Soviet Film Industry

Original Mosfilm logo.

The Soviet Union had quite a thriving film industry throughout its existence. Mosfilm and Gorky Film Studio were probably the two most prominent studios and production companies. The Moscow International Film Festival has been hosting festivals continuously since its inception in 1935. Mosfilm has actually made hundreds of their films available for free viewing online. Click here to check it out. Use Google Translate to help you navigate around, but once you figure out what button to click to play or download a film there are English, and perhaps other, subtitles provided. Use the list of Soviet film titles below to copy in Cyrillic script and paste into the Mosfilm online cinema search field.

From Wikipedia: A List of Soviet Films of the year by ticket sales

Also, here is an interesting comment from Reddit by a user named “Bufus”. It is in answer to the question posed, “During the Cold War did the Soviets have their own James Bond character in the media? A hero who fought the capitalist pigs of the West for the good of Mother Russia?”:

Other people have talked a bit about some possible examples, but I would like to talk a bit more generally about Soviet pop culture and representations of “the enemy” during the Cold War.

While there are some parallels between Stierlitz in “Seventeen Moments of Spring” and Bond (they’re spies, that sort of thing), I don’t see them as equivalents. I will argue that the sort of “West vs. East” action movie convention that appears so frequently in Western films of the Cold War did not exist in any real capacity in Soviet Films. The Soviet Film industry took a different approach to “defeating the enemy”. While Western Films often depicted the West literally destroying its Soviet enemy, Soviet films took a different route which I will explore below.

Before I get too much into my argument, I would like you to keep in mind two things about the Soviet Film Industry. The first thing is that Soviet Films (unlike their Western Counterparts) very rarely dealt with “realistic” fantasies. Soviet Films were required to present their stories realistically without fantastical embellishment. This wasn’t just a stylistic choice, it was actually legislated by the Soviet Minister of Film. The only exceptions to this rule were films that were CLEARLY supposed to be “fantasy” films (things like Fairy Tales). What this meant is that you couldn’t have a James Bond-esque character. James Bond is a fantasy creation: a debonair spy who saves the world with gadgets. If Soviets were going to make a spy film, they were going to make it realistic, hence “Seventeen Moments of Spring” which is, by Western standards, a very slow paced series.

The other thing to keep in mind is that for the Soviets, the big “enemy” was the Nazis, not the Americans. Most Soviet films feature the main “enemy” as a Nazi or a Nazi sympathiser. We in the West like to think that the Soviets hated us as much as we hated them, but in truth, the Soviets were much more concerned with dealing with their Nazi past than dealing with “Capitalist American Pigs”.

So what does this mean? Why does any of this matter?

Well, the thing about Soviet films of the Cold War period that dealt with “Capitalist America” was that they were (obviously) heavily driven by ideology. Now, you’re gut reaction to hearing this is that the Soviets must have made a bunch of movies where heroic communist Soviets destroy the “evil” capitalist American forces, right? Nope.

BECAUSE Soviet films were driven by a communist ideology, they actually tended to portray Americans sympathetically. “WHAT!?” you exlaim, “But Communists HATE America!!!” Well, yes and no. The Soviet Union hated Capitalist America. But, Soviet doctrine also stated that all workers of the world were inherently good, and that once workers in the West realized how great the Soviet Union was, they would overthrow their corrupt Capitalist leaders and join the Communist Cause.

Let us look at an example…

One of the biggest Soviet Films of the age was “Meeting on the Elbe”, a 1949 film depicting the fateful meeting of the Russian and American troops at the Elbe river near the end of WW2. The movie highlights the shared backgrounds and ideals of the American and Soviet soldiers. However, the American leadership is portrayed as corrupt and greedy. General MacDermott, the American ranking officer, immediately sets to work robbing the German inhabitants of the town of their wealth. He also orders that the forest outside the city be chopped down and converted into lumber for sale back home. The American side of the city becomes a slum with long breadlines, graffiti, and (gasp!) Jazz Clubs. As a direct comparison, the Russian Major Kuzmin immediately sets to work improving the Russian half of the city. He releases all the political prisoners the Nazis arrested, and distributes bread and oil to the citizens of the town. Major Kuzmin makes friends with an American major, who, by the end of the movie, becomes convinced that the Soviet Union isn’t the Evil Empire he was raised to believe, but rather a nation founded on equality (something he can’t say for his American counterparts). Meeting on the Elbe depicts Americans not as enemies, but as confused and brainwashed. They have good intentions, but have been corrupted by poor leadership and greed. Once exposed to the Soviet System, they become converts.

The main difference between American and Soviet films of the time is that American films tended to portray the Soviet enemy as a monolithic bloc of Communist automatons. Soviets were rabid ideologues all committed fully to the Communist Cause and would stop at nothing to destroy the noble West. Surprisingly, the Soviet approach to Cold War Film was much more nuanced. They recognized that there were nuances within American society. While the Soviets portrayed American leaders as corrupt, capitalistic, and greedy, they recognized that not ALL Americans were like that. Most had been brainwashed to believe that communists were barbarians.

One Soviet film, the hilariously titled “The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks” made in 1924 deals with this idea directly. Mr. West is sent to Russia, and he expects to find it inhabited by literal Slavic Barbarians. This is the image of “Bolshevism” he has been fed for years. Once he arrives in Russia and has some comedic misadventures, he realizes that the Soviet Union is, in fact, a land of prosperity and equality.

Now…what does this all have to do with your question, you might ask?

Well, the reason why I explained all of this is to show you that the “James Bond/Rambo Model” was theoretically and legislatively unworkable in the Soviet Union. In a film culture based on (relative) realism and egalitarian ideals, the sheer brutality and one-dimensionality of films like James Bond and Rambo didn’t work.

In short, there was no “Hero who fought the capitalist pigs of the West” because the “capitalist pigs of the West” were not meant to be fought. Nazis were meant to be fought, Capitalists were meant to be educated in the goodness of the Soviet System.

Finally, here is a link to an academic paper entitled, “Hollywood’s insidious charms: the impact of American cinema and television on the Soviet Union during the Cold War”. I don’t agree with all of the conclusions the author makes, but this paper provides interesting insights into cinema in the Soviet Union, in particular the types of foreign films that were allowed, and even smuggled in. American films were available in the Soviet Union. In fact, in 1981, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was released in the Soviet Union just a few days after the U.S. release; it was the first international release of the film according to IMDb.com. However, films like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” weren’t allowed in.

 

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2 Responses to Soviet Film Industry

  1. beetleypete says:

    As a lifelong fan of film and cinema, I have been watching Russian films since the late 1960s. I also have many on DVD, and always enjoy their approach to the subjects. The WW2-set film ‘Come and See’ (1985) is perhaps one of the most important films ever made about the war in Russia, as well as being one of the finest films ever made anywhere.
    Here is a link to a review of it that I had published on a film website..
    http://curnblog.com/2015/02/23/subtitled-war-films-international-examinations-conflict/

    Best wishes, Pete.

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