A Book Review by Brandon Konecny.
A history of soviet cinema, encompassing the films of Russia as well as the non-Russian former Soviet satellites, is an endeavor as large as the former empire itself, whose territory once covered approximately one sixth of the Earth’s surface. A project of that scale would demand countless hours of viewing obscure films and sifting through texts written in various languages, including Russian, English, French, and German. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that there aren’t many historical dictionaries available on Russian and Soviet cinema, which spotlights why Peter Rollberg’s Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Cinema (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) is a significant accomplishment. Now in its second edition, this handsome (and incredibly expensive) hardcover tome introduces readers to a higher level of appreciation of Soviet cinema and marks a leap forward in the scholarship on the topic.
The book’s breadth becomes evident from the first few pages, which contain, among other things, a list of acronyms and abbreviations, a twelve-page chronology, and a seventeen-page overview of soviet film history. This historical summary is a considerable service to readers, since Rollberg covers more ground in less than twenty pages than many film scholars do in twice that length, taking readers through cinema in the pre-revolutionary, revolutionary, Stalinist, cultural Thaw, stagnation, and perestroika eras. And while limning these significant events, ideologies, and figures from each period, he never reduces a particular genre or filmmaker to an instantiation of cultural prejudices, political ideologies, or historical circumstances, a practice that is common to scholarly treatment of Soviet cinema. As Rollberg rightly puts it, discerning an exact equivalence between artist and historical context would postulate “a mechanical causality that is refuted, or at least complicated, by countless facts” (2).
Considering Rollberg’s attention to these figures’ particularity, the historical dictionary is an apt vehicle for his project. Arranged in an A-Z format, the book contains over a thousand entries on notable film artists, production histories, festivals, genres, and films. Regardless of the Soviet film scholars’ area of interest, the book has something to offer. For those interested in the giants of early Soviet film, there are entries on Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dizga Vertov, and Aleksandr Dovshenko. If readers are interested in later figures who achieved international acclaim, the book can point you toward pages on Larisa Shepitko, Sergei Paradjanov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Mikhail Kalatozov, and Nikita Mikhalkov. The book even has multi-page entries on popular non-Russian filmmakers like Otar Iosseliani, Ali Khamraev, Emil Loteanu, Vytautas Žalakevičius, and Tolomus Okeev. There are also entries concerning the popularity of Russian television miniseries in the post-Soviet era as well as composers like Dmitry Shastakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, whose film scores had a measurable impact on Russian cinema.
This, by itself, would be high enough testimony to ensure Rollberg’s place in Russian and Soviet film enthusiasts’ esteem. But his chief success – greater than his mini-biographical entries or summaries of cinematic masterpieces, even – is his attention to the cinemas of the former Soviet republics. In this regard, Rollberg’s text is beyond competition. Between these two covers, Rollberg has included entries on the Soviet Union’s most extolled and cinematically productive republics (Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states) as well as some its little-known ones (Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Turkmenistan). In fact, his entries on films from Turkmenistan, Belarus, and Tajikistan are gifts to readers, since these films are discussed in only a handful of esoteric academic articles and are virtually unavailable to Anglophonic cinephiles, perhaps on account of these countries’ political and cultural insularity.
But given the scope of this historical reference book, it’s inevitable that some flaws will bring themselves into notice after thorough examination. For one thing, Rollberg’s book isn’t immune to intratextual factual inconsistencies. In his introduction, for example, Rollberg writes that “Moldova did not produce one feature film in the 1990s” (16). However, Rollberg gainsays this statement 488 pages later, writing that Tudor Tătaru’s Dănilă Prepeleac (1995) “[w]as one of the three full-length feature films produced [in Moldova] between 1992 and 2006,” the other two being Sergiu Prodan and Viorica Meșină’s Bed of Procust (Patul lui Procust, 2001) and Valeriu Gagiu’s Jana (2004) (504).
