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12/02/2012

Workers of the world, be entertained!

This year's Berlinale Retrospective "The Red Dream Factory" rediscovers the legendary German-Russian Mezhrabpom-Film (1922-1936). It tells of incredible film successes, ideological misunderstandings and astonishing blindness. By Oksana Bulgakova

The 2012 Berlinale retrospective with the rather catchy title of "The Red Dream Factory" is dedicated to the German-Soviet studio Mezhrabpom-Film. The history of Mezhrabpomfilm-Rus (1923-1936) is the story of a vast utopia of films for the workers of the world, of rapturous triumphs and devastating catastrophes. The birth of the company dates back not to a film but to the famine in the Volga suffered by Soviet Russia in 1921.


Graphic films: "Budem sorki - Let's Be Attentive" by Nikolai Chodatajew, 1927. "Sorok serdez - Forty Hearts" by Lew Kuleschow, 1931. "Odna is mnogich - One of Many" by Nikolai Chodatajew, 1927.

Lenin turned to the workers of the world for help, and so it was that in Berlin in 1921, a committee was formed under Willi Münzenberg. But it was not only money that was sent to Russia, but also 10,000 metres of film material, to document the famine-afflicted areas and use the footage to raise money for the aid campaign (at the time Russia produced no film stock).

This aid committee soon developed into the Workers International Relief (WIR), an organisation which opened its first film department in 1922. Its job was to buy film equipment for Soviet Russia and see to the distribution of documentary films. A feature film was also included in the programme to make the campaign more effective. This was why in March 1923 - after a long break in film exports due to WWI - "Polikushka", the first Soviet Russian feature film came to Berlin. It was based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy and featured actors from the Stanislavki theatre.

The German proletarian press was not sure how quite to classify the film and wrote that revolution was still coursing through the veins of even this non-political film. It was produced by Studio Rus, a private corporation. Russ focussed on films with popular appeal, material from Russian history and literature, and distributed them on the world market. When, in 1923, the studio decided to enter a partnership with the WIR in Berlin, the move seemed virtually inexplicable.


"Polikushka" by Alexandr Sanin, 1922

But it was all about connections and calculation: WIR turned to this private film company from Russia for pragmatic reasons. "Polikushka's" success was seen as a guarantee for success on the world market. For Studio Russ, the partnership with the communist organisation in Germany was a tactical guarantee against potential attacks back home. So both parties signed the agreement on 8 March, 1923.


Stills from science fiction films: "Aelita" by Jakow Protasanow, 1924. "Gibel sensazii - Loss of the Sensation" by Aleksandr Andrijewski, 1935

The head of the studio Moisei Aleinikov had talked the leading pre-revolutionary Russian director Iakov Prostazanov into returning from emigration to direct the first Russian science-fiction film "Aelita", based on Aleksei Tolstoi's novel of the same name, about the voyage of three Russians to Mars which culminates in both revolution and a love affair with the queen of Mars  - and to top of it all, to turn the whole thing into a comedy. The film set was cubist with avant-garde costumes a la Malevich.


"Aelita" by Iakov Prostazanov, 1924

Eugen Schüfftan, a German cameraman was brought in to do the special effects. This spectacular new beginning, however, did not bring the studio the success it had hoped for back home in Russia. Rus came under constant criticism for being bourgeois, commercial and utterly foreign to the proletarian spirit of the new society. The partnership with the communist WIR was supposed to change all this but this hope proved unfounded and had severe consequences.

Almost until its closure the company was attacked in the USSR for being bourgeois but abroad its films were extolled as the very source of proletarian culture. These views were as far apart as they were exaggerated. "The Mezhrabpom-Rus brand is a genre of Soviet film", the critic Michail Bleiman wrote. "The material is historical in costume but it's even better without. Sometimes to show the tailcoats without censorship the story is relocated abroad. The heroes almost all have aristocratic titles. None of the characters is less than a count. Even the servants are genuine aristocrats. The films are invariably based on romantic conflict. It's always because of love that revolutions are started, wars waged or ended, and world catastrophes set in motion."


