Lida Oukaderova: The Cinema of the Soviet Thaw: Space, Materiality, Movement

Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-253-02696-5, 214 pages.

Zdenko Mandušić
Mikhail Kalatozov; Sergei Urusevskii; Georgii Daneliia; Larissa Shepit’ko; Kira Muratova; cinematic space; the cinema of the Soviet Thaw; film experience; viewer immersion; gender positions

In the decades following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the cinema of the Soviet Thaw has emerged as a captivating object of analysis for film historians. Films of this period documented the Thaw through their depiction of contemporary Soviet life and thus now serve as historical documents of the period, prompting cultural historians and film scholars to study the intersections of cinema and socio-political developments. Lev Anninsky’s Shestidesiatniki i my / People of the Sixties and Us (1991) was one of the earliest books to give a broad overview of the period, discussing how Thaw films reflected, engaged with, and questioned the cultural and political developments in the years following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and the denunciation of his cult of personality by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956. Subsequently, the two-volume anthology Kinematograf ottepeli / Cinema of the Thaw (1996; 2002), edited by Vitalii Troianovskii, expanded the study of Thaw cinema, offering a rich collection of essays which read the cultural politics of the post-Stalinist era through the themes and styles of Thaw cinema, providing nuanced analysis of key signifiers like nature and contextualizing popular tropes such as generational conflict within the cultural discourse of the time. English-language scholarship of Thaw cinema was largely inaugurated with the publication of Josephine Woll's survey of post-Stalinist films Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw (2000), which examined how the political context of this period shaped the production and reception of films. Initially in his dissertation and then later in a Russian-language book expanding upon the subject, Aleksandr Prokhorov identified the continuation of certain, largely narrative, Stalinist artistic practices in Thaw films (Prokhorov 2002; Prokhorov 2007b). Prokhorov’s article on Thaw-era film comedies (Prokhorov 2003) and his writing on the use of children as structuring devices for visual and narrative strategies (Prokhorov 2007a) have further expanded the study of this period. Delineating the cultural and aesthetic contours of Thaw cinema, these studies have identified this period as a time of exceptional formal and technical innovation in Soviet cinema, an era practically rivaling, in these respects, the canonical Avant-Garde of the 1920s. In the context of cinema’s status in Soviet society, one of the most pressing questions within the scholarship of Thaw cinema is to what extent film aesthetics and the medium of film can be significant moving forces in society, impacting identity formation and cultural practices.

Lida Oukaderova’s The Cinema of the Soviet Thaw represents a fascinating addition to this body of scholarship through the work’s focus on the importance of space and the relation of subjects to their environment in the Soviet cinema of the 1960s. After establishing the post-Stalinist social renewal as the motivating historical force for Thaw cinema’s preoccupation with space, Oukaderova’s book engages with space on the level of film technology, visual style, and gender. The imagination of space in films of the Thaw period has been connected with several important developments in the 1950s and 1960s, including the shift in Soviet society toward internationalism, attempts to improve living standards and the domestic space of Soviet families, the agricultural cultivation of virgin lands, and the exploitation of natural resources in the vast territories of the Soviet Union. According to Oukaderova, post-Stalinist films mediated the social and political dynamics of these developments in Soviet culture through the cinematic imagination of space and the sensory experiences, with which filmmakers addressed viewers. Directors and cinematographers utilized new technological developments relating to film cameras and screens along with new visual strategies to produce for viewers a sense of immersion in, and involvement with, events and actions projected on the screen. The revised encounter between viewers and the film screen generated the possibility for reconsidering how people conceived their country as well as how they inhabited their immediate surroundings. Oukaderova argues that this cinematic reimagining of space relied on the viewer’s sensory and conceptual engagement with the new film technology and new visual strategies presented to them. This experience of space raises questions about humanity’s relationship to nature, the social potential of capricious movement, and the underexplored dimensions of female perception and relation to space. Such questions avoid a binary model,which would frame the Soviet cinema of the Thaw as simply a rejection of late-Stalinist practices. Oukaderova instead explores the complex (inter)relations between cinematic constructions of space, spatial exploration in other media, and the relationship of individuals to their environment.

