Established one year before United Artists was incorporated on the opposite side of the globe, and before the other Hollywood studios coalesced into the top-down factories they’d remain until the 1960s, the Leningrad filmworks Lenfilm has weathered more upheaval than some nations. Too huge and powerful to get lost in history, this Soviet production house—northern compatriot to Mosfilm—shape-shifted with the times, starting out in the full roar of Stalinist agitprop, churning out mass entertainment in the war and post-war years, blossoming in the 1950s-1960s Khrushchev thaw, withstanding the official tumult of perestroika and the empire’s eventual collapse, and enduring today as subdivided companies. Most of Lenfilm’s product has gone unseen by us—West-beloved upstarts like Dovzhenko, Kalatozov, Paradjanov, and Tarkovsky either stuck to Moscow or worked in the ethnic outlands—but any cross section of its legacy, like the Walter Reade series beginning this Friday, reveals a torrent of iconoclasm and rebellious style. Nothing, not even fascistic force, could keep Russian filmmakers homogenized, wherever they were stationed.
Eisenstein’s October (1928), made at Lenfilm because the Big-Haired One wanted to re-create the 1917 Bolshevik victory in its Petrograd locales, may be the studio’s most famous film; rarer are Friedrich Ermler and Eduard Ioganson’s Katka’s Reinette Apples (1926), a small but revelatory on-location portrait of a country waif trying to make it in the big city under the era’s New Economic Policy, and two films by Grigory Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. The New Babylon (1929) is fabulous, unadulterated Marxist prop, a feverishly cartoony depiction of the 1871 Paris Commune (compare to Peter Watkins’s epic version), while Alone (1931) is an early, asynchronous-sound fable that crows Leninist maxims but narratively negates them in its true tale of a young girl sent to teach in Siberia and nearly dying from exposure and frontier mismanagement.
Predictably posh epics like Vladimir Petrov’s Peter the Great (1937-8) and Sergei Gerasimov’s Masquerade (1941) are surprisingly outnumbered by tales of everyday poverty, housing trouble, and social unease. (Ironically, even Socialist Realism required dramatic tension, which offered up any number of ways that Communism could and did go wrong.) Ermler’s House in the Snow Drifts (1927) examines the social push-and-pull within a crowded apartment house during the Bolshevik struggle, just as Iosef Heifits and Alexander Zarkhi’s Deputy for the Baltic Fleet (1936) famously portrays the intellectual’s beleaguered role in the revolution amid shortages and deprivation.
Jump ahead a few decades, and iconoclast Alexei Guerman began figuratively forecasting the end of Sovietness as everyone knew it with Twenty Days Without War (1976), in which a military reporter returns to Tashkent and has his ideas of war, home, and Communism shot to hell; and My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), an almost Renoiresque memoir of northern village life, centering on a community house where the Guermans lived with a quietly heroic police captain. By the time he gets to the outrageous, incendiary, post-Soviet rip Khroustaliov, My Car! (1998), Guerman is kicking the mountain of embers and watching the smoke rise.
Lenfilm movies have had their occasional day in the international sun (Heifits’s lovely 1959 Chekhov adaptation, The Lady With the Little Dog, won multiple prizes at Cannes), but its only sustained megastar is Alexander Sokurov. Here, the incredibly popular Russian Ark (2002) is a reflexive choice, as is his new film, Father and Son (2003), a companion piece to his lyric Mother and Son (1997), and a disarmingly intimate interrogation of generational ambivalence that will raise as many questions as its terminal sister-film answered. It might be that Second Circle (1990) will outlast them all, a brooding, minimalist Kafka-wail set in a single Siberian apartment about a mumbling student trying to breach Soviet bureaucracy and actually bury his very dead father. Detail-specific but universal, it speaks volumes about humanness under state pressure while barely speaking at all.