- The Other History of Soviet Cinema
Since the discovery of a Soviet subjectivity by historians working on the Stalin era, film historians have begun to feel the pressure. The “must” of reconceptualization is in the air. As early as 2000, the Locarno Film Festival delved into revision, calling its retrospective “The Other History of Soviet Cinema” and presenting some rarely seen treasures from Gosfilmofond. In 2018, the archive film festival “Il Cinema Ritrovato” billed well-known Soviet films from 1930 to 1937 as a second utopia and a “pre-Thaw.”
Emma Widdis and Maria Belodubrovskaya have now rewritten the history of Soviet film under Stalin. Widdis explores the Soviet culture of sensuality, emotionality, and subjectivity in the period of transition from the 1920s to the 1930s. She defines this development as a shift from the external to the inner life, from the body and its sensations to consciousness, emotion, and imagination. The appeal to the haptic sense in the films of the 1920s is seen as an education of the socialist proletarian senses; the 1930s are concerned with the emotional education that shapes the new subjectivity.
Widdis inscribes this movement into a very broad sociopolitical, scientific, and philosophical context. Soviet cinema, usually analyzed within the model of a “new vision” (from Shklovskii to Vertov) or “dialectic montage” (Eisenstein), is understood as a means of reflecting the relationship between the human body and the material world in the new reality. This operates [End Page 404] particularly in the sensory experience of surfaces, textures, and objects, to the human hand, skin, handcraft, and labor. Each chapter offers a survey of Soviet discourse on these interconnected topics, such as the psychological debates on sensuality and emotionality; the concept of labor and the division between Homo faber and Homo ludens; the understanding of factura in art theory and in the practice of Constructivism; the place of embroidery in the context of debates on female emancipation and self-expression; the reevaluation of haptic senses in avant-garde aesthetics (Alois Riegl, F. T. Marinetti) and new film phenomenology; gender politics in the Soviet Orient; the concept of childhood within Soviet culture; the history of Soviet set designs in film, and so on. Widdis consistently attempts to correlate Soviet concepts of this time with current Western discourses: Igal Halfin’s and Jochen Hellbeck’s concepts of Soviet subjectivity in the 1930s,1 interdisciplinary children studies and Catriona Kelly’s history of Soviet childhood,2 the exploration of emotions by neuroscience, the understanding of labor in the modern world, the debate on Homo ludens in games studies. Haptic and bodily experience has been discussed widely within the new phenomenology of film studies (Laura Marx, Vivian Sobchack), but to this point nobody has endeavored to think about the Soviet film within this frame.3 Widdis applies these models to the Soviet material and illuminates her theses with a selection of Soviet films (using a good mix of familiar and lesser-known works). The scientific narrative of the book weaves back and forth from generalized theory to filmic specificity and closely read case studies.
By discussing early Soviet Marxist-phenomenological materialism in the 1920s, Widdis shows how scholars anticipated many concerns of contemporary theory that emphasize the body as the locus of a new kind of knowledge of the world. The exploration of the 1930s questions what might have happened to Soviet culture and Socialist Realism had the proletarian sensual revolution been successfully accomplished and had the new, emergent culture [End Page 405] overturned control, rationalization, and technology in favor of spontaneity and feeling. But this alternative history, in which sensation is seen as a force of resistance against the consolidating norms of the Soviet ideology, is not so persuasive. The idea of emotionality is not sufficiently grounded in the idea of subjectivity—at least not in the analyzed films. I do not mean their plot material but the actual...