Lev Kuleshov’s Retrospective in Bologna, 2008: An Interview with Ekaterina Khokhlova

The portrait of Lev Kuleshov, used in the official brochure of the 22nd Cinema Ritrovato Festival. Image courtesy of Cineteca di BolognaFrom June 28th to July 5th 2008, the 22nd Bologna Film Festival Cinema Ritrovato, dedicated to rare and restored films, hosted a large retrospective of the legendary Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov. “We make films, Kuleshov made cinematography,” once wrote Vsevolod Pudovkin, one of Kuleshov’s distinguished disciples. This phrase, reflecting Kuleshov’s contribution to Russian cinema, became the motto of the retrospective. The program of the show spanned the period from 1917 to 1943 and included all of Kuleshov’s most famous films, a number of surviving fragments of his works made at different stages in his career, an early editing experiment The Model’s Even Eye Movement (Ravnomernoe dvizhenie glaz naturshchika), the kulturfilm Forty Hearts (Sorok serdets) and other pieces. The retrospective has received the attention of leading international scholars of Russian cinema, and will undoubtedly become a landmark event in the history of Kuleshov’s cultural reception in the West.

We discuss the show with Ekaterina Khokhlova – a film scholar, the granddaughter of the actress Aleksandra Khokhlova, the owner of Lev Kuleshov’s and Aleksandra Khokhlova’s private archive, and the director of The Eisenstein Library of Cinema Art in Moscow (Biblioteka kinoiskusstva imeni S.M. Eizenshteina, Moskva).

A full list of films shown at the Kuleshov retrospective in Bologna is appended at the end of the interview.

Interview conducted in Moscow, July 31, 2008.

 The screening of Kuleshov's film By The Law in Piazza Maggiore, Bologna. Photo by Lorenzo Burlando. Image courtesy of Cineteca di Bologna. Ana Olenina: What is unique about the Kuleshov retrospective in Bologna? What other large shows by this director have been organized in Russia and abroad in recent years?

Ekaterina Khokhlova: The Kuleshov retrospective in Bologna may be considered the largest one of this decade. A number of significant shows of Kuleshov’s works took place in the 1990s. For example, all existing films by Kuleshov and some works of his students were presented at the 1990 Locarno Festival and later the same year at the Cinématèque Suisse in Lausanne. Large Kuleshov retrospectives were also organized by the Cin’math’que Fran’aise in 1991 and the Pordenone Film Festival in 1996. In 1999, the Museum of Cinema in Moscow ran a retrospective in celebration of Kuleshov’s centenary.

What makes the Bologna show unique is the context in which Kuleshov’s films appeared. As the Cinema Ritrovato festival is dedicated mostly to archive cinema, Kuleshov’s juxtaposition with other artists of his epoch encouraged interesting comparisons and helped to mark the stylistic traits of each director. Curiously, the Kuleshov show in Bologna ran parallel with a retrospective of Joseph von Sternberg. Walking from one screening hall to the other, one was struck by the realization that these two great artists worked at exactly the same time, only in different countries. Or take, for instance, the 1908 cinema program that was also shown in Bologna – it invited one to imagine the kind of films that Kuleshov must have seen as a young boy.

The festival in Bologna has a wonderful spirit. It unites scholars and enthusiasts of rare film from all over the world, creating a perfect atmosphere for communication and exchange of knowledge. At the same time, it is not just a festival restricted to cinema experts, but a great cultural event attracting large audiences. We were moved by the attention that the organizers of the festival and the viewers in Bologna showed to us.

A.O.: How did the idea to organize this retrospective come into being, and why did it take place in Bologna? Who was the main initiator of this project? Who was on the team that worked on preparing the program of the retrospective?

E.K.: The very orientation of the Cinema Ritrovato festival towards rare and ancient films makes it a perfect place for a show of this kind. The idea to organize a Kuleshov retrospective was born at the last year’s festival in Bologna and, as far as I know, it belongs to the artistic director of the festival, Peter von Bagh. In a conversation with the film scholar Yuri Tsivian and representatives of the Gosfilmofond Vladimir Dmitriev and Valery Bosenko, Peter von Bagh mentioned that he had been fascinated by the 1990 Kuleshov retrospective in Locarno and proposed to organize a similar show in Bologna. The main credit for preparing the Kuleshov program in Bologna this year belongs to Yuri Tsivian. I was invited to curate the retrospective as a Kuleshov scholar and the owner of his private archive. The film historian Nikolai Izvolov brought to Bologna his experimental projects in reconstructing and commenting on Kuleshov’s films.

