Frame by Frame

Interros"Seventeen Moments of Spring," the enormously popular 1973 miniseries about a Soviet agent in Nazi Germany, is one of the films and TV series examined in the book.
When people around the world say "Soviet film," they tend to mean the seminal and creative period of the 1920s, when the input of Soviet filmmakers into the art of cinema was arguably bigger than in any other decade. Such classic directors as Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin made their best films in the '20s, achieving international reputations as avant-garde filmmakers with "Battleship Potemkin" and "Mother," respectively. "Soviet cinema was on the rise. Never before or after did it produce as many masterpieces as in the second half of the 1920s," writes Nikolai Izvolov in the preface to "Soviet Cinema," a thick, illustrated volume published earlier this year by Interros.

But the book encompasses far more than the flowering of the '20s. Starting just after the Revolution, it follows the history of Soviet film through the censorship of Stalin's regime, to the international recognition of Grigory Chukhrai's "Ballad of a Soldier" and Mikhail Kalatozov's "The Cranes are Flying" in the Khrushchev era, to Andrei Tarkovsky's art-house classics of the 1960s and 1970s and, finally, to the chaotic freedom of perestroika.

"Soviet Cinema" has over 400 pages of pictures from Soviet films and television series, preceded by a rather concise essay on the 72-year history of the Soviet film industry and complemented by a DVD with clips from 24 films. The choice of the number 24 was not random. Keeping in mind that film runs at 24 frames per second, the authors broke their history into three 24-year periods, from the issuing of Lenin's decree on the nationalization of the film and photography industries on Aug. 27, 1919 -- the day celebrated as the official holiday of Soviet and, later, Russian cinema -- to the demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

The three parts of the opening essay were written by different people, and the length of each section decreases while the font size increases. Unfortunately, the quality of writing declines as well. Izvolov's outline of the period from 1919 to 1943 is informative, precise and objective; avoiding theoretical conclusions, he focuses on the highest-profile films of the '20s and '30s, including "Mother," the Vasilyev brothers' "Chapayev" and Grigory Alexandrov's "The Circus," giving each film almost equal space and concentrating on its place in history, rather than critiquing it.

However, Denis Gorelov's final part, dealing with the years 1967 to 1991, is riddled with random cross-cultural and social references and "hip" vocabulary. There are also a few factual errors and questionable conclusions. For instance, Gorelov links the popularity of television series in the 1970s to the emergence of a middle class; in fact, having a television set was a "middle-class" attribute in the early '60s, and the majority of Soviet families had one by the early '70s, which is probably a better explanation for the boom in television series during that decade. Gorelov also writes that the younger generation of '70s directors, such as Nikita Mikhalkov, Sergei Solovyov and Vadim Abdrashitov, "were all filming Chekhov or variations on his themes from contemporary life." Yet Abdrashitov never did anything remotely Chekhovian, focusing on psychological dramas, often with a criminal plot.


Overall, the introduction gives a general sense of Soviet film to those not familiar with the subject. "Soviet Cinema" isn't a reference book, though; the only encyclopedic part is a 10-page index of the films mentioned in the main section. The bulk of the book relies on press clippings from various publications, from the highbrow industry journal Iskusstvo Kino to regional newspapers. One movie per year is generously illustrated, mostly with film stills but sometimes with production photos or audition pictures. And this strategy works, especially for those who want to take a crash course on Soviet cinema in a light-hearted, nonacademic manner. In other words, you may not get a lot of information, but you'll get many images and impressions of what Soviet films were like. These are augmented by the DVD, which features clips from many high-profile Soviet movies of the '50s, '60s and '70s -- but, for some reason, none from the '20s, '30s or '40s.

One can find various faults with "Soviet Cinema." The choice of the film for a given year is not always unquestionable, and mixing television series with silver-screen films doesn't always work. What's good, though, is that the book includes all kinds of films, from '20s classics like "Battleship Potemkin" to the '60s comedy "Diamond Arm," to Tarkovsky's art-house historical drama "Andrei Rublyov," to the late-'80s disaster movie "Air Crew." Together, they paint a rich and diverse, though a bit superficial, picture of Soviet cinema over the years of its existence.

"Soviet Cinema" (Sovietskoye Kino) is published by Interros. Vladimir Kozlov is a journalist, fiction author and recent graduate of the PCFE Film School in Prague.