Anna Aizman

How Many Empires Do You See?: Trophy Films in the Soviet Union


ISSUE 60 | SEE AMERICA | JAN 2016

In addition to technology, clothing, and foodstuffs, the Soviet Army appropriated hundreds of enemy films as it advanced the Eastern Front. A particularly large cache was found at the Reichsfilmarchiv in Babelsberg, once home to Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich and then to Goebbels’s propaganda. Guarded by soldiers, trains transported over ten thousand reels of European1 and American films to the USSR.2 There, employees of the Gosfilmofond (State Russian Film Archive) studied the spoils. Imagine their surprise when, instead of rabid Nazi German propaganda, they found light-entertainment stories of love and adventure. In the difficult postwar years, when Soviet movie production decreased to a trickle and the industry that once produced Eisenstein and Vertov struggled to interest audiences in its moralistic war films, the captured feel-good movies were a godsend. For two years Gosfilmofond meticulously catalogued and selected films for Soviet audiences. Then the workers of Gosfilmofond edited them for mass release, eliminating credits, happy endings, and bare legs, freely changing titles, rearranging scenes, and adding commentary. The opening slides now dramatically declared, “This film was captured as a war trophy after the Soviet army’s destruction of German Fascist troops near Berlin in 1945.” They also included disclaimers, like this one: “This film depicts the mores of American bourgeois society, the hypocrisy and duplicity that constitute its distinguishing feature. It is not difficult for the Soviet viewer to observe that the film incorrectly portrays American colonialist policy toward Native American tribes.”

Scholars have been able to definitely identify just under ninety movies that were released this way in the period between 1947-1952 – about as many as the USSR produced during this time. Translators freely strayed from the foreign films' original dialogue, adding subtitles to suit the altered story. But people were not watching for the sake of plot. In Soviet libraries, the demand for fairy-tales and adventure stories grew enormously, testifying to a hunger for plots other than the war story. In 1952, four Tarzan films appeared on Soviet screens and played almost from morning to night. Schoolyards and playgrounds filled with Tarzan cries. Tarzanki, swinging ropes, hung between every post and tree. Boys were enthralled by the image of the “white ape” ruling the jungle, pursuing a similarly individuated female heroine through an otherwise uniform landscape of untamed nature, adoring animals, and fantastical “native” tribes. To this day, every Russian child knows the word “liana.” My own first memory is of a “jungle” that my parents built for us kids in our family’s half of the communal apartment room (we shared with a drunk named Kolianych).

Brodsky wrote, “The Tarzan series alone, I daresay, did more for de-Stalinization than all Khruschev’s speeches at the Twentieth Party Congress and after.” It was the fantasy world of these movies that first gave Soviet children and adolescents ideas about being individuals – and conquerors.

My paternal grandparents, older than Brodsky by a decade or two, nourished no such fantasies of autonomy. In the late 1940's, Soviet frontoviki (frontline soldiers) began returning to their homeland, bringing with them Western clothing, radios, cameras, records. Disabled veterans hawked their war trophies in the market or begged in front of supermarkets and movie theaters, in full military regalia. “Suddenly invalids flooded the streets – and just as suddenly they were all gone,” my grandmother Faina recalls, referring to a practice common in the years following the war, of preparing for public festivals by forcibly removing disabled veterans from city centers to peripheral towns, hospitals, and camps. My paternal grandfather, Valentin Mikhailovich, was one such frontovik who returned as a gaunt 26-year-old in a German coat and glasses, permanently ill and traumatized by war. But years later Valentin told Faina, “Hitler passed across all of Europe. Stalin buried our entire country.” Faina Yakovlevna recalls spending weekday evenings in interminable breadlines. On the weekends, though, she and Valentin went to the movie theater. Soviet film heroines--like the schoolteacher Liubov’ Yarovaia, who gave up her lying husband to the Reds, or Praskovia Lukianova, a Soviet resistance fighter in WWII--left my grandmother cold. Like many of her contemporaries, she best remembers the scandalously clad actress Marika Rökk in Die Frau meiner Träume.3 Her character Julia Köstner, a musical revue actress bored with her stage success, evades her unrelenting manager and, through a series of movie mishaps, ends up penniless and near-naked in the woods. Fortunately, she encounters two handsome engineers, one of whom she falls for and seduces, and so the Actress smoothly transitions to Wife. Faina told me, “We lived for an idea. Now no one wants to hear about that. We didn’t covet those things they had, we hadn’t learned to love ourselves.”

