Find Events Find People Find Jobs Find Sites Find Help Index


March 26, 2001

Raising the Iron Curtain

By Eric Rangus

Think about Russia, and what comes to mind?

Vodka? Yes. Tiny gymnasts and big, burly hammer throwers? Yes. Ruthless dictators? Yes. Great filmmaking? Umm, well . . . .

“People may not think of Soviet film as being in the forefront because for decades it was kept under lock and key,” said Karla Oeler of Russian and East Asian Languages. “It wasn’t allowed to develop.”

Actually, in the early part of the 20th century, when filmmaking was still in its infancy, one of the most influential artists of the time was a Russian; Sergei Eisenstein. His work remains some of the most important ever.

Then along came Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who clamped down on moviemaking, along with everything else in the Soviet Union. If Soviet filmmakers weren’t purged, they found themselves with very limited thematic freedom.

“All these restrictions were placed on filmmakers and writers,” Oeler said. “It led to a seriously reduced quality of what was being produced. I think a lot of forgettable films were made in the ’30s and ’40s. What’s exciting now is we’ve got this festival going with these films from the period of ‘The Thaw,’ which runs basically from 1956 to the 1960s.”

Oeler is referring to the series “Opening the Archives,” a Year of Reconciliation event that presents eight Soviet films produced between 1959 and 1972. The most recent—Grigory Kozintzev’s Hamlet—is a retelling of the famous Shakespeare play in Russian. It is unavailable on tape in this country, and getting to see the film (which is subtitled in English) was a great joy, Oeler said.

Since the movie was made in 1964, after Stalin’s death, the director was able to sneak some political commentary into the work, making it all the more interesting.

“I think everyone knew that Kozintzev’s Hamlet is actually about the hero as an intellectual living under a repressive, totalitarian regime,” Oeler said. “Bringing politics in emphasizes [Hamlet] as an active hero.” The film contains several other sly references to life in the Soviet Union; there are many images of people spying, and several busts contain faces that resemble a grinning Stalin.

One of Oeler’s research interests is Soviet and post-Soviet cinema, so it is understandable that she is excited about the Russian film festival.

Following her graduation from Yale last May, Oeler was awarded a two-year Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities, which brought her to Emory. She earned her doctorate in comparative literature and wrote her dissertation on murder and narrative in Balzac, Dostoevsky and Dickens. According to Oeler, moving from literature to film was a natural progression.

“Some of the things you’re interested in as a comparatist are literary theory, semiology and psychoanalytic theory—it’s what you do,” Oeler said. “There’s a natural draw to film, anyway. It’s a major type of narrative; it’s a way people tell a story.”

Oeler said she hopes to tie her interests in both film and literature together for future work. “I want to continue working on this issue of murder [in narrative], because it’s basically a negation of a perspec-tive,” she said. “I’m interested in the continuities and discontinuities I find between, say, the 19th century novel and 20th century cinema.”

Currently, Oeler is teaching a seminar in Soviet and post-Soviet cinema, and last semester she taught one in Russian literature.

Oeler has made two trips to Russia, most recently in 1997 to deliver a paper. But her first visit was much more extensive. In 1987—her senior year at Oberlin College ,where she double majored in English and Russian—Oeler lived for a year in Leningrad and studied at the state university there.

“Things weren’t really that much different from the 19th century,” Oeler said of the city that has now returned to its Czarist name, St. Petersburg. “It was just like being in a novel.” She marveled at the architecture and wondered at the status conferred upon her because of where she was from.

“It was still special to be an American,” Oeler said of the final years before the wall came down between East and West. And the people she met were completely unlike those she knew back home; they knew multiple languages, had unique interests and didn’t mind hanging out with a young American student. It was a different world for someone who grew up in a Rust Belt suburb of Pittsburgh and attended a small liberal arts school about a half-hour from downtown Cleveland.

“I had never had friends of that caliber,” Oeler joked.

A fast speaker by nature, Oeler’s cadence quickens even more when she discusses her passion for film.

“The nice thing about making films in a system where the market doesn’t matter is that you have these auteurs who don’t worry about selling to the lowest common denominator,” she said.
The post-Soviet film era, according to Oeler, is all over the map. For instance, some filmmakers, free of restrictions, have ratcheted up the sex and violence content of their work. The movies of the late-1950s and 1960s, however—the “Thaw” Oeler spoke about—tend to be of fairly high quality. After Stalin died, the Soviet Union went through several periods where restrictions on artistic content were eased. They went in waves: New leader Nikita Krushchev would loosen up, then tanks would roll into Budapest or Prague, and things would tighten again.

“Many films were shelved,” Oeler said. “People didn’t see them until [Glasnost] in 1987. A lot of times, if you look them up on [the Internet Movie Database], it will give you two dates.”

Films from Russia—and many other foreign countries, for that matter—are often difficult to obtain in this country. Still, Oeler has a collection of several dozen, many of which she bought through a distributor in New York. The quality can be iffy (many of them aren’t subtitled—not necessarily a problem for Oeler, who is fluent in Russian, but not the ideal situation, either), but Oeler said things are improving. More films are being released in the West, and several have even found their way
onto DVD.

But that still doesn’t match the experience of seeing work locked away for decades on the big screen.

“The films at the festival have been stunning,” Oeler said, grinning, fingers clenched in excitement. “It’s during this time [of the Thaw] when the filmmakers are looking back to the people in the ’20s, and breathing life into what had been a defunct medium. The films are just great.”


Back to Emory Report March 26, 2001