A.O.: What was the main conception of the program? What principle governed your selection of Kuleshov’s films to be shown? Did you manage to include all the materials that you initially planned?

E.K.: We wanted to show as much as possible, but we had to take into account the number of works we could reasonably present in Bologna. We received major support from the Austrian Film Museum (Österreichisches Filmmuseum) and, of course, the Gosfilmofond. The program we had initially planned was larger than the final one. We wanted to demonstrate Kuleshov’s early documentaries; there was also an idea to include some works of his students, for example, Ekh, Apple! (Ekh, Yablochko!, 1926) directed by Leonid Obolenskii. Unfortunately, due to various reasons, this was not possible. Nevertheless, the program of the retrospective turned out to be quite full.

 Aleksandra Khokhlova in By the Law. Image from the back cover of Sovetskii Ekran, #43, 1926. A.O.: In your article introducing the retrospective in the festival’s catalog, you mentioned that this show reflects multiple aspects of Kuleshov’s work, including the lesser-known ones, which will allow the audience to go beyond the stereotypical image of this director. Could you please explain what you had in mind? What perspectives does the Bologna show open for researchers? What would you wish for the audience to get out of this retrospective?

E.K.: As is always the case with great artists, the evaluation of their work changes with the passage of time, with one generation succeeding another. The further we stand from the epoch, the more our outlook on its culture has changed. On the one hand, we discover new things and get an opportunity to see some aspects of the artist’s work that his contemporaries never noticed. As an example, one may consider Kuleshov’s “conversion” from a “formalist” disparaged by official critics to a widely-acclaimed maître of cinema art. On the other hand, we lose our understanding of the epoch, and some things that people took for granted at the beginning of the last century may now seem incomprehensible.

In the common view, Kuleshov is most frequently associated with his editing experiments and the notion of “the Kuleshov effect.” However, in addition to his experiments with cinematic language and his discoveries in this sphere, Kuleshov was also a great master of psychological drama. His work has rarely been considered from this point of view, at least in Russia, where he has usually been praised (or condemned) only for his achievements in the cinematic form. But if we look at Kuleshov in the context of world culture and think of cinema – including silent cinema – as an art, then we will begin to understand that he truly was a great artist and innovator. We are used to thinking that it is Bergman, Visconti, or Tarkovskii that stand for the “real,” “psychological” cinema, while in the 1920s, filmmakers were only exploring the possibilities of cinematic expression… But let us not forget that Kuleshov was among those early artists who managed to reach the depths that world cinema would reclaim much later. Think of his works By the Law, The Journalist, or The Great Consoler – each of them is marked by a nuanced and complex psychology. One can even say that Tarkovskii’s subsequent psychological explorations were inspired not only by Western filmmakers, but undoubtedly by Kuleshov’s works as well.

The festival in Bologna is important in that it attracts a large international audience of film scholars, cinéphiles, archivists, producers and artists. These are the people who “make” the history of cinema, who shape and conceptualize it. For them, the opportunity to see Kuleshov’s work in almost full volume was also a chance to perceive how multifaceted Kuleshov’s contribution to world cinema is.

A.O.: The majority of Kuleshov’s works shown at the festival are not easily accessible on DVD and VHS either in Russia, or abroad. What do you think is the main obstacle for such editions ‘ is it financial and technical difficulties or the lack of demand? Do contemporary viewers know Kuleshov? Does he receive enough attention from film scholars?

Aleksandra Khokhlova and Vsevolod Pudovkin in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. Image from Sovetskii Ekran, #34, 1926, p.7E.K.: Actually, Kuleshov’s most famous films – The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Neobychainye prikliuchenia mistera Vesta v strane bol’shevikov, 1924), By the Law (Po zakonu, 1926), and The Great Consoler (Velikii uteshitel’,1933) – have been released on DVD and VHS. In Russia, one can even buy a film as rare as Kuleshov’s The Siberians (Sibiriaki, 1940). However, Kuleshov has always been a somewhat “elitist” artist, in spite of his sincere desire to be accessible to the wider audiences. This quality is always taken into account by production companies releasing DVDs: after all, they know that Kuleshov will never enjoy a mass demand. And this is not necessary. I do not think it is worthwhile lamenting that someone does not read world literature, does not know the classics of world cinema, and has never heard of Kuleshov. Each person has his or her own interests, depending on the level of their cultural awareness and desire to learn more about culture. There are so many films, books, and theater performances that have faded into oblivion, and it is the work of scholars and historians to rediscover them, to remind us what we have lost. The release of a DVD is a commercial enterprise. And Kuleshov is not a director for the mass viewer – he has never been such. Film scholars do not forget about Kuleshov: his name is always mentioned when the history of editing and the theory of film acting are considered.

