The Making of Russian Movies

Born in 1905, GRIGORY KOZINTSEV has been one of the leading directors and experimenters in Soviet films. He organized studio FEX in 1932, and his important pre-war films included THE ADVENTURES OF AN OCTOBER CHILD, THE NEW BABYLON, and YOUTH OF MAXIM. He here describes his CinemaScope production of DON QUIXOTE.


THE editor of the Atlantic kindly suggested that I begin with the story of my last film. I took his advice readily, but could not remember when the idea for my last film first came to me. Love is often the incentive in my work. You have only to love something a lot and you want to see it on the screen. And who can remember when he first fell in love with Don Quixote?

For the young reader, it is a small book. The mother reads it and explains the pictures. Who doesn’t remember those illustrations? A sicklylooking horse, his legs contorted into a funny position, is charging a windmill; an emaciated rider is holding up a lance; a fat man is sitting on an ass with his hands over his head in horror. Then both the thin and the fat man are beaten by something with clubs and fists, and this is very funny because it is always funny when clowns get slapped around.

The reader grows up. The book grows up too. It now has many pages — two volumes. And suddenly this story ceases to be funny. There is much in the knight’s story that is sad. People grow up and society changes. But the book changes along with the generations. Different aspects of heroes created a century ago are recurrently interesting. Hamlet, Faust, Don Quixote still walk the face of the earth. They aren’t simply characters in the history of literature, but they represent eternal thoughts and sufferings and hopes of mankind.

The situation in Cervantes’s novel is amazingly simple. It can be put in a few sentences. A man is searching for justice. He is therefore thought to be mad. The methods with which he wants to help people are awkward, to be sure. But is every man mad who thinks he can help mankind? “And for this reason Cid Amet notes that, in his opinion, clowns are as mad as those they mimic,” writes Cervantes, “and the zeal with which the duke and the duchess scoffed at the two fools shows them to be fools themselves.”

In my office, opposite my writing desk hangs a Picasso drawing. The characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are portrayed by a kind of algebraic formula. Color masses and lines awaken a world of associations connected with these figures. In the sky over the knight and his squire shines a sun such as children draw: a circle with jagged rays of light. Looking at this drawing, I dreamed of a film in which the essence of the novel’s philosophy would be lighted with the rays of childish fantasy.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were played by two of our greatest artists, Nikolai Cherkasov and Yuri Tolubeev. They are my old friends. Tolubeev’s portrayal of Polonius in Hamlet was for me a wonderful experience. Cherkasov had more than once donned the armor of the knight de la Manche. He played the role in the twenties in a performance for children; he danced it in a ballet production; he read monologues from it in a dramatization done by Mikhail Bulgakov. It must be said, though, in fairness to this excellent actor, that he did not simply repeat his stage performances in the film.

It seems to me that we did the film twice. At first a film lies hidden in the subconscious. Not one foot of film has been shot, but at your desk, or lying on the sofa, you see the screen light up; vague figures become distinct, the eyes of the heroes shine with life, their voices are heard. Then you can move on to the second film; you can start the cameras. All sorts of people step in to do all sorts of technical jobs, and often little is left of that first film that you shot in fantasy.

For six months, every day, for many hours, we — two actors and a director — locked ourselves in a room and shot that first film without film and without cameras. Seated in armchairs, we traveled around with our heroes. We traveled not only around La Manche but around the world of man’s spirit. These were fascinating rehearsals. The actors spoke more softly than before the cameras; I had to act out all the other roles, including a lion, which was flattering, and Rosinante, which was less flattering.

The traditional contrast — the dreams of Don Quixote versus the reality of Sancho, or the contrast of heaven and earth — seemed too abstract and unsatisfactory. Sancho sets out voluntarily with Quixote; his supposed practicality brings him neither profit nor grief. The travelers instead compose a unity in which the exalted dreams of the people are mixed with the humor of daily life, the realistic entwined with the fantastic, the asceticism of El Greco combined with the uproarious mixture of a picaresque novel.

Daumier’s illustrations did not seem right for Cervantes. When I thought of the hidalgo de la Manche, I pictured to myself a face half in shadow, as in an El Greco painting, elongated and passionate, with a road in the background on which the heroes of Lazarillo de Tonnes wander.

OUR “Spain” was found in the Crimea. Against a background of the vast steppes, the artist Yevgeny Yenei built the hidalgo’s home, Sancho’s cabin, an old bell tower. We asked the Moscow Theater Romen — the Gypsy Theater — to take part in the filming. The Gypsy actors were very close to the Spanish type. A cinema city grew up around the sets. We brought horses for the aristocratic court scenes, an ass for Sancho, and a lion from the Leningrad Zoo. A peculiar life began there on the steppes in a city where stone stairs were made of wood and cloth and the majority of windows and doors opened out on to nothing: a trainer worked privately with the lion; the actress playing a court lady trained a horse to take jumps; several Spaniards taught the children to play “Corrida.” The consultants went to work in all seriousness, and Russian children became fascinated by bullfight phonograph records.

