March 26, 2001
Raising the Iron Curtain
By Eric Rangus firstname.lastname@example.org
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 wasnt 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
Then along came Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who clamped down on moviemaking,
along with everything else in the Soviet Union. If Soviet filmmakers werent
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. Whats exciting now is weve 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 recentGrigory Kozintzevs Hamletis
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 Stalins death, the director
was able to sneak some political commentary into the work, making it all
the more interesting.
I think everyone knew that Kozintzevs 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 Oelers 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 youre interested in as a comparatist are
literary theory, semiology and psychoanalytic theoryits what
you do, Oeler said. Theres a natural draw to film, anyway.
Its a major type of narrative; its 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 its basically a negation of a
perspec-tive, she said. Im interested in the continuities
and discontinuities I find between, say, the 19th century novel and 20th
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 1987her
senior year at Oberlin College ,where she double majored in English and
RussianOeler lived for a year in Leningrad and studied at the state
Things werent 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 didnt 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, Oelers cadence quickens even more when
she discusses her passion for film.
The nice thing about making films in a system where the market
doesnt matter is that you have these auteurs who dont worry
about selling to the lowest common denominator, she said.
Many films were shelved, Oeler said. People didnt
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 Russiaand many other foreign countries, for that matterare
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 arent subtitlednot
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
But that still doesnt 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. Its 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.