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The Soviet Thaw: A Country’s Ideological Shift written in its Cinema

March 22, 2014

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I talk about ‘the Thaw’ as if it’s a concrete historical period and sentiment. The truth is it’s a touch shadier than that – a little like how we ascribe cultural movements neatly within decades; the twenties was decadence personnified, the sixties was all about political and socio-cultural ‘revolution’, the eighties was the era of Reaganite Capitalism gone mad etc. Josephine Woll in her book ‘Soviet Cinema and the Thaw’ loosely demarcates the Thaw as spanning 1953-67, although the more conventional alignment is with Nikita Khrushchev’s reign as leader of the Soviet Union from 1953-64. The Thaw’s origin is less contested – Stalin’s death in 1953 – not only because it figuratively marked the end of one man’s time in power and the ascendance of a new leader, Khrushchev, but also in actuality, as it brought to an end Stalin’s sustained totalitarian form of governance in place of a more liberal ethos to be outlined by Khrushchev in his “silent” speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956.

Stalin’s regime is one of the key contexts to understanding the sentiment of the Thaw, because the Thaw was in essence a disavowal of Stalinist doctrine, and a relaxing or rewriting of many of the ‘wrongs’ from his time in power. In terms of artistic representation – and this extended to cinema – Socialist Realism had been the Soviet Union’s predominant ideological maxim from 1932 up to Stalin’s death. George Gibian in his book on Soviet literature defined Socialist Realism flakily as, at least in literary terms, “writing on topics which are of current concern to the people as a whole”. Of course, this slippery attempt at contextualisation underlined how the party could censor’works with ease because they would argue they were in the best position to decide what was of “current concern to the people” in the first place.

What Socialist Realism actually stood for, and would subsequently provide the Thaw with a hegemonic structure to deconstruct, was a refutation of “subjectivism, delving into individual psychology and dissecting motives…experimentation…any kind of innovation or avant-gardism; dwelling on the role of the individual instead of the group, the social class”. Khrushchev’s speech to the Twentieth Party Congress can be seen as the institutionalisation of the Thaw ethos, coming two years after the term “the Thaw” was first popularised by Ilya Ehrenburg in his novelette of the self-same title. Khrushchev “empowered a passion for truth-telling, expressed in variety of artistic forms that shared a common concern with the moral compromises endemic to Soviet society”. Josephine Woll likens how new, abounding phrases like “bold initiatives”, “artistic originality” and “security and tolerance for the artist’s individuality” signified a marked changed from the rhetoric of Stalin-era Socialist Realism.

Considering the earlier assertion that the Thaw is contextualised by its opposition to Stalinist dogma and Socialist Realism, there are four main areas – in both form and content – which saw the engagement of Thaw cinematic discourse. These areas were the demythologisation of history, the return to a more innovative and artistic use of the cinematic medium, an interrogation of the concept of heroism, and the attempt to reconcile public versus private accountability. The select films that form the basis of the subsequent analysis alongside Michail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1957) – the most famous Thaw film – are: Lev Kulidzhanov and Yakov Segel’s The House I Live In (1957), it’s the film that bears most superficial relation to The Cranes are Flying in its dissection of a community’s psychology before, during and after the trauma of the Second World War; The Forty-First (1956), a love story set during the Russian Civil War between a Red general and her White prisoner; and Spring on Zarechnaia Street (1956), relevant in terms of its poetics as well as its positing of a female from the intelligentsia “thawing” to the charms of her new community. The main Stalin-era films I will be referencing as counterpoints to the Thaw are Grigorii Aleksandrov’s Circus (1936), relevant for its notions of heroism and the main protagonist’s growing social consciousness, along with The Fall of Berlin (1949), a very Stalin-centric view of how the Second World War was won.