Rosinante was found in the neighboring town. Going through by car, the artist Yenei saw a horse so old that to watch it trying to gallop as it had in the old days was pitiful and, at the same time, funny. This was love at first sight; my friend leaped out of the car, and the career of yet another star was launched. They took the horse out of harness and acquainted it with a camera. It was a most difficult situation. Here was the player of an important role who was on the verge of death and who was still obliged to perform heroic feats: a battle with a windmill, a round with the Knight of the White Moon. And, alas, we couldn’t forget the weight problem. This was very limiting. Who would forgive us a fat Rosinante?

Nor was it easy to get the appearance of the hidalgo right. Cherkasov was thin as a young man, but he has filled out with age, and he could now consider playing Falstaff. So we had to do an extraordinary thing: give Cherkasov’s face a new body. Vladimir Vasiliev, a circus clown, had the ideal physical appearance for the role. In almost every scene we substituted Cherkasov for Vasiliev and vice versa. We were pretty nervous about this: suppose the audience discovered this trick of montage? But the experiment was successful. The Daumier silhouette about which the film critics wrote belongs to the talented circus actor. This is, of course, not a secret. Cherkasov in his memoirs acknowledged Vasiliev’s part.

The director’s work was complicated: I had to see to it that Rosinante didn’t gain weight, that the lion didn’t eat the performers, and that Cherkasov’s head didn’t separate from the clown’s body. It was necessary to think of everything. While dozens of seamstresses were sewing costumes, men were searching the museums for ceramic dishes and candleholders. Librarians were doing research on sixteenth-century life, and a barber worked out the fiftieth variant of Don Quixote’s mustache and beard. Tireless assistants wandered the streets of Leningrad stopping amazed passers-by with the request that they become temporary Spaniards.

And so six months of preparation and ten months of filming passed.

Don Quixote was my first wide-screen film. I do not find the advantages offered by CinemaScope attractive: the possibilities of filling up the great expanse with extras, of overwhelming the viewer with varied colors and all the special tricks of a de luxe film studio. On the contrary, I was interested in emptiness. It seemed to me that the philosophy of the work was expressed in the very emptiness of the world in which those two lonely figures wander. This emptiness had, as it were, two poles: the natural setting of burning, rustcolored steppes and hills; and then the cold emptiness of the duke’s palace, the white plaster walls of the hall, a few court personages in the dark, carrying out their deadly ceremonials. A blackand-white sequence in a color film. And in this icy emptiness, a man suddenly finds himself overflowing with a ridiculous love of man, an absurd desire for justice.

THE generation to which I belong started out in the early twenties in an abandoned photography studio, which had the necessary orange-colored glass walls to make use of daylight. Leningrad Film Studios is today a block of contemporary buildings, built up on the spot occupied in czarist times by the Cafe Aquarium.

“We went, like Bedouins or gold prospectors,” wrote Sergei Eisenstein in one of his articles, “into unexplored territory.” We were all incredibly young. I did my first movie when I was not yet twenty-five. We had to work in a studio where coal sparks from the lamps often burned the actors and film fell out of antediluvian cameras and crumpled into an accordion shape which we called, for some reason, “cabbage.”

The construction of the studios was begun, and the preparation of equipment; the situation changed rapidly and is today almost unrecognizable. All over the U.S.S.R. big film studios have been built; today Technicolor, wide-screen, stereophonic, panoramic films are being made.

It is hard not to take pleasure in the improvement of film technology, but there are other reasons for progress. Time passes quickly and technology is short-lived. There is a poster in a film museum in France which shows a woman dressed in a large hat and dress such as our grandmothers used to wear, standing with one elbow resting on a wooden box which sits on a tripod. There is film in the box. At her feet is an oldfashioned gramophone. The poster is called “Theater’s Phono-Film.”

An old review from a 1900 issue of Figaro is quoted: “Thanks to the collaboration of two modern miracles — cinematography and the phonograph — amazingly perfect results have been achieved. The artists, after sitting elegantly for their portraits in front of the movie theater, can go inside and see themselves on the screen, hear their own voices, and even the applause which they would hear were they actually on stage.” The poster and the joy of the reviewer have to do with the premiere of the movie Hamlet, in which Sarah Bernhardt played. The Shakespearean tragedy has been done more than once in the films; filmings even took place in Elsinore, the quality of film got better, but still the equipment and all those “modern miracles” quickly became archaic, antediluvian curiosities.

