Thursday, 31 January 2013

Lenfilm Lives On! The Charm and Curse of Continuity

At the time of writing, Lenfilm studios is threatened with imminent closure and disappearance, making Russia’s, and the USSR’s, second biggest studio a fitting and highly topical subject for a historical retrospective (Kozlov 2012). Previous symposiums organized at Wiesbanden’s goEast festival of Eastern and Central European film have traced a common thread in the cinema of a number of countries. This year, however, in a bold and wildly successful departure, the symposium was devoted not just to the cinema of a single country, but to that of a single city. What’s more, one that no longer exists: Leningrad. Unlike the city, which physically lives on, but under a different name, the Lenfilm studio, initially founded in 1918 as the Petrograd Cinema Committee, has retained its link with Lenin in a Russia where the leader of the Russian revolution is more reviled than Stalin, Hitler, Genghis Khan or even Vlad the Impaler. A powerful symbol of the city’s commitment to cultural continuity, the Lenfilm moniker has apparently become an albatross in a post-Soviet world which values a new kind of forgetting. GoEast’s provocative symposium confronted these issues of identity and tradition in a program that combined intellectual rigor with political relevance.

Yet, despite its newsworthy nature, the rationale for the Symposium was first of all an intellectual one: a sense that all roads lead to, or at least through, Leningrad. Whatever the era or topic, be it the avant-garde, socialist realism, the Thaw, popular and genre cinema of the 60s and 70s, the glasnost era, at each point an analysis of Russian film history comes up against Lenfilm productions, suggesting that the studio made films which are central to the understanding of Soviet cinema. We might quibble of course: it might be argued that the circumstances of the wartime siege meant that Leningrad film was truly cut off from that of the rest of the country and was unable to contribute as much to film history in that period, even if the city’s filmmakers attempted to make an extraordinary documentary about the experience of the blockade, eventually released in a watered-down version, and evacuated Leningrad filmmakers, such as Fridrikh Ermler, made important contributions to Alma-Ata based productions.

But even if we concede that Lenfilm productions played a pivotal role in Soviet film history, then do they share common characteristics? Was there a Lenfilm touch, approach or sensibility? The curators of the symposium, Barbara Wurm and Olaf Möller attempt to argue that the studio tended never quite to fit in to the prevailing ethos, but was avant- or arrière-garde, either anticipating or lagging behind prevailing aesthetic norms. This formulation suggests not a single unifying style or essence in the studio, but a relation or orientation to the norm, to Moscow, and to the time. It might equally be argued, that Lenfilm loosely encompassed a cluster of concerns: above all they tended to address issues of cultural continuity, and the role or place of the intelligentsia, more insistently than other Soviet movies, and often used the Petersburg cityscape in order to articulate these themes, as can be illustrated though a brief historical overview of the studio’s output.

Jeremy Hicks (QMUL) in KinoKultura

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