Russian film director and writer Mikhail Romm (1901-1971), like the rest of his generation, was greatly influenced by his country's social upheavals of the early twentieth century. His films, from his treatments of Vladimir Lenin in the 1930s to 9 dney odnogo goda (Nine Days in One Year) in 1961, aptly reflected the political changes through which he had lived. He was also able to achieve real artistry in a time when propaganda in cinema was the general rule.
Early Life and Influences
Romm was born on January 24, 1901, in Irkutsk, Russia, to Jewish parents who had been exiled to Siberia. His mother was reportedly an avid fan of the theater, and Romm thus came naturally by his love of the arts. He moved to Moscow as a teenager to study sculpture with the famed Anna Golubkina at the Academy of Fine Arts, but military service interrupted his higher education from 1918 until 1921.
It is important to have a basic understanding of the tumultuous times in which Romm came of age, as they necessarily had an impact on his work. In brief, the Social Democratic Labor Party divided into the Bolsheviks (led by Vladimir Lenin and later called the Russian Communist Party) and the Mensheviks (led by Julius Martov) in 1903. In February of 1917, Czar Nicholas II abdicated his throne in response to the protests and demands of the public. This was known as the “February Revolution” and ended the dynasty of the Romanovs. The Russian Parliament, or Duma, which had been established in 1905, quickly installed a prime minister to head a provisional government to replace the czar. The new prime minister did not last long, however, as the Bolsheviks overthrew the government in what became known as the “October Revolution” (still 1917), and Lenin took over the country's leadership. Matters fell into further disarray the following year when a civil war broke out between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Lenin's Red Army prevailed in 1921, but the hardship and loss of life among the Russian people had been immense (millions died from starvation alone). It was against this dramatic backdrop that Romm had reached adulthood.
Romm served in the Red Army from 1918 until 1921. He began as a soldier and telephone operator before becoming an inspector in the Special Forces for Food Supplies. Happy or unhappy, his military tenure helped provide both rapid maturity and experiences not soon forgotten. After his service, Romm returned to Moscow to complete his studies, graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in 1925. Throughout the 1920s he pursued a variety of artistic endeavors. Literature was a passion, for example, prompting him to translate the works of such major French authors as Gustave Flaubert and Honore de Balzac into Russian. He also wrote novels and short stories, and worked as a sculptor, interpreter, actor, and journalist. In 1928 he started researching the theory of cinematography, and by the early 1930s, Romm had settled on film as his primary artistic medium.
1932 to 1953
Romm began his movie career in 1932 as the screenwriter and assistant director of an early “talkie” called Dela i lyudi (Men and Jobs). His directing debut in 1934 was with the last Russian silent movie produced and the first to be made completely on Russian filmstock. It was an adaptation of a classic by the nineteenth-century French writer Guy de Maupassant, Boule de Suif (Pyshka), and was widely seen as one of the finest interpretations of the author's work. (Romm's facility as a translator was of great assistance to him in that effort.) Next up, Romm wrote and directed one of Russia's first “Easterns” (the Soviet answer to the “Western”), Trinadtsat (The Thirteen). Released in 1937, its energy and action set a standard for the myriad Russian adventure films that followed it. Not incidentally, the cast included Yelena Kuzmina, who later became Romm's wife.
The year 1937 saw the release of Romm's Lenin v oktyabre (Lenin in October). The movie was commissioned by then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the October Revolution. Although made in just two weeks, the epic saga was well received. It was also an excellent example of the ongoing conflict between art and politics that was indicative of the time. On the one hand, the film's content was actively overseen and guided by Stalin himself, thereby certainly curtailing Romm's artistic autonomy. On the other, Romm was able to inject the project with sufficient artistic credibility that it enhanced his international reputation. A companion piece, Lenin y 1918 (Lenin in 1918), was released in 1939. It was also successful. Still, it is telling that after Stalin's death in 1953, Romm personally re-edited the Lenin movies, deleting all Stalin references.
Mechta (Dream), starring Faina Ranevskaya, Rostislav Plyatt, Ada Voitsek, and Mikhail Astangov, came out in 1943 and was applauded for its examination of spiritual crises. In 1945 Chelovek No. 217 (Girl No. 217) was released. It told the story of a Soviet girl captured by fascists. By the late 1940s, however, Romm's reputation began to falter as he bowed to government pressure to produce more propaganda films. Nonetheless, he continued to churn out movies. Russkiy vopros (The Russian Question) was based on a play by Konstantin Simonov (1948) and Sekretnaya missiya (Secret Mission) was a harrowing tale of a female Soviet spy who comes to a bad end (1950). The release of 1950's Vladimir Ilich Lenin (Lenin) was followed up by a historical costume drama about the founding of the Russian Black Sea fleet in 1779 called Admiral Ushakov, and by its sequel, Korabli shturmuyut bastiony (The Ships from the Bastion), both in 1953. Stalin died in 1953, soon to be succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev. Before long, the Russian cinema and Romm's career would undergo another sea change.
