How Hollywood-Soviet collaboration could be a guide for Russia-U.S. relations

Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's venture to Hollywood in 1930 serves as a model of creative collaboration in times of geopolitical conflict.

For almost 16 years, from 1917 to 1933, the United States followed a policy of nonrecognition of the Soviet Union. Despite the lack of diplomatic ties, Soviet-American cultural exchanges were prevalent, especially in the medium of film. A case study that could serve as a model for modern Russia-U.S. relations is Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s visit to Hollywood in 1930. He arrived in Hollywood at the beginning of the Great Depression and the advent of talkies – motion pictures with synchronized sound. This was before McCarthyism, the Hollywood blacklist, and cinema being used as a cultural weapon of the Cold War. Certainly, stereotypes of the Other existed within their respective national cinemas, but links and flows of cinematic ideas and productions occurred between the US and USSR. Though Eisenstein failed to produce a film in America, his influence on Hollywood exemplifies the transnational hybridity of the time.

Both Russians and Americans sought to promote an economic relationship despite ideological differences. The Soviet film industry needed American sound technology to enter the age of talkies. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Hollywood studio system faced bankruptcy after investing in the expensive equipment required to make synchronized sound pictures. The “European romantic sophisticat[ed]” studio Paramount Pictures looked towards Russian innovator Sergei Eisenstein as their next business venture. From the American business perspective, the Eisenstein-Paramount contract was nothing more than another opportunity in “the greatest underdeveloped market in the world,” as Senator William Borah claimed Russia to be in 1930. Ideological tensions between the countries continued to develop, but the economic opportunity certainly didn’t stop the film industry from building a partnership.

Sergei Eisenstein’s visit was one case in this field of collaboration. He had been invited after meeting American actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford during their trip to the USSR in 1926. The vice-president of Paramount, Jesse L. Lasky, hoped for a contract in which Eisenstein could divide his time between Moscow and Los Angeles. This would never materialize and has come to be labeled by historians as an unsuccessful demonstration of the limitations of Soviet-American relations. It certainly illustrates a narrow view of Soviet Russia, held by American businessmen who thought Russian artists would create their dated notions of Russian culture – Eisenstein’s vision proved to be too radical for mainstream US cinema.

However, Eisenstein can be considered a success in improving USSR-US relations if viewed in a less tangible way. The legacy of Soviet montage would live on in film theory for generations – it’s still taught in film schools today. Leftist and avant-garde American filmmakers and critics would continue to follow his career. Eisenstein was welcomed by “leading Hollywood figures, including Fairbanks, von Sternberg, Disney and especially Chaplin, who became his closet friend.” Even though he failed to produce a movie, Hollywood never distanced themselves from the Soviet figure. Hollywood would continue to bring out Soviet cultural figures such as Boris Pilnyak indicating a continued interest in collaborating with Soviet Russia.

Beyond Eisenstein, there were the Russian émigrés who flocked to the Hollywood film industry. Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, an entire creative class sought a more stable place conducive to creative work. To a significant degree, Hollywood was built by immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia. Silent films meant that for actors, an accent or lack of English didn’t pose a problem. Directors such as Lewis Milestone embodied the American dream.

So what modern implications do Soviet-American film collaboration have? This relationship could serve as a model for the Russia-US film industries in the age of streaming and globalization. Just as the European Union has responded to the forces of American streaming platforms by requiring a 30% quota of European content, Russia has drafted a proposal to limit foreign ownership to 20%. Outside of legislation, cross-cultural collaboration has been occurring between the United States and Russia.

Russian filmmaker Ilya Naishuller directed one of the first American films to debut in theaters as pandemic restrictions lifted. His film Nobody indeed uses Russian mob villain stereotypes, but as a playful pastiche of the action-thriller genre. Naishuller was the one to insist on the Russian elements and making sure to hire a Russian cast – “Let’s have the Russian play the Russians. There are plenty who speak good enough English to be in a studio film.” Unlike Eisenstein, he represents a monetary achievement in work between a Russian artist and an American production company.

Russia is an exciting new market in the world of international film production. Roskino, a state-owned agency “which promotes Russian film and TV worldwide,” has taken significant steps to promote Russia on the global stage. A testament to this is the current production of the modern adaptation of Anna Karenina, the first-ever Russian original series for Netflix. Evgenia Markova, CEO of Roskino, explains how streaming has transformed the industry: “Russia never provided special subsidies for theatrical releases of Russian titles and its marketing campaign abroad, unlike European countries — Germany or France, for example — so the release of Russian films was always an investment risk for global distributors,” Markova says. “But now, due to global streamers, the problem disappeared.”

Russia will likely continue building this momentum, as indicated by an industry event that took place 8-10 June 2021 aimed at attracting international production. This is due mainly to: “In 2019, the Russian government introduced a cash rebate of up to 40% for foreign productions lensing in the country.” Much media coverage from American news outlets such as Variety and the Hollywood Reporter casts this expanding relationship in historical terms. US-Russia relations are predictably described as Cold War-style. But there’s also underlying respect for the craft of Russian cinema with quotes such describing it as “a long, rich cinema cultural tradition of genius auteurs that stretches from Sergei Eisenstein through Andrei Tarkovsky to Andrei Zvyagintsev.”

Eisenstein’s visit to Hollywood and subsequent influence on filmmakers occurred during a period of no formal diplomatic ties. What this indicates is that whatever the diplomatic relationship between Moscow and Washington may be, the film industry of both countries can succeed in developing links ­– both economically, culturally, and artistically. French producer-director Philippe Martinez certainly recognizes the enormous potential of co-productions: “I don’t think that people realize in Europe and the US that Russian cinema has an incredible history of filmmakers. They know how to make movies.” By growing the Russian film industry through co-productions, it allows Americans to transcend the limitations of geopolitics and to build an enduring partnership – from the early years of Hollywood to the enormous potential of video streaming platforms. In almost a cyclical manner, as Russians in the 1920s shaped cinema, contemporary Russian filmmakers are likely to become internationally recognized once again.

Katrina Kalamar is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).