By the time the Thaw filmmakers were at work, the Second World War was more than a decade past, yet according to Josephine Woll, “Soviet filmmakers had hardly begun to examine its significance”. Instead, the only cinematic treatments of the war were in the propaganda pieces from the Stalin era that projected the ‘glory’ of victory and Stalin’s tactical genius. The most famous example was Mikhail Chiaureli’s The Fall of Berlin that depicted, in strictly superficial terms, the Soviet repulsion of the 1941 Nazi invasion, and the subsequent defeat of the German army by 1945. The opening scene of The Fall of Berlin betrays its dramaturgical intentions straight away, with the camera panning over idyllic, pastoral scenes of ‘Mother Russia’ to elicit immediate audience partiality. The irony of the resulting narrative is that as much time is spent indulging notions of Stalin’s role in the victory over the Germans, than in depicting the lives of those everyday Soviets who really did sacrifice their lives in protection of their country. The only citizen who is accorded narrative time, Alexei Ivanov, is never presented in anything other than two-dimensional tropes, and despite the relative travails he endures through the war’s duration, his status in the pecking order is confirmed in the film’s climax when he – along with the soldiers who have captured Berlin – greet Stalin’s arrival in the city as if Stalin, himself, had liberated it. The citizens’ adulation even reaches the level of deification when images of Stalin are hoisted above their heads. This was precisely the sort of misrepresentation Thaw filmmakers sought to problematise – after all, it was Khrushchev himself in his Twentieth Party Congress address who articulated antipathy toward the “cult of personality…which turns one or other leader into a miracle-performing hero, and at the same time minimises the role of the Party and the popular masses”. Thaw filmmakers’ particular aversion to Stalin’s influence was in the monopoly he had maintained as the Soviet Union’s sole storyteller, so the chance to break this ‘narrative’ was crucial, as explained by dramatist A. Kron when he wrote in the second volume of the anthology ‘Literary Moscow’, “where cult is present, scientific thought must give way to blind faith, creativity to dogma, public opinion to caprice….Where one man owns the truth uncontrolled, artists are relegated to the modest role of illustrators and singers of odes”. Of course, it wasn’t only through artistic restrictions that Stalin retained his dominance over the ‘truth’, but in actuality, as he had dismissed – and in some cases banished to Siberia – leading commanders of the Second World War. This disavowal of the “varnishing of reality” became one of the key credos of Thaw representations.

Where The Fall of Berlin dealt epically with the events of the Second World War, The Cranes are Flying and The House I Live In dealt with them microcosmically, focusing on the repercussions of the war on everyday people. At no point is this exhibited more explicitly than in The House I Live In when the year “1941” literally scorches itself onto the screen, symbolising (and later actually succeeding in) impinging on the developing romance between Serezha and Galia. The House I Live In is arguably more radical than The Cranes are Flying in its aversion to Stalinist representations of the war, by not including a single war scene. Instead, it examines in totality the war’s effect at home, although in The Cranes are Flying, the dramatic about-turn of killing Boris off halfway and shifting to Veronika’s struggles on the homefront is equally audacious. The success of The Cranes are Flying in rendering a relevant retelling of the Second World War was documented by Woll when commenting on its public reception: “Everyone saw Cranes: veterans, their wives and widows, young people ready to grapple with the significance of their own orphanhood. Cranes forced viewers first to respond to the film’s emotional demands and then to think about the war and their own experiences”.

The Forty-First was also set in a commonly allegorised war – in this case the Russian Civil War – and one of the most famous pre-Thaw treatments of this conflict was Chapaev (1934). Where The Forty-First digressed from typical Socialist Realist dogma was in the narrative’s prioritisation of a tentative love affair between Mariutka (a female Red general) and Govorukha-Otrok (a White prisoner-of-war). Soviet novels and cinema had progressively withdrawn from affairs of the heart in the Stalin era, but The Forty-First was not just a love story, but a story of sexual attraction, exemplified in the intimate section where Mariutka and Govorukha-Otrok are stranded on an island in the Aral Sea. The depiction of everyday warfare in The Forty-First seems to supersede notions of partiality when in the gruelling opening scenes in the Karakum desert, the Red soldiers’ greater concerns are staying alive in the hostile environment than in taking any undue pleasure in the capture of Govorukha-Otrok. In fact, there is a transcendental kinship alluded to when Govorukha-Otrok is allowed to drink from the Reds’ precious water flask. There are some stereotypes in The Forty-First that wouldn’t be totally out of place in a film like Chapaev – the Reds are depicted as honest and regular characters against the eccentrically groomed and debonair Whites – but then one is reminded that the Thaw was the motif of what was still, fundamentally, a Communist government. A government that was not necessarily seeking to overturn the representative glories of previous victories like those in the Civil War, just to apportion success to the appropriate people.