In terms of methodology, The Cinema of the Soviet Thaw combines close visual analysis with a range of theoretical frameworks in order to approach questions about the depiction and experience of space. The book focuses on a selection of films and offers detailed analyses of how space is investigated in various scenes. Throughout the text, Oukaderova’s considerations consistently track how these spatial explorations addressed film viewers. The book’s introduction establishes its historical and theoretical approach to cinematic space, defining the “spatial turn” in Soviet society of the Thaw as well as the Henri-Lefebvre-inspired approach to the transformative potential of cinematic space. In this regard, Soviet Thaw cinema is aligned with “the paradigmatic shift in movements happening a little but everywhere that began to consider space rather than time as a central category through which to explore social formation” (ibid.: 17). The rejection of linear teleological time and the disruption of structured and stable spatiality is the unifying theme of Oukaderova’s book. As opposed to Marxism’s rigid understanding of time (especially in relation to the progress of history), spatial exploration contains and expresses the potential for transforming everyday life and everyday practices. The films analyzed in this study present complex relationships between individuals and their surroundings in multiple contexts, utilizing the category of “space” to encompass the viewers experience of panoramic cinema and widescreen technology, the immersive effect produced by handheld camera movement, the experiences of traversing urban landscapes as well as the cinematic exploration of intimate, domestic spaces in private homes.

The text’s first chapter focuses on the Soviet version of the enormous, deeply curved screen projection system, called Kinopanorama, which sought to immerse viewers by enveloping their field of vision. Given the nature of Kinopanorama and the fact that a special theater had to be constructed for this technology, Oukaderova’s first chapter examines this specific exhibition space and how viewers navigated the experience of watching a film projected on a circular eleven-panel screen. Built as part of the Cold War socio-cultural competition with the United States, Kinopanorama was supposed to surpass the earlier American versions of this technology both technically and – more importantly – ideologically, by stressing its potential for education rather than its entertainment value. Soviet authors dismissed American panoramic, widescreen films, such as This Is Cinerama (Merian C. Cooper, 1952, USA) and Cinerama Holiday (Robert L. Bendick and Philippe De Lacy, 1955), as nothing more than cheap spectacle. In contrast, the proponents of Kinopanorama argued that the first Soviet panoramic film, Shiroka strana moia / Great Is My Country ( Roman Karmen, 1958, USSR), utilized the new screen technology to connect viewers with their nation and fellow citizens. However, despite the unifying sense of national space it was believed Kinopanorama could engender, critics grew concerned that viewers would be more free to selectively focus on specific aspects of the projected film, which would pose the danger of a fragmented national narrative. Oukaderova explores this gap between official expectations for the transformative potential offered by cinematic space and the individual film experience. Although the subsequent two chapters also examine the use of new film technology for spatial exploration, the book’s first section notably stands out in this regard, as the remaining chapters mainly examine one or two films irrespective of the spaces in which they were screened.

Chapter Two focuses specifically on the use of the handheld camera shots in films Neotpravlennoe pis’mo / The Unsent Letter ( 1959, USSR) and Ia Kuba / Soy Cuba / I am Cuba (1964, USSR), which director Mikhail Kalatozov made together with cinematographer Sergei Urusevskii. The dynamic camera movement in these films produces the impression that viewers are participants in the action themselves, running alongside film characters through a burning forest in Siberia or soaring high above Havana, Cuba. Abandoning strict conventions of narrative plotting, Kalatozov and Urusevskii made the process of spatial perception the primary focus of their films, offering viewers a new experiential window into the modes of relation between humans and their surroundings. Oukaderova draws on Walter Benjamin’s discussion of mimesis and Roger Caillois’ writings on mimetic capacities to explore how Kalatozov and Urusevskii produce a new spatial orientation characterized by its quest to gain access to natural space through cinematic immersion and the perception of unmediated proximity. Camera movement generates contiguity between the immersed body of the viewer and the expanding space on the screen, allowing for the symbolic mediation of revolutionary consciousness through that perpetual motion and unbound perception of space. Oukaderova’s analysis of The Unsent Letter and I am Cuba frames the visual strategies of Kalatozov and Uruseskii as much more than mere bravura filmmaking tactics; rather, these films are analyzed in terms of how they explore and subvert spatial relations through the movements of the bodies of characters and those of the wandering handheld camera.