A.O.: Which of Kuleshov’s films shown at the festival do you consider the most interesting and why? Which ones would you like to see released on DVD?

E.K.: These are two different things, the films that I love and the films that might appeal to cinema scholars. For instance, one Kuleshov film that might be of great interest to scholars is The Breakthrough (Proryv, 1930). It was made in 48 hours. Naturally, such an unusual work did not stay in cinemas for a long time. At the Bologna retrospective, I was especially glad to watch rare Kuleshov films like Forty Hearts and The Siberians. While Mr. West, By the Law, or The Great Consoler occasionally appear even on TV, lesser known films are hard to find.

In Russia today, quite a few old films may be found on DVD. Returning to your question – which of Kuleshov’s works merit release on DVD – as I have said already, in his case, one cannot hope to sell a large number of copies. The best thing would be to make a small-run special collector’s edition for libraries, film scholars, and students, which would consist of two disks – one with famous films like The Great Consoler, and another with a series titled “Unknown Kuleshov.” Here it would be possible to include his early documentaries; Evgenii Bauer’s film For Luck (Za Shchast’em, 1917) where Kuleshov took part as an actor; other surviving Bauer films for which Kuleshov designed sets; and his later works like Forty Hearts, or The Breakthrough…

A.O.: One notable rare piece that you presented at the retrospective is Kuleshov’s editing experiment called The Model’s Even Eye Movement (Ravnomernoe dvizhenie glaz naturshchika, 1921), which shows a type of a “chain reaction” consisting of several close-ups of discrete, well-defined actors’ body movements, culminating with an image of a shooting gun. Even though the length of the piece was only a few minutes, one could clearly mark the speed and precision of the actors’ movements and mimics. It was also possible to notice that the editing style emphasized the direction of movement, and that in terms of genre this piece gravitated toward crime and mystery adventure films. Could you please say more about this experiment? Do we know what objectives Kuleshov pursued in doing this? Are there any surviving descriptions, analyses or discussions of this piece?

 Still from Lev Kuleshov's Project of Engineer Pright. Courtesy of Cineteca di Bologna.E.K.: This and other experiments are mentioned in a collection of Kuleshov’s writings entitled Articles. Materials (Stat’i. Materialy) that came out in 1979.([Note by E.Kh.]: Kuleshov, Lev, Stat’i. Materialy . (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1979).)Kuleshov took an interest in editing from the very start of his career in cinema. He first published his idea that editing was the foundation of cinematography in his 1918 article “The Art of Photoplay” (“Iskusstvo svetotvorchestva”).([Note by A.O.]: Alongside with “Iskusstvo svetotvorchestva” (“The Art of Photoplay”), the collection that Ekaterina Khokhlova has cited also contains a document with a brief outline of Kuleshov’s plans for experimental work in 1921. He formulates his task as follows: ‘to investigate the nature of cinematography and define artistic laws fundamental for the art of cinema.’ See Kuleshov, Lev, “Eksperimental’nye kinofotos”emki, teoreticheskie raboty, prosmotry i nabliudenia” (Experimental cine-photo-shooting, theoretical works, screenings and observations.”). Stat’i. Materialy (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1979). 153-155, p. 153. The article “Iskusstvo svetotvorchestva ” appears in the English translation in Taylor, Richard and Ian Christy (eds.), The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents (Cambridge, MA: Harvard university Press, 1988). 45-46.) In the same year, he made his first film, Engineer Pright’s Project, where he used editing to create what he would later term “a composite land surface.”([Note by the eds.]: Engineer Pright’s Project, together with S. Raitburt’s documentary Kuleshov’s Effect from 1969, is now accessible on DVD at http://www.absolutmedien.de/main.php?view=film&id=1240.) In 1921, having received only 90 meters of raw stock, which was in scarce supply at the time, Kuleshov made several editing experiments, including the one which he called The Model’s Even Eye Movement. This is the only editing experiment that has survived in full. In his later theoretical works, Kuleshov sometimes went back to the experiments of 1921, but he never specifically mentions The Model’s Even Eye Movement.

A.O.: In a brief article that Kuleshov wrote in 1946 for the collection How Did I Become a Director?, one finds the following phrase: “Nearly all that I have done in film directing, in teaching, and in life is connected to her [Aleksandra Khokhlova] in terms of ideas and creative practice.([Note by A.O.]: Kuleshov, Lev. Entry, in Kak ia stal rezhisserom? [How I did become a director?], (Moscow: Goskinoizdat, 1946), 156-162, p.162.) How would you comment on this thought? What was the place of Aleksandra Khokhlova’s film Sasha (1930) at the Kuleshov retrospective in Bologna?

