Dream Factory on Mosfilmovskaya Street: The history of Russia’s largest film studio

Dream Factory on Mosfilmovskaya Street: The history of Russia’s largest film studio
Mosfilm Studio buildings. Photo by N. Maximov. July 1963 Courtesy Mosfilm
Mosfilm has released hundreds of wonderful films, including such blockbusters as “Kidnapping Caucasian Style,” “The Diamond Arm,” “Office Romance” and “Moscow Does not believe in Tears.” This mos.ru story focuses on the creation of these all-time greats, their sets and other  secrets behind the scenes stories.

In September 2018, Mosfilm received over 15,000 square metres of new floor-space for storing its legendary properties, like almost 300,000 costumes, including sleeveless medieval jackets, padded jackets, shoes, hats, caps, as well as props, furniture, cars, coaches, carts, buggies and sleds from popular films.

The film studio naturally had a warehouse of its own in previous years but it was built in the 1970s to a standard design that could also store produce. So, Mosfilm needed something more attractive, and the new House of Costumes and Props with modern ventilation and storage systems meets its requirements.

Mosfilm has also received its 16th pavilion with an area of 2,500 square metres. According to film historians, this is a major achievement for the studio and the entire national film industry. Workers are now adding finishing touches to this pavilion. In fact, the studio has not seen such a construction project since the late 1950s.

1920s-1930s: The legend begins

Mosfilm marks its birthday every 30 January. On that day in 1924, Russian filmmakers released only 20 copies of Boris Mikhin’s film “Soaring into the Sky.” Film critics of that period referred to it as the “first Soviet detective story.” Engineer Glagolev, the main protagonist, and his son Boris design a new aircraft, with Boris later flying it and successfully fighting White Guard forces in the Russian Civil War. 

This was the first film to be produced by the studios of Alexander Khanzhonkov and Josef Yermolyev, later reorganised as the 1st and 3rd Goskino (State Film) factories. A merger led to the creation of Mosfilm sometime later. The new studio was renamed many times before obtaining its legendary name. Over the years, it was known as Sovkino, Soyuzkino, Rosfilm, Soyuzfilm and even Moskinokombinat. The studio was officially renamed Mosfilm in 1936.

Photo courtesy of Mosfilm Studios

In 1927, the cornerstone of the dream factory itself was laid on Vorobyovy Gory (Hills). In fact, it closely resembled Hollywood, which was visited by young Soviet film directors Sergei Eisenstein, Grigory Alexandrov and director of photography Eduard Tisse during their trip to the United States in the 1920s. The idea was to merge all film studios, then scattered all over Moscow, and to create an integral film studio bringing together screenwriters, film directors and producers. At the time, there were no filmmaking facilities like it in Europe.

In the early years, Mosfilm produced the legendary films “Battleship Potyomkin” and “October” by Sergei Eisenstein, as well as “State Official” by Ivan Pyryev. Nikolai Ekk’s “A Start in Life,” the first sound film, was released in 1931. After that, musicals became popular in the Soviet Union. Grigory Alexandrov directed some of them, such as “Circus” and “Volga-Volga,” while Ivan Pyryev created such popular comedies as “Rich Bride” and “Tractor Drivers.” These musicals starring Lyubov Orlova and Marina Ladynina won the love of millions.

But the new film studio buildings quickly fell into disrepair because they were designed during the silent film era when no one cared about acoustics and sound-proofing. The studio’s properties had to be upgraded quickly, but it didn’t happen overnight.

The fateful 1940s

The Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 thwarted the filmmakers’ plans. Due to the rapid Nazi advance, it became necessary to complete some films, including Ivan Pyryev’s “They Met in Moscow”early. When the war began, Ivan Pyryev even managed to enlist in the Red Army, but Josef Stalin himself ordered him to come back and finish the comedy. The film was released in October 1941 while the German Wehrmacht had reached the gates of Moscow.

Mosfilm employees were soon evacuated to Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. In 1943, the studio’s Moscow facilities, including film-sets, started to reopen. The first Soviet colour film, “Russian Sailor Ivan Nikulin,” was also completed at that time.

In all, Mosfilm released 30 features films, including Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible,” during the war.  

Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Kolkhoz Woman sculpture was selected as the official Mosfilm logo. A 100-centimetre high copy of this sculpture, made by Mukhina herself specially for this film, first appeared at the beginning of Alexandrov’s comedy “Spring” (1947).

The biggest films released in the 1940s, included Grigory Alexandrov’s “Tanya” (“Bright Path”) and “Linkup on the Elbe River,” Konstantin Yudin’s “The Hearts of Four,” Ivan Pyryev’s “District Committee Secretary” and “Kuban Cossacks,” “Wait for Me” by Alexander Stolper and Boris Ivanov, and Alexander Stolper’s “Story of a Real Man.”

The prosperous 1950s

Although few films were released in the early 1950s, the Soviet film industry began to thrive after Stalin’s death.

By 1959, up to 25 films were being released annually, including some popular Soviet movies. Samson Samsonov’s “Fidget,” Mikhail Kalatozov’s “The Cranes are Flying.” Grigory Chukhrai’s “Forty-First” and “The Ballad of a Soldier,” received awards during film festivals in Cannes and Venice.

Costume shop at Mosfilm Studio. Photo by B. Vilenkin and M. Trakhman, 1958

The film “Annushka,” directed by Boris Barnet and based on a story by playwright Efraim Sevela, was released in the summer of 1959. It tells the story of a woman who lost her husband during the war but who managed to raise three children. The film starred Irina Skobtseva with one of her first drama film role , as well as Olga Aroseva.

The 1960s: Khrushchev thaw melts the ice

The crucial 1960s were a time of great expectations, with new filmmakers coming to the fore. At that time, Mosfilm released its best films, including Mikhail Romm’s “Nine Days of one Year” artistic manifesto that prioritised the ascetic nature of artistic methods and which studied the “games of enlightened reason.” Romm brought new actors into the spotlight, including Innokenty Smoktunovsky, Alexei Batalov and