The Cinema of the Republics

DJIM SCHWANTE!, 1930

Whilst carrying out research in 1994 for the special program "The Fallen Curtain" for the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, I came across the various films made in the different Soviet Republics. In addition to the dominant film studios in Moscow and Leningrad, each republic had its own film studio. Although all filmmakers studied at Moscow’s VGIK, the only Soviet film school, many of them subsequently returned home and developed their own unique cinematic language there, which connects international cinema with the specific visual traditions of their home. Some of the most famous directors that worked in this way include Sergei Paradshanov, Otar Iosseliani and Mikhail Kalatozov, as well as many others. Carrying out research on such films is different however, as Russian archives are well known for their lack of accessibility. It was therefore all the more surprising on my return from Moscow and St. Petersburg to see the sheer volume of Soviet films held in the Arsenal archive. The background here is not just the decade-long focus of the International Forum of New Cinema and Arsenal on Soviet film, but also the directors’ desire to leave their films in the West after being shown there so as to protect them from any imminent interferences on the part of the censors. This can be seen in retrospect as a decision with a great deal of foresight; while the legacy of Soviet film beyond the work of the great directors may no longer be subject to censorship, it is still largely unavailable. The Cinema of the Republics thus becomes an imaginary journey through the unique visual language of the Soviet Union.

Film series in June 2013

KOLGA (The Umbrella, Micheil Kobachidze, Georgia 1966) blends the symbolic visual language of the Orient with influences of the Nouvelle Vague to create a love comedy with Georgian humour. The new direction taken by film in the 60s can be felt in the lightheartedness with which socialist reality and socialist realism are not so much criticized – in the complete absurdity of the work that is shown in passing – as ignored.

BENZINIS TSCHAMOMSCHMELI (Bidzina Tschcheidze, Georgia 1978)
A filling station attendant with a magical secret creates a little paradies around his workplace, where not only cars, but also people are healed – until the authorities take on the matter with scientific throroughness and close the station down. A typical Georgian comedy: absurd and cheerful and always a jabbing at the "actually existing socialism".

APRILI (April, Otar Iosseliani, Georgia 1962)
Iosseliani's first film is a critical examination of the petty bourgeois aspirations to possess. The film shows a strong affiliation for the films of Jacques Tati. Like many of his later films, APRILI does not have extensive dialogue or commentary. After APRILI was banned, Ioselliani worked for two years as a fisherman, sailor and metal founder.

ATLANTI (Atlant, Nana Djordjadze, Georgia 1979)
The film tells the story of a man whose willingness condemns him to prop up the balcony of a house. 

JIM SHVANTE! (Micheil Kalatozischwili, Georgia 1930)
A bitterly poor village that is cut off from the world and almost perishes every winter for lack of salt, is to be connected by road with the modern Soviet power. Need and misery will come to an end, the repressed and exploited people will become part of the larger community. In retrospect it highlights the purely utopian aspect: the lifesaving road has not been finished to this day. What remains is only the film.

MENK (We, Artavazd Peleshyan, Armenia 1969)
In his film, Peleshyan focuses not only on the people, but also on the mountainous landscape surrounding them and the tragic fate of the genocide – denied to this day. The montage of original material and archive footage, close-ups and ultra-far shots, the mixture of Baroque, modern and Armenian music creates a complex system of references. Admittedly, the film was affected by censorship: Peleshyan had to cut out important shots.

SAJAT NOVA (Color of Pomegranates, Sergei Paradjanow, Armenia 1969)
Serious and playful at the same time, Parajanov recreates the world of Armenian poet Aruthin Sayadin: a view of the 18th Century that feels like the present rendered in mysterious and poetic images with a modern surrealist aesthetic and an affectionate sense of irony. (Dietrich Kuhlbrodt)

PIROSMANI (Giorgi Schengelaja, Georgia 1969)
The fragmentarily narrated life story of the naive painter Niko Pirosmanaschwili (1862–1918), who became known by the name Pirosmani. He tries out different professions but repeatedly fails; he flees from his own wedding, starts working as a decorative artist and wall painter, lets himself be exploited and humiliated. Schengelaja develops the structure of the film using Pirosmani's pictures: Plane tableaux, long shots and stylized genre images reflect Pirosmani's aesthetic.

