Since the introduction of film in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century, Russian cinema has always been intertwined with politics. The political axes of the vast country have undergone tremendous changes in the past 100 years-- from an Empire to a Communist State to a Federation-- nonetheless, filmmakers have always used cinema as an approach to portray the power in place.
While 70 years have passed since the release of the Russian film Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Burnt by the Sun (1994), directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, the political and social undertones remain prevalent in both films. On the one hand a propagandist- laced production glorifies the Bolshevik revolution and regime. On the other hand, given the well known disappointments and tragedies associated with the Soviet regime, the second film, through justified anger at historical events acts as a critique, yet remains loyal and respectful to a once celebrated past. Both films are arguing for the power of the people in a dystopian social/economical structure of power.
The evolution of the sociological, political and cultural history of Russia, and the consequent transition in its cinema can be understood by analyzing a scene from each film through the lens of dystopia. The scenes I have selected to look at are “The Odessa Steps” scene (47:43-54:23) from Battleship Potemkin and the “the lost soccer ball” scene (1:43:04-1:47:02) from Burnt by the Sun.
After the 1917 Revolution, cinema in the Soviet era became a valuable tool to increase support from the illiterate masses. Films constructed a public image of the Soviet Union that the people of Russia could be exposed to through easy entertainment (accessible and cheap). As opposed to arts like paintings and sculpture, cinema showed to its audiences what seemed to be reality, however only a convincing creation of it. In other words, Soviet films were a clever device of propaganda, heavily subjected to censorship and state control. Filmmakers were to follow the criteria of Soviet realism, such as promoting the state and regime, the collectivity over the individual, the cult of the leader, and so on. An effective and popular device used to meet the dictates was to address a major social and political event that an audience could relate to and render the occurrence in favor of the regime thanks to aesthetic elements that would trigger the viewers’ emotions. Battleship Potemkin, considered one of the greatest films ever made, focuses on the crew of the battleship Potemkin’s mutiny, an episode of Russian history that lead to the 1905 Revolution “Bloody Sunday.” Eisenstein’s use of innovative cinematic techniques of montage and camera work made him and his work famous.
As explained in The Battleship Potemkin: the Film Companion, “This film was originally conceived as one episode in a series of films celebrating the anniversary of the revolutionary events of 1905 under the generic title, The Year 1905. The film was contracted on 17 March 1925 by the Government Commission established to commemorate the twentieth anniversary in 1925” (Taylor 1). The plot consists of the sailors of the Potemkin living in terrible conditions on the boat and being forced to eat maggot-ridden food. Tired of this treatment, they revolt against the officers of the Tsarist regime over the rotten meat in order to have better working conditions and fight their oppressors. The officers see this behavior as a lack of loyalty to the Tsar and shoot the leader of this up rise, Vakulinchuk. The sailors place his body on the docks of the port of Odessa and the people of the city come around him and rally with the Potemkin sailors in their revolutionary cause. The Tsar’s Cossacks arrive and in what might be one of the most famous cinematic scenes, massacre the people of Odessa on the steps leading to the port, finally ending the revolt. The film ends with battleships arriving to destroy the Potemkin.
