Sculpting in Montage: The Perseverance of Soviet Cinema

“It is not a question of mastering the technique like a virtuoso,” Andery Tarkovsky writes in his book Sculpting in Time, “but of a vital need for your own, distinct individual expression (Tarkovsky).” Here Tarkovsky articulates the linchpin of Soviet cinema, that the articulation of the self precedes the mastering of the tools. There first has to be an intrinsic motivation at the start before any creating happens and, through the creative process, one masters the mechanics. While this notion is not mutually exclusive to the Soviets (John Cassavetes in the United States and Wong Kar-wai in Japan being examples of that) their particular circumstance of living in a perpetual Iron “Hayes Code” makes a deep-seeded desire to create the main, if not only, reason to pushed through the labyrinth of bureaucratic censorship and it is through the works of Tarkovsky, as well as Sergei Eisenstein, that we see such perseverance of the human spirit.

Phillip Lopate points out in an essay for Criterion Collection’s Solaris, “Both… [Stanisław] Lem and Tarkovsky were critical of what they saw as Western science fiction’s shallowness wanted to invest the form with intellectual and emotional depth (Lopate).” Regarding Kubrick’s 2001, Tarkovsky is quotes as calling it “a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth” and devoid of human emotion (BFI). Yet, in Solaris, the character’s intellectual grappling with a god-like being didn’t pass the Russian censors who “demanded that the filmmaker ‘remove the concept of God” and Christianity from the film’s first cut (Lopate, Dalton).” Yet Tarkovsky agreed to smaller edits, essentially removing the “G-Word,” and preserved the film’s integrity.

This wasn’t Tarkovsky’s first trip down this rodeo, even before Solaris he faced equally frustrating censorship. With Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky had to edit down twenty minutes due to “excessive violence,” and was still denied domestic release, while his following script was shot down for being “too bourgeois and personal” by Goskino, the USSR State Committee for Cinematography (BFI), a screenplay would later resurface as Mirror (Dalton). Such nip-picky censorship was common and, as Soviet director Andrei Smirnov recalls, “"There were no clearly formulated rules. Everything depended on the particular official who said yes or no (Sivkova).” In addition to the vagueness, the censorship process was long and intrusive, “At Mosfilm studios, local editors proofread the scripts,” Smirnov continues, “after which they were discussed by the arts council – a team of filmmakers, screenwriters and directors… And of course, [the Communist Party] closely observed the films during filming.”

While Tarkovsky ultimately stood his ground and would drudged onward, this censorship by committee was the death knell for Soviet avaunt-grade years before, in the mid-1920s. As the Communist party debated “whether cinema should be conducive to mass audiences or continue in its current, experimental, and as officials were inclined to believe, elitist form (Hamilton).” The 1928 Party Conference would discuss concerns that films were either to indicated concern that films were either too avaunt-grade and “unintelligible to the millions” or were to inspired by Hollywood, and thus were ‘bourgeois.’ (Hamilton). What’s more, when Stalin came to power, censorship tighten considerably, and no one director knew this more than Sergei Eisenstein while attempting to make his film October.

Initially, Eisenstein wanted to make a comprehensive film “featuring all the victories of the Red Army under [Leon] Trotsky,” states Bernd Reinhardt in an article series about Eisenstein. However, the Soviets rejected Eisenstein’s script and advised that he should “restrict himself to the events in Petrograd in 1917 (Reinhardt),” only to reject the script’s next incarnation, forcing Eisenstein to revise even further. “On the evening of November 7, 1927,” Reinhardt says in his article, “the unfinished film was to be screened at the Bolshoi Theatre for the first time. On the same day, a directive suddenly arrived, demanding that Trotsky be eliminated from the film. The reason given was that the Trotskyist opposition had held protest demonstrations in Moscow and Leningrad that morning.” Removing Trotsky from the film proved detrimental as his role in the revolution was so imperative and well-know that his absence “so obviously contradicts the historical record that one can only conclude the work was heavily censored (Reinhardt).” According to Grigori Alexandrov, Eisenstein’s co-director and writer, “Stalin himself came to Eisenstein’s editing room in the afternoon to view the film’s scenes involving Trotsky (Reinhardt).” More changes would be requested from the censors, citing Eisenstein’s focusing on “formalism” as an issue and not adhering to the tenants of Soviet Realism, causing the film’s release delayed well over a year. Yet, despite being marred by ridiculous amounts of government censorship, Eisenstein would eventually premiere a “completed” version of October at the Bolshoi Theatre on March 14, 1928, receiving poor reviews from the audience and, yet again, heavy criticism from Stalin, and would be banned from the Soviet Union for forty years (Reinhardt, Shaw).

Despite this debacle, Eisenstein would go on to create three masterpieces, Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, Part I & II, each project bringing with it its own waves of censorship (particularly Part 2 of Ivan, which Stalin withheld its release). Still, there is a resilience here that can’t be overlooked. In the face of numerous edits, revisions and criticisms, Eisenstein, as well as Tarkovsky, persisted to achieve a final product as close to their visions as possible. Perhaps this is why they are often remembered and admired. While one can only speculate as to how someone could endure such creative obstacles, Tarkovsky gives us a glimpse in “Sculpting in Time” when he writes, “Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality. So poetry becomes a philosophy to guide a man throughout his life.”


Works Cited
Dalton, Steven. "Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris and Stalker The Making of Two Inner-space Odysseys." British Film Institute.
Sivkova, Ekaterina. "Film Censorship in the Soviet Union." Russia & India.
Reinhardt, Bernd. "Sergei Eisenstein's October: A Monumental Work" World Socialist Web Site. Shaw, Dan. "Sergei Eisenstein." Senses of Cinema.