If rewriting the wrongs of historical representation was one of the prime cores of Thaw cinema, then another was re-establishing the importance of poetics to the given cinematic representations. Josephine Woll on reading through copies of ‘Isskustvo Kino’ journal in the mid-’50s detected a general consensus building against “pedantic, schematic and artificial films”, and that “static and pallid descriptions of life were uniformly unacceptable”. Even the head of the Gorky studio had been advising filmmakers to put more trust in their audiences ahead of “continuously explaining, elucidating and clarifying”. The Fall of Berlin again represented the worst in pre-Thaw cinema, not just through its “schematic” machinations as identified in ‘Isskustvo Kino’, but because its few artistic flourishes simply fed into the didactic agenda. This agenda was effected through the vaguely expressionistic camerawork that depicted Hitler’s alienation at the end of the film (all long-shots and overhead angles – stereotypical and unsympathetic framing), and in the use of an overly demonstrative musical score. The Thaw reaction to these formulaic manifestations was varied, from the Congress of Writers in 1954 who renounced all sociological comment in literary criticism, to Khrushchev himself, who tried to espouse the middle-ground between artistic integrity and the collective worth of a given piece of art. He outlined this necessary compromise when he advocated artists to, “elevate the ideological and artistic levels of their works, continue to be active helpers of the Party and of the government in the task of Communist education of the workers, in the development of the multinational Soviet culture, in the formation of high aesthetic taste, and in the propagation of the principles of Communist morality”.

Where most developmental focus in Stalin-era cinema was centred on the screenplay – the ‘scenario’, if you like – The Cranes are Flying embodied the new-found expressionistic verve of the Thaw by prioritising the purer elements of cinema such as cinematography, mise en scène and editing. It says a lot that the director of photography, Sergei Urusevsky, is considered as much the ‘author’ of The Cranes are Flying as director Mikhail Kalatozov – making the camera an equal player in the narrative as any of the actual personnel. One of the best examples of this revelatory use of camera is in the horizontal pan of Veronika running desperately along the immense line of soldiers waiting to be conscripted in the army. The camerawork is effective both in terms of its tracking (emphasising through the density of the scene, the cataclysmic scale of the Soviet Union’s commitment to the Second World War), and in being a single take (conveying the sense of Veronika’s accumulating panic as she realises she may not be able to say goodbye to Boris). One of the other major cinematographic sweeps is the famous staircase scene where Urusevsky’s camera deliriously follows Boris up to Veronika’s flat, a motion that engenders even more meaning when Veronika repeats the walk up the same set of stairs midway through the film – only this time the stairs are the remnants of the bombed tenement building where Veronika’s parents have now perished. The House I Live In does not have the same cinematographic dynamism as The Cranes are Flying, but as a coincidental sidenote, it also features a virtuoso staircase scene, this time at the end of the film when Serezha running down the stairs is told by his brother, at the top, that Galia has died.

Another trope of visual storytelling, and a lesson that The Cranes are Flying could easily have learnt from Hollywood cinema at the time (Kazan, Sirk) was the use of close-up to convey character psychology. One of the most memorable motifs of The Cranes are Flying is Veronika’s face, characterised in close-up through various junctures in the film, and this contrasts with classic Socialist Realism depictions of psychology that are more interested in crude body politic (think Aleksandrov’s Circus), than the inner and more ambiguous trajectories that The Cranes are Flying and The House I Live In exact. There are endless examples of The Cranes are Flying‘s inventive visual vernacular – and that’s without mentioning the expressionistic lighting – but it’s interesting to note that its construct convenes to all the tenets of avant-garde filmmaking. Avant-garde filmmaking privileges suture’ which is the pure “sight and sound” properties of storytelling, over exegesis – which privileges a ‘reading’ and overt demonstration of the film’s raison d’être. For example, the cinematic property of editing was castigated as “formalism” in Socialist Realist doctrine of 1929-31, even though out of its mastery came some of the Soviet Union’s most important works celebrating the success of the Bolshevik revolution, namely Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike and Battleship Potemkin. In terms of editing (and this includes sound editing), Spring on Zarechnaia Street contains some interesting formal features. Less expressionistic than The Cranes are Flying, and more in the anti-dramatic style that would characterise the work of Kira Muratova, Spring on Zarechnaia Street contains a long edited sequence which splices together shots of the aforementioned street in the midst of winter for no obvious dramaturgical purpose, and sound is equally unmediated or ‘democratised’ in scenes where Tania is drowned out by the noises in the street and classroom around her. Even though Spring on Zarechnaia Street‘s plot is essentially a sophisticated version of Circus (girl finds love, happiness and her social consciousness in work surroundings), the means of telling that story is a lot more advanced, and as Khrushchev alluded to in his allying of “high aesthetic taste” with “ideological relevance”, the Thaw is well served by this type of work. If anything, The Forty-First loses out the most in my imaginary ‘race’ to be the epitome of Thaw Cinema – especially from an artistic perspective – because although it contravenes the prosaics of Socialist Realist cinema, it eludes any Soviet context altogether, with its technicolor look and stunning desert cinematography seeming more an ironic precursor to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia than anything else. Some critics have claimed that The Cranes are Flying‘s visual aesthetic was as equally irrelevant to Thaw cinema as The Forty-First, although it’s interesting to note that most of the complaints were from those in Gorky Studios who were promoting The House I Live In as a natural rival to Mosfilm’s The Cranes are Flying (they were released very close together). As I have argued – and will continue to argue – The Cranes are Flying seems to marry perfectly the overriding Thaw concerns of increased artistic expression with a strong Communist message, so the Gorky criticism seems as much an admission of inferiority than anything more valid.