However, time has done nothing to the play itself, written three and a half centuries ago. The suffering and anger of the Danish prince continue to be moving. Hamlet finally came to life on the screen not because of technical perfection but thanks to the art of Laurence Olivier. Neither the producers’ expense nor technically produced sensations can, by themselves, move the viewer.

At the International Exhibition at Brussels a show was organized of the best films of all time. Twelve films chosen by film historians were shown in the main auditorium. The jury was supposed to award a gold medal, but they could come to no agreement; the grand prize was not awarded. The majority of the votes went to The Battleship Potemkin, Yellow Jack, Mother, The Bicycle Thief, Joan of Arc, and Grand Illusion.

For the most part, these films were silent, black and white, and done without the benefit of modern technology. Their excellence lay in the passion of the artist and the truth of creation.

It is in vain that students of the film write that cinematography came into being with the invention of the close-up and montage. Stereopticons were transformed into art when “living photography” made humanity come to life on the screen.

I am the last person to undervalue the techniques of cinematography. I believe in their potential, but only the force of art can bring this potential to life. This is worth writing about because it too often happens that standardized products come off the conveyer belt of worldfamous companies when money and technology are substituted for the thought and conscience of the artist. Paradoxical as it may seem, the perfection of technique when not subordinated to content is a step backward for the movies, a return to that era of mechanical stereopticons, which were superseded by living photography. The quality of the equipment and the scope of the enterprise do not change the heart of the matter.

The problem of the artist continues to be as simple and as complicated as it ever was. Shakespeare defined the problem well: “To show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” It does not pay to call these thoughts oldfashioned. The ends of art are not so changeable as fashions. Of course, to show the form of the time requires special methods in every epoch; the very essence of historic processes is changing, and some of the ancient forms of art are powerless to convey this essence.

Sergei Eisenstein was one of the greatest initiators. He showed that the people’s struggle for justice could be contained in every element of the film. The sweep of history in all its fullness was in The Battleship Potemkin. Everything which this artist touched took on life and spirit: the ocean, the ships, the streets — all became active, meaningful, and evocative of life.

Even marble lions could not withstand the white heat of his passion. Eisenstein made them spring and made their marble jaws gape with deafening roars. Cinematography knew how to entertain; Eisenstein taught it to astound. He created new epic forms. Through his protagonists, thousands of ordinary people became the heroes of contemporary tragedies.

This was not the only path in the development of Soviet film art. There is the work of Vsevolod Pudovkin, who dealt not with men collectively but with man as an individual — the old woman in the workers’ suburbs in Mother; a peasant coming into the city to work in The End of Saint Petersburg — work which preserved the character of these people and the details of their fates.

Simultaneously with the production of films in the rhetorical vein, films were produced which discussed reality in everyday language. In Chapaev, which came out in the thirties, conflicts were stressed not just in mass struggles but also in the development of character. Alexander Dovzhenko revealed the world of folk poetry in his films; special Ukrainian humor made his wise old peasants come alive, and contemporaries we could recognize appeared in his films.

The generations changed. Students quarreled frequently with their teachers. More and more attention was given to ordinary people and everyday events. But our artists did not consider ordinary people mediocre, and the diurnal did not become the banal.

During the era of the silent films, the art of painting greatly influenced direction. The majority of our directors were either artists or stage designers. From the beginning of the talkies, however, the art of the novel and prose has had more influence. Literariness, in the highest sense. accuracy, and clarity of a realistic story are more attractive now than the beauties of light distribution, foreshortening, and complexity of montage.

On the screens the world over have appeared recently The Forty-first, The House I Live In, The Cranes Are Flying, and Quiet Flows the Don. In these films contemporary life is pictured — the war years, the civil war, and the fates of ordinary people. These pictures differ in theme and style from the earlier ones.

I WANT particularly to speak about the movie The Fate of a Man, which is based on the story by Mikhail Sholokhov. This is the story of a soldier who lost everything during the last war: family, home, and freedom. Prisoner of war, fallen into the hell of a Nazi concentration camp, he lived through countless sorrows but emerged victorious. He was victorious not because of his bravery but because of the strength of his soul and conscience. The direction pays great attention to the thoughts and feelings of the simple man, and the scenes of life during the war years are overwhelmingly powerful. This was the first performance of Sergei Bondarchuk, who played the role of the soldier, a truck driver. There were millions of such men.

Not long ago I was in Mexico with a group of Soviet cinematographers for a film festival. The Fate of a Man was shown in an open-air auditorium which was filled with several thousand spectators. I love this film and was moved by the reaction of the Mexicans, who did not know actual war as we knew it, when it brought grief into every home and every family.

On the screen was a cloudy Russian sky, an elderly man in a shabby quilted jacket walking along a ruined military highway, a child — an orphan — holding his hand. As they walked along, I remembered the frightful war and hard victory. And over the screen Were the tropical sky and moon, a moon so unlike the Russian, which looked like an overturned cup on black velvet. And suddenly an ovation broke out in the auditorium, just like the ovation I had heard at the Moscow premiere of the film.

