What is and What Should Be: Soviet Constructivism on Film
The term ‘socialist realism’ was always misleading. Maxim Gorky, the novelist and playwright who effectively defined and defended it in the mid-1930s, always disassociated it from what he called ‘naturalism’. That would be just the representation, devoid of context or comment, of what is. Socialist realism consciously presented itself as not the presentation of what is but of what will be, an idea obviously lending itself rather neatly to escapism and fantasy. This is about the only thing connecting the ways in which first, modernist architecture, and second, a mutant traditionalist-eclectic architecture, appeared on film in the Soviet Union.
The content changes radically but in both cases we’re mainly seeing buildings that don’t exist, and in many cases buildings that never would exist, presented as if part of the contemporary everyday life of ordinary people. Even when real structures do appear they’re equally fantastical, some sort of irruption of dreaming into life. In a situation where efficiency was fantasy, we have a cinema where factory farming is presented as a practically orgasmic techno-primitive process.
Soviet avant-garde tectonics first appear on film in an entirely abstract fashion, and not in the USSR at all, in the form of Hans Richter’s series of animated shorts, Rhythmus, made in 1921–23. These compelling successions of polygons, intersecting, growing and pulsating, were very obviously based on the precedent of suprematism, the cult-like cosmic communist abstraction movement that applied its shapes to everything from propaganda posters to ceramic plates to putative buildings.
Still from 'The General Line' (dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1929).
Kazimir Malevich, the movement’s founder, worked with Richter on a storyboard for a suprematist film, though it was never completed. It was not implied that these shapes existed in a real space but in an absolute, transcendent imaginary, although they recur when the first truly Soviet films emerge. The most well known of these, Yakov Protazanov’s revolution-on-Mars satire Aelita (1924), owes its fame to icily erotic costumes by painter Alexandra Exter and a striking set by Isaac Rabinovich. Here the abstractions of suprematism and constructivism meet Cecil B. DeMille, with weird canted stairways, glass contraptions and, in the climax, a series of expressionistic skyscrapers all serving to delineate the architecture of a Martian despotism. Aelita is based on dreaming in the most literal sense, hinging on the daydreams of an earth-bound engineer during the compromised post-revolutionary period, and imagining a new and more pure revolution in outer space. The architecture looks interestingly like the imagined architecture of the Soviet present.
Not, it should be stressed, that any avant-garde buildings had been built when these films were made. The more hardline avant garde initially shunned Aelita’s spectacular imaginary landscapes in favour of real, everyday locations, although sometimes even here they are reimagined in a defamiliarising form. In Eisenstein’s first feature, Strike (1925), the gantries, walkways and frames of a Petrograd factory complex become a constructivist architecture, highlighting their vertiginous proportions and tensile steel lightness.
More often the social comedies of the time, such as Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (1926) or Boris Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya (1928), feature the spaces of the old world reconfigured in order to create semi-communal, but in reality intensely private, dwellings for a transient and unstable new urban population. These films seldom open out into visions of possible alternative architectures to solve the various bourgeois ills they diagnose – but one film from the 1920s does tackle a real piece of constructivist architecture, and presents it as the waking from sleep.
Still from 'Fragment of an Empire' (dir. Friedrich Ermler, 1929).
Friedrich Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire (1929) is a Soviet Rip Van Winkle, in which a shell-shocked WWI soldier awakes from a decade-long coma into the new, socialist St Petersburg. A rugged, bearded and bluff proletarian, he finds the new Leningrad increasingly strange and alien. At one point he wanders around the street, with its congested traffic and its modernist tempo, and finds himself walking under the skyways of a giant concrete complex of interconnected skyscrapers. Amazed, he asks himself, ‘Is this Petersburg?’ It wasn’t – it was actually in Kharkov, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine. This dreamlike, Chicago-via-Malevich structure is Gosprom, a governmental building designed by Serafimov, Felger and Kravets (1926–1928), and it is the only Soviet modernist building that regularly features in films of the time.
The now fairly famous icons of built constructivism – Le Corbusier’s Centrosoyuz or the buildings of Moisei Ginzburg, Konstantin Melnikov and the Vesnin brothers – almost never appear on film. Gosprom’s monumental yet futurist construction however does, largely perhaps because its science-fiction grandeur seemed already cinematic. Sometimes it is uncomplicatedly a propagandistic monument to Soviet power, but in Eisenstein’s The General Line (1929) it plays a more complex role. This film hinges on another dream sequence, where a collective farm heroine imagines her future kolkhoz; the farm’s central building, a mock-up by Andrei Burov, is delicately Corbusian, with sweeps of ribbon windows and white rendered concrete. Afterwards, in order to really build this fantasy, she goes to ask the bureaucrats at Gosprom for funding, who are vague and unhelpful. Eisenstein manipulates the shot of Gosprom to add several extra floors onto the towers, making its image yet more imposing and monolithic.
Modernism’s ambiguity in Soviet film can also be found in Dziga Vertov’s complex, dialectical agitprop documentaries. In Enthusiasm (1930), a new industrial world is brought into being through titanic, stressful, dirty (and deafeningly noisy) exertion. By Three Songs About Lenin (1934), a modernist environment is presented as the utopian result of that effort, with elegiac shots of workers’ housing in Magnitogorsk designed by Ernst May, or a night-time shot of Gosprom illuminated.