Shifting to the urban landscapes in Georgii Daneliia’s Ia shagaiu po Moskve / Walking the Streets of Moscow (1964, UdSSR), the third chapter examines depictions of movement which utilize the widescreen format as a means to produce a narrative focused on new perceptual experiences of city spaces. Oukaderova examines how characters navigate Moscow’s modern cityscape and argues that this activity reveals the dynamic and stimulating possibilities of urban spaces. The author grounds her analysis in the architectural discourse of the Soviet Thaw, which foregrounded the free movement of people and the capacity of human motion to render urban landscapes vibrant and dynamic. The author explores the transgressive potential of young Muscovites’ and visitors’ act of wandering through the city, drawing upon Guy Debord’s and the Situationists’ critique of capitalist culture, which aimed to“foster a dialogue between specific material environments and the participants’ actions, with the aim of creating a potential foundation for transforming people’s everyday lives, their behavior, and [...] the spaces they traverse and inhabit” (ibid.: 101). Walking the Streets of Moscow confronts its spectators with modalities of movement in order to generate in the viewer a sense of appropriating – and even creating – the urban environment, which, in turn, was perceived as a practice of subjective liberation. Here, Oukaderova draws upon the architectural theory of Vladimir Paperny, which stratifies Soviet culture into three distinct realms based on movement and immobility, interpreting the free movement of the film's character as a revolutionary inversion of the Stalinist system of forced immobility.

The final two chapters investigate aspects of gender in the Soviet cinematic imagination of space through the work of two female filmmakers, Larissa Shepit’ko and Kira Muratova. Focusing on Shepit’ko’s Kryl’ia / Wings (1966, UdSSR), chapter four examines how this film challenges male-coded cinematic conventions of framing women, which circumscribe their position and movement in space. The film’s protagonist – a solemn, lonely middle-aged woman who had flown airplanes in World War II and now works as the director of a school – is shown alienated from the people and urban surroundings of reconstructed Sevastopol. Initially showing this woman’s constrainment by male gazes and the gaze of the camera, the film transitions toward conveying her sensory presence, made manifest through her movement and experience of spaces in around the city. In relation to the discourse about urban flaneurs and modernity, Oukaderova argues that the movement of Shepit’ko’s protagonist through the city in Wings works to disrupt the static and constricted representation of female characters on the screen while also destabilizing the conventional representations of cinematic representations of urban space. This argument also draws on a comparative analysis of Shekpit’ko’s film with Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte / The Night (1961, Italy), examining the movement of female protagonists through urban landscapes in both films as well as how these women confront and diffuse the pervasive male gaze. In this regard, Oukaderova provides an international context to her analysis of Wings while also expanding the potential of the study of the cinema of the Soviet Thaw to contribute to international scholarly discourse.

Turning to Muratova’s Korotkie vstrechi / Brief Encounters (1967, USSR) in chapter five, Oukaderova examines the visual strategies used in this film to depict the material environment of personal objects in the domestic space and the home as a private, female sphere. Drawing on art-historical scholarship and gender studies – especially regarding theories surrounding the maternal body and metaphors of dwelling and habitation – this chapter examines how Muratova utilizes static shots with shallow depth, centering everyday objects and personal details in order to construct female-coded spaces and to convey a female perception of space. Oukaderova argues that Brief Encounters prompts viewers to reconstruct the totality of the domestic space in Muratova’s film without losing sight of the material fragments it contains. The author argues that these fragments resist “the representation world compatible with masculinity—that is, rational and whole, ordered, without excess” (ibid.: 177). As they “defy meaning, conceptualization, and mapping” these fragments emphasize a difference between the part and whole, making it possible to consider space in terms of gendered difference. Brief Encounters further emphasizes the different spatial economies of male and female perception of space by focusing on the materiality and fabric of the film screen through shots of empty walls and the character’s interactions with these surfaces.

The study of spatial exploration in The Cinema of the Soviet Thaw represents a noteworthy contribution to its realm of scholarship, connecting the stylistic innovations of this period with international developments and placing Soviet discourses on cinema, architecture, and art history in dialogue with Western critical theory. The book’s conclusion extends the discussion of space to contemporary Russian cinema, identifying the persistence of Thaw-era spatial experimentation in recent depictions of the relationship between subjects and their environment, especially through the example of Andrei Zviagintsev’s Elena (2011, Russia). In this manner, Oukaderova’s book expands the understanding of this period in global and historical contexts while also offering a sophisticated, detailed analysis of developments in Soviet cinema.

Zdenko Mandušić

Saint Louis University


Zdenko Mandušić is an Assistant Professor of Russian at Saint Louis University. He received a joint-Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago. His research interests include Russian film theory, poetics of cinema, history of film style, theories of affect, and realism. In his current research, Zdenko investigates how Soviet films communicated their narratives to spectators through cinematographic techniques, how formal elements organized viewer perception of these films, and how these formal elements were conceptualized in public discourse.


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Suggested Citation

Mandušić, Zdenko. 2019. Review: “Lida Oukaderova: The Cinema of the Soviet Thaw: Space, Materiality, Movement.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 8 (2019). DOI:


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