On December 5, 1921, at Petrograd’s Theater of Free Comedy, three young artists delivered their “Manifesto of the Eccentric Theater.” Among other upheavals, they called for the elevation of circuses and clowns, comic strips and boxing rings, gaming tables and carnivals, vaudeville and slapstick to a plane above the dramatic arts. “We prefer Charlie’s arse to Eleanore Duse’s hands,” they declared. They exalted the young over the old, the silly over the serious, the People over the Elite, the American over the European. “Either Americanism or the undertaker,” they exclaimed. While lighthearted, it was no joke. “Art,” they demanded, “without a capital letter, a pedestal, or fig leaf.”
Sixteen-year-old Grigori Kozintsev, 19-year-old Leonid Trauberg, and 20-year-old Georgy Kryzhitsky soon published their playful creed, adding a section by 17-year-old art student Sergei Yutkevich. In support of their radical ideas, they quoted iconoclasts from across the artistic spectrum, including Mark Twain (“It is better to be a young pup [sic] than an old bird of paradise”); Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti (“Old men are always wrong even when they are right and the young are always right even when they are wrong”); and Russian stage performer Serge the Clown (“Oh, oh, oh!”). They printed 1,000 copies of “Eccentrism” and distributed them by hand. FEKS, the Factory of the Eccentric Actor, was born.
These daring artists were not alone in their exuberance for change. Taking their cue from the Bolsheviks who had just overthrown the old imperial order, filmmakers, theater directors, designers, painters, architects, etc., instigated an artistic revolution. Their aim was not only to entertain and educate the largely illiterate proletariat, empowering them to further loosen their chains, but also to free themselves of stifling traditions. Sergei Eisenstein was among the young pups inspired to create change, producing The Wiseman in 1923 at Moscow’s Proletkult Theater on a stage he described as “shaped like a circus arena.” He also incorporated film clips— parodies of newsreels and Chaplin shorts—as part of the set design, something FEKS, based in Petrograd, had done during its first stage production in September 1922. An adaption of Gogol’s Marriage, their version featured an actor as the author being “electrified by putting a plug and electric wire into his posterior.” Nearly as young as themselves, cinema was alluring, according to scholar Denise J. Youngblood “as an art with no past.”
Kryzhitsky and Yutkevich left the group before it became part of the Sevzapkino film studio (later, Leningradkino) in Leningrad, as Petrograd was now called. With Kozintsev and Trauberg directing a cadre of actors, the workshop produced eight films, all shot in the city they whimsically renamed Eccentropolis. The Adventures of Oktyabrina (1924), a short about a capitalist functionary named Coolidge Curzonovich Poincaré trying to recover the Tsar’s debts from the Bolsheviks, marked the group’s break with the theater. With it, FEKS become a part of the most fecund and fleeting period in Soviet film history.
They embraced the ideas of Dziga Vertov, who adored speed and deplored stasis (“Long live the poetry of the propelling and propelled machine….”); and Lev Kuleshov, a set designer in pre-Revolutionary cinema turned Soviet agitprop filmmaker who rallied for the production of American-style detective stories to appeal to the movie theater’s “cheap seats.” His The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolshevik (1924) mimicked the American industry’s fast-paced editing, putting into practice his own philosophy. FEKS also revered Eisenstein’s collective hero, rapid cutting, and oblique compositions in Strike (1925), which Kozintsev exhorted his colleagues to watch over and over again in preparation for shooting FEKS’s first feature-length film, The Devil’s Wheel (1926).
Also released in 1926, The Overcoat, a loose adaptation of two Gogol short stories, was FEKS’s second feature-length film. Set in Tsarist St. Petersburg, it mocks bureaucratic power-tripping and the small-mindedness of the bourgeoisie. What the writer had expressed in words actors now communicate in off-kilter postures, exaggerated gestures, and striking facial expressions. Men dwarfed by architecture emerge into the foreground from deep, diagonal shots along the bridges and canals of the frozen city. Cameraman Andrei Moskvin preferred to shoot after dark to emphasize the sharp contrast between the snow and the night sky, and much has been made of the influence of German expressionism on The Overcoat.
In his memoirs, Kozintsev offers another explanation for the canted compositions, stark silhouettes, and distended shadows of the film. “Each night during the cruel winter of 1920–1921, I had to walk back to my lodgings through the dark and deserted city, trudging through the piles of snow. The eagles on the dark street lamps were white with frost; the boundless Neva held fast by ice. … Isolated by the darkness of the night and the bitter cold, I was alone in a baleful void, among the palaces and the monuments petrified by the frost… [the film] was inspired by reality itself.” Modern audiences might find The Overcoat more reminiscent of David Lynch, particularly during the otherworldly nightclub scene in which a lady poses enigmatically with a fan while juggling pins are tossed repeatedly behind her.
Like other early Soviet experimental narratives, The Overcoat baffled the moviegoing proletariat who preferred their entertainment without the obligatory dose of indoctrination. According to scholar Richard Taylor, even Eisenstein’s much ballyhooed Battleship Potemkin (1926) could not compete with Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood. One contemporary Soviet critic in trying to explain The Overcoat’s tepid reception instead foreshadows the creeping censorship and accusations of formalism to come. “It has had very little success and a very bad press. The reason for the failure is that the classical subject of Gogol’s The Overcoat was not psychologically modernized and was not socially employed.” The era of playfulness was coming to an end.
FEKS made two more silent films before the Party codified aesthetics under the single rubric of social realism and laid the groundwork for punishing transgressors. S.V.D. (Union of Great Cause, 1927), about the 1825 Decembrist Rebellion, was the FEKS contribution to the celebration of the ten-year anniversary of the October Revolution, and New Babylon (1929) retold the story of the Paris Commune. It took the dissolution of FEKS for Kozintsev and Trauberg to make a film with broad popular appeal. The Maxim Trilogy, begun in 1935 with The Youth of Maxim, based on memoirs of actual workers, created a character that “passed into Russian folklore as the archetypal hero of the Soviet Revolution.” Almost suppressed, the film was eventually released after a workers’ committee deemed it sufficiently realistic. Two sequels followed, in 1937 and 1939.
Vulnerable to Stalin’s waves of anti-Semitism, both Kozintsev and Trauberg suffered a long career hiatus after the Soviet Central Committee condemned their Plain People (1945) for “slandering the lives of simple Soviet people.” After Stalin’s death and the subsequent Thaw, Kozintsev and Trauberg returned to filmmaking. Trauberg’s adaptation of Gogol’s Dead Souls was released in 1960 to some acclaim, and Kozintsev had a successful second run as director, garnering international accolades for screen adaptations of classical works such as Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Before his death in 1973, Kozintsev was planning a film titled Gogoliada, notes for which expressed his desire to capture the essence of “… Russian artists. Their nocturnal conversations in the smoke.”
Presented at SFSFF 2012 with live music by Alloy Orchestra