16 / 11 / 02 – 15 / 12 / 02
Exhibition / Films / Talks / Performance

What Do Those Old Films Mean?
Each part 26 Min., Dir.: Noël Burch

Return to main: What Do Those Old Films Mean?

Vol. 1: Great Britain 1900-1912
Along the Great Divide

Vol. 4: France 1904-1912
The Enemy Below

Vol. 2: USA 1902-1914
Tomorrow the World

Vol. 5: USSR 1926-1930
Born Yesterday

Vol. 3: Denmark: 1910 – 1912
She! The City and The History

Vol. 6: Germany 1926-1932
Under Two Flags

War Communism is the name that remains attached to the regime of austere collectivism and egalitarianism which the Soviet people underwent during the bitter Civil War between, on the one hand, workers and the Red Army and, on the other, White troops and their interventionist allies. At the end of three years, the forces of production had almost completely collapsed. Moreover, it had been necessary to requisition foodstuffs from the peasants to enable the cities to survive, and to nationalise far more of the economic and industrial infra-structure than was rational, largely because the former owners had fled abroad.

The sweeping economic reforms adopted by the Tenth Party Congress in 1921, and known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), were aimed at dealing with the post-civil war emergency and especially at reconciling the peasantry with the Revolution. However, the mixed economy, the broad encourage-ment of small private enterprise (from street peddling, to, say, the wholesaling of livestock), the increased dependency on foreign capital, were seen by those who had made the October Revolution and those who supported it, as measures that could only be temporary: they were bound to have results contrary to everything that Bolshevism stood for. The emergence of a new bourgeoisie, the return of an ostentatious, decadent night-life, as these ”Nepmen” squandered their fabulous profits, were but two symptoms of the regressive side of this policy.

However, the NEP was also a period of extraordinary social and cultural experiment, much of which was to be forgotten under Stalin. In the time of the NEP, many Party officials, cultural workers, rank and file revolutionaries believed that Communism, in the words of Mayakovsky, was not just ”farming and factory sweat,” but was also ”in the home... in everyday relations.” They contested the thesis, later to be associated with Stalin, but which is as old as the working-class movement itself, that (super-structural) changes in such areas as religion, sex-roles, work-place relations, drinking habits could only take place once the basic transformations in the political economy (the infra-structure) were completed. It is symptomatic of the change in priorities advocated by many at this time that Trotsky, whose name was principally attached to the organisation of the Red Army, should have published, in 1923, a collection of articles entitled Questions of Life Style.

The country’s general poverty, the social disorder, the rural exodus, the sudden arrival of many young women into industry, the building trades and new administrative structures, these were determinant factors in the widespread concern with the communist transformation of the domestic and private spheres of society, a concern which extended to art and literature as well. The artists of LEF (Left Arts Front) saw art as an instrument of social change, encouraging new relationships between individuals; those of the Proletkult, closer, in some ways, to certain Western modernists (e.g. Dada), saw revolutionary art forms in themselves as ”models” for socialist living.

The concept of a committed art is refracted in various guises through the cinema of the NEP, as it is most apt to describe the first great surge of the Soviet cinema.

Some of the new film-making groups concentrated on cultural agitation, either celebrating historical episodes in a revolutionary style which used elaborate abstractions (Eisenstein) or developing enigmatic ”pedagogical” forms out of newsreel footage (Dziga Vertov). Still others sought to intervene explicitly and directly in the day-to-day life of the community with ”social problem films” which adopted the essential traits of Western narrative cinema, though at times incorporating the camera angles, editing devices, eccentric acting, etc. associated with the great formal experiments of the day.

First Steps in Sexual Politics
One striking aspect of the social cinema of the NEP is the presence, explicit or implicit, of what we today would call sexual politics. In the earliest years of the NEP, issues such as the collectivisation of domestic tasks and of childcare or the abolition of the sexual division of labour in the home were at the forefront of debate. Alexandra Kollontai (until 1921 an important government figure) had many supporters in her battle for socialist feminist ideals.

The adoption of a new code of marriage in 1926 was seen by the ”feminist current” as a defeat, since it discouraged women from seeking economic independence from men (a very traditional system of alimony payments was one of the most controversial clauses). Furthermore, there was an increasing tendency for Party policy and iconography to cast women in the role of ”model heroines”, of ”vigilantes” - witness the part they were called upon to play in the struggle against (male) alcoholism and hooliganism, in the campaign to reactivate the Komsomols (the youth movement) and combat bureaucracy.

Nonetheless, from the mid-to-late Twenties - even as Party opposition to feminist theses was hardening - there appeared a number of films reflecting, more or less outspokenly, feminist ideas. Though well known in the Soviet Union today - many have been re-released with modern music-tracks - most of these films are largely forgotten in the West, no doubt because they are not attached to famous names. Indeed, they are signed Boris Barnet (The House on Trubnaya Square, The Girl with a Hatbox, Outskirts), Abram Room (Bed and Sofa) and especially, Fridri Ermler, who appears to have made a speciality of films with a woman’s viewpoint, Katka’s Apples, The Shoemaker of Paris, Remnants of an Empire). All of these films pose questions that are still on the agenda today, in both socialist and capitalist societies.