They set out to change the world and use the power of cinema to steer the wheel of history. In 1921 a young Berlin Communist named Willi Münzenberg began helping workers’ relief organisation Internationale Arbeiter-Hilfe (IAH, or Mezhrabpom in Russian) in support of famine victims in Russia’s Volga area. After the First World War, he started releasing the first Russian films in Germany. His activity led him to experienced film producer Moisei Aleinikov who was busy trying to revamp his Studio Rus, founded under tsarist Russia, for the new regime. The producer’s plan was to invest in good stories, stars and ingenious technical innovation. In 1924 Münzenberg and Aleinikov founded a German-Russian film studio named Mezhrabpom-Rus; their aim was to combine ideology with business, and international solidarity with popular cinema entertainment. Before long this small company soon became a large film production outfit producing almost 600 Russian and German feature films, documentaries and animation films in just fifteen years.
This Retrospective devotes itself to the astonishing scope of this unusual German-Russian enterprise. ‘Expeditions’ into the depths of Russian archives have unearthed almost 250 surviving feature films, documentaries and animation films. A representative selection of 43 silent and sound films – including many which were rarely or never screened in Germany – will now provide an insight into a little known yet far-reaching era in film history and the evolution of an international cinematic language.
Monumental revolutions and the search for a little bit of happiness
With the aid of equipment, film stock and budgets from Germany, the company in Moscow launched into the extensive production of a series of films that greatly impressed Soviet audiences. Everything that passed censorship was immediately shown in German cinemas. The films were distributed mostly by the studio’s subsidiary, Prometheus Film, which also occasionally imported other outstanding films produced by other Soviet studios. Before long, Münzenberg used the IAH to create an intercontinental distribution network for the new Soviet films. Several of these ‘Russian movies’ garnered international fame on account of their new and radical visual approach and some, like Vsevolod Pudovkin’s revolutionary 1927 epos KONETS SANKT-PETERBURGA (THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG) commemorating the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution were to become classics of cinema history.
Yakov Protazanov, an established master of the genre, directed many feature films produced by the ‘red dream factory’. The Retrospective includes two of his titles: AELITA (1924) tells of a revolution that spreads to the earth’s neighbouring planet. A blend of subtle social criticism and science fiction, this film is remarkable for its extraordinary sets and production design. Made in 1930, his rarely shown yet impeccable comedy PRAZDNIK SVYATOVO YORGENA (ST. JORGEN'S DAY) pokes fun at the fusion of religion and commerce. The film starred well-known Russian comic Igor Ilyinski who rose to fame in Sergei Komarov’s 1927 work POTSELUY MERI PIKFORD (THE KISS OF MARY PICKFORD), a film that shows Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford as the first international stars to visit the Soviet Union and the Mezhrabpom Studio which promptly hires them.
In addition to Protazanov and Pudovkin, whose amusing 1925 silent short SHAKHMATNAYA GORYACHKA (CHESS FEVER) and spectacular POTOMOK CHINGIS-KHANA (STORM OVER ASIA, 1928) will be screened, Mezhrabpom studio’s stable of distinguished directors also included Boris Barnet and Lev Kuleshov. Barnet developed his own brand of ‘lyrical’ comedy. DEVUSHKA S KOROBKOI (THE GIRL WITH THE HAT BOX, 1927) and DOM NA TRUBNOI (THE HOUSE ON TRUBNAYA, 1928) depict people in search of a little happiness and casually provide a contrasting portrait of life in the country and the big city. MISS MEND, a turbulent trilogy made in 1926 in which Barnet appeared with Fyodor Otsep directing, provides yet more evidence that the artists working at Mezhrabpom Film commanded all the skills of popular film in their day. In contrast, the largely unknown ‘poetical kulak drama’ LEDOLOM (THAW, 1931) is one of Barnet’s less typical works: an angry film that translates conflict into carefully composed, expressive images. In his late work OKRAINA (OUTSKIRTS, 1933) he describes how the First World War shatters the intact world of a sleepy small town.
Technical innovation and socially critical cinema
Master director Lev Kuleshov also worked with Mezhrabpom Film. The programme includes three works that have rarely been shown in Germany: GORIZONT (HORIZON, 1933) which focuses on anti-Semitism and exploitation in Russia and America; a short agitprop film entitled PRORYV! (THE BACKLOG!, 1930) and a documentary, SOROK SERDETS (FORTY HEARTS, 1931) which chronicles the electrification of the country as part of the first Soviet five-year plan and bristles with impressive animation sequences.
