What aesthetic innovations did the films inspire, especially with regard to sound films, which were just beginning to appear at the time?
In Europe and the United States, the invention of the sound film was marked by disputes over patents for competing systems. Film-makers in the Soviet Union drew (and had to draw) the consequences: they went their own way and developed their own sound system in order to remain independent of international patents. The first sound film Putjowka w schisn (The Road to Life) by Nikolai Ekk deals with the joy in experimenting and reveals the new opportunities presented by sound. The same applies to many of the early talkies, such as King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (USA), the sound-film operettas made in Germany, musicals, and the films by René Clair and Jean Renoir, which explored the greater freedoms in a way that was innovative and sometimes ironic. Sound began to play an independent role.
In feature films such as Ekk’s Putjowka w schisn, this development leads the autonomisation of this form of expression: in certain scenes, the sound is so dominant in relation to what we are experiencing that we perceive it as an artistic means, as a transporter of aesthetic content.
How did audiences react at the time? Kuhle Wampe was banned by the film censorship board in 1932.
Both Kuhle Wampe, notable for the collaboration between Brecht and Eisler, and Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück, choose subjects that clearly identify the problems facing Germany at the time: the world economic crisis, the impoverishment, and the sense of hopelessness in the face of mass unemployment. They are attempts to respond to this explosive social situation with cinematic means. And for this reason they are also agitation films and intended as such.
Aims of the 2012 Retrospective
The term propaganda film has very negative connotations. Is it possible nowadays, with a certain historical distance, to approach these films with fewer inhibitions? And is it even conceivable that they are still relevant to us today? What kind of discussion would the coming Retrospective like to stimulate?
Basically we hope that we can give people an opportunity to see films that have hardly been shown for decades and have also faded into oblivion in Russia – especially after Mezhrabpom was liquidated by the Stalinist dictatorship in 1936. The history and aesthetics of these films will be reappraised in detail (by Russian and German authors) in the extensive publication accompanying the Retrospective. These studies will be supplemented by historical documents, countless unpublished photos, contemporary film posters and a complete filmography. We should like to present the diversity of productions in a way that is transparent both from the perspective of a film viewer, who discovers a light-entertainment film, and the cineast who suddenly becomes aware of the diversity of genres. It is impressive the way the Mezhrabpom studio endeavoured - with the modest means of a country that was experiencing upheavals and still suffering from the consequences of a civil war - to explore all the means available to film and to advance its aesthetic development.