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Resurrecting Figures of Soviet Cinema History

By Philip Cavendish


This excerpt was adapted from The Men with the Movie Camera The Poetics of Visual Style in Soviet Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1920s by Philip Cavendish, now available in paperback. 


This monograph is about the visual culture of Soviet avant-garde film during the 1920s [….] It is a study of the image in its various complex manifestations as a means of communication and stimulation, and treats the medium of cinema as a primarily photographic phenomenon which, in the case of the Soviet avant-garde, was characterized by a particular set of creative practices and aesthetic preferences. At the heart of this study lies a detailed consideration of camerawork, a term that encompasses a whole range of subsidiary phenomena pertaining to the presentation of screen material, but which in essence can be reduced to the poetics of composition and lighting techniques. This is a neglected aspect of cinema studies, and yet it is fundamental to the visual resonance of the filmic image.
On the rare occasions when issues of aesthetics arise in the writing about film, they are attributed largely to the creative intervention of the director and identified as part of his or her visual perception of the world. From a historical point of view, however, this is a simplification of a complex process that involves the creative endeavours of several individuals, the most prominent being the camera operator […] who has formal responsibility for the translation of dramatic or poetic ideas into visual images. In the case of Soviet cinema, this is demonstrated by the so-called ‘(camera) operator’s scenario’, which is drawn up in parallel to the director’s scenario […] and contains a detailed description of the compositional mechanics and lighting arrangements that will be adopted in relation to a given screenplay or libretto; as the celebrated cinematographer Sergei Urusevskii once remarked […] by virtue of his position in relation to the viewfinder at the moment when filming takes place, the cameraman de facto constitutes the first audience of film material, albeit admittedly in unedited form. Although the names of the Soviet avant-garde camera operators are reasonably well-known among specialists, their particular role in the creation of avant-garde cinema during the 1920s has remained relatively neglected. In part, therefore, this monograph is dedicated to the resurrection of these figures, for so long relegated to the margins of cinema history, and to their repositioning as co-authors of avant-garde productions during the silent era. It will challenge a number of myths about the avant-garde, many of them the product of directorial self-promotion and the auteur bias which informs so many studies of cinema, both past and present. If the history of avant-garde cinema in the Soviet Union during the silent era had been written, which it has not, this study would position itself as an alternative and competing version. It considers the works of the four main avant-garde units active at the time and examines the partnerships between the directors and camera operators that formed their core: Sergei Eizenshtein with Eduard Tisse; Vsevolod Pudovkin with Anatolii Golovnia; Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg (the so-called FEKS directors) with Andrei Moskvin; and Oleksandr Dovzhenko with Danylo Demuts’kyi.
As a study of the visual language of cinema in its most experimental forms, this monograph will also place Soviet avant-garde film within the context of the modernist revolution in the arts. […] the directors and camera operators of the avant-garde believed themselves to be engaged in a quest to revolutionize visual thinking. […] The story of cinematic experiment in the Soviet Union during the 1920s is partly the dialogue with and polemic against developments taking place in related fields, both within the Soviet Union and abroad. […]
Although it might be deemed provocative to insist on the auteur status of Soviet cameramen, it is important to stress that this was not a particularly radical position during the 1920s. As the first chapter will demonstrate, this decade was a ‘golden age’ for Soviet camera operators. Within the film industry as a whole […], the cameramen of the 1920s were iconic figures: their creative initiative within the film-production process was encouraged; their names featured prominently alongside directors in posters and other publicity materials; the names of the most important camera operators were relatively well-known among critics and industry observers; their individual styles or ‘signatures’ were discussed in the film press; and there was a burgeoning theoretical discourse around cinema as a visual medium that placed specific emphasis on the importance of cinematography. For the first time in the history of cinema […] the camera operator was regarded as a creative artist rather than merely a technician or craftsman who executed the orders of others. This privileged status was the result of a number of factors: the collective principle adopted by the avant-garde units […]; the importance accorded to documentary material and the associated idea of the camera operator as a media ‘shock-worker’ […]; and the fact that cinema, as an industrial and technological process, was hailed as the proletarian art form of the future. At the heart of this phenomenon […] was the concept of the artist-engineer, someone who combined technical expertise with creative vision in the service of revolutionary and utilitarian art. The promotion of the engineer-constructor […] was very much part of the discourse to which the camera operator belonged by virtue of his association with the moving-picture camera, itself an emblem of modernity because of its recent invention. The contributions of this first generation of Soviet camera operators, in terms of the films they photographed and their writings and pedagogical functions within the institutions that trained future industry cadres, laid the foundations for a system of thought that privileged the visual language of cinema and recognized the contribution of the camera operator to the evolution of its aesthetics. In effect, these cameramen succeeded in engineering their own myth, thus ensuring that the voice of their profession would be heard in future debates about the direction of Soviet cinema. The relative abundance of published material about Soviet camera operators, far more than exists in relation to their European or U.S. counterparts, is a testimony to this powerful, initial impetus.


Philip Cavendish is Reader in Russian and Soviet Film Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He is the author of Mining for Jewels: Evgenii Zamiatin and the Literary Stylization of Rus′ (MHRA, 2000), and Soviet Mainstream Cinematography: The Silent Era (UCL, 2007).