Spoiled Looks

My maternal grandmother Natalia Viktorovna tells a slightly different story. By the time she saw her first trophy films as a pre-teen in Odessa, she’d already decided to become an actress. In a letter to me she writes,

Dear Anechka, I’m sorry I write so late, I was very busy. My friend Lora remembers that on election days films were shown for free. Lorka was very poor and watched movies only on those days. She says, ‘Music, dance, beautiful faces of the actors – all this was like a fairy-tale.’ The main film that struck my imagination was Lady with Camellias4 with Greta Garbo and, I think, Taylor. There were two movie theaters near our house, the first – very fancy, called “XX Years to the Worker-Peasant Soviet Army” (my father called it the Ha-Ha Years) and the second, resembling a long barn, with a dirty floor covered in spit and sunflower seed shells. This one was closer and easier to get into, the line for tickets was smaller. And then, when the film began, that spat-on reality fell away.

1948-1949. Suddenly there was bread. At school during recess a woman in a white apron tied over her wool coat came around, holding a large wooden tray full of delicious, still warm bread buns called high-calories. She poured a teaspoon of sugar on each bun. This started after hunger-related fainting had become more frequent at schools.

That is, people were slowly beginning to recover after the war. Not all, of course. Lorka went hungry: her mother was single and earned kopecks, there were three children and two of them were teenage boys who were constantly hungry. But in our family Mom and Dad worked and I was an only child. I regained weight, filled out, got some color – blushing cheeks, bright eyes. A beauty, by Odessa standards.

But then, on the film screen, in the depths of a carriage, she appeared. Greta. Her bony face and sharp nose and deep sunken eyes. She seemed not just unpretty, but ugly. I was bored immediately. What happened, how everything changed, I can’t remember. I remember the end – profound shock, as everyone was leaving the auditorium. Shaking, I walked in the thick crowd outside, into the air. I couldn’t go home. I understood, that to live as I am, so unrefined, so un-exalted, so un-melancholy, was not worth it. It was not worth living anymore. I didn’t recuperate from this pain that evening, or in the following days. It hurt for a long time.

“Garbo offered to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature,” wrote Barthes in 1957. The Platonic Idea that my grandmother discovered in Garbo’s androgynous face was that of a 19th century Parisian courtesan, dying of consumption – and consumerism. Having run up enormous debts on hats, dresses, parties, jewelry and flowers (the frosted, stiff-looking camellias in her hands), Garbo/Marguerite Gautier has to make a choice between love and money. Abandoned by friends and beset by creditors, she dies just as soon as she learns there may be a solution to her problem. And good riddance. Resolving her crisis would have fundamentally shaken the social order that keeps courtesans at the mercy of their lovers, and sons at the mercy of their fathers.

The helpless Victorian heroine appealed to Soviet women in the 1950s, as she had appealed to American women during the Depression, when the movie was made. Slouching in her 50-pound dresses and diamonds, Garbo seems at once spineless and impervious, the empire’s most willing collaborationist and a spy for the Marxist resistance. Indeed, it wasn’t very clear to my grandmothers: were they emancipated or not? Both women remember the infamous Book of Healthy and Tasty Food, reissued--in hundreds of thousands of copies, with colorful photos of plentiful table spreads--in 1952 and 1953, when there was scarcely any food on grocery store shelves.

My grandmothers also remember being happy. Faina Yakovlevna, not unlike Jane Parker in the Tarzan series, explored the Siberian wilderness in her twenties. And Natalia Vikotorvna, dreaming of the stage, entered some of the brightest social circles of Odessa and Moscow.

Dream Factories

But whose Idea were Garbo and Marguerite? The man who directed the film, George Cukor, had a special taste for stifling conventions and unattainable social worlds. Son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, he made his way to Hollywood without connections – as did many others like him, including the film’s producer, Lazar Meir (aka Louis Mayer, founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and jealous guard of chilly, unapproachable beauties).