"Miss Mend" by Fyodor Ozep and Boris Barnet, 1926

But the studio did not only produce sexualised historical dramas, melodramas about girls being seduced, such as "The Yellow Ticket", comedies about everyday Soviet life, like "The Girl with the Hatbox" or sophisticated adventure films about life in the decadent West, such as "Miss Mend" - all of which were successful entertainment on the domestic market. In 1925 Lev Kuleshov and his team and introduced an experimental note to the programme. Vsevolod Pudovkin, Boris Barnet and Sergei Komarov soon became the leading directors.


"Dewuschkas korobkoi - The Girl With the Hat Box" by Boris Barnet, 1927

Pudovkin was now in charge of the other direction the studio pursued for export purposes: revolutionary works in the spirit of Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" (here on YouTube). These followed a very different aesthetic programme – geometric lines defined the composition of an otherwise almost empty film space. Then came the rhythmic montage of short shots which intensified the dynamic. The image of rural Russian villages was declared un-photogenic.

Pudovkin's "Storm over Asia" provided an ideal amalgamation of old and new stereotypes: the ethnographic exoticism of a film documentation of a Buddhist ceremony and revolution, the extraordinary individual destiny of one of Genghis Khan's descendants and an impressive montage of mass scenes. The leading actor Valery Inkishinov was the perfect embodiment of the Russian-Asian, "absolutely earthy". The premiere in Berlin was an overwhelming success.

Yet at home the studio was regarded as an inner emigrant and by the state film committee Sovkino as an arch-rival. It was forced to beg for funding and loans but being a private company, received none. Berlin then decided to drastically increase WIR's shares in the company and to rename it Mezhrabpomfilm, in other words WIR Film. To counteract quota limits on imports it was decided to produce Russian films in Germany, and this included a new production of Tolstoy's play "The Living Corpse". The successful Russian film people, the stars of the studio, Fyodor Otsep, Anna Sten, Valeri Inkishinov stayed abroad as emigrants.


"Mother Krausen’s Journey to Happiness" by Phil Jutzi, 1929

At the beginning of the 1930s the studio decided it was time for drastic change. Willi Münzenberg argued that film was ideally suited to propaganda but the proletarian masses in the West had no access but to it, so it was time to put to use the studio in the Soviet Union in which WIR was a shareholder. The earlier attempt to establish Prometheus as a propaganda studio in Germany had failed. The company produced a handful of features and documentaries about the proletarian struggle and misery (such as "Mother Krause's Journey to Happiness") and went bankrupt. From this point on the studio Mezhrabpom-Film would bring foreigners to Moscow to make films there for the workers of the world, and in the German language.

Soon Erwin Piscator, Joris Ivens and Hans Richter were on their way to Moscow. But then talking film with its language barriers for internationalised production for the workers of the world – got in the way. And contradictions erupted between the original focus of Studio Rus on commercial cinema and that of WIR on political propaganda. Or did WIR want to earn money with propaganda and Studio Russ, sell its entertainment to the workers of the world as propaganda?


"Pozelui Meri Pikford - The Kiss of Mary Pickford" by Sergei Komarov, 1927

In 1934 Studio Mezhrabpom-Film was reorganised once again and renamed "The Red Front". It was intended to provide work for German emigrants who had left for the Soviet Union after Hitler's takeover of power. The film "Fighters" was intended as the showpiece. Directed by Gustav von Wangenheim it brought together two stories: the real Reichstag fire trial of Georgi Dimitrov in Leipzig and a fictitious trial of workers in the German provinces who were accused of setting fire to their factory. But almost all the German emigrants who worked on the film were imprisoned during filming and disappeared without a trace in the camps.

In 1936 the studio was shut down. And that was the end of this peculiar conglomeration of box office and ideology, tradition and experiment, artist theatre and constructivism, revolutionary film and entertainment, images of old Russia and proletarian internationalism, which was set up to make films about the world and the workers of the world – from both inner and outer isolation. A vision of both utopian power and astonishing blindness.

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The article was originally published in the taz on 9 February, 2012.

Oksana Bulgakova is a professor of film history and film analysis at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and was also a visiting lecturer at Stanford University and Berkeley in the US. She has written and edited a number of books on Eisenstein and Soviet film history and curated numerous exhibitions.

Translation: lp
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