Enemy Films on Soviet Screens: Trophy Films during the Early Cold War, 1947–52
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Enemy Films on Soviet Screens
Trophy Films during the Early Cold War, 1947–52

The Soviet Union fought a cultural war on two fronts during the final years of Stalin’s leadership. The first front faced inward against the legacy of the Great Patriotic War and how it was won, against the effects of wartime liberalization and fraternization with the West. The second front faced outward against the infiltration of Western culture in the context of the emerging Cold War. Among the key weapons wielded by the Soviet regime were intensified censorship, administrative centralization, and a series of political campaigns—the Zhdanovshchina, anti-kowtowing (nizkopoklonstvo) to the West, and anticosmopolitanism—intended to purge Soviet artistic and intellectual life of cultural heterodoxy or the “alien” influences of the West and Jews.1 The ammunition consisted of policies as diverse in their targets and caliber as the banning of specific films, authors, and jazz music, outlawing marriage to a foreigner, prosecuting scientists in sudy chesti (honor courts) for sharing findings with Western colleagues, and subjecting Red Army former prisoners of war to fil´tratsiia (filtration) and internment in order to contain those tainted by contact with the West.2 It was a battle of recovery and defense, [End Page 125] a struggle to reestablish Soviet cultural orthodoxy and reveal the paucity of Western culture.

It is in this context of cultural defense that we find one of the most paradoxical phenomena of the Cold War period: the screening of Western films in the USSR. From early 1947 until Stalin’s death, films from the capitalist dream factories of Hollywood and Nazi Germany were screened at a rate nearly commensurable with that of new Soviet-made productions, enlivening screens from Moscow to Altai, Moldova to Georgia, Latvia to Azerbaijan. The foreign films were known as trofeinye fil´my (captured “trophy” films), since they were drawn from among the 10,669 films captured by the Red Army, primarily from the Reichsfilmarchiv in Berlin in 1945.3

They were tremendously popular with Soviet audiences, as attested by the wealth of colorful anecdotes peppering memoirs of the period, but it is the mere fact of their existence that has most bemused scholars of Soviet cinema.4 Studies have been quick to note the pragmatic function of trophy films: their release coincided with the dearth in domestic film production known [End Page 126] as malokartin´e or film famine, during which, in 1951, the number of new Soviet-made releases dropped to an all-time low of nine. Trophies were used to keep the cinema industry alive and the war-weary masses entertained.5 More recently, supposition as to the appeal of the profitability of trophy screenings for the Politburo has been confirmed by Natacha Laurent, providing a more cynical rationale for the screening of what were essentially enemy films in the early Cold War USSR.6

These pragmatic explanations are in need of further scrutiny and elaboration—an endeavor that this article undertakes. But they also require supplementation, for by their reckoning trophy films were at best a compromise in the face of financial deficit and domestic production problems. By eschewing a discussion of the ideology of trophy films, the pragmatic and economic emphases of existing scholarship convey only a partial account of official motivations for releasing these films and risk distorting the regime’s perspective on cinema and cultural production. After all, by the postwar period sharp distinctions were no longer being made between the entertainment, commercial, and “enlightenment” or political educational functions of films. Such a synthesis had been some time in the making, for while the early Bolshevik approach recognized the interdependence of these various aspects of the cinema industry as a whole, it failed to do so in relation to individual films. For instance, Lenin’s 1922 statement on the usefulness of entertainment films for generating revenue and attracting an audience for the accompanying “films of a particularly propagandist content” that were intended to flesh out cinema programs (according to the so-called “Lenin proportion”), assumes that individual films were either attractional or educational in function—not both.7 This contrast was maintained by proponents on either side of...