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Opinion George Lucas should think twice before venerating filmmaking in the USSR

George Lucas attends the European premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in central London last month. (Leon Neal/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

George Lucas managed to irk all sorts of people during a recent chat with Charlie Rose. But while his remarks about white slavery got the most attention, Lucas’s comments about freedom and filmmaking in the United States were even more troubling.

“You are forced to make a particular kind of movie,” Lucas said to Rose, complaining about the need to make profitable films. “I used to say this all the time when people — you know, back when Russia was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. And they’d say, oh, but aren’t you so glad that you’re in America? I said, well, I know a lot of Russian filmmakers, and they have a lot more freedom than I have. All they have to do is be careful about criticizing the government.”

For a man who took so much pride in the didactically political nature of his final “Star Wars” film, this is kind of like saying “living in a minefield isn’t so bad; you just have to watch where you step.” That tossed-off aside about having to be wary of criticizing the government is so blasé, however, I can’t help but bristle. Because when the government is the arbiter of what gets made and what gets buried, creativity suffers just as surely as when audiences alone make the call.

Lucas isn’t wrong when he says freedom from commerce can aid technical innovation. Commenting upon the impressive film scene found in Russia in the 1920s, Peter Kenez noted in “The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917-1929” that while “Bolshevism cannot claim credit for the almost mysterious convergence of so many first-rate artists in such a short time,” the system “did at least partially free some of the directors from commercial considerations. It is unlikely that a capitalist studio would have financed [Sergei] Eisenstein’s first artistic experiments because his work could not possibly have appealed to a large audience.”

And, sure enough, even committed opponents of the godless commies would be hard-pressed to deny there was a technical and theoretical boom during these years. Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera” clocks in at No. 8 on the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll, and no one would deny the artistic and theoretical importance of Eisenstein to the medium of film.

But these more experimental filmmakers would be made to suffer in later years as Stalin tightened his grip and the film industry became a tool of education and indoctrination that nevertheless had to appeal to the masses. “With our limited time and resources we must not mess around too much and, in choosing between two pictures of roughly the same importance and value, we must make the one that can speak to the heart and mind more vividly from the standpoint of revolutionary propaganda,” Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar of enlightenment, wrote in “The Cinematograph: A Collection of Essays.”*

With the rise of socialist realism — which “aimed to do away with the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought,’” as Kenez notes in “Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin” — personal flourishes and technical innovation came under heavy suspicion. Stalin himself was very much a traditionalist, “object[ing] to experimental camera work, strange angles and the photographing of actors from above or below.” Kenez highlights the treatment of Eisenstein’s “Bezhin Meadow”: Despite hewing strenuously to the party line (Kenez calls it “morally the most repugnant of all the work that he had ever attempted”), Eisenstein’s work was censored and he was denounced.

Fortunately for the directors, Stalin was far more focused on the literary side of filmmaking than the technical one. “Directors benefited from the fact that Stalin did not appreciate the importance of their work: with few exceptions, they survived,” Kenez writes. “By contrast, scriptwriters and officials of the industry lived in a dangerous world, and dozens of them became victims of the terror.” In his book on Stalin, “Koba the Dread,” Martin Amis argued that he “didn’t understand that talented writers cannot go against their talent and survive, that they cannot be engineers. Talentless writers can, or they can try; it was a very good thing to be a talentless writer in the USSR, and a very bad thing to be a talented one.”

“Formalism, formalism and once again formalism,” said director David Maryan in a speech denouncing Eisenstein. “Formalism condemns you to loneliness; it is a worldview of pessimists, who are in conflict with our era. I should say that I hate formalism with all my being, hate its elements in works of art, even when they are by such masters as you.” Such criticisms may seem silly but they were quite serious: “For a while, Eisenstein’s artistic career, and even perhaps his life hung in the balance,” Kenez writes.

Eisenstein would be allowed back into the good graces of the Soviet film industry only after admitting his many errors and begging for forgiveness. Vertov — an experimental filmmaker who believed that “there had to be a sharp distinction between Soviet and ‘bourgeois’ ways of making movies,” Kenez writes — would not be so lucky. His first sound film, “Enthusiasm,” used the medium’s new element “with great inventiveness, both synchonically and asynchronically.” Audiences were unimpressed and his political enemies pounced: “He was blamed—with justice—for being primarily interested in artistic experimentation. The film was suppressed. In the age of ‘cinema for the millions,’ Vertov had no role to play.”

Even without the pressure of profit, it seems, Soviet filmmakers still weren’t always free to make work that appealed to no one at all. While things undoubtedly improved after Stalin’s death, government censorship was still no small worry, as the late Elem Klimov would likely attest; his works were censored because a character resembled Khrushchev, among other reasons.

Fortunately for us, though, Lucas has been freed from commercialism’s tyrannical yoke via the utterly non-commercial $4 billion transfer from Disney to him. With that kind of scratch, he can make experimental films until his dotage, caring not a whit what we plebeian sorts think. And, fortunately for him, he doesn’t live in a society that will restrict one of his films from being shown because an actor in it looks too much like the sitting president.

*This passage is quoted in Richard Taylor’s essay “The Birth of the Soviet Cinema,” which can be found in the book “Bolshevik Culture: Experiment and Order in the Russian Revolution.”