By Paul Goble
When the Red Army entered Berlin in 1945, it seized the Reichsfilmarkhiv which held thousands of films from various countries, including from the US. They were taken to the USSR where some were widely shown. But Moscow, not then a signatory to the international copyright conventions, did not pay the royalties owed.
That sparked outrage in Hollywood even though the US was not a signatory either and contributed to the rapidly deteriorating relations between the US and the USSR in what was to become the cold war, Kristina Tanis, an investigator at the Moscow Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
In the current issue of Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, she describes how this clash became the basis for one that lasted 40 years between filmmakers in the West and the Soviet government, an article that has been summarized by Alyona Tarasova for the IQ portal (iq.hse.ru/news/318621278.html).
Moscow’s use of these films not only brought in money for the Soviet state but provided some diversity in what Soviet views could see. In 1948, for example, Soviet theaters showed only 22 domestically produced films but 48 from abroad, a pattern that continued until after the death of Stalin, Tanis reports.
Some of these films were shown openly; others to restricted audiences; but most were edited and retitled so that Soviet viewers would take away the correct ideological message, she continues. In 1948, to try to resolve the copyright dispute, the US proposed selling rights to 20 Hollywood films to Moscow for a million US dollars, but despite talks nothing came of this.
In response, Hollywood began producing anti-Soviet films. The breakthrough in this regard came in 1948 with William Wellman’s production of “Iron Curtain” for 20th Century Fox. It told the story of Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet code clerk in the USSR embassy in Canada, who defected in September 1945 with materials showing Soviet penetration of Western governments.
But one feature of this film especially infuriated Moscow: Wellman used music written by Soviet composers but did not pay royalties to them. As a result, when the film was shown in Western Europe, local communist parties at Moscow’s insistence picketed it. And at the same time, Soviet filmmakers began making anti-American movies.
One, based on the life of Annabel Buchar who defected to the Soviet Union was produced under the title, “Farewell, America!” It was scheduled for release in 1951 but for some reason wasn’t, Tanis says. It appeared on Russian screens only in 1996. More often, Soviet filmmakers simply transformed Western films by editing out unapproved themes.
Sometimes, the researcher says, they changed the title of the film and edited it to the point of unrecognizability. “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” was renamed “Under the Control of the Dollar” and transformed from a story about a suddenly wealthy man who suffers various adventures into an indictment of US capitalism.
In the 1950s, Tanis says, the Soviets included on the title page of films that had been taken from the German film archive that it was “a trophy” of war; and that threatened to keep the copyright issue alive. But in 1952, UNESCO adopted the Universal Copyright Convention which replaced the 1886 Bern one.
“In the 1940s and 1950s,” the researcher continues, Soviet viewers reacted to the films in the way the Soviet authorities wanted them to. But by the 1980s, they were looking behind the often blunt messages the powers that be had inserted and looking at aspects of the films showing life abroad in ideologically incorrect ways.
According to Tanis, some even argue that these films, seized in Berlin in 1945, were “a trigger for the start of the processes of de-Stalinization, general Westernization and sometimes even the collapse of the USSR.” This change in Soviet assessments may reflect the fact that initially they lacked a vocabulary to talk about them, acquiring it only at the end of Soviet times.