Russia dusts down Soviet Union’s forgotten 3-D films

A film strip from 1941’s “Concert” or “Land of Youth.”

MOSCOW: As 3-D cinema enjoys a revival with Hollywood blockbusters, an unexpected retrospective in Moscow reveals the Soviet Union began entertaining its citizens with homegrown 3-D films as early as the 1940s.

The films may lack the exotic plots of James Cameron’s 2009 “Avatar” and Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” but they are of astonishing technical quality and sophistication.

In a color film called “In the Avenues of the Park,” a young woman in a print dress stretches her hand holding a rose toward the viewer, while young men in baggy trousers stroll and schoolboys in caps run about.

The crystal-clear film shows Moscow’s Gorky Park in 1952, a year before Stalin died, yet the 3-D technology, similar to that now filling multiplexes, makes it feel eerily current.

“3-D before our era,” Kommersant headlined a story on the films, which were shown in a special program at the Moscow International film Festival. The film program has been restored and digitized by two enthusiasts, Nikolai Mayorov and Nikolai Kotovsky.

“We have all got used to hearing various legends that 3-D cinema came to us from the United States,” Mayorov told an audience at the festival. “In fact, it came there from Russia.”

Surprisingly, the first showing of a 3-D film in Russia was in 1911, several years before the first one in the U.S.

The Soviets’ first commercial 3-D film was 1941’s “Concert” or “Land of Youth,” first shown just months before the Soviet Union joined World War II.

A tour de force showing off scenes from ocean waves to a ball in around 40 minutes, it was designed for viewing without glasses.

Viewers watched the film through a wire grid that meant the left and right eye saw two different images at the same time, creating an illusion of depth. The system called stereo cinema was created by a Soviet inventor called Semyon Ivanov.

The “Concert” film was mainly black-and-white but had sections where it burst into color – a technique also used in Hollywood for 1939 hit “The Wizard of Oz” – which caused a sensation at the time.

Among the sections shown at the festival are scenes of storks in a pond and a cockatoo swinging on a ring, set to trilling music – somewhat short on thrills but showing off the technical possibilities of 3-D.

Mayorov found the negatives and sound recordings, still in a good condition, at the State Film Fund. He worked first on the black-and-white sections, and has also restored some of the more complex color sections.

He first showed the film, which he has adapted for viewing through modern 3-D glasses, at a specialized archival festival in the Moscow region last year.

“Concert” was hugely popular, showing at a specially adapted cinema from Jan. 14, 1941, until the outbreak of war in June that year.

“Half-a-million people watched it and only the war stopped the showings,” Mayorov said.

After the war, the authorities opened a new cinema for 3-D films on central Ploshchad Sverdlova, now Theater Square, gaining a new audience for more ambitious acted films.

Russian 3-D cinema never took off like it did in the U.S. during its brief heyday in the 1950s and seems to have gradually faded away. “It had no booms nor disasters,” Mayorov admitted.

Viewers clapped and chuckled at a charming short adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s comic stories called “The Burbot Fish” from 1954 – complete with budgerigars flying out from an aristocrat’s country estate.

“The films really are worth watching,” said Mayorov, “ because unlike a lot of foreign ones, the 3-D is ... really good quality.”

A number of 3-D films are now being produced again in Russia such as the animated 2010 hit “Belka and Strelka: Star Dogs” about the two dogs from the Soviet Union who were the first animals to ever return from space.

Meanwhile, legendary Russian director Fyodor Bondarchuk is making a keenly anticipated epic new 3-D film about the World War II Battle of Stalingrad between Nazi German invaders and Soviet forces.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 10, 2012, on page 16.




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