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Dr Phil Cavendish at Grad London

By Blog Admin, on 29 March 2016

Dr Philip Cavendish spoke at the recent GRAD Eisenstein exhibition on the introduction of colour film to Soviet cinema.

The overarching title of the Gallery for Russian Art & Design’s (GRAD for short and based in Little Portland Street, London) series of public lectures this Spring is a play on the well-known slogan, ‘A Cinema, Understood by the Millions’. This became associated with Soviet cinema of the 1930s.
Dr Phillip Cavendish: SOVIET COLOUR FILM, 1929–1945: AN EXPERIMENT UNDERSTOOD BY VERY FEW

Courtesy of GRAD

Since the drawings of Sergei Eisenstein are the subject of the exhibition currently being curated at GRAD, it might be worth pointing out that the title also makes reference to the title of a newspaper article which Eisenstein published alongside Grigorii Aleksandrov in early 1929. Entitled ‘Eksperiment, poniatyi millionam’ (An Experiment Accessible to Millions), this was published in the film journal Sovetskii ekran to accompany the release of the film Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New) – also known as General’naia Linia, which they had directed together.

By suggesting that colour cinema was an ‘experiment understood by very few’, I don’t mean that Soviet audiences experienced conceptual confusion in relation to the phenomenon of colour. Instead, it is that the complexity of the scientific processes that underpinned the development of colour technology was generally grasped poorly. This is true of the direct consumers of film culture, the vast majority of film critics and correspondents who reported on that culture, the senior managers and employees of Soviet film studios and the bureaucrats that were responsible for the film industry as a whole.

This lack of comprehension had dire, if not tragic, consequences for some of those involved in colour-film production in the Soviet Union. It also produces significant challenges for the film historian who seeks to understand the phenomenon and its implications for the development of Soviet cinema and Soviet culture more broadly.

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Courtesy of GRAD

The reasons for being interested in this subject are nevertheless various and compelling. (more…)

‘The Death of Others’: the myth and reality of suicide in the German Democratic Republic

By Blog Admin, on 27 November 2014

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison, by Denis Apel (cc-by)

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison,
by Denis Apel (cc-by)

An award-winning film reinforces the gap between perceptions of the GDR and its more complex reality, finds Udo Grashoff.

I was about to leave my flat as the phone rang… I picked up; a woman, who introduced herself as the assistant of a West German filmmaker, required my urgent assistance. It was about a funeral oration in a film set in the GDR in the 1980s. In the film, a Stasi officer was assigned to spy on a playwright, Georg Dreyman.  At the funeral oration for a colleague who has committed suicide, Dreyman accuses the GDR authorities of coldheartedly ignoring people who commit suicide. He claims that the state stopped compiling suicide statistics in 1977.

I was consulted on the dates and facts, which made sense as I wrote my doctoral thesis on suicide in the GDR. What I had to explain to the filmmaker’s assistant was rather complicated. Except for the period between 1956 and 1962 suicide statistics were not published in the statistical yearbooks. However, the ‘State Central Bureau for Statistics’ recorded suicides with Prussian accuracy, but kept them a state secret. Besides, in 1968 the GDR Ministry of Health launched a strategy for the prevention of suicide. Two suicide prevention centres were founded. Although there was no public discussion of suicide, there was a limited, if diminishing, coverage of the issue in professional journals. From 1977, even specialists could not access data.

This is not the same as to suggest, as Dreyman does in the film, that statistics on suicide were no longer being kept, but given the context – in 1986, a GDR citizen simply could not know what could only be researched after the Wall came down – I advised leaving the eulogy as it was.

This was in around 2005, and only much later did I realise that I had taken part in the making of ‘The Lives of Others’. To my surprise, the film became a worldwide hit. ‘The Lives of Others’ has shaped the image of the East German dictatorship much more than any scholarly book on the GDR history. The film was praised as highly authentic and historically accurate. Locations like the Stasi prison in Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen were used; details of everyday life in the GDR and especially in the art scene were meticulously reconstructed.

Of course, not everyone bought the story. Slavoj Žižek said that the film failed to show the ‘true horror’ of the dictatorial system. Mary Fulbrook complained that the story did not ‘present the GDR in all its complexities’. Anna Funder doubted that a Stasi officer would have been able to log in false information into Stasi files in order to protect a victim. (more…)

Is culture the new politics in Russia?