Flash bulbs flashed, and the lights turned on Sergei Bondarchuk, seated in the loge. And it seemed to me that I saw, standing next to the talented artist, accepting the ovation, a short, stocky figure with a broad forehead and bristly hair on end — Sergei Eisenstein, as I remember him. And I saw the impetuous Vsevolod Pudovkin and a man with beautiful silver hair and proudly uplifted head, Alexander Dovzhenko.

Cinematographic art, through its ability to record time, can keep people young, can conquer death. It preserves the human warmth of its creators. The body of Gerard Philippe, dressed in the costume of the Cid according to his last will and testament, lies underground, but the gayhearted Fanfan la Tulippe will smile from the screen for a long time to come. The warmth is transferred from artist to artist. Art is collective strength. An excellent film is not only a triumph of the cinematographer but a triumph of cinematography.

Of course, there is more than one road in art; the multitude of paths stretch out in every direction. A film can make you laugh, can carry you away with the skill and daring of the heroes. A film can carry a Tchaikovsky opera with the best singers from the capital into the farthest little community; Galina Ulanova can dance in a hill town where there is no theater but only an occasional movie. Soviet cinematography has made no small number of such films, and their cultural importance cannot be overestimated.

Last year a world-wide film festival opened in a theater behind the Kremlin walls. We were very happy to see artists of other lands in our country. Somewhere in Moscow I met Guilletta Masina. Her Nights of Cabiria was arousing great interest. Frederico Fellini, who directed this production, was not afraid to depict life in extraordinarily harsh and crude terms. I think he was within his rights. There is a lot of sweetness on the international market. The taste of truth unavoidably is often bitter. It is hard to forget the end of this film: Cabiria, deprived of all her illusions, is walking along a road lined with olive trees, and she suddenly hears a guitar and a simple song; a crowd of young people instantly surrounds the unhappy girl, and a smile breaks out on Guilletta’s face — no, not a smile, but the shadow of a smile; hope has touched her lips and poetic humanism lights up her face.

A West German director named Kurt Hoffman received one of the most important prizes at this festival. We Are Wonderful was very unlike the work of the Italian artists. The old form of world theater had undergone modernization. The authors compared life on the screen with life in reality. The only difference was that the mechanism was history in the second case. Two actors, seated in the orchestra of the theater, accompanied the actions on the screen with their comments. One thinks of Bertholt Brecht: the free movement from subject to subject, the straightforward propaganda, the shift from reality to satiric hyperbole. These comments in no way distracted from the reality of the story about two school children who grew up during the rise and collapse of fascism.

Unfortunately, American cinematographers did not take part in this festival. It would have been most interesting to see the newest work of Hollywood and to get acquainted with our American colleagues. War and Peace was a great success in the Soviet Union. Audrey Hepburn was able to depict an image which was close to Russian moviegoers, and this was far from easy, since we all have had our own Natasha Rostov in our hearts for a long time. Henry Fonda was physically unlike Beukhov, but his performance was so dignified and it so well created the inner man that the physical appearance lost importance. We found The Bachelor Party and Marty very interesting. These pictures, marked by serious thinking about contemporary life, were stories about ordinary people.

Not long ago it was my great pleasure to present a delegation from the United States to our moviegoers. Leningraders gave Gary Cooper, Edward G. Robinson, and Delbert Mann a warm reception. Thanks to their films, these were old friends, whose hands we were able to shake for the first time. Tatyana Samoilova is currently holding forth in Washington theaters, and Betsy Blair is meeting Moscovites in Marty. Moscow friends told me about Gregory Peck’s successful visit to our capital for the premiere of On the Beach.

The film exchange has begun.

Airplanes, which fly very fast these days, carry several not large, not heavy boxes. In these are just rolls of film. But this light-sensitive substance can reflect the thoughts, feelings, and hopes of a people. And if this substance is turned into a movie, a product of art, not only the artist but a people speak from the screen. It is good that our peoples have begun such a conversation.

At the beginning of this article I spoke of traveling along the roads of La Manche: I should like now to finish by returning to Quixote. The wind in the Crimea has already blown down the fences which protected the sixteenth-century Spanish homes, and grass has grown over the place where Don Quixote’s mansion stood. The lion has returned to his home in the Leningrad Zoo, and Nikolai Cherkasov is playing new dramatic roles. But a skinny dreamer is wandering around from movie theater to theater in search of justice. And someday, perhaps, he will get to America. If this happens, I ask the noble hidalgo, please, to relay to American moviegoers the best wishes of Soviet cinematographers.

Translated by Gabriella Azrael