I would like to take a closer look at the scene of the Odessa step massacre. It is key to this film because of its cinematic value and its placement in the narrative. “The Odessa Steps sequence is the most famous part of the Potemkin, and constitutes its emotional and ideological heart, it comes towards the end, rather than at the temporal centre, of the film. But it does not come at the very end of the film” (Taylor 15). This dystopian vision of oppression of the people by those in power comes right after the utopian image of “peaceful scenes before the massacre when the townspeople of Odessa were standing on the quay side waving at the mutinous sailors to express their solidarity and support” (Taylor 50) and is followed by apparent emotional triumph. The scene opens with the title ‘Suddenly’ and it is expected that something is going to happen and alter the plot. It cuts to a close up of a Women’s face. Her head rocks back and forth. Has she been shot? At this point, we do not know but it cuts to the people of Odessa running down the stairs towards the harbor. The camera focuses on a crippled man and women with parasols. The dichotomy of these characters (lowest class vs. middle class) emphasizes the unity of the people in opposition to the oppressing powers of the Tsarist regime. The music accelerates, building up the tension of the scene and even creating a frightening atmosphere. One of the women’s parasols fills the screen and obscures the scene, reinforcing the impression of chaos and disorientation. The scene cuts to Cossacks appearing at the top of the stairs, carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. Now we understand the action. The people of Odessa are being shot. The spectator sees them from behind. Our point of view as observers of the scene has changed. The Cossacks are physically above the people of Odessa. The camera angle, in its disposition of the characters, makes it look like the Tsar’s officers are superior to the people. This shows their advantage in power and the injustice in the action. This element is a technique that should appeal to the emotions of the viewer and make us feel for the people and support the oppressed. A wide angle shot shows the crowd still running, falling, hit by bullets and looking up at the Cossacks. The camera is now aimed beneath the people of Odessa. We are looking up at everyone, still remaining an observer, but the crowd is coming towards us this time, making us part of it and therefore part of the people, part of the oppressed. The film wants us to emotionally connect with them and feel for them. We now see the profile of the rifles aligned and aiming to the side which we know are the people. The scene cuts to the close up of a little boy fallen to the ground and then to the close up of the face of a woman. His mother perhaps? The editing of the following images accelerates and is repeated, fast forwarding the speed of the scene: people walking on the boy, stepping on him, the boy screaming, the woman/mother carrying him. A title appears: “Let’s go talk to them.” Once more it shows that the people embody reason in contrast to the violent officers. The woman carrying the boy approaches the soldiers pleading and the camera closes up on the faces of the crowd, emphasizing their sufferings and making us relate to them, but we see the faces of the Cossacks, dehumanizing the enemy. They are not seen as people but only as the tip of their guns that kill defenseless civilians. The woman and little boy stand in front of the Cossacks. “Don’t shoot.” The music stops, and the dramatic tension builds up once more. “My little boy is very ill.” The Cossacks shoot her. As she falls to the ground, the music starts again but is slowed down and becomes melancholic. The film then shows more people running and more close-ups of guns, but then cuts to a mother and her baby in a stroller. The music builds up tension again as she is shot. The music then becomes sad. She falls backwards and pushes the carriage which falls down the stairs. The editing accelerates another time, cutting from close ups of people’s faces to the baby carriage falling, to Cossacks hitting people, to the stroller tipping over, and to the face of a woman bleeding and screaming. Even though we do not see the stroller collapsing it is implied, and as a spectator we know that the most innocents have been killed in this massacre. Although these events have never taken place and are a fictional part of the film added for its dramatic effect, this scene is very effective in showing us the dystopia of the Tsarist regime and oppression in contrast with the utopian images of the revolts that rallied all the people together in the previous scene. The dehumanized enemy killed the innocents trying to revolt against the oppressor.
Battleship Potemkin, through the positive and utopian representation of revolution as opposed to the negative and dystopian depiction of the Tsarist regime, glorifies the Bolshevik revolution and regime. By adding a fictional massacre scene to the film, Eisenstein created a work that was aesthetically appealing in the favor of the Bolshevik ideals that aristocracy and the Empire are ‘evil forces.’ The issue is that the film itself is based on true events and that the people of Russia who watched the film at the time thought that the Odessa step massacre scene was an accurate representation of history. Such misconceptions made poorly educated people more likely to believe in Soviet principles. In his essay, “Sergei Eisenstein: The Artist in Service of the Revolution,” Ron Briley says: “Whether or not one agrees with political ideology of Eisenstein, it is impossible to deny his genius in such cinematic works such as Battleship Potemkin (1925). But the true mark of greatness lies on moral plane with truth, and Eisenstein, in service of his master Stalin fails to pass the test” (Briley 525). It is undeniable that Eisenstein’s film is a visual and technical masterpiece, but as a director (like all of the filmmakers of this era), he was constrained by Soviet standards of ideology. Stalin controlled all produced films’ contents and had banned Eisenstein from the industry because he “was accused of being too subjective with his art and not meeting the dictates of socialist realism […] However, in 1935, Eisenstein was given an opportunity to work again if he could learn to follow the proper dictates” (Briley 531). Therefore, all films screened in cinemas (because many were made that were shelved if Stalin judged them non-ideological) were propagandist and approved by the state. Filmmakers had to work in very restrictive ideological constrains and audiences were showed constructions of an ideal Soviet regime. In other words, no matter how strong the quality of the film, people were fed lies while being entertained and had very little leeway to try and think differently as many of the viewers were lower class with poor chances of having received an education.