OBITATELI (Artavazd Peleshjan, Belarus 1970)
An experimental documentary film in the Cinemascope format. The film follows the tradition of the many animal films in the Soviet republics, but animals here are not working or domestic animals, and the film does not link them with people in any way. They are the inhabitants of the planet.

SNOJ (Heat, Larissa Schepitko, Kyrgyzstan 1963)
The film is about the sobering experiences of a young man against the background of the construction of a new social order. After finishing school, 17-year-old Kemel arrives in the steppes of Kones-Anrachai in order to assist a brigade in bringing new land into agricultural production.  It is at once a poetic "Eastern" that borrows from Dovzhenko and a satire on Khrushchev’s failed "Virgin Lands Campaign" of the 1950s.

MYS GNEDOGO SKAKUNA (Izya Gerstejn, Kyrgyzstan 1966)
For thirty years the lighthouse-keeper has returned to his post every evening. The film shows more about his daily work and his family than it does about his work. An old Kirghizian legend is heard in the background, about the magic horse that is supposed to have crossed the lake

POVELITEL MUKH (Lord of the Flies, Vladimir Tyulkin, Kazakhstan 1990)
An old man has discovered the real problem of humanity: the disease-carrying and otherwise useless flies. To tackle the root of the problem, he lures flies using animal cadavers and feeds the resulting maggots to his various animals, which he looks after lovingly until they, too, end up as fly-catching cadavers. He sees this small hell on earth as a model which he would like to talk about some day with the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Gorbachev.

ULTUGAN (Edyge Bolysbajew, Kazakhstan 1989)
A cult film from Kazakhstan, dealing with the monotounos village life between ruste shipwrecks on the banks of the dried-out Lake Aral. The lonely protagonist Ultugan falls in love with a stranded captain. Since he is already married, conflicts with the village’s morals are inescapable.

MANO DRANGAR (My Friends, Viktoras Staroschas, Latvia 1959)
A typical propaganda film of the 1950s: A young agricultural engineer becomes the leader of a colchose. With new ideas and the help of his student friends who hurry to work in the field he confronts the distrust of the locals. Finally everything comes together in perfect harmony: modernity and tradition, students and workers, city and countryside.

MITUT VÄRVI HALDJAED (Multi-colored fairies, Peeter Simm, Estonia 1981)
With a sensible camera the filmmaker follows institutionalized children, who recount not only their horrible experiences – including what they have done to others – but also their hopes and dreams.

A NOTSCHKA TJOMNAJA BYLA (When The Night Was Dark, S. Bukowski, Ukraine 1988)
Wladimir Kassjan sets bones - we would call him a chiropractic. He treats hundreds of patients in a run-down hotel, still more wait outside in the snow. His shirt-sleeved, humorous manner contrasts the quasi-religious hope which people set in him.

KATOK I SKRIPTA (The Steamroller and the violin, Andrej Tarkovski, Russia 1961) shows one day in the life of thoughtful boy Sasha, who prefers his violin to playing football, leading his schoolmates to mock him.

ELEGIJA (Elegy, Alexander Sokurov, Russia 1986)
The first of his documentary elegies, which already shows all elements of a magical, mysterious realisim which Sokurow later became famous for. It portraits the Russion opera singer Fjodor Schaljapin (1873–1938), a persona non grata of the Sowjet Union. The film was made without financial support and was banned in the Sowjet Union.

235.000.000 (Uldis Brauns, Biruta Veldre, Laima Schurgina, Latvia 1966)
Capturing a caleidoscope of faces and situations, the film, free of propaganda and the imposition of ideals, revisits the Soviet Union during the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. A work of extraordinary energy that places side by side the new and the old, the frenzy and the calm, that which is distant and that which is near, thereby unmasking the nature of this enormous country. (Festival dei Popoli)

PEREMENA UTSCHASTI (Change of Fate, Kira Muratowa, Ukraine 1987)
The story is based on the novella "The Letter" by William Somerset Maugham. Muratowa shifts the setting to the east of the Sowjet Union and changes the plot: the female protagonist does not kill for revenge, but because she was raped. She murders a man who committed the crime of having lost his sexual and emotional interest in her - and so he no longer deserves to live.

Biography of Marcel Schwierin