If the Jews were proscribed from entering the real corridors of gentility and status in America, the movies offered an ingenious option. Within the studios and on the screen, the Jews could simply create a new country – an empire of their own, so to speak—one where they would not only be admitted, but would govern as well. They would fabricate their empire in the image of America as they would fabricate themselves in the image of prosperous Americans. They would create its values and myths, its traditions and archetypes. It would be an America where fathers were strong, families were stable, people attractive, resilient, resourceful, and decent. This was their America, and its invention may be their most enduring legacy...No one could think about this country without thinking about the movies.5

Soviet spectators had no idea that, at the height of anti-Semitic campaigns across the USSR, the inspiration and solace they found at the movies came from Jewish Hollywood. Facing discrimination in school and at work in 1950s Moscow, my grandparents half-immigrated to this inter-colonial dreamland. Imaginary empires of freedom and stability fit and were concealed in one another like nesting dolls. As much as my maternal grandmother Natalia Viktorovna cherished her Komsomol youth, as much as her husband Leonid adored the greatest Soviet city, Moscow, they also loved American films, American jazz, cigarettes, and fashion. “There was a girl named Simochka who was the first woman in Odessa to wear pants. She ended up in the police station,” Natalia Viktorovna recalls. “She used to make everything herself: elbow-length gloves out of women’s underwear, high-heeled boots out of pumps to which she sewed shafts out of scraps of leather.” Simochka’s designs were ingenious – and expensive.

The “Styl’” appeared overnight, and scores of young people turned into styliagi, fashionistas in improbable haircuts, colorful ties, and platform shoes. They exchanged jazz albums copied on x-ray radiographs (“music on the bones”), they invented dances based on the foxtrot and swing, they met in the Kok (cocktail hall) or strolled on Brodvey (and every major city had one). They also met in the police station, where they were dragged by horrified parents, roving Komsomol brigades, and law enforcement officers protecting the youth from jazz. “Today he dances jazz, tomorrow he will betray the homeland,” rhymed a common slogan. Portraits of local styliagi were publicized on newspaper billboards.

Journalists liked to call styliagi “apes” in reference to their sleek “Tarzan haircuts” and uncivilized behavior (jazz dancing! cocktail drinking!). Like the “great white ape,” the fashionistas mistook difference for identity, confused identifying with the wrong empire for being – becoming – an individual among the masses. In the same vein, they confused their inventiveness with deviation from the American prototype.

The Great White Ape

The last installment to be seen by Soviet audiences shows Tarzan making a pleasant discovery regarding his identity when he encounters his referent (whiteness). Having arrived in New York to rescue his lion-taming toddler from evil circus managers, Tarzan learns that in the colonialist West he is still king. Instinctively he knows exactly what to do with one of the West’s most symbolic icons – straddle it. Balancing atop the Brooklyn Bridge, “the great white ape” is framed dramatically by a blurry New York City skyline.

The styliagi, too, encountered America, when the World Youth Festival of 1957 brought tens of thousands of foreigners to Soviet Moscow. But unlike triumphant Tarzan the poor styliagi discovered that they are about twenty years late to bebop night. They had invented their own United States.

A musical film made in Russia in 2008 tells the story with inadvertent poignancy, lovingly capturing Russian attitudes toward the Soviet past just before those attitudes changed cardinally, with the financial crash of 2008 – and with its consequences, including Putin’s illegal third term in office. In Valery Todorovsky’s Styliagi, Mels is a Komsomol youth who follows the “woman of his dreams” into cocktail halls, jazz, and Styl’. Along the way he transforms from Mels (a common name in the Soviet Union, derived from Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin) into the saxophone player Mel, dropping the fatal S (dropping Stalin!). The entire plot, however, serves the final, devastating punchline. Having made the ultimate exchange of empires – immigration – Mel’s buddy Fred (aka Fedor, the high-rolling son of a top Soviet official) briefly returns from the United States to Moscow. Dressed like a 1950s middle class American businessman, Fred bears unhappy news re the U.S.: “If we were allowed to walk down real Broadway dressed as we were, we wouldn’t have gone two blocks before getting taken to the psych ward. There are no styliagi there, Mel.” The shot pans away from Mel’s disoriented face as he mumbles, “But we’re here,” and into the the final scene, a street parade of all fashion subcultures down Moscow’s Brodvey. Mel, in his eccentric getup, is surrounded first by punks, then by hippies, joined by Goths, break dancers, emo kids, and God knows who else in a song that calls to fashion: “Dear friend...You leave so suddenly/ You leave forever/ Well, get on with you!”

