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Treasure chest of Soviet films screened in Locarno

"Serdeca Cetyreh" (1941) by Konstantin Judin, one of the Soviet film being shown at Locarno. Film Festival Locarno

Locarno film festival is screening a retrospective of almost 60 Soviet films made between the 1920s and the 1960s. The selection is a vivid portrayal of the complexities and contradictions of Soviet film making.

This content was published on August 9, 2000 - 16:32

The Swiss press has described the screenings as a "retrospective of ‘forbidden’ films", but the Russian film historian and director of the Russian film museum in Moscow, Naum Klejman, says it is wrong to refer to it in this way. "Of course, all the films made in the Soviet Union got bruised by the censors one way or another, but in different ways."

Some of the films shown at this year's festival in Locarno were forbidden, others were deemed "unfinished" and shelved, yet others were screened, sometimes against the wishes of the Communist party leadership, the Politburo.

When putting the programme together, the organisers had to consider whether to include crude propaganda films which were outlawed in the more 'liberal' 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev was president. In the end they decided in favour on the grounds that "it is wrong to censor censorship".

The retrospective is of interest not only to film historians, but also to social historians. "Together, the films give a good picture of the working of totalitarianism, which is very complex", says French film historian and author, Bernard Eizenschitz, who, together with Klejman, was instrumental in putting the Locarno programme together.

In the 1920s, censorship followed what was seen as "Proletarian" ideology, sometimes in absurd detail. "Prostitutka", a silent film by Oleg Frelih on a group of women who are forced into prostitution because of poverty, towed the party line and included a lecture by a party worker with corresponding statistical inserts.

But it was to no avail - the censors pulled the plug on the movie saying Frelih had neglected to highlight the difference between the social conditions which led to prostitution in pre-Revolutionary Russia and those of the Soviet Union of the time.

During Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship in the 1930s and 40s the films and censors alike became obsessed with leadership, a theme usually veiled in historic parallels with Tsarist Russia. Stalin required an individual screening of each film that came out of the studios, "and what he thought about it then became law," says Eizenschitz.

Once, Stalin changed his mind about a Hollywood-type musical he had commissioned in the 1940s, ordering it to be banned shortly after it was first screened publicly. But the musical had already become such a hit with the public that the authorities, fearing a rebellion, backtracked.

Later, during Khrushchev’s "thaw" of the 1950s, Soviet film-makers became utopian. They tried to re-capture what they saw as the socialist dream, so badly damaged by Stalin's dictatorship which they euphemistically described as an "aberration".

Eizenschitz says that, contrary to popular opinion, it was not only the censors who made the lives of film-makers difficult. It also worked the other way around. "The guidelines imposed on film-makers were systematic and abstract," Eizenschitz says, "but film makers were individuals who wittingly, sometimes unwittingly, found escape routes from the rigid system, with interesting aesthetic innovations".

The retrospective also raises the question of whether the heritage of Soviet film making has any lessons to offer today’s film-makers in Russia. Klejman, who also sits on the nine-member official jury of this year's Locarno festival, says the industry is "in shambles". Most film-makers were trying to copy Hollywood, he says. "I know [festival director] Marco Müller tried hard to find a good Russian movie for the competition, but I don’t blame him for failing."

Klejman says the established generation of Russian directors "isn't interested in the history of films, and I suspect it's because they aren't interested in history, period." But he sees hope: "Young film students come in great numbers to the shows in our cinema at the Moscow film museum."

The retrospective was an idea that festival director Müller, who speaks fluent Russian, has held dear for some time. Last year, the new festival president, Giuseppe Buffi, who died of a heart attack last month, gave Müller the go-ahead.

Unearthing the films from a variety of archives proved difficult and costly. They had never been stored and registered with a view to being shown, but rather as the basis for administrative decisions - or as exhibits at political trials. Müller, who with Eizenschitz and Klejman recruited the best experts on the history of Soviet film for the project, spent almost a tenth of the festival’s annual SFr5 million budget for the purpose.

The rights to the retrospective - 57 films in all - lie with three partners: the Locarno film festival, the Swiss national film archive in Lausanne (Cinémathèque Suisse), and Gosfilmofond, the Russian national film archive.

The films will remain in Switzerland after the festival, and will be screened in Zurich and other cities. A selection will be shown in Paris later in the year, and possibly other cities world-wide, while several copies of the films will be shown in Moscow in the autumn under the heading "Shadow of Locarno".

by Markus Haefliger

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