By Blog Admin, on 17 April 2013

How far has culture become a frontline in Russian politics? And how does it compare to earlier periods in the country’s history? Artemy Troitsky,  Peter Pomeranstev and Oliver Carroll discuss the nature of art, protest and the absurd in contemporary Russia.

Pussy Riot - Denis Bochkarev 6

Photo: Denis Bochkarev via Wikimedia Commons

Oliver Carroll:  From Voina to Bykov, Pussy Riot to Moscow hipsterism, culture seems to be playing a very political game in Russia. How can we explain this? Is this something that Russia has seen before? Are we witnessing this Russia’s ‘1968’ moment? And if so, is accompanied by the same kind of generational and political splits that we saw in Europe’s rebellion? Or is it something completely different?

Artemy: If this really is a cultural revolution, then I’m afraid it happening on a very small scale. Compared to the first decade of the 21st century, which was absolutely lethargic and comatose, Russia’s cultural life and political community has started to show some life. But compared to the kind of cultural euphoria Russia experienced in other times — during the so-called shestidesiatniki movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, or in late 80s during Perestroika and Glasnost — it’s on a much smaller scale.

The saddest thing of all is that today’s cultural developments are much more elitist, touching a much finer layer of Russian people than either of the earlier cultural thaws (ottepel). The cultural movement back then was simply massive, supported and followed by millions of so-called ordinary Russians. What is happening right now is more a minority movement, largely ignored by the majority of the Russian population. And there is also a strong counter-reaction too. Sure, Glasnost had some some reactionary things like Nina Andreeva writing her letter in Sovetskaia Rossiia, or the Stalinist writers who urged people not to give up on their principals. But they were the tiny minority. Right now it’s us that feel as if we are pushed in the corner.

OC: Peter, you lived in Russia throughout the 2000s, the least political moment of modern Russian history. You were also in Moscow at the end of that decade, which was when the political returned with some vengeance. Do you agree with Artemy that such change is pretty much insignificant, at least when compared to the 1960s and 1980s?

Peter: Everything in Russia is insignificant compared to the 60s and 80s. Everything in Russia seems to have shrunk and become an echo of when it was truly important. I think Artemy is completely right here, but it’s very interesting to look at the detail of what’s happening, because it’s a slightly different type of battle.

 In Soviet times there was a Soviet culture and a dissident culture. Today, things are less distinct. Over the last few days I’ve been meeting some people from Nashi, for example. I was quite surprised to find out their aesthetic is hipster. They love manga movies, they like modern arts, they have actually co-opted a sort of Western style into their language and then completely twisted it and married it to patriotism and quasi-fascism. In the past, the Kremlin was also sponsoring the most radical art projects, like Kirill Serebrennikov’s Territoriya festival. They went out of their way to make sure that there could be no cultural rebellion by co-opting that language and making it part of the system. Making it pointless as well in the process.

What I’ve been seeing the last eighteen months in terms of culture and in terms of language is an attempt by the opposition to create a mini world for itself, a place where it is not contaminated by the meddling of the Kremlin. And I think that’s incredible and quite inspiring. It’s not a battle of us against them, it’s a battle between manipulation and integrity, and a search for a new language. So it is a much more subtle war then it was in the 1960s and 1980s, when it was almost a Napoleonic war. This is more like the Cold War, with some skirmishes around the edges, spies meeting each other in the culture wars. It doesn’t mean it’s not important, just much more subtle and playful.

A: I think some of the things Peter is saying refer to the previous decade, not necessarily today. During the 2000s there was an obvious and quite successful pact with the regime: ‘We guarantee you a certain degree of stability and prosperity; you can buy your Korean car and go on holiday to Egypt’. In the business community it was, as Mr Putin himself put it, ‘pizdit’, no ne pizdet’’ (‘steal as much as you want, but keep your mouth shut‘). And a similar kind of pact was signed with the cultural elite: do whatever you want, any kind of artistic experiment, sex, drugs, violence… You want to make movies that make Quentin Tarantino look like the Muppet Show? Go for it… And again the cultural elite said ‘Yeah that’s fine, that’s fantastic’. (more…)