E.K.: This phrase hardly needs any commentary – Kuleshov is quite clear in describing his relationship with Aleksandra Khokhlova. Many directors make films starring their wives, and this is probably due to some kind of creative unity that a couple feels, or to their unanimous outlook on art. For Kuleshov, Khokhlova was an ideal embodiment of the type of film actor he dreamed of. Her eccentric looks, her plasticity, and artistic talent were unmatched. She was perfect in any kind of role.

Aleksandra Khokhlova in The Journalist. Image from Sovetskii Ekran, #16, 1927.This was a union of two people who were very close in spirit. They understood each other without words. I have recently watched a wonderful documentary called Kuleshov’s Effect-II (Effekt Kuleshova-II) created for Kuleshov’s centenary by the students of Viktor Lisakovich’s directing workshop at the VGIK.([Note by A.O.]: VGIK stands for the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography.) By the way, there is also an earlier film called Kuleshov’s Effect (Effekt Kuleshova), which was made by Kuleshov’s student Semion Raitburt in 1969. In the film Kuleshov’s Effect-II, one can watch interviews with former students of Kuleshov and Khokhlova at the VGIK, who recall that the two had only to exchange looks to understand each other.

Kuleshov suffered greatly when he was forbidden to shoot the kind of films that he wanted to create, when he was not allowed to give roles to Khokhlova. In Stalin’s era, Khokhlova was banned from appearing on screen because of her aristocratic descent. She was the niece of Doctor Evgenii Sergeevich Botkin, who had been the court physician of the family of Tsar Nicholas II. Botkin had followed the royal family into exile and was executed together with them by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Due to the pressure, Khokhlova had no chance of remaining an actress. Striving to realize her creative potential, she tried her hand at directing. When she was working on her film Sasha at the Belgoskino Studio in Leningrad, Kuleshov was in Odessa, shooting A Merry Canary (Veselaia Kanareika). The correspondence from this period has survived and is very interesting to read – Kuleshov and Khokhlova tell each other about the successes and difficulties on the set and give each other advice.

A.O.: Could you please tell us about Kuleshov’s work with Evgenii Bauer? In your speech before the screening of The King of Paris (1917), you mentioned that Kuleshov always spoke of Bauer with great respect, even at a time when it was customary to denigrate the pre-revolutionary cinema as a “bourgeois art.” However, as I was watching A Merry Canary (1929), I could not help thinking that to a certain extent, this film is a parody of the refined melodramas of the 1910s – or was I wrong?

E.K.: Indeed, Kuleshov never in his life criticized Bauer. The respect he felt for his teacher is already noticeable in the first serious theoretical publication of Kuleshov – his essay The Banner of Cinematography (Znamia Kinematografii, 1920).([Note by E.Kh.]: The Banner of Cinematography) may be considered the first theoretical work by Kuleshov, if we do not take into account his brief articles of 1918. The first page of this piece bears a dedication “To the Memory of an outstanding cinematographer and person, Evgenii Frantsevich Bauer.” Kuleshov came to Bauer’s studio as a very young man. He was only seventeen and still a student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture; whereas Bauer at this time was one of Russia’s most renowned filmmakers. It seems remarkable that not only did Bauer welcome the young artist, but he also entrusted him with such a great responsibility as designing and building sets, which were so crucial for the original atmosphere of Bauer’s famed deep space compositions. Surely, Bauer supervised the work of his new employee. However, the very fact that Kuleshov was accepted testifies to the trust he had won. It was a great honor. Bauer must have been impressed by the young man’s talent and thought him to possess an extraordinary personality.

The film A Merry Canary is not a parody of Bauer. It may appear so only to somebody who is not familiar with the cultural and political context of the late 1920s. By this time, certain stereotypes of representing the bourgeoisie had taken root in the Soviet art, so Kuleshov could not show the seedy life of a café-chantant in any other way. By no means was it a direct attack on Bauer. In any case, A Merry Canary did not survive in full, which makes it hard for scholars to assert anything about this film with confidence.

A.O.: To what extent do the children’s films of the 1940s that Kuleshov filmed by official commission reflect his work as an artist?

