Because of Diana Serra Cary’s passing, I delayed this post for a couple days. My piece on this strange and fascinating film could’ve been twice as long–I hope you find it enlightening!
Now we are able to carry on a determined offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their output by the output of the collective farms and state farms. Now, dekulakization is being carried out by the masses of poor and middle peasants themselves, who are putting complete collectivization into practice…Consequently it is now ridiculous and foolish to discourse at length on dekulakization. When the head is off, one does not mourn for the hair.
–Stalin’s speech on agrarian policy, December 27, 1929.
…On some occasions, the exemplary organization of local work, even on a small scale, turns out to be more efficient for the State than a large number of State institutions under centralized control.
–Lenin quote from the opening titles of Old and New
To many people, the phrase “collective farm” has little meaning. It’s a dry-sounding term, something you might find in wordy papers on yesteryear’s agricultural practices. And that’s partly true. However, few other phrases from the 20th century have such an incomprehensible weight of dramatic, tragic, and deadly history behind them. To say that the two words “collective farm” represents one of the biggest disasters of the last 100 years is putting it in mild terms.
When Eisenstein began work on the often-overlooked The General Line, later called Old and New (The Old and the New, technically) he was ostensibly doing his duty as a loyal Soviet director. One of the great plans of the communist Soviet government (its “general line,”) was to restructure the very foundation of the USSR: its agriculture. Old and New’s propaganda on this weighty topic would perhaps be the most blatant of Eisenstein’s career. It’s a pity he didn’t have a crystal ball.
As you can imagine, the government’s decision to push collective farming was a staggering undertaking. Millions of peasants in the USSR lived and worked on their own land. Some, labelled “kulaks,” were more successful than others–usually meaning they had more than one cow and maybe a tin roof on their house. Simply railing against the income inequality supposedly caused by “wealthy” kulaks wasn’t cutting it–even encouraging villagers to round up their kulak neighbors themselves for beatings and hangings wasn’t quite doing the trick. An idea was brewing–should these stubborn, illiterate peasants simply be forced to live on collective farms?
At the time of filming Old and New, this dangerous idea hadn’t been fully fleshed out. Eisenstein’s task was to paint collective farms in a glowing light, but also attract peasants’ interest and the interest of urban intellectuals expecting another artistic masterpiece. Being the driven theorist that he was, Eisenstein was always on the lookout for new ways to hone his craft. The contrast of traditional Russian culture with “modern” Soviet collectivism would be a unique creative challenge.
The introduction of his most fully-fleshed lead character to date, Marfa, shows his evolving interests. Eisenstein had searched high and low for a woman who could convincingly play a peasant-turned-revolutionary. As shown in Battleship Potemkin, he favored using real-life “types” over trained actors. Countless searches in railroad stations, factories, and villages (where church bells were used to summon the local women) were fruitless. About to pull his famous hair out in frustration, Eisenstein finally tried interviewing actresses, but whenever he asked if they could milk a cow or drive a tractor they would proudly say “No”–to his chagrin.
By some miracle, he finally discovered Marfa Lapkina. Old and New would introduce her as “one among many,” and indeed this was true. A hired farm worker since the age of nine, after the 1917 revolution she ended up on a state farm. She showed up at one of the casting calls out of curiosity, thinking she might be able to earn some money. With her heavy brow and smile that was all gums, she was admittedly the opposite of a Hollywood-style beauty, but she had a strong screen presence and her ability to follow direction impressed Eisenstein.
Having no acting experience, to Marfa rehearsals seemed confusing and unnecessary. She preferred to simply be told what to do on the set, and she would do it. She ultimately agreed to star in the film on the condition that she could bring her baby son with her, which Eisenstein allowed (he was fond of children). Her casting seemed predestined–she discovered that the bull used in the film, named Fomka, had been in her care when he was a calf.
Other striking “types” were also discovered during Eisenstein’s massive casting call. The kulak was played by a former meat contractor for the army. The young mother glimpsed in the beginning was played by an Old Believer from a small village. The participants in the manic religious procession were found in cheap boarding houses. (A crewmember recalled looking at “more than a thousand people” for that scene alone.) Closeups and special lighting emphasized these peoples’ unique features–a girl with a large upper lip is shot from below, and an elderly man with sagging lower eyelids has deep shadows thrown on his face.
Shooting for Old and New was interrupted when Eisenstein was commissioned to make October (1927), and Marfa temporarily rejoined her husband on the state farm. When Eisenstein returned to Old and New, Marfa was pregnant with her second child and had to be shot mainly from behind or in closeups. She gave birth shortly before the film was finished, and Eisenstein posed for a charming with her and the new baby.
Old and New has a relatively simple plot, helped along by its stunning cinematography and lighting. Struggling to run a tiny farm with few resources, and surrounded by farmers just as impoverished as herself (except those darn kulaks), the peasant woman Marfa turns revolutionary. She urges her neighbors to abandon the “old ways” and get with the Soviet times. They start a collective farm and manage to buy a cream separator, a bull (to increase their herd), and finally even a tractor. While other peasants are still stuck with their old, backwards ways, Marfa’s collective thrives. Everyone should be in a collective.