Other discoveries waiting to be made include Vladimir Shneyderov’s cinematic adventure ZOLOTOE OZERO (THE GOLDEN LAKE, 1935) and a drama about children set in Nazi Germany RVANYE BASHMAKI (TORN SHOES, 1933) by Margarita Barskaya, one of Soviet cinema’s few female directors. Aleksandr Andriyevsky’s 1935 robot science fiction GIBEL SENSATSII (LOSS OF THE SENSATION) takes a visionary look at the threat to people’s jobs posed by robots and also shows how they are misused as fighting machines.
At the end of the 1920s young German filmmakers were emulating their Soviet colleagues. Leftist, socially conscious German cinema was strongly influenced by Prometheus which, due to German quota requirements, now produced films in addition to its original activity as a distributor. Phil Jutzi’s 1929 film MUTTER KRAUSENS FAHRT INS GLÜCK (MOTHER KRAUSEN'S JOURNEY TO HAPPINESS) and Slatan Dudov’s 1932 work KUHLE WAMPE ODER WEM GEHÖRT DIE WELT? (KUHLE WAMPE OR WHO OWNS THE WORLD?) are among the best known films produced at this time. Leo Mittler’s 1929 title JENSEITS DER STRASSE (HARBOUR DRIFT) is less often shown, although it represents a major work of proletarian silent cinema. Documentaries such as UM'S TÄGLICHE BROT (FOR OUR DAILY BREAD) directed by Phil Jutzi in 1929, IM SCHATTEN DER WELTSTADT (IN THE SHADOWS OF METROPOLIS, 1930) by Albrecht V. Blum and ZEITPROBLEME. WIE DER ARBEITER WOHNT (PROBLEMS OF OUR TIME. HOW THE WORKER LIVES, 1930) by Slatan Dudov gain new poignancy in the light of today’s global crises.
Film Classics and New Discoveries
Prometheus and the IAH made the Soviet Union’s innovatory approach to cinema famous in Germany and throughout the world. Among the most enduring of these cinematic classics is Sergei Eisenstein’s BRONENOSETS POTYOMKIN (BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, 1925). The studio’s winning combination of business acumen and good taste coupled with box-office hits such as these enabled the company to keep its head above water for many years – in spite of the Great Depression, the growing popularity of the Nazis and formidable competition from Hollywood and Ufa. However, after 1933, no more Russian films were shown in Germany; this means that many of the late, great works of Soviet cinema – including numerous documentaries – were to remain unknown here.
The collection of Russian documentaries in this Retrospective is therefore quite extensive and ranges from one of the first documentaries PYATILETIYE SOVETSKOI ROSSII (FIVE YEARS OF SOVIET RUSSIA, 1922) to DRUGAYA ZHIZN (THE NEW LIFE, 1930) about reshaping life in Azerbaijan, Vladimir Shneyderov’s legendary expedition film DWA OKEANA (TWO OCEANS, 1933) about the first successful crossing of the northeast passage in the Arctic Ocean and ARTEK (1936) about a Stalinist youth camp on the Crimean peninsula. Almost all of these works will be screened in Germany for the first time.
A good example of the genuine co-productions created with both Russian and German actors is Fyodor Otsep’s Tolstoy drama ZHIVOI TRUP (THE LIVING CORPSE, 1929). The 1935 silent version of VOSSTANIYE RYBAKOV (REVOLT OF THE FISHERMEN) can be regarded as a new discovery; this film was created by German stage director Erwin Piscator and intended for audiences living in rural areas without access to cinemas capable of projecting films with sound. Piscator’s 1934 version of the same film with sound was withdrawn from distribution shortly after the premiere on Stalin’s orders; twenty years passed before an incomplete version of this work resurfaced. Research in Russian archives unearthed the shorter but narratively consistent silent version at Gosfilmofond in Moscow. It will now be screened for the first time outside Russia.
Among the other outstanding achievements of the Prometheus film factory are the Soviet Union’s first animation films. The small selection of titles showcases the art of early animators working between 1927 and 1936 and includes BLEK END UAIT (BLACK AND WHITE), KATOK (SKATING RINK) and SKAZKA O SLOM MEDVEDE, KOVARNOM LISE I VESYOLOM PASTUCHE (FAIRYTALE OF THE EVIL BEAR, THE SPITEFUL FOX AND THE CHEERFUL SHEPHERD).