E.K.: I believe that in all great works of art, in all great films, one can feel the presence of some elemental inspirational force – what is sometimes called an aura, or the artist’s theurgic power. As the first strong impression abates, the viewer usually attempts to deconstruct the piece and evaluate its constituents. But there always remains something elusive and mysterious, something that escapes all analysis. This is precisely the distinctive mark of great art. The power of an art piece is not simply a function of an impeccable execution of all of its parts: the film might have wonderful actors, an intriguing script, splendid costumes, perfect lighting, and still be lacking something. It will not be perceived as an artistic whole if it is devoid of the artist’s personal input – that mysterious something which brings all elements together into a single inimitable universe. This “something” can be felt in Kuleshov’s masterpieces like By the Law and The Great Consoler.

The children’s films that Kuleshov was commissioned to make show that he took up this task as a professional. These films are well-structured if we consider them from the point of view of shot composition, angles, or lighting. However, I feel that they do not produce a wholesome impression; it is as if they fall apart into pieces. Clearly, he did not put his soul into these films. One can feel that Kuleshov was good at working with actors, good at editing, but he was not interested in these films.

A.O.: Aleksandra Khokhlova has managed to collect and preserve a unique archive of documents related to Kuleshov and his Workshop. Could you please tell us about the history of this archive: what was it like to keep it throughout Stalin’s era and the Second World War? What materials are preserved in this archive?

E.K.: Kuleshov never thought it necessary to collect his own archive and treated his writings and drawings with nonchalance. It was Aleksandra Sergeevna Khokhlova who collected everything. Thanks to her, these unique materials did not perish. During the war, when Kuleshov and Khokhlova were transferred with the Soiuzdetfilm Studio to Stalinabad, the archive remained in Moscow. In Stalin’s time, Kuleshov and Khokhlova did not fear keeping letters and photos of people who had emigrated abroad at their home. Aleksandra Khokhlova, born Botkina, on her father’s side was a granddaughter of the clinician Sergei Petrovich Botkin, and on her mother’s side, a granddaughter of the philanthropist Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov, the founder of The Tretyakov Gallery. Khokhlova’s parents were friends with many artists at that time; their house was visited by people like Léon Bakst, Sergei Diaghilev, Alexandre Benois, all members of the Mir Iskusstva movement. The archive contains their letters and photos. Kuleshov and Khokhlova never threw away or destroyed any of these documents. In the mid 1960s, they submitted a large part of their archive to the RGALI (Russian State Archive of Literature and Art), but some documents were kept at home, including their personal correspondence and photographs, as well as letters and photographs related to Aleksandra Khokhlova’s family.

This interview was translated by Ana Olenina.

The Program of the Kuleshov Retrospective at the Cinema Ritrovato Festival, Bologna, 28 June – 5 July 2008:

  • The King of Paris; Russia, 1917. Dir.: Evgenii Bauer, Ol’ga Rakhmanova. [With intertitles restored by Nikolai Izvolov and translated to English by Ana Olenina]
  • Engineer Pright’s Project; Russia, 1918. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov. [The screening was followed by a presentation of an annotated DVD edition of the film created by Nikolai Izvolov and Natascha Drubek-Meyer. For more information, see http://hyperkino.ru/Current-projects/Engineer-Pright-s-Project.
  • Kuleshov’s editing experiment: The Model’s Even Eye Movement; Russia, 1921.
  • The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks; USSR, 1924. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov.
  • The Ray of Death; USSR, 1925. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov.
  • By the Law (aka. Dura Lex); USSR, 1926. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov.
  • Your Acquaintance (aka. The Journalist); USSR, 1927. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov.[Fragment]
  • A Merry Canary; USSR, 1929. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov.
  • Two-Buldi-Two; USSR, 1929. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov with the participation of N. Agadzhanova.
  • Sasha; USSR, 1930. Dir.: Aleksandra Khokhlova.
  • Forty Hearts; USSR, 1930. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov.
  • Gorizont; USSR, 1932. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov.
  • The Great Consoler; USSR, 1933. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov.
  • Dokhunda; USSR, 1935. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov. [Reconstruction by Nikolai Izvolov]
  • An Incident in the Volcano; USSR, 1940. Dir.: Evgenii Shneider; Lev Kuleshov; Aleksandra Khokhlova.
  • The Siberians; USSR, 1940. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov.
  • Timur’s Oath; USSR, 1942 Dir.: Lev Kuleshov.
  • We Are from the Urals; USSR, 1943 Dir.: Lev Kuleshov, Aleksandra Khokhlova.
  • Young Partisans (aka. The Teacher Kartashova, part of The Battlefield Film Collection # 13); USSR, 1943. Dir.: Lev Kuleshov.

Ana Olenina is a Ph.D candidate at Harvard University currently working on a dissertation that deals with the notion of gesture in poetry and cinema of the 1920’s.