Today, the propaganda in Old and New seems startlingly heavy-handed, about as subtle as the proverbial bull in a china shop. It begins by declaring in its large Cyrillic titles: “Not ten, not twenty, but one hundred MILLION illiterate, ignorant, old-fashioned peasants, left as a legacy of the old system!” We then see one of these “backwards” peasant families in their cramped, crumbling hut, snoozing in nooks and crannies as their farm animals roam around them freely. The battered roof lets in rain, and when the grandmother stokes the fire smoke fills the house (this was probably based on the kurnaya izba, a chimney-less type of Russian hut. I think it’s doubtful that such huts were still used by the 1920s, however.)
Following this sequence, we see two brothers settling a dispute over their farm by dividing it in two. Literally–they saw their house in half while their wives and children sadly look on. Much like the leaky hut sequence, it’s a strangely insulting scene, perhaps showing what Eisenstein felt the intelligensia wanted to believe rather than how peasants actually lived.
Some propaganda causes more unease than others. The dreaded “kulak” couple, of course, are portrayed as obese, lazy, and selfish. The camera lingers on closeups of their double chins and rolls of neck fat, lest the message be unclear. When Marfa calls on them for help with her farm, she’s treated with smirking contempt and dismissed. Running a successful farm has always entailed a lot of hard work, especially in the days before tractors, but in this strange alternate universe the greedy kulaks apparently snooze the day way between gulps of beer. Perversely, the beautiful wooden trim on their house isn’t meant to point to “skilled traditional craftsmanship” but “undeserved riches.” Lenin’s “Hanging Order” of 1918 haunted me during these scenes: “Hang (absolutely hang, in full view of the people) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, filthy rich men, bloodsuckers…”
Being a good Soviet, Eisenstein publicly professed atheism, but I’ve always felt that his propaganda was the least persuasive when criticizing religion. In Old and New, we see a Russian Orthodox religious procession winding its way through the parched countryside. They’re praying for much-needed rain, although this seems more apropos for a pagan ritual than a Christian one (I don’t know if this was based on a real kind of procession or if Eisenstein simply made it up.) The crowd grows increasingly manic, shots of their frenzied faces interspersed insultingly with shots of panting sheep. Still, Eisenstein’s shots of beautiful crosses and banners and old icons have a documentary feel that transcends its propaganda purposes. Indeed, when Eisenstein would visit Mexico years later he was fascinated by the celebrations honoring the Day of the Dead and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
To Eisenstein, the propaganda was probably secondary to his beloved montage techniques. The more we study them and take them in, the stranger it seems that Old and New has been so overlooked. The religious procession was organized like a piece of music–or “polyphonic montage,” as he would call it. Each “theme” or “line”–the shots of women’s faces, the rapidly changing closeups, the sight of people kneeling to let the icons pass over them–was like an instrument. He would write: “Each montage-piece had a double responsibility–to build the tonal line as well as to continue the movement within each of the contributory themes.”
Another example is the harvest scene. As a storm starts brewing, women frantically try to get the harvest in. Eisenstein wrote, “…The thematic minor of the harvesting is resolved by the thematic major of the tempest, of the rain. Yes, and even the stacked harvest, itself–traditional major theme of fecundity basking in the sun–is a resolution of the minor theme, wetted as it is by the rain.”
If there’s any scene from Old and New that’s relatively famous, it’s the cream separator scene–no, really. The sheer amount of tension, dramatic lighting, and buildup to that final fountain of cream has, shall we say, rather obvious connotations (even back then). This couldn’t have been lost on Eisenstein, considering the later “marriage of the bull and cow” scene that ended with a montage of explosions and crashing waves. Well, it was symbolic of the “creation of a new Soviet order” and all.
Personally, I was struck by Marfa’s visit to a thriving collective farm, a fantasy of a slick, orderly modern operation where all the peasants work as one. The contrast of the cows and the workers in their traditional garb with that white, futuristic Constructivist building is simply surreal. The clash of cultures seems more bizarre than plausible–fancy Constructivist pavilions likely didn’t exist on real Soviet state farms.
Old and New was better received abroad than it was in the Soviet Union, where critics felt it was too “formalist” and misrepresented the Russian people. Eisenstein’s heroine was criticized for being illiterate and unattractive (one critic writing years later went so far as to say, “What a mutilated, unreal and offensive character!”). Feeling hemmed in, in the early 1930s Eisenstein would spend time in the U.S. and Mexico–around the time when Stalin’s forced collectivization of farms began.
This collectivization would trigger one of the 20th century’s biggest disasters. Forced by Stalin to give up their land, and harshly punished if they couldn’t fulfill impossible grain quotas, the peasants in the USSR soon underwent a severe famine. From 1932-33, up to 10 million people would starve to death (the smallest estimate is 3 million). In Ukraine, where the disaster is known as the Holodomor, around 13% of its population died. Our minds can’t wrap around it–we can only try and remember it.
There’s one more thing that struck me about Old and New, and that’s the ending. We see someone driving a tractor, and they stop and remove protective goggles to reveal a beaming Marfa. But this is a rather different-looking woman, with whiter skin and, apparently, rouge. They had put makeup on her, to contrast the “new Soviet Marfa” with “downtrodden peasant Marfa”–what a message.
After working for Eisenstein, Marfa Lapkina apparently went back to her work on the state farm, and never appeared in another film. It’s thought that she died in in Leningrad in 1936, at the mere age of 37. I sometimes wonder what happened to her during the 1930s, and to her husband and two children. How did their part of the USSR handle forced collectivization? Or the Soviet regime in general? Do we know?
Were we allowed to know?