Effect of the Soviet Thaw
In 1956 Romm wore many hats. He wrote the screenplay for Dolgij put (A Weary Road), was the creative producer for Sorok pervyj (The Forty-First), and directed Ubiystvo na ulitse Dante (Murder on Dante Street or The Long Roads). Although the public embraced it, the last effort was a disappointment to Romm, both because his wife was not permitted to appear in it and for artistic reasons. Perhaps partly because of that, he took a job as a film professor at the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in 1957. He still wrote and directed the occasional movie, such as 1957's Urok istorii (A Lesson in History) and 1958's Zhivoj Lenin (Lenin is Alive), but teaching and writing absorbed most of his time for the next few years. Meanwhile, the Russian motion picture scene had begun its own small revolution.
At a meeting of Communist Party members in 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes and thus ushered in “The Thaw” (a term coined by author and journalist Ilya Ehrenburg). It was a period when the rigid dictates of Stalin regarding Soviet cinema, among other arts, began to relax, or “thaw” out. Film professionals started to breathe more freely and follow their creative instincts in a way not seen in decades. Naturally, as one of the most prominent moviemakers of his generation, Romm could not resist such an exciting prospect. By 1961 he was back in full force and better than ever.
Romm's 9 dney odnogo goda (Nine Days of One Year) came out in 1961 and was an immediate sensation. Mainly filmed on location at a nuclear physics research institute in Siberia, it is the tale of a young physicist who persists in his experiments toward a pioneering discovery to better mankind despite having received potentially lethal doses of radiation. While there was nothing particularly novel in a hero sacrificing himself for the greater good, the movie was groundbreaking in several respects. First, it looked at the ethical pros and cons of nuclear power and radiation. Second, its characters were not drawn as simply good or bad, but embodied a moral ambiguity and self-examination previously unseen in Russian cinema. As David Gurevich of Images Journal described them, “The characters derided ‘idiots,’ both in the USSR and in the West, and wondered whether they themselves were ‘positive characters.’ They wondered about things, period, which constituted a departure from the supremely confident heroes of yore.” In short, the movie did not toe the traditional Communist Party line (indeed, the word “Party” was not uttered on screen). And finally, the film's minimalist style was a welcome deviation from the overwrought tendencies of motion pictures of the Stalin Era.
9 dney odnogo goda firmly established Romm at the top of his game, and won a Crystal Globe Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 1962. His next project, Obyknovennyy fashizm (Ordinary Fascism or A Night of Thoughts), was released in 1965 and was also a major success. It was a documentary about Nazi Germany, narrated by Romm and ostensibly aimed at explaining the advent of fascism in the twentieth century. But it was even more than that, as it unequivocally denounced tyranny and despotism of any kind, in any place. Such a thinly-veiled reference to Stalinism had a difficult enough time with Russian censors in 1965 (they caused nearly half the film's footage to be cut before its release); it surely would have stood no chance at all before the Thaw. Obyknovennyy fashizm won the Special Prize of the Jury at the Leipzig DOK Festival in 1965.
Romm continued to teach at VGIK during his resurgence as a filmmaker. There, his influence on the renaissance of his country's cinema was wielded in another, more subtle way, as he cultivated a new crop of disciples to carry on with, and expand, his vision. The last film project Romm embarked upon had a working title of World Today, and was, as the name suggests, a further look at the twentieth century. Sadly, he died in Moscow on November 1, 1971, with the film incomplete. Three of his acolytes, Marlen Khutsiyev, Elem Klimov, and German Lavrov, completed the film for their master, however. It was released in 1974 under the title I vsyo-taki ya veryu (And Still I Believe). Film critic Neya Zorkaya commented on Romm's vast influence, to Itta Beratova of the Russian Culture Navigator in 2001, nearly 100 years after the great filmmaker's birth. “Romm's works continue to impress for their high professionalism, the splendid montage, and the director's insight into human psychology. Many of his pupils became the leading film directors of the next generation: Vasily Shukshin, Andrei Tarkovsky, Grigory Chukhrai, Georgy Danelia, Savva Kulish. Romm was a brilliant storyteller, publicist, and the author of a great number of theoretical works about cinema. He left us an enormous heritage and there is a lot in it that remains to be discovered.”
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