Shadows of Forgotten Masters4 min read

 In Culture, Opinion, Russia

The Soviet Cinema is often associated with two names – Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky. However, there are many more masters from the Soviet cinema that academic and social discourse almost never discuss. Why do we not search more thoroughly through Soviet Cinema’s past, now that the iron curtain has cracked completely?

In my work I am constantly searching and digging for new films to watch from the Soviet past, be it from the so-called golden age of 1917-1930, the Socialist Realism of the 1940s and 50s, and the strangely blank period of the 1960s to the 1980s. There are so many great films from the 1920s which were not made by Eisenstein, and plenty of awful musicals that were churned out to boost morale in the war and post-war period in the 40s and 50s. But the majority of the academic and social literature seems to stop after the death of Stalin, unless discussing Tarkovsky, who has managed to slip through the Iron Curtain into the mainstream discussion of Russian and Soviet Cinema.

However, just after Tarkovsky’s seminal Ivan’s Childhood was released, another director who had worked for ten years in the Soviet film industry suddenly denounced all of his previous work, and taking inspiration from Tarkovsky’s visual language and themes, went on to produce his own masterpiece Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Most will have never heard the name Sergei Parajanov, but his filmography – only four films in 30 years – have heavily influenced the Western stylings of directors like Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Life Aquatic) and Tarsem Sing (The Fall, Mirror Mirror). He was a controversial figure, jailed for ‘homosexual acts’ for most of his adult life and he defied the state and followed his own non-conformist path in every film that he made after his revelation. His films won multiple prizes at Cannes and he helped to put Ukrainian and Armenian traditions on the screen at a time when ethnic nationalism was actively discouraged in the Soviet Union. Why is he not heralded as a master, as so many people claim Tarkovsky is? Their films share many of the same qualities, particularly the dream-like and surrealist elements. Why is it that we – those who write and critique Russian and Soviet films – do not search harder for more forgotten masters?

Partly, it can be down to a language barrier: most films that did not reach the West in their initial release are rarely translated or promoted to a new audience, except at film festivals or similar events. This makes it hard for those who do not speak the languages of the Soviet Union to find or appraise films which have not been translated. A second reason could be profitability: the name Tarkovsky (perhaps combined with the word retrospective) is guaranteed to sell tickets for art-house cinemas, who often struggle to get an audience in the first place. Who wants to see a strange film about family life in Ukraine from 1964 by a man they have never heard of? But third, and I think most importantly, is a fear that a Western audience, for the most part, might not ‘get’ a film that is so drenched in Soviet ‘mystique’ that it might be alienating. It could be too ‘Russian’, too ‘Ukrainian’, too ‘Soviet’; this feeling is often present in scholarship of Russian music (see the introduction to Marina Frolova-Walker’s excellent Russian Music and Nationalism for a more in-depth discussion). The same can be said of the cinema. Of all the books written about Tarkovsky, or Eisenstein, there is still a ‘magical’ element to their films, that of a foreign nature, more to be discovered on each re-watch, an almost unbelievability that they created films in that way when Hollywood was still struggling to sell talkies beyond a novelty value. I remember the first time I ever saw Tarkovsky’s Stalker and thinking ‘I didn’t realise it was possible to make films like that’; the allure is strong with those who we already know, so why would we search for different directors before we have figured out the ones we already know?

However, I believe that we can do better; we need to discuss the forgotten masters, to assess their value to us, and how we can include their undeniable influence in the story of the Soviet Cinema. When I started writing my most recent dissertation, I made a point not to rely on the well-assessed and well written old masters. As a result, I found Parajanov, who only has one book written about him despite his undeniable influence on our favourite quirky auteur, Wes Anderson. If I had not made a promise to myself, I would not have found Sergei. For those who write about the cinema, we need to stop reassessing the old masters and search for the new; for those that watch, you just need to look a little harder. We need to look for the Sergei Parajanovs, the Kira Muratovas, the Ivan Mykolaichuks. There are more masters to be discovered, and it does not mean that we have to stop talking about Tarkovsky or Eisenstein – it just means that we can assess their masterworks in a better context of the culture they made their films in, the ideas and artists that they inspired, and the films that they unintentionally buried.

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