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Jamie Miller. Soviet Cinema: Politics and Persuasion under Stalin.

Jamie Miller.

Soviet Cinema: Politics and Persuasion under Stalin.

I. B. Tauris, 2010. 222 pages. $29.50.

The subject of this book--the development of Soviet cinema during the Stalin era, especially the years prior to the Second World War--has been covered before, often effectively, by many scholars and from a variety of perspectives. What distinguishes Jamie Miller's contribution to the discourse is his approach to the material and his range of topics. He tips his hat to the traditional or "totalitarian" school, which emphasizes centralized control of the film industry, while pointing out his disagreement with certain aspects of that view. He also embraces some revisionist ideas, for example, the organizational chaos and inefficiency that characterized the film industry.

Above all, in working out his own interpretation, he focuses on what he perceives as a defensive mode of thinking that underlay the development of Soviet film and indeed of Soviet society as a whole. This defensive mentality was shaped by an acute awareness of "the irreconcilable gap between their [the Bolsheviks'] political aims and the pre-existing structures within which they had to operate" (p. 14). As a result, they tried, at every turn, to protect the communist ideal and Soviet power from being exposed as fraudulent. This led to policies that eventually brought Soviet cinema to near collapse in terms of output and creativity. The medium that, more than any other, was supposed to convince the masses of the legitimacy of the regime was repeatedly undermined by it. Moreover, the heavy-handed bureaucratic directives that emanated from Party and film industry administrators thwarted efforts to create a "cinema for the millions," where political instruction would come wrapped in entertainment that made it all the more effectual. In the end, politics almost always overwhelmed entertainment, benefiting neither the Party nor audiences.

Concentrating on the brief but eventful decade of the 1930s allows Miller to structure his book thematically; each chapter deals with a particular aspect of cinematic activity that suffered on account of Bolshevik defensiveness. For instance, regarding the administration of the film industry during these years, the author traces a gradual shift toward ideological micromanagement and centralization. A leading figure in this process was Boris Shumiatsky, the chairman of Soiuzkino from 1930 until his arrest in 1938. Sincerely committed to the ideal of a "cinema for the millions," Shumiatsky worked hard to create an adequate resource base for filmmaking and envisioned a "Soviet Hollywood" that would become the center of production.

Unfortunately, in the face of increasing criticism, Shumiatsky became more protective of the Party line as well as his own power, and his constant meddling in the filmmaking process stifled filmmaking itself. One might expect censorship bodies at various levels--not to mention the Purges--to inhibit creative work, and both of these topics receive due attention. Even more dismaying, however, are the author's accounts of agencies and policies intended to facilitate the production of engaging films that ended by doing the opposite. "Thematic planning," the studios' artistic councils, and the Union of Cinema Personnel all eventually became devices for the transmission of political instructions to film workers. The All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy in educating a new generation of film workers but was notably unsuccessful in finding jobs in the industry for its graduates. For this reason, Miller sees the cinema as an exception to Sheila Fitzpatrick's thesis that those who rose through the ranks following the revolution eventually came to replace the old specialists. By contrast, in the film industry an entrenched elite continued to rule the roost and was lavishly rewarded for cranking out ideologically reliable works.

Toward the end of his book, Miller turns his attention to several of the individual films that were released during this period. Here, by contrast with the administrative initiatives that all seem to have ended badly, success occasionally rears its head. Grigori Alexandrov's The Circus (1936), for example, shows that the ideal of a "cinema for the millions" was not entirely a pipe dream, that it was actually possible to make a movie with a political message that could, at the same time, delight audiences. In the same way, Alexander Medvedkin's Happiness (1934) and Yuli Raizman's The Last Night (1937) demonstrate that individual artistic voices had survived the demands for political conformity. Just the same, most directors sought to please the regime. The author suggests that a combination of reasons might explain their behavior, including social background, self-preservation, and a weakness for the good life.

Grounded in both archival materials and secondary sources, Miller's work is exhaustively researched.. With its fresh take on how the most democratic of the arts came to serve the most authoritarian of regimes, the book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of the Soviet Union or international cinema.

James H. Krukones

John Carroll University
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Author:Krukones, James H.
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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