The notion of a special relationship between cinema and material reality is one of the central questions of film studies, and one that has come increasingly to the fore in light of digital technologies. To quote the famous formulation of French film critic André Bazin in his essay, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”: “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from temporal contingencies.” Later in his career, in an essay about the Stalin cult in Soviet cinema, Bazin wrote that the “cinematic reconstitution” of Stalin—by means of an actor playing Stalin—is so powerful precisely because “the cinematic image is other, seemingly superimposable with reality”; it is “as incontestable as Nature and History.” This paper seeks to understand how films, including socialist realist films, represent reality, regardless of conditions; how film manufactures, through its aesthetic possibilities, a realism. To do this, I will examine the fundamental contradiction of realism: on the one hand, the logical flow of a narrative that is based on correspondence to a recognizable historical/material reality, and whose constructiveness is invisible, as in Hollywood “invisible style”; on the other hand, the resistance of singular objects (or people) to their instrumentalization into an ideological structure, a resistance that makes its own status visible as discourse. I will argue that socialist realism aspires to overcome this contradiction through an “impossible real” that attempts (and fails) to merge the two terms of realism’s fundamental antimony.
Elizabeth A. Papazian is Associate Professor of Russian and Film Studies and a core faculty member of the program in Comparative Literature at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include literary and cinematic modernism, documentary modes in literature and film, realism in film, and the intersection between art and politics, focusing in particular on early Soviet culture. She is the author of Manufacturing Truth: The Documentary Moment in Early Soviet Culture (2009), and co-editor, with Caroline Eades, of The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia (2016), which includes a co-authored chapter on “Cinéma-vérité and Kino-pravda: Rouch, Vertov, and the Essay Form.” She is currently working on a book project on realism in Soviet cinema.