Songs of Heroes and Experiments in a Workers’ Paradise
In Soviet society the idea that people are susceptible to education or to be more precise, the belief that the new citizens of the Soviet Union could be educated through employment, was a widely held concept. This thesis also underlies the Soviet Union’s first sound film, Nikolai Ekk’s PUTYOVKA V ZHIZN (THE ROAD TO LIFE). Without overdoing the ideological aspect of socializing homeless young delinquents, Ekk’s interest focuses on the process that can gradually reveal the ‘core of good’ in criminals and the oppressed.
The Soviet vision of a new life and the ‘new individual’ also served to inspire documentary filmmaking. For Joris Ivens and Dziga Vertov this dream coincided with the spectacular invention of recorded sound on film. Following Moscow’s call, experimental Dutch filmmaker Ivens made PESN O GEROYAKH (SONGS OF HEROES, 1933) a hymn to the young labourers of a vast state industrial plant that is a symphony of industrial sounds interwoven with a score by Hanns Eisler. At the same time Dziga Vertov created his own anthem to the ‘new age’ in a cross-section of the Soviet Union entitled TRI PESNI O LENINE (THREE SONGS OF LENIN). The Retrospective will present both the silent 1935 version as well as the censored and restored sound version of Vertov’s film (1934/38/70) – a juxtaposition that is bound to be illuminating.
A Tragic End and New Topicality
Despite its achievments, the studio came under increasing pressure from the Soviet authorities and competition from state film studios. In the early 1930s, the artistic director Aleinikov was slowly forced out of the company and even imprisoned for a time. The red dream factory was also to subject to purges and could barely avoid toeing the official line in socialist realism. Nonetheless, most of the studio’s films managed to retain their own flavour and when in doubt, art always took precedence over ideology. One example of this is a late Mezhrabpom-Film work entitled SLYUCHAINAYA VSTRECHA (ACCIDENTAL MEETING, 1936) von Igor Savchenko – a film about a toy factory peopled by cheerful workers, with plenty of music, sport, romance and heartache as well as a crisis that is overcome by a strong, united collective.
At the beginning of the 1930s in Germany the studio found itself subject to increasing constraints as a result of censorship, reactionary politics and the quasi-cartel that was Germany’s cinema exhibition system. Finally, the red dream factory was forced to surrender to the might of not one, but two dictatorships. Suddenly, the studio was no more: the Nazis shut down its Berlin head office and German operations in 1933 and in 1936 Stalin ordered the closure of the huge Moscow film factory which employed over 1,000 people at the time. Exiled leftist German filmmakers who were living in Moscow found themselves stateless once more. Willi Münzenberg declared Stalin a traitor after his pact with Hitler. The circumstances of Münzenberg's death in Southern France remain unexplained. Münzenberg was later found dead in the south of France. The circumstances of his death were never clarified.
Whatever the topic, be it industrial robots, expedition films, the shortage of housing or right-wing extremism, the drama of divorce or a popular uprising against one’s oppressors, even after eighty or ninety years, many of these films are still just as relevant to us today. The powerful dramas, light-hearted comedies, witty animation films and compelling documentaries produced by this unique German-Russian dream factory still fulfil the studio’s original mission to provide quality entertainment in the context of the Soviet experiment.
The film programme is being augmented by lectures and discussions at the Filmhaus. The curator Alexander Schwarz and the responsible editor Nina Goslar are presenting his documentary film about Mezhrabpom which was produced for ARTE/ZDF. It spans film history from the 1920s and 30s to present-day Russian film productions. Parallel to the Red Dream Factory Retrospective, a comprehensive book is being published by Bertz + Fischer. As the first German publication to focus on this legendary German-Russian film experiment, it contains essays by Russian and German authors on the history and aesthetics of the films. These articles are complemented by historical documents, unpublished photographs, contemporary avant-garde film posters and a complete filmography.
The programme’s many silent film performances will be accompanied by internationally renowned musicians. The Dutch silent film pianist and composer Maud Nelissen, and Stephen Horne from Britain, have performed at previous Retrospectives in Berlin. The highly sought-after pianist, composer and conductor Gabriel Thibaudeau from Canada will accompany silent films at the Berlinale for the first time. Eunice Martins is well known to Berliners as the house pianist at Kino Arsenal and to international audiences at numerous festivals.
This Retrospective is presented by the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen. It was organised in cooperation with the following archives and partners: Gosfilmofond (Moscow), the Russian State Documentary Film & Photo Archive (Krasnogorsk), the Bundesarchiv/Filmarchiv (Berlin), the Cinémathèque de Toulouse, the Munich Film Museum, the Austrian Film Museum (Vienna), the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Dok Leipzig.
Alexander Schwarz, Günter Agde (curators of the Retrospective 2012)