by the entire period from the revolution through to perestroika. Medvedkin provides an interesting case study of the relationship between artists and the revolution.

The aftermath of the revolution produced an extraordinary number of great and highly original artists — the multi-talented Mayakovsky, the playwright Meyerhold and influential film makers such as Pudovkin, Dovzhenko and of course Eisenstein. Medvedkin, a committed communist, was a part of this revolutionary artistic fervour of the first years of the revolution.

His first project sponsored by the Soviet government was as the director of the film train. He travelled around the Soviet Union in a train complete with an edit suite and projection equipment, filming scenes of everyday life and the effects of the revolution on it. The film produced reflected not just successes of the revolution but also some of the severe problems resulting from the forced collectivisation of the 1930s. These experiences of rural life he reflected in his feature film Happiness together with his taste for somewhat surreal images and cows.

The interesting question which this documentary tries to examine is the relationship between film makers and the rise of Stalinism. The banning of films became increasingly common by the late 1930s. Film makers who did not satisfy the Stalinist censors risked imprisonment or even execution. Medvedkin, in spite of the fact that he had not previously been afraid to take a critical stance, moved to appease the censors. Featuring favourable images of Stalin in his films was not necessarily enough, however, to prevent them from being banned, but he was at least allowed to continue making films. Why would such a person as Medvedkin knuckle under?

The documentary doesn't satisfactorily answer this question, though it is certainly a worthy question it raises. The political background isn't sufficiently illuminating to provide an understanding of the complexities of the relationship between the flourishing of revolutionary creativity and bureaucratic political repression. None the less, it does provide anyone interested in this remarkable era of film history with something to think about.

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