Soviet cinema since its inception had been a forum for the didactic concerns of the Communist party. Usually this discourse was articulated through the struggles of the ‘protagonist’ and their upholding of – or coming into consciousness with – Party values. Chapaev and Circus both articulate this conversion of the main protagonist, though it’s not only through the schemings of narration that this commentary is played out, but also in the “sharp outlines of character and characterisation”. Propagandised rhetoric relies on the negative depiction of villains as much as the positive image of heroes, an obvious example being the portrayal of Nazis as sadistic, sinewy and monocled, i.e. Von Kneishits in Circus and almost all their generals in The Fall of BerlinThe Cranes are Flying straight away posits a different, and more ambiguous, type of protagonist in the shape of Veronika. Based strictly on plot analysis, she starts the film engaged to Boris (who is nominally the ‘hero’), but ends up marrying his cousin Mark, without even knowing that Boris has died. As Josephine Woll remarks, “before Cranes such a character would have been typecast as the ‘faithless fiancée'”. The House I Live In, Spring on Zarechnaia Street, and to a lesser extent The Forty-First, introduce a similar protagonist – in each case a female, whose motives at least extraneously, appear ambivalent and at odds with the conventional ‘psychology’ of a heroine. The reason why Thaw cinema seemed intent on deconstructing the female protagonist can perhaps be linked to the key Thaw concern of highlighting the complexities of everyday, family life that were frequently overlooked and misrepresented in Socialist Realist cinema’s “bathetic insistence on the absolute value of sincerity and its identification of authenticity with family life and romantic life”. The Thaw sought to three-dimensionalise the hero/villain dichotomy of Soviet cinema, by refusing to perpetuate simple character paradigms, instead apportioning negative partiality to those who truly contravened the spirit of the Party and its ideals. So, in The Cranes are Flying, Mark – not Veronika – is the ‘villain’ as he exploits the system to avoid conscription to the army, while his cousin, Boris, who enlists voluntarily, dies tragically in combat. The crux of the Mark-Veronika relation ultimately lies in an ambiguous air-raid sequence where Mark tries forcibly to win Veronika’s hand in marriage, and despite her protestations, we are presented with the actuality of that union in the very next scene. While Mark’s role in this union is not hard to identify – he is the aggressor, some might argue ‘rapist’ – the more salient aspect is the ‘acquiescence’ in Veronika’s mindset. First, the simple fact that the audience has to fill the gap in Veronika’s motives is a radical step forward from Socialist Realist didacticism, and second, if understood in the context of what Veronika actually experiences in the film, her marriage to Mark falls into the pattern of being a ‘selfless’ act, designed to enable her survival for the moment she hopes will reunite her with Boris at the war’s end. Though some may argue this is an indication of a ‘selfish’ protagonist and an indictment of her fidelity to Boris, it strikes me as a more startling demonstration of that ‘fidelity’. Even more radically in The House I Live In, the protagonist Lidia actually initiates the ‘affair’, though is equally morally non-judged and allowed an opportunity for redemption by the film’s end.

