A Brief History of Mosfilm

Fin Murphy

Now that Socialist Realism joins Che Guevara’s silhouette as bric-a-brac kitsch and Dr. Zhivago’s seditious splendor has receded into literary canon, Russian cinema stands tall as a cultural hallmark in output and history.

Lenin was largely indifferent to cinema but appreciated its mainstream appeal. Stalin hosted late-night cowboy movie marathons with unsurprisingly nervous lackeys, but ordered John Wayne to be assassinated for his anti-communism. Khrushchev raged when he was denied a trip to Disneyland during his 1959 U.S. visit, yet was keen on the can-can.

Outlasting each leader is Mosfilm. Founded in 1920, it grew to become the state’s production company, a gargantuan studio responsible for everything from newsreels to musicals, propaganda to osterns. In light of the 36th edition of the Moscow Film Festival, we explore the studio’s intermingling cast of directors through some of its best work.

Battleship Potemkin (dir. Sergei Eisenstein)

This is cinema’s Ulysses. Eisenstein drew on his friend’s work and the parallels show: the distillation of the individual within wider society, as shown on the deadly steps; repurposing the rudiments of a myth – The Odyssey, the five acts of a classical tragedy – to outstanding new effect; the self-conscious experimentation with form with the wish to transform the reader. Eisenstein’s achievement would rub off on colleagues such as Mikhail Romm, an admirer of his intellect: “Eisenstein used to sit among the books, on the books, under the books.” Their views differed, however, as Eisenstein avoided censorious arts council meetings while Romm engaged in the hope of reform.

Girl No. 217 (dir. Mikhail Romm)

Written and directed by Romm, the Cannes-featured Girl No. 217 took a scaled-down approach to purveying Soviet ideology, attacking the Nazis through a bourgeois German family’s cruelty towards their Russian peasant slave, Yelena Kuzmina’s Tanya. Romm ingeniously synthesised the principles of Eisenstein’s montage with music, largely absent during the film but that adds to Tanya’s pathos as she reflects on her past. Romm later excelled in nurturing the talents of Andrei Tarkovsky and Vasily Shuskin at the State Institute of Cinematography, where he introduced the former to Fellini and Rossellini.

Ivan’s Childhood (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)

Much as how Eisenstein creatively benefitted from working at a time when Lenin looked to state capitalism, Tarkovsky reaped the benefits of Khrushchev’s Thaw. During this period of de-Stalinization and a measure of liberalisation, Tarkovsky was able to interrogate World War II in a way beyond Soviet glory/victimisation. By placing Nikolay Burlyaev’s passionate, sincere yet precocious Ivan at the fore, Tarkovsy is better placed to critique the motives and misdeeds of the adults surrounding Ivan.

Ivan's Childhood was notably one of the only films Tarkovsky directed that he didn't write (along with Stalker). Yet here, in his debut feature, we can already see the director's trademark lyricism and striking use of the elements – particularly in the film's unforgettable dream sequence. Tarkovsky utilizes Romm’s montage style in order to create a dreamy counterbalance to the everyday hell, in contrast to Eisenstein’s emotive, chaotic approach. The ending – expected or surprising, convenient or problematic – is something that stays with you long after the credits roll.

Come and See (dir. Elem Klimov) 

If Eisenstein found an effective way to present, Romm used sound effectively and Tarkovsky noted moral nuance, Klimov succeeded at drawing on the sheer terror of war. Come and See is a bloodstained bildungsroman, following Aleksei Kravchenko’s Flyora as he becomes immersed in a war that destroys his life. Whereas Eisenstein’s Odessa steps sequence has gone down as a stylistic classic, Klimov’s ending sustains a dizzying nausea: the music grates, the footage is confusing and Flyora’s face is grotesque. Yet it’s all depressingly familiar. Klimov – a Romm understudy and ardent Tarkovsky fan – would go on to head the Filmmaker’s Union under Gorbachev, releasing hundreds of films banned in the preceding decades (many under the Mosfilm banner, including his own) as well as witnessing a new wave of Russian cinema. 

Follow Fin on Twitter: @finspo

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