Frozen Schmaltz

Brodsky’s “Spoils of War” essay seems to agree with the movie on every point, though I can’t imagine the great poet bearing more than ten minutes of it. However, as if based on his suggestion that “schmaltz should be regarded as a tool of cognition,” the movie distorts protest songs from 1980s and 1990s Russian counterculture into sappy, cheerful showtunes. Suddenly moody teenage anthems like the rock band Nautilus Pompilius’s “Shackled by One Chain” and Viktor Tsoi’s iconic “We Wait for Change” look like Broadway hits. Filmmaker Todorovsky has justified his poppy covers by arguing that the styliagi are the actual parents of 1980s dissidents. It seems that for him the invented America of the styliagi is as powerful a fiction as the iconic 1930s Hollywood of Mayer, Cukor, and is co-responsible for generating the heroes and the fashions of subcultures, not the mainstream.

Of course, nowadays this isn’t true. Walk around Moscow and look into any number of the “fatherland” designer boutiques and you’ll see that they are basically selling 1950's fashions: poodle skirts, platform oxfords, kitten heels, pastel blouses, tight-fitting checkered suits. Styliagi the movie appealed in 2008 because it reminds the shopper that she and her predecessors fought for the right to dress like that. In any case, even in 2008, Todorovsky just barely got away with his Western-friendly message. The market crashed just months later, political tensions rose, ensuring that the wide release of pro-Western plots and big-budget projects, in general, would be impossible for years to come. Add to that increasingly nationalist sentiments among Russia's youth, the takeover of legendary countercultural music festivals by nationalist rock bands and biker gangs, the counter-sanctions and the visa restrictions, and Todorovsky’s film indeed begins to represent a past one can be nostalgic about – just not the past it aimed to memorialize.


1The largest percentage of these being German films, of course, but also Czech, French, British, Italian....

2One scholar writes, “Within a week of the German surrender, Soviet Committee of Cinematography functionary I. Manevich was in Babelsberg surveying the holdings of 17,300 films secured by Red Army soldiers. Manevich filled two train cars with 3,500 feature films and 2,500 shorts for immediate shipment to Moscow, whence they were transported to Belye Stolby by early August to join the rest of the Soviet film collection. By November, another two train cars and two plane loads of celluloid had been added to the collection, bringing the total to 100,000 reels or 30 million meters of celluloid, constituting 10,669 films. Of these, 8,813 were fiction films, with 3,730 full-length sound features, 68 of which were in color. They hailed from 28 different countries, primarily America, Germany and France, and covered a wide range of genres, with drama, comedy, musical and crime leading the way. The remaining fiction films consisted of 2,336 silent pictures, 1,913 talkie shorts, and 834 color shorts and cartoons, while the non-fiction films included ethnographic pictures, popular science, and several thousand reels of news chronicles. Additional films continued to trickle in to Belye Stolby over the next few years with, for instance, 95 features added in early 1952” (Knight 2015).

3Renamed in Russian to Devushka moei mechty, presumably due to “young woman” (devushka) being more modest than “woman” (Frau) and one dream (mechta) being more modest than many (Träume).

4George Cukor’s film Camille (1936), based on a story by Alexander Dumas, was released in the USSR in 1954. Some Soviet viewers may have been familiar with the story’s first appearance in Meyerhold’s controversial production of 1934. Audiences adored it, while critics, appalled by the success of the bourgeois melodrama, smeared it in the press. By 1938 Meyerhold’s luck had turned; he was removed from prestigious positions, arrested, and brutally executed, his name expunged from Russian culture for decades.

5 Gabler 1989: 5-7.