Late Spring – Looking a new at the Cinema of the Thaw (part two: Dusk)

Of course it couldn’t last – those brighter days that followed the death of Stalin were never meant to last. The time between 1953 and 1956 were an interregnum: while the upper echelon of power was busy struggling over questions of succession(s) and what that meant in terms of political change as well as continuity, cinema, like the other arts, found itself at play, indulging in subjects deemed insignificant for too long, a brightly coloured joie de vivre, as well as the particular pleasures only genre has on offer. We dug out some of those treasures last year. Now, it’s time to look at how things turned normal, and how yet the idea of what constituted ‘normal’ changed. 1956 is the year of Nikita Chruščev’s secret speech held on February 25th, the last day of the CPSU’s XX Congress. In hindsight, it looks more like a publicity stunt demonstrating that order had finally returned, with the victors making a big production of their new might by calling their predecessors criminals (while covering their own tracks, even complicity in many of these).
Cinema, of course, had once again sensed it all in advance. 1956 is also the year of Aleksandr Alov and Vladimir Naumov’s Pavel Korčagin and Aleksandr Ivanov’s Soldaty (Soldiers, 1956), two fine examples for the official cinema to come yet characterized still by early Thaw’s mad daring: same subjects as before, but markedly different treatments – savage and despair-riddled, grim and gruesome. It’s not surprising that in a similar spirit of disquiet earlier aesthetics of distortion and ridicule (think FEKS) get tapped as sources of inspiration, points of reference, as exemplified by Vladimir Petrov’s late masterpiece Poedinok (The Duel, 1957) as well as Grigorij Nikulin’s ultra dark satire Smert’ Pazuchina (Death of Pazuchin, 1957), an almost unknown experiment in mixing theatre and film. Ditto that a formidable femme fatale turns up in a melodrama lending it a noir’ish edge (Raznye sudby, Different fortunes, Leonid Lukov, 1956); that a splendid civil war actioner plays at times like an anxiety-riddled kammerspiel (Ognennye vërsty, Fiery Miles, Samson Samsonov, 1957); or that a children’s film reveals itself as a sweetly tender existential(ist) fable of trauma and loss (Devočka iščet otca, A Girl Looking for Her Father, Lev Golub, 1959). This sense of anger, a violent longing for the Communist promise to be true mixed with anguish and a double dose of doubt, would very much stay with Soviet cinema till the next massive shift in leadership, Brežnev’s consolidation of power – albeit more at the fringes and not in mainstream productions, let alone prestige endeavours like Pavel Korčagin and Soldaty. Exceptions included, like that most irascible one: Vasilij Ordynskij (Četvero, The Four, 1958), a mellow cynic whose art compares to nothing else in a film culture enamoured with the casual melancholia yet civic optimism embodied by Jakov Segel’ and Lev Kulidžanov’s Dom, v kotorom ja živu (The House I Live In, 1957).

Olaf Möller