Even the male heroes receive ambiguous treatment. Boris’ death in The Cranes are Flying may be tragic in its romantic context as it separates the two lovers for the remainder of the film, but his willingness to conscript is problematised by his father who laments the role of Party propaganda in making men lay down their lives. It’s a point mirrored in The House I Live In when young Serezha’s eulogy on heroism to Dmitrii is juxtaposed adversely with Dmitrii’s receipt of Lidia’s rejection note. These deconstructions of conventional heroism are so key to Thaw cinema, and Josephine Woll even remarks that the scene with Boris’ father doubting the Party’s integrity was originally dropped from the 1956 script for the film (a Stalinesque touch of censorship), before Kalatozov performed a complete about-turn and bravely decided to make Boris’ father’s anger at his son’s conscription a major feature of the film. Even in the slightly more superficial domain of visual characterisation, The Cranes are Flying serves as antidote to Socialist Realist representations. Veronika is unusual, dark – a subjective form of beauty – as opposed to Marion Dixon’s regular blonde heroine in Circus, and Veronika is flatteringly portrayed against Boris’ jealous, spinster-like sister Irina, and Antonia – someone who serenades men (including Mark) in a bar, while Veronika works industriously as a war nurse. It is precisely the film’s obsession with the psychology of its protagonist, Veronika, which brought rebuke from critic Maia Turovskaia when she wrote, “by gradually shrinking Cranes’ emotional scale, Kalatozov had diminished the power of the film. Fidelity, ordinarily a private matter, takes on a broader meaning in wartime, when a woman’s loyalty expresses the victory of the human spirit over forces of destruction and death. The more exclusive Veronika’s despair, the more trivial it becomes”. Whether one agrees with Turovskaia’s reading of the film’s dramaturgy is a matter of taste, but it ironically underlines why The Cranes are Flying was an exemplar of Thaw cinema – the turn away from the macrocosmic rhetoric to the true rendering of the effects of the country’s history on the lives of its everyday citizens is one of the essential Thaw tenets, and underlines its enduring popularity over other Thaw works. Where The Forty-First is probably a little too didactic in its character’s fate – Mariutka (the Red general) has to kill her White lover as he tries to escape – Spring on Zarechnaia Street is arguably a little too obtuse about the repercussions of the outside world on its group of characters.

Most of the elements of Thaw cinema are easy to define: new, more complex accounts of recent events in Soviet history; an embracing of more innovative and expressionistic uses of the cinematic medium; and a rendering of more complex and three-dimensional characters. Arguably the most intricate area to define – but one which is crucial to understanding the Thaw ‘mentality’ in its entirety (not just in cinema) – is the relationship between the new legitimisation of private emotions with the still overall accountability and responsibility to the Party and the good of community. It’s easy to confuse the Thaw’s liberating ethos with liberalism itself, and one must remember there was no ideological coup d’état after Stalin died – the Soviet Union was still a Communist state. Though the mantra that “the assembly line and the combine were important, not the red rose and the love sonnet” was now defunct, and the didactic approaches of the Socialist Realist era had been refuted, there was still a sentiment that these two arenas had to be adequately reconciled in Thaw cinema. Each of Thaw films I have referenced, maintain this central tension as the overriding lure to their narratives. In The Forty-First, despite the very un-Soviet depiction of the cross party love affair, the ending where Mariutka shoots Govorukha-Otrok on trying to escape, feels a contrived denouement to appease the authorities, an ultimate failure to honour its initial intriguing dialectic. Spring on Zarechnaia Street, though formally radical, again provides an overly contrived pro-party consciousness ending, when the surly, intellectual protagonist Tania is finally won over by the working-class Sasha’s affections. This is enacted through a trite scene in the local steelworks where Tania goes to find Sasha, and the camera suddenly affects an excessively romantic ‘gaze’ from Tania (dramaturgically betraying the strength of her initial resistance to Sasha).

The House I Live In comes to closer to instituting a sophisticated contradiction between the realms of the private and the public. In terms of the amount of characters and timescale, it is the Thaw’s most complex film, and its very premise – charting the lives of a group of residents moving into a government-sponsored tenament – articulates the film’s intention to interrogate both the individual and communal effect of the Second World War. By the film’s end, the five main characters we have encountered, Serezha, Galia, Dmitrii, Lidia and Kostia have all been touched irrevocably by the war, from Serezha as the initial young optimist who loses that verve with the loss of his childhood sweetheart Galia, to Lidia who learns to appreciate her husband Dmitrii (she had an affair with Kostia earlier in the film) after he returns wounded from the war. Ultimately though, The Cranes are Flying is deservedly and indisputably the definitive Thaw film. It’s the most emotionally compelling and visually dazzling of the films, but also the complexity of Veronika’s central journey is unmatched not just in Thaw cinema, but in the majority of cinema, period. The Cranes are Flying also has a substantial legacy. In comparison to other Thaw films, it managed to find an audience outside of the Soviet Union, and even succeeded in winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1958. And it’s Cranes’ colossal, staggering, gut-wrenchingly poignant final scene that seals its fate as living embodiment of the Soviet thaw. It encapsulate this notion of the legitimisation of private emotion with a recognition of responsibility to the community when Veronika, on finally learning the truth of Boris’ death from his friend Stepan, decides to garland the soldiers that have returned alive with the flowers she’d been reserving for Boris. This act personnifies the spirit of the Thaw – an aim to acknowledge the true debt owed to the individuals who shaped the nation’s sustenance, while honouring a sense of forward momentum, as the Soviet Union sought to fulfil the true spirit, as Khrushchev called it, of “Marxism-Leninism”. (March 2005)

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