In the late 1980s, the political regime and climate of Russia and the onset of perestroika allowed for a relaxation in the Soviet restrictions of censorship and propaganda. Gorbachev’s instauration of glasnost, a policy promoting transparency and openness, allowed filmmakers to tackle topics that had previously been censored, such as drug use, sexuality, or even disenchantment with the current politics. It is thanks to this that films like Little Vera (1988) were able to be made. The latter was the first Russian film to show nudity and sexuality onscreen. But this was folled by the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet state. Of this, Brigit Beumers, author of Burnt by the Sun: the Film Companion, says “After the demise of communism, film-makers rejected above all the demand to construct the future. Instead, they began to portray the reality that surrounded them without the ideological constraints (beautifying, varnishing, showing the ‘bright future’) hitherto imposed” (Beumers 4). But during the 1990s, certain filmmakers such as Nikita Mikhalkov refused to indulge in this blackness and bleakness that offers neither alternative nor perspective. He believed “very strongly that film-makers should instill hope in the cinema audience, and he dwelt on the need to recreate the myth of Russian national hero in order to regain a spirit of patriotism that had bonded the Soviet Union in the past” (Beumers 3). Mikhalvok’s film Burnt by the Sun, critiques the late Soviet regime and its flaws but it remains respectful to a past that was once celebrated. This feature brings to light hope for the people of Russia to reconstruct themselves as a country but also to regain an identity as individuals.
In her essay “National Identity, Cultural Authority and the Post-Soviet Blockbuster: Nikita Mikhalkov and Aleksei Balabanov,” Susan Larsen informs us that “Burnt by the Sun was the first post Soviet film with any claim to blockbuster status: it shared the Grand Jury Prize at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and in 1995 became only the third Russian language film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film” (Larsen 494). The film takes place during one day in the year of 1936, right before Joseph Stalin’s “Great Purge” campaigns. The main character, Colonel Kotov is a Bolshevik revolution and Russian civil war hero. He is enjoying what starts off as a beautiful day with his wife Marusia and his daughter Nadia. Maroussia comes from a former noble family. They form a large eccentric bunch, living happily in the countryside until Mitia shows up. He is an ex-nobleman and Maroussia’s first love. He is very friendly and humorous but we come to understand that he holds a grudge against Kotov. The Colonel sent him away to become a spy and now Mitia comes to send him away. Part of the NKVD, Mitia makes sure Kotov is arrested under the false accusation that he has been selling information to the Germans and Japanese. Kotov is put in a black car with Stalin’s Gorillas but he remains confident that it is a mistake, still believing in the ideals of communism. The text at the end of the film tells us that Kotov was shot and that his wife died in the Goulag. Nadia survived. We see Mitia in one last scene having committed suicide. The film ends on this quote: "This film is dedicated to all who were burnt by the sun of the Revolution."
