[On February 3, 2020, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a Distinguished Faculty Lecture “Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe” by Professor Lilya Kaganovsky (Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Cinema and Media Studies). Below is a response by Erin Cheslow (English).]
Memory’s Gaze: Lilya Kaganovsky on 1960s Soviet Film, Trauma, and Memory
Written by Erin Cheslow (English)
“Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe”
“Cut Off.”That is how Lilya Kaganovsky described the lives portrayed in 1960s Soviet cinema in her Unit for Distinguished Faculty Lecture on February 3, 2020. Opening with an image of Lyolya and Dmitry – lovers in Mikhail Romm’s 1962 film, Nine Days of One Year – facing away from one another as they attempt to comprehend the consequences of nuclear testing, Dr. Kaganovsky argues that Romm’s cinema “raised questions of science, technology, memory, and forgetting” in an attempt to work through the Soviet past.
As Kaganovsky will show, Lyolya is the most able to see the effects of the past in the present. Her gaze humanizes those she sees, complicating nuclear progressivism by locating it alongside the traumas of the past. In Nine Days of One Year, Romm broke with the conventions of Soviet cinema to work through the trauma of previous generations who lived through Stalinism and World War II. Unable to understand or recreate the events of the past, those born after the war still feel a responsibility for the past. Kaganovsky borrows Marianne Hirsch’s “postmemory,” “a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation,” to describe the fragmentation that “characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narrative that preceded their birth.” One of only a few films to address atomic power and nuclear annihilation, Nine Days of One Year enacts postmemory to locate the past firmly in the present. Lyolya, though in many ways a flat character with no last name or clear job description, sees what others cannot—the horror that underpins scientific study and an incessant drive toward an imagined future.
Before delving into the complexities of Romm’s work, however, Kaganovsky provided an overview of Soviet film in the Thaw period (approximately 1956-1967). Each of the films she mentions, meant to be representative of Soviet cinema of the period, is located firmly in the present. A series of images pulled from the films show scenes from daily life, with characters “seemingly caught up in the contemporaneity of the present.” One couple is caught in a rainstorm, while a man in another film sits in the background reading a newspaper and another stands relaxed at an airport. Although these scenes may seem everyday and relatable, they are so completely “unsaturated” by history that they project a kind anomie, or “a feeling that the characters live lives unconnected to the outside world, to history, or to the previous generation.” Indeed, as one character in the 1967 film, July Rain, tells another, “Yes, we are cut off, and the link with the outside world is broken.” Without links to history, Thaw cinema is characterized by loss; there is no closure, no comprehension, no memory.
Romm’s later films break with this kind of realism and the Stalinist Realism of his earlier work to explore the relationship between past and present, traumatic memory and postmemory. In a film released three years after Nine Days of One Year, Ordinary Fascism (1965), the gaze of children and of Auschwitz survivors provides a framework for understanding Lyolya’s gaze in the earlier film. Romm transposes images of children’s drawings and the faces of young children with images of violence to create a sense of traumatic disjuncture. In one scene, as described by Kaganovsky, a series of children’s drawings of cats and other “innocent” images is followed by images of Moscow mothers and their children. Suddenly, the camera cuts to a mother and child being shot by a Nazi soldier, accompanied by the sound of a gunshot. Yet another image is shown, that of a child in her mother’s arm, staring directly at the camera.
The child’s eyes, looking back at us, reflect those of the victims of Auschwitz,
which paper the walls of the barracks that Romm walked through on the last day of filming. The halls, badly lit, do not afford a good view of the pictures, but each face holds something that Romm can’t identify. Each is defiant or scared, full ofhatred or submission, but that is not all. Everywhere, there are eyes, and each contains death. Romm recognized the need to transfer the death look to the screen, to create a cinematographic form of history through the gaze. For him, no one looking at those eyes could stay detached from history. “The eyes are still looking; the eyes are still looking at us.” The violence may be over, but it continues to resonate in the present. The gaze is a kind of postmemory.
Ordinary Fascism ends with more images of children, this time those of the peacetime generation. It remains unfinished, never showing any finalizing events like the death of Hitler or the end of the war. According to Kaganovsky, “Facism has not been defeated. The cancer has been cut out, but the metastasis is still spreading. The west is marked as genocidal,” linking the Holocaust with the threat of nuclear annihilation at the center of Nine Days of One Year.
Drawing on the French film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), which Romm found distasteful for its graphic imagery of the victims of the atom bomb but also described as a “magnificent lesson in montage,” Romm produced Nine Days of One Year to challenge the notion that science is politically neutral, an innocuous way into the future. The film features two male physicists… and the woman who loves them. Though she is engaged to one, when the other becomes irradiated, she marries the latter. Though she seems to be nothing more than an object of desire, Lyolya introduces a human element. The men push physics beyond human limits at the cost of human lives, and she watches it all happen. Her gaze comes to reveal and work against the cost of human “perfection” gained through science and technology.
There is no moment in which science could be turned back and used only for good. Nine Days, Dmitry explains that once an idea exists, it cannot be unthought. Even if destroyed, it will be discovered again. Yet, it is Dmitry who is irradiated and dies for such ideas. The philosophical debate is made real when we see his eyes, gazing through the viewfinder during a test of the nuclear technology, anticipating those Romm will see at Auschwitz. Like the eyes of the victims, Dmitry’s hold death.
As Lyolya gazes at Dmitry gazing into the viewfinder, she sees death where he sees scientific advancement. Her eyes reflect the horror that underpins scientific study, bringing past and future into the present as a narrative of destruction. Like Ordinary Fascism, the film ends with a child’s drawing. The crude stick figures point to the inability to turn away from history and take comfort in fantasy. The present is always saturated with the past.
Response and Q&A
In her brief response to Kaganovsky’s lecture, Brett Kaplan, a professor of Comparative and World Literature, brought together current events and French cinema to highlight the relevance of postmemory and the struggle to portray traumatic events. From German and Soviet death camps to the camps currently operating on the US/Mexican border, the resonances of fascism are undeniable, yet differences must be maintained. The past does not repeat; it moves. It lives, returning to us in the montage of traumatic flash back. As seen in films like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Nine Days of One Year, memory leaves a trace, but only a trace, as it attempts to contend with histories that burn away the very possibility of memory. These cinematic attempts to access the past align victimization and perpetration through the effects of the gaze. Evoking Jacques Derrida’s use of the trace, Kaplan showed how traumatic landscapes are embedded in history and in memory. The present contains the shadows of the past.
The first question in the Q&A followed on Kaplan’s interest in the intersections of victimization and perpetration, in the hopes of unpacking that alignment. Kaganovsky responded, “Ordinary Fascism is a film about forcing us to look, forcing us to see, forcing us to identify ourselves both with the victims and with the perpetrators. In Nine Days, the gaze that is joined in Ordinary Fascism is split by the man who is both victim and perpetrator.”
Most of the remaining questions focused on the contrast between Romm’s aesthetics and those of Hollywood films and other films that portrayed the Holocaust. Kaganovsky noted the distinct differences between a Soviet anti-bourgeois aesthetic and a Hollywood aesthetic targeted at a bourgeois audience, but she also pointed to the similarities with other Holocaust films that were coming from the same kind of impulse.
Toward the end of our time, one audience member asked Kaganovsky to speak more about the gendering of Lyolya’s witnessing. Though she is a seemingly flat character, she is also the only character given an interiority through voiceovers. Much like the children in Ordinary Fascism, she is removed from the events, but she is able to witness them, to remember them. Through the woman’s gaze, postmemory becomes possible. Only she can see history unfolding into the present.