In perhaps the most epic public event in Tbilisi this month, the Tbilisi International Film Festival presented “Body/Machine,” a collection of early Soviet-era instructional silent films–to live orchestral accompaniment. Intended to showcase historic materials in need of preservation, the films were selected from the Central Archive of Audiovisual Documents at the Georgian National Archives.
In 1922, Lenin made a famous comment to the first commissar of culture and popular education that cinema was the most important of the arts for the Soviet people. Shortly thereafter, a resolution passed by the Soviet Central Executive Committee of Georgia limited the rights to shoot and distribute films exclusively to the state film production company and the People’s Commissariat for Education. In 1928, a kind of “5 Year Plan” was developed for Soviet cinema, with the goals of bringing the medium closer to the masses and increasing its function in the cultural revolution. Thus the genre “kulturfilm” was born.
“Body/Machine” was intended to exhibit the Soviet approach to mechanization as it appeared in kulturfilms. The party line held that mechanization at all levels of society (both in the treatment of labor and of the laborer’s body) would “ease labor,” “raise material and cultural levels of
the working class,” and “improve labor conditions and accelerate development.” Soviet ideologists claimed that unlike capitalist mechanization, the Soviet approach did not imply domination by capital over labor; on the contrary, its aim was to end exploitation and elevate the social well-being of the proletariat.
Along with other filmmakers across the Soviet Union, two early films by Kote Mikaberidze and Siko Dolidze describe the need for new agricultural technology and techniques–boosting production while saving the laborers time and energy. The fetishization of the machine was a familiar theme in West European avant-garde cinema, modern art (particularly in the futurist movement), and literature. However, unlike the western approach, Soviet cinematography’s preoccupation with machinery and automation had ideological connotations.
The 1920s witnessed a wave of propaganda regarding the adoption of mechanized procedures on the newly-collectivized farms. Documentary and feature films were actively recruited for this campaign. Perhaps most popular image of this new theme in Soviet film history, and one often borrowed by other Soviet directors, is Sergei Eisenstein’s Cream Separator scene (feel free to read into the Freudian overtones), from his 1929 production, “The General Line [Old and New].”
One such Eisenstein acolyte was filmmaker Siko Dolidze, whose film “The Earth is Calling” was released the year before. Aiming to assist the Soviet government in raising labor productivity and implementing socialist reforms in agriculture, the film was part of a series intended for the [re-] education of rural audiences. The plot follows two communes (one reformed and industrious, the other stuck in the “old ways”) competing for a regional productivity award. Morals: background check your tractor operators; don’t use the collective tractor to take a wedding party on a scenic drive around a body of water.
“What Goes Around Comes Around” (1930) takes Eisenstein’s visuals to a new level, with hypnotic extended shots of churning combines, rivers of grain, and plows splitting the earth. Shown in contrast to the “old ways” (embodied by an impatient local straw man) of inefficient horse-plowing and the patchy harvests that resulted from hand-sowing, this sort of aggressive “visual poetry” was intended to captivate audiences (particularly illiterate peasants) and compel the rural workers to adopt new technology and methods. The focus on producing long, firm ears of corn also made this film the uncontested winner in terms of innuendo.
The new Soviet system also needed well-functioning and productive bodies just like it needed threshers and combines. American engineers Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford had previously observed that the human body can be incorporated into a mechanized system to increase industrial efficiency, but the Soviet establishment took these ideas much further. For Alexei Gatsev, leading Soviet “theoretician of scientific organization of labor” and founder of the Central Institute for Labor, the human body itself represented a living machine requiring a specific program of maintenance for the benefit of collective production.
As a result, a healthy, clean, and “well-maintained” body was promoted as part of the new Soviet “kultur” along with agitation about mechanized work. “Fighting dirt” and universal healthcare became part of the cultural revolution, and a regimen of physical exercises were prescribed for every citizen–a process also believed to reinforce a sense of homeland service and responsibility, as one’s production (duty to the collective) was dependent on physical health and fitness.
“Ten Minutes of Morning” (1931) is essentially a visual guide for the ten-minute fitness program that aired each morning on the state radio–click on the link to see a clip featuring Lenin’s PERSONAL FAVORITE exercise, which kept him fit through his long months imprisoned at the hands of the bourgeois establishment (!!!) The “New Man” (and woman) would use gymnastics to increase alertness, productivity, and preparedness in fighting enemies of the young socialist states. As in “What Goes Around Comes Around,” hypnotic images, this time of the human body in motion, conveyed efficiency and progress through mechanization. The film of course makes use of “enemies of production”–a bourgeois schoolgirl more interested in maintaining a fashionably waiflike figure than serving her comrades, and a hungover machine operator who constantly delays production at work because he slept through his fitness regimen and “while man is awake, body is not!” (we were all holding our breath for him to make an example of himself Soviet work safety poster-style).
Finally, “Collective Farmer’s Hygiene” (1934), commissioned by Soviet Georgia’s Health Commissariat, exhorted rural peasants to “live a cultural life.” “Cultural life’s core principle,” as explained by the film’s heroine, a young activist working in a recently collectivized village, “is to follow hygiene rules.” This one undoubtedly got the most laughs, some of which were intended by the filmmakers, who seemed surprisingly self-aware: a know-it-all Pioneer grandson exasperatedly trying to reform his backwards grandfather into a hygenic Soviet citizen, a grandmother scoffing at the radical notion that one might spread germs by kissing a baby, a farmer shambling into the communal showers and admitting that he hasn’t bathed since last summer, etc. Perhaps most tragically amusing was how little effect 70 years of such health-related indoctrination seem to have had on the rural Georgian public, many of whom still question germ theory.
“The Earth is Calling,” “Ten Minutes of Morning,” “What Goes Around Comes Around (Argo Minimum),” “Collective Farmer’s Hygiene.” Georgian Kulturfilm: Treasures from the Georgian National Archives, 2012.