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Five Books to Read on Soviet and Russian Film

Two of the books that Christie has chosen are linked with Sergei Eisenstein. For MT
Ian Christie, professor of film and media history at Birkbeck College in London, discusses five books on Russian and Soviet film.

“Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film” — Jay Leyda. Leyda was a young American film enthusiast who, seized by the example of Russian cinema, had this extraordinary idea that he would go to Moscow and sit at the feet of the world’s greatest filmmaker and theorist: Eisenstein. He wasn?€™t the only person who had that idea ?€” famously Samuel Beckett thought exactly the same and wrote to Eisenstein, but never got a reply. Leyda did get a reply, and went and studied with Eisenstein at VGIK, the film school, in the early ‘30s. He was an intern on Eisenstein?€™s ?€?Bezhin Meadow,?€? and took an extraordinary gallery of photos of the making of that film which are absolutely crucial now, because the film was lost: It was censored, banned, shelved, and then accidentally destroyed during the war. So Leyda knew Soviet cinema from the inside, and he decided in the ?€?50s that he would write a proper history about it.

I think the great thing about this book is that, although it was written during the height of the Cold War, it manages to be incredibly sympathetic to different aspects of early Soviet cinema. It?€™s true that Leyda was politically and temperamentally quite sympathetic to the Soviet Union, but it?€™s not the work of an apologist in any way ?€” it?€™s the work of a friendly observer. It?€™s much more about art than politics.

?€?Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception?€? ?€” Yuri Tsivian. Tsivian had this idea to try to reconstruct the history of early Russian cinema ?€” the stuff that Leyda didn?€™t deal with, and that all the Soviet avant-garde despised ?€” and to approach it through a deeply contextual history. A revolutionary book! The first major book in film studies that doesn?€™t deal with films per se at all, but with the experience of going to the cinema: Why do people go the cinema? How do they feel about going? What happens to them inside the cinema? What do they talk about? There?€™s even a chapter about things going wrong in the cinema ?€” which I think is absolutely the most original idea: What happened when the film broke?

?€?Sergei Eisenstein: A Biography?€? ?€” Oksana Bulgakowa. The particular problem with Eisenstein?€™s life is that he?€™d already said so much about it. He?€™s completely dominated all approaches to his life, and provided the best, most attractive and seductive account of it imaginable ?€” all those wonderful chapters and phrases in what he called his ?€?immoral memoirs.?€? Bulgakowa went into the archives and got access to the diaries, which have never been published or made widely available. She used a huge amount of material to provide a kind of corrective view of Eisenstein, and the result is extraordinary ?€” because it just brings you back to the materiality, the everydayness of what life was like. One of the great moments in the book is: How did Eisenstein find out about Freud? Well, he found out about it by reading Leonardo (quite a lot of Freud was available in Russian translation) in 1918 on a tram. He got so excited reading it that he spilled a whole bottle of milk all over himself. This wonderful Freudian moment!

He went out and read everything he could before Freud was forbidden in 1924. There was a period when Freud was exactly what you would read if you were a keen young disciple of the Revolution. People have forgotten that.

Time and time again Bulgakowa?€™s book takes you to the circumstances of Eisenstein?€™s life. You finish reading with a fantastically renewed sense of: How did he pack so much in? You see how difficult it was, but also what his appetite was for new experiences. It took Bulgakowa to reorientate the whole vision of Eisenstein. It?€™s an extraordinarily important book.

?€?Ivan the Terrible?€? ?€” Yuri Tsivian. What?€™s interesting about it is that a whole shelf of books has been written about that film, but Tsivian?€™s approach is very different from anyone else?€™s ?€” because what he does is to relate it intimately to Eisenstein?€™s inner life. He posits the film as very much a solution to Eisenstein?€™s unresolved psychological problems. He doesn?€™t ignore the historical fresco that Ivan IV was, or his relation to the course of Russian history, but there?€™s a lot of emphasis on the way that Eisenstein refigures the available material on Ivan, and turns it into a kind of psycho-autobiography.

It?€™s a completely Freudian film. How he managed to get away with it at the height of Stalinism is pretty remarkable, although he did pay the price, and the film wasn?€™t shown until ?€™57.

?€?Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry?€? ?€” Maja Turovskaja. Maja Turovskaja was a contemporary of Tarkovsky?€™s at VGIK, and she?€™s of that generation (and we know how important generations were in Russia) that came up through the thaw, and then emerged just at a moment when it was possible to do new things, before being repressed. It?€™s really a book about the poetics of Tarkovsky?€™s cinema, and what influenced him and what shapes it.

Turovskaja is immensely sympathetic to what Tarkovsky?€™s trying to do. She doesn?€™t necessarily think that he?€™s as great as people have come to think he is ?€” it doesn?€™t put him on a pedestal, but really tries to talk about him as a filmmaker who?€™s partly produced by a certain unique cultural moment in Russia.

A full version of this interview can be found in the ?€?Five Books?€? section at TheBrowser.com.

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