But what’s more troubling about these contradictory statements is that, in either case, they’re false. True, Moldova’s film industry nearly collapsed along with the Soviet Union and, since 1991, has yet to match its cinematic output under communism. However, despite these challenges, the country managed to produce more feature films than just Tătaru’s Dănilă Prepeleac in the ten years following its independence. Take the work of Igor Talpa, as a notable example. In the late-1990s, Talpa based his production studio, ProFilm, in Moldova, where he made three feature films and one television miniseries – Tango over the Abyss (Tango nad propastyu, 1997), Ricochet (Rikoshet, 1997), Tango over the Abyss 2 (Tango nad propastyu 2, 1999), and Return of the Titanic (Vozvrashchenie Titanika, 1999). With the exception of Tango over the Abyss, these films were relatively successful, largely owing to Talpa’s shrewd negotiating abilities, awareness of popular sensibilities, exploitation of television and direct-to-video distribution, and use of an eager community of Moldovan film professionals seeking employment after the dreadful decline of their country’s film industry. Other features from this period include Mihai Mihăescu’s Sin (Păcatul, 1992), Nicolae Ghibu’s Am I Guilty… (Vinovata li ya…, 1992), Oleg Tulaev’s Whirlpool (Vîltoarea, 1992), and Ludmila Shulga’s Dollar on a Rainy Day (Dollar na cherny den, 1997), to date the first and only fictional film from Transnistria, an internationally unrecognized breakaway region in Moldova. To be sure, Rollberg’s mistaken claims trace the common narratives surrounding contemporary Moldovan cinema, but these inaccuracies stand to subtly perpetuate reductive accounts of the nation’s cinema rather than dispelling them.
However, it’s a greater inevitability that a historical reference book will never be quite comprehensive, no matter how rigorously researched. For instance, Rollberg provides an entire entry on post-Soviet Lithuanian filmmaker Šarūnas Bartas, yet he doesn’t include an entry on Aktan Abdykalykov, who spearheaded the Kyrgyzstan New Wave in the 1990s, or Igor Cobileanski, who’s numbered among the few contemporary Moldovan filmmakers to achieve recognition on the international festival circuit. In this sense, Rollberg prioritizes some significant post-Soviet filmmakers over others, often with unclear justification.
It’s fair to remark, though, that these kinds of fanboy quibbles point up the central difficulty of writing a historical dictionary on a nation’s cinema and, for that matter, reviewing it. For the compilation of research for a reference guide is always discretionary, subject to the author’s interests and judgments about which artists or films merit inclusions over others. But following publication, the reviewer measures the author’s interests and value judgments against his or her own, which themselves become the object of other reviewers’ laudation or censure. And it’s not that authors and reviewers are a needlessly disputatious lot – though there are some who’d probably contend as much – but rather that they are involved in an inherently ongoing process, in which cinematic histories are questioned and expanded according to the input of similarly-invested people. Rollberg is keenly aware of this operation and has taken previous book reviewers’ criticisms into account in the second edition, with the result of 130 new entries since the first edition of Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Cinema.
In doing so, Rollberg reveals what film history is really about – the excavation of stories of creative people who produce innovative and engaging art which broaden audience’s perception of their surroundings, all the while highlighting both these works’ relation to the cultural circumstances from which they spring as well as their independence from them. On this score, Rollberg succeeds admirably. His comprehensive and thoughtfully organized research, along with his perspicuous prose, makes Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Cinema an essential reference tool for any Russian and Soviet film maven. Granted, the construction of a nation’s cinematic history is a ceaseless work in progress, but with Rollberg’s contribution, the field is certainly closer to a more developed understanding of these nations’ cinemas than it was before.
Brandon Konecny is a regular contributor to Film International and an attorney. His work has appeared in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, The Enquirer-Journal, NCCU Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Law Review, Journal of Fandom Studies, Journal of Religion and Film, Film Matters, and Jurnal de Chișinău.