Stalin had always been fascinated by the medium of film. Seeing is believing, or so the axiom goes, and to a generation new to film what was on the screen might as well have been happening right in front of them. Of course what is on film is not necessarily true, and therein lies the source of Stalin's love for film.
"Cinema is the art of illusion, yet it dictates its laws to life itself"
Stalin used this unique power of film to rewrite history, and to control a nation. For an example of Stalin's use of film propaganda, click here.
A theme in early Stalin era film was the contrast between the bourgeois White forces of the civil war and the altruistic Communists, Stalin in particular. Man with a Gun (1938) juxtaposed fat, jewel studded Whites with a democratically minded Lenin.
Leader worship was a theme throughout Socialist Realism film. Great Citizen (1937-1939) presents Lenin, Stalin and Kirov (assassinated under Stalin's orders in 1934) as a leadership troika. Kirov is portrayed as a hero/martyr to the socialist cause while the villains are ruthless scum. The film helps to justify the Great Terror which Stalin touched off with Kirov's death.
Stalinist cinema was not limited to self-serving portraits of Lenin and Stalin. The greatness of life under Stalin, and the superiority of the Soviet state was also touted in film. Circus (1936) contains all the elements of a Socialist Realist film. Anti-fascism, ethnic equality, the democratic constitution, the new Moscow construction, and the glory of life under Stalin are all displayed. In the film, an American circus star is run out of her Kansas home after giving birth to a Black child. She joins up with a traveling circus, run by a German ringmaster. The ringmaster is portrayed as lustful and anti-Russian. While performing in Moscow, the woman falls in love with a Russian acrobat. Out of jealousy, the ringmaster reveals the identity of the woman's child in front of the circus audience. Rather than ostracize the woman, the Soviet audience sings the baby to sleep in a half dozen different languages. The new couple then marches through Red Square singing about their freedoms and the "most democratic of democratic constitutions."
Native land of mine, so beautiful [O Vast Country of Mine] .../ There is
no other land the whole world over/ Where man walks the earth so proud and
-"Song of the Motherland," from Circus.
The Stalinist ideal of the super-worker is demonstrated in The Radiant Road (1940), a Soviet Cinderella. Tanya, a textile worker, rises through the industry breaking world records and running hundreds of looms at a time. Tanya's dreams come true as her hard work pays off and she travels to Moscow and meets the peasant President Kalinin, posing under Mukhina's statue of the female worker holding a sickle next to a man holding a hammer. The message: under Stalinism, upward mobility is contingent only upon hard work, regardless of gender. It is even possible for a peasant to become President.
Soviet film content was completely dominated by the war in the 1940s. The traditional love story was played out in The Girl from Leningrad (1941). Love triumphs with a war-time backdrop, with a romantic kiss finale under a compassionate portrait of Stalin.
Film under Stalin was completely subservient to politics. Eisenstein released Alexander Nevsky in 1938. The film, clearly anti-German propaganda, was banned after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939. Alexander Nevsky was re-released following the German invasion in 1941. Like something out of 1984, film under Stalin served little purpose other then to promote his political whim of the moment. In Germany and Italy, while there was most certainly propaganda being made (as there was in the United States as well), most film served as White Telephone escapism. Stalin, however, squeezed every drop of propaganda he could out of the medium.