I decided to look closely at the lost soccer ball scene were Kotov and Mitya go to search for the ball in the forest during a friendly family game and confront each other. This scene is towards the end of the film, after much of the tension has been built up. Why is Mitia returning now? What is Kotov and Mitia’s relationship? Why do they hold a grudge against each other? This scene seems crucial to me because it is where we learn the most about the two characters. Mitia has announced to Kotov in the previous scene that he has come to arrest him. The scene starts with Kotov running into the shot of the forest to get the soccer ball. It cuts to the family cheering. They are happy. It cuts back to Mitia entering the shot and walking towards Kotov. The camera closes up on them. We are looking at them from behind, in a voyeuristic manner, observing the scene and unraveling the secrets that have been built up since Mitia’s arrival. Mitia thinks Kotov has not understood he will be arrested but Kotov is not scared. He is innocent. Kotov provokes Mitia and we learn Mitia is a spy for the Soviet Union now. It cuts to a close up of Mitia’s face and Kotov’s side and back to Kotov who is confident because he has always been a revolutionary, always on the Soviet Union’s side. Mitia however, is a former noble which Kotov frowns upon even though he is married into an ex-noble family. The camera cuts to Mitia and we learn he was promised he could come back to his former life, his happy life, if he agreed to be a spy. He was lured into it and he blames it on Kotov who made him go, long before he was involved with Marusia, the woman they both love. Kotov thinks Mitia is pathetic for coming back to his old home and petying himself. Kotov has no respect for Mitia and strongly believes in the Soviet Union and in his position of importance in its system. As their conversation progresses the position of power switches when Kotov understands that Mitia is part of Stalin’s General Purge campaign, and letting fear take over, he punches him. The camera cuts to Nadia running into the forest announcing pioneers are here to honor the great Colonel Kotov, hero of the Civil War. Mitia and Kotov hide everything from Nadia and pretend nothing happened for their love for her and Marussia.
On the one hand, the film shows Kotov’s utopia of the strong family unit and of Communist values and his dystopia of the prerevolutionary noble ideals. On the other, it presents Mitia’s utopia of a happy home with his first love and his dystopia as the Soviet regime takes him away from it all and lies to him. But the outer layer argument of this film is that the utopia lies in the respect to a past of grand ideals and the dystopia is the current feeling that Communism never achieved what it strived for in the first place. “In Sergei Kotov, the legendary division commander who is the charismatic hero of Burnt by the Sun, Mikhalkov reclaims an image of triumphant masculinity and honorable national identity from Stalin era in a form that defies the widespread tendency in 1990s Russian cinema to depict Stalin-era loyalist as flawed or false heroes” (Larsen 495). The film does not blame those who strongly believed the revolution would solve the issues of the nation and it agrees with certain values that should remain such as pride in ones country, a tight family unit and a respectable masculine hero. On this matter Larsen says “The film is engaged- more or less explicitly- with the relationship between contemporary Russian life and the cultural traditions of the Soviet and prerevolutionary past” (Larsen 492). Mikhalkov’s film deals with the issue of accepting the past of one’s nation while moving on and reconstructing itself and regaining its identity, as a country but also as Russian individual.
Russian cinema has always been charged with political undertones. But in a century, the use of this tool to convey social, political and cultural messages has evolved. Films from the Soviet era such as Battleship Potemkin were made to glorify the Revolutionary movement of the time and used as a propagandist mechanism. After the collapse of the USSR cinema transitioned into portraying a doomed, dark and bleak Russia but certain films like Burnt by the Sun manage to passé a message of hope. There is a common understanding in this film that, yes, Communism failed to bring to Russia and its people what it had promised but that it was easy to be ‘burnt by its sun.’ Believing in these ideals was powerful but unfulfilled. Unfortunately the promises that were shown in Battleship Potemkin were never resolved and instead perpetuated the inequalities that Communism was supposed to abolish.
Briley, Ron.“Sergei Eisenstein: The Artist in Service of the Revolution.” The History Teacher 29.4 (1996): 525-536. JStore. Web. March 25 2011.
Taylor, Richard. The Battleship Potemkin: the Film Companion. London: I.B Tauris, 2007.Print.
Larsen , Susan. “National Identity, Cultural Authority and the Post-Soviet Blockbuster: Nikita Mikhalkov and Aleksei Balabanov.” Slavic Review 62.3 (2003): 491-511. JStore. Web. March 25 2011.
Beumers, Birgit. Burnt by the Sun: the Film Companion. London: I.B Tauris, 2000.Print.