January 01, 2021

Mikhail Romm

Mikhail Romm
Movie poster from Romm’s first film, Pyshka. kino-teatr.ru

Born January 11, 1901

Mikhail Romm is remembered by everyone who ever worked with him – actors, camera operators, screenwriters – with tenderness and affection. He mentored some marvelous actors and earned a place of honor in the history of Russian cinema. Yet when we look closely at the details of this remarkable director’s biography, it is hard not to wonder how differently his life and work might have turned out had it not been for the exigencies of Russian and Soviet history.

Mikhail Romm
Mikhail Romm

Romm was born in Irkutsk, Siberia in 1901. This first basic biographical fact is telling in and of itself: his parents, educated Jews, were exiled there after his father was arrested for disseminating illegal literature. Sixteen years after Mikhail was born, the regime his parents opposed fell.  Given his family background, his attitude toward tsarism and the revolution was more or less predetermined.

As Mikhail would later relate, not only was his father a man who wouldn’t hurt a fly – he even liberated those unfortunate enough to land on the sticky tape commonly hung in apartments to trap these buzzing disease vectors. And not only did he liberate them, but he cleaned their tiny feet first.

By 1918, one year into the revolution, the product of this tenderhearted parent wound up performing one of the most appalling of all jobs performed in the new Soviet republic: on orders from the government and the party, he went into the countryside, accompanied by an armed detachment of Red Army soldiers, to confiscate grain from peasants, who for their part had no desire to relinquish the fruit of their labors to the State in exchange for laughable compensation. In his memoirs, Romm wrote that he got to know “the underside of the countryside and the Red Army.” What must have been going through the head of this nice, bookish Jewish boy as he doomed peasants to hunger (if not death) for the sake of an ideology. What was he thinking? What was he feeling? Most likely, like many others, he cast these cruel measures in terms of revolutionary necessity.

The Civil War over, young Mikhail began seeking his place in life, already keenly understanding that he wanted to pursue the arts – but which one, he did not yet know. He tried his hand at sculpture, translation, drawing, and only toward the end of the 1920s did he realize that he was destined to be a cinematographer. On the one hand, his timing was perfect, since filmmaking was playing an ever-greater role in Soviet life, and the state was supporting and developing its film industry. On the other, the ideological pressures placed on cinema may have been stronger than on the other arts. Lenin knew what he was talking about when he famously pronounced: “Of all the arts, the most important for us is cinema.” To watch a movie, you didn’t have to be literate or have access to art galleries or museums. If you lived in a city, it cost just a few kopeks to go to the movies, and in the countryside, you just had to wait for the village club to bring in the latest sensation. The party was increasingly using cinema for its purposes, and Romm fit right into their plans.

The young director’s first project was Pyshka, a film adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Boule de Suif” (often translated as “Dumpling” in English), in which a disrespected prostitute proves herself to be a more worthy person than the bourgeois who look down on her. From Pyshka, Romm moved on to romanticizing the revolution and Civil War. After watching the John Ford film The Lost Patrol, Stalin decided he wanted to see something similar in a Soviet setting. Under extremely difficult conditions, Romm filmed Trinadtsat (The Thirteen) in the Karakum Desert, about a doomed (yet triumphant, of course) struggle by a Red Army detachment against the Basmachi (Central Asian counterrevolutionary bandits – or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view).

Later came films that would enter the pantheon of Stalinist classics: Lenin in October and Lenin in 1918, which were made to order and assigned Comrade Stalin a pivotal role in carrying out the revolution while offering mocking depictions of everyone the Vozhd saw as enemies by that time (the films came out in 1937 and 1939 respectively).

Later, Romm, clearly mortified, told the story of how, amid the horrors of the Terror in 1938 that served as the backdrop for the filming of Lenin in 1918, the actress playing Fanny Kaplan, Natalya Efron, had trouble forcing herself to shoot at Lenin, even though her gun was a prop and Lenin was actually an actor. When the scene was, after all, finally filmed, Nikolai Okhlopkov, who was playing Lenin’s bodyguard, spurred on by the extras portraying the crowd racing to help the wounded Ilyich, threw the young actress with unfeigned force against a very real fence with all his might. Grisly reality had seeped into the make-believe world of cinema.

During those same years, Romm began dreaming of a very different project. He produced a script for a film adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s Queen of Spades and tried to begin filming it, but was plagued by one problem after another. Recalling the persistent legend that any staging of The Queen of Spades brings bad luck, Romm abandoned his plan, but he still was pursued by misfortune. He and his wife then rummaged through their home to dig up every last sheet of paper relating to the script and burned them all. Only then, by his account, did life return to normal. Keep in mind: this was all happening in 1938, during ruthless Stalinist purges and not long before the war.

After that, Romm steered clear of the classics and for many years made what he was supposed to be making: films about the happy “reunification” of Ukraine (meaning the incorporation of Western Ukraine into the Soviet Union) and the barbarities not only of the Nazis, but of all Germans, who, as the fate of one film’s heroine showed, were all cut from the same murderous cloth. This was followed by films about devious Americans, the valorous late-eighteenth-century Russian Admiral Ushakov, and valiant Soviet counterespionage efforts. By the 1950s, Romm was considered a classic. And only then was he able to make his breakthrough.

In 1961, when Khrushchev’s Thaw was already cooling down, Romm made an amazing film that would become a signal work of the sixties. Nine Days in One Year, the story of believably human nuclear physicists ready to sacrifice their lives for science, provoked delight and debate. The cast gave spectacular performances; the script featuring intellectuals rather than workers or party leaders was refreshing; and the portrayal of servants of science came at a time when seekers after the universe’s mysteries (as well as the mechanisms of the atomic bomb) were gaining a cult-like following. The film captured the inclinations of sixties-era intellectuals and debates over whether or not poetry in Russia had relinquished its cultural pride of place to physics. It also expressed a life-affirming belief in people and the power of reason.

Five years later, Romm, the recipient of five Stalin Prizes, along with other prominent practitioners of the arts and sciences, signed a letter to Brezhnev protesting the rehabilitation of Stalin in Soviet culture.

Around the same time, the final film Romm would complete, the documentary Ordinary Fascism, came out. The film had everything – amazing documentary footage, a brilliant script – but it probably would not have become the phenomenon it did had it not been for the fact that Romm himself picked up a microphone and recorded a biting, passionate, and unbelievably personal voiceover. Ordinary Fascism became a truly great film that was perceived as being more about human subjugation in general than just about twentieth-century fascism.

How many masterpieces might Romm have made had the course of Russian history not hobbled him, along with all of Russian culture – if he had not been compelled to produce films under specific orders of Stalin and the party, if he had been able to work with actors and follow his own interests in choosing his materials free of interference.

And what a marvelous Queen of Spades he might have produced! Alas, that’s a film we’ll never get to see.

The End. Or just the beginning?

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