Program preceded by the orphan film Madison News Reel (c.1932)
presented with CHESS FEVER
USSR, 1925 • Directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky
Cast Vladimir Fogel (the Hero), Anna Zemtsova (the Heroine) Editor Vsevolod Pudovkin Scenario Nikolai Shpikovsky Production Mezhrabpom-Rus Photography Anatoli Golovnya.
Print Source Contemporary Films Ltd.
The question “Who is Kalatozov?” has reverberated through international film circles at least three times in the past century. In 1958, when his The Cranes Are Flying became the first Russian film to garner the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Then again in the early 1990s, when his neglected I Am Cuba (1964) was re-released through the efforts of Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese and hailed for its camera virtuosity. And, most recently in 2010, at the first retrospective of Kalatozov’s silent films at Italy’s Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, whose curators issued a worldwide call to evaluate Kalatozov’s entire body of work, much of which was banned or publicly slandered by Soviet censors. For instance, his Salt for Svanetia (1930), shot in remote mountains of the Georgian Caucasus, was repressed by censors who complained that “the visual aspect of the film did not adequately serve [its] ideological purpose.” Only The Cranes Are Flying, made during the post-Stalin thaw, and the official films he made during his years of forced “rehabilitation” were spared accusations of formalism.
Born in 1903, Kalatozov was a contemporary of Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and Vertov, the pioneer filmmakers who inaugurated the “Golden Age” of Soviet cinema in the 1920s. Yet both his background and entry into production circles were different from theirs. Kalatozov, whose real name is Kalatozishvili, was born and grew up in Tbilisi, Georgia. While he was exposed to the artistic avant-garde of his hometown, Kalatozov studied economics first before deciding to seek work in cinema in the early 1920s. Distant from Moscow, Russia’s filmmaking capital, Kalatozov was unable to join the experimental workshops such as that of Lev Kuleshov, then testing his theories of montage and the actor as mannequin. He finally met Kuleshov in 1926 when he worked as a cameraman under Kuleshov’s direction on the aborted project Steam Engine B-1000. Kalatozov became, as he put it, Kuleshov’s “disciple” after Kuleshov publicly declared that “Kalatozov could shoot anything and make it interesting.” With his mentor’s endorsement, Kalatozov rose quickly through the ranks of Goskinprom Gruzii, the Russian-supported studio in Tbilisi, an early effort to extend the Russian film industry to the Caucasus, then undergoing a process of Russianization. Kalatozishvili’s transformation into Kalatozov reflects either his desire or need—even in egalitarian, revolutionary Russian film circles—to be seen as Russian.
At Goskinprom Gruzii, Kalatozov worked as a driver, a projectionist, lab assistant, film splicer, editor, actor, and, finally, as an assistant cameraman, getting hands-on instruction and experience in all aspects of studio work. At the same time, he absorbed the radical new film theories circulating among Moscow’s filmmakers. Sergei Eisenstein’s “conflict montage” proposed juxtaposing shots to collide with each other rather than to create seamless transitions. Dziga Vertov was proselytizing his approach to documentary, which he described as “fragments of actuality on film [that], when organized together, can reveal a deeper truth that cannot be seen with the naked eye.” Esfir Shub provided a new model for the compilation film when she synthesized both Eisenstein and Vertov’s styles to re-create history out of archival footage with 1928’s The Fall of the Romanov Empire.
For The Nail in the Boot, Kalatozov also borrowed from across the spectrum of the avant-garde, which had broken from traditional art forms. The film’s acting style was influenced by the circus-like plays staged by Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose “bio-mechanical” view of the actor’s body contrasted sharply with the naturalistic acting of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater. The influence of Aleksandr Tairov’s constructivist theater, Kamerny (“Chamber”), which used geometric forms as both symbolic and decorative elements, can be seen in the composition of Kalatozov’s images. Kalatozov’s use of the camera to emphasize the poetic, metaphoric meanings in the image came in part from the Futurists. Above it all hovered Stalin’s dark warning that the filmmaker must communicate a film’s themes and its socialist aspirations so clearly that even illiterate audiences would understand them.
Made for the military’s studio, Nail in the Boot is about a Soviet soldier ordered to rescue a stranded train and its soldiers. But, as loyal as he is, he cannot execute the order because his poorly made combat boots cripple him. During the soldier’s subsequent court martial, he protests that blame must be shared with the boot makers. The censors must have detected a plea by Kalatozov to the Soviet authorities (perhaps even a complaint) to improve the gear of the soldiers in the trenches and treat them with more compassion. That the Soviet people deserved better was a notion the director had already implied in his earlier film about the salt-starved Svanetians.
Predictably, Soviet censors banned Nail in the Boot, issuing the same criticism they had made about Svanetia: “Kalatozov did not apply the revolutionary method of dialectical materialism to his theme but proceeded from formalistic aestheticism.” The authorities prohibited Kalatozov from directing his own projects, and he accepted an administrative post at Goskinprom in Tbilisi, where he produced seven films between 1931 and the release of Cranes in 1957, none of which were seen in the West. Based on their approval by state censors and on the written descriptions of their patriotic motifs, these films are assumed to be part of Kalatozov’s “rehabilitation” period enforced to correct his ideological errors. Yet these censor-approved films may bear Kalatozov’s artistic mark. The Soviet filmmakers who adopted and understood the poetic strategies of the Russian avant-garde—their use of metaphor, symbolism, and irony—were well served by them in creating films with multiple meanings.
By 1936, Kalatozov was awarded the studio directorship and, by 1939, he was busy making films again, but only official ones. For a few years during World War II, Kalatozov was sent to the U.S. to study Hollywood’s production methods. When he returned home in 1945, he was put in charge of Soviet feature film production. This remarkable period of rehabilitation, recovery, and eventual success was achieved at great cost: the loss of his artistic independence. And, like Eisenstein, also accused of formalism, Kalatozov publicly confessed his supposed ideological errors. It was only after Stalin’s death that Kalatozov was freed from Soviet strictures, making The Cranes Are Flying (1957), The Unsent Letter (1959), and his final film, the big-budget The Red Tent (1969), with a stellar international cast, which critics hailed as an “anti-epic.”
Kalatozov’s silent films are the works of a gifted artist made during a time of strict censorship and radical experimentation. Seen today, these films could appear as simply outmoded. Seen through the lens of history, they are still revolutionary. Constructivist filmmakers believed that through cinema the very structures of perception and cognition could be reorganized. It was a new canvas for imagining a better world. Despite all his difficulties and compromises, Kalatozov made all his silent films with this aspiration.
Chess Fever 1925
The famous Soviet comedy Chess Fever, about a man obsessed with the game, is a model of the principle of “creative geography” formulated by director Lev Kuleshov. Produced by Pudovkin, a student of Kuleshov’s in the 1920s, Chess Fever combines staged scenes with documentary foot-age of the celebrated Cuban champion José Capablanca at a Moscow chess tournament in 1925. Pudovkin edited the film based on conventions of continuity that Kuleshov was among the first to understand—that shots of unrelated people, settings, and actions can constitute a new reality that exist only on film. Look for brief flashes of U.S. champion Frank Marshall and Mexican grandmaster Carlos Torre Repetto as well as appearances by Soviet directors Boris Barnet as the thief and Yakov Protazanov as the chemist.
Ronald Levaco is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, professor emeritus of cinema at San Francisco State University, and editor and translator of Kuleshov on Film (1975).
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by Stephen Horne