Friday, 4 February 2011

Protazanov: A Timely Case for Treatment

Yakov Aleksandrovich Protazanov, (4 February 1881, Moscow, Russia - 9 August 1945, Moscow, Russia).

The following article by Ian Christie is reprinted by permission of the author and with no changes (except in transliteration and punctuation) from Protazanov and the continuity of Russian cinema, edited Ian Christie and Julian Graffy (London: BFI/NFT, 1993), which was originally issued to accompany a retrospective of Iakov Protazanov's films at the National Film Theatre. This publication has become a bibliographic rarity since all remaining copies of the original brochure were pulped once the retrospective was completed.

There is an intriguing reference in Aleksandr Sokurov's 1985 film Elegy to the secret government campaign of the early 1920s intended to persuade Chaliapin and other leading Russian artists to return to Soviet Russia. Lunacharskii's crucial letter to Chaliapin, we learn, was never sent and perhaps as a result the great singer remained in voluntary exile along with many of tsarist Russia's leading cultural figures. Some, of course, did return and, like Aleksei Tolstoi and Prokofiev, were duly welcomed into the fold. But others—perhaps ultimately all—of these returnees remained under a shadow for the rest of their lives. Their freedom as artists was weighed, at times explicitly, in the balance against their value according to the political priorities of the moment.

Among the least publicly acclaimed of the contrite celebrities was Iakov Protazanov, although he would remain the only major pre-revolutionary filmmaker to make the return journey. Not only the least acclaimed, but soon—at least within the factional world of cinema—a figure of scorn for both avant-garde and "proletarian" populists alike. Not only a "traditionalist" at a time when tradition had been declared the enemy, nut a virtual embodiment of the New Economic Policy's compromises which so infuriated those who longed for continuing (even "permanent") revolution. Had not Protazanov returned from self-imposed exile to spearhead Mezhrabpom-Rus's new semi-commercial strategy with the Western-style spectacular Aelita? The coolly adopted the mantle of Leninism for the inspirational climax of His Call; and gone on to evoke sympathy for such unlikely Soviet-era heroes as the provincial tailor (The Tailor from Torzhok), the captured White officer (The Forty-First), the waiter (The Man from the Restaurant) and the tsarist provincial governor (The White Eagle)? Surely at best an opportunist, and at worst a purveyor of the "spiritual poison" that Vertov and many of his colleagues in LEF identified with traditional entertainment cinema?

This is how we discern him in the polemics of the late 1920s. True there are dissenting voices—most importantly Lunacharskii, who had played an important part in establishing Mezhrabpom-Rus and, we may speculate, in arranging Protazanov's actual return. Later, as the 1920s polemicists themselves were brought to heel, a more insidious official verdict on Protazanov would emerge. In Vorontsov and Rachuk's ultra-conservative 1980 history, The Phenomenon of Soviet Cinema, he is identified as the godfather of realism: "Protazanov's skill in working with actors and precise feeling for realistic form in films on various themes and in various genres assured his films of constant popularity with audiences." Like an uneasy echo of Maiakovskii's posthumous elevation by Stalin, this sounds like another nail in the coffin of Protazanov's latter-day reputation—a populist and a realist!

And yet, considering to what extent Soviet cinema remains embalmed in mythology, there could be no better time to take stock of Protazanov's remarkable career and muddled reputation than this first year of post-Soviet Russia. The uncertainties of the present seem almost modest compared with those he lived through—from the catastrophe of the Great War, the two revolutions of 1917, evacuation to Yalta and exile in France and Germany; then return to the cross-currents of the NEP, the bitter conflicts of the Cultural Revolution and forced conformity of the First Five Year Plan, the imposition of Socialist realism, the purges and show trials of Stalin's terror, and finally the grim struggle of the Second World War.

It is too easy to abstract Protazanov from this epic history and portray him as an aloof sceptic (which is perhaps a politer term for a cynic), picking his way fastidiously through the ideological minefields of the 1920s and 1930s. Or—the reverse of the same coin, adjusted for present sensibilities—as a cultivated exponent of traditional Russian liberal values amongst the propagandists and ideologues of Soviet cinema (to adapt Lunacharskii's famous description of himself as "an intellectual among Bolsheviks and a Bolshevik among intellectuals"). The truth, as far as we can begin to discern it, seems to be more complex.

What appears to have motivated Protazanov from the very beginning of his career, which virtually coincided with the history of filmmaking in Russia, was his ability to seize on the topical or the scandalous and intensify it to the point where it acquires a real moral significance for the audience. There may be no single genre or style that predominates in his prolific career—compared with his contemporary Evgenii Bauer's specialisation in melodrama Protazanov made as many comedies and topical pieces as typically "Russian melodramas"—but this does not mean that he should be compared with a Hollywood journeyman, a Henry King or William Wyler. A more telling comparison would be with Douglas Sirk, who not only moved through at least three totally different production regimes, retaining his directorial integrity, but also brought to all his varied material a consistent intelligence and quest for what could be expressed through a combination of "kitsch, craziness and trashiness." In a well-known formulation from Sirk's 1970 interview with Jon Halliday: "one of the foremost things of picture-making… is to bend your material to your style and your purpose. A director is really a story-bender… A story nearly always leaves you something to express beyond plot or literary values."

If we step back from the politics of Protazanov's career and from the complacent identification of him as an "actor's director," we find instead a director constantly responding to the conditions around him, "bending" the materials of script, actors and visual style towards something that will challenge, and thus entertain, his audience. An opportunist, as all filmmakers must be, but no mere cynic: instead a shrewd tactician who took care to surround himself with the very best collaborators, yet to remain in unquestioned control, wielding his trademark baton as the maestro of the spectacle.

Protazanov's film Aelita, aka Аэлита, Aelita: Queen of Mars or Revolt of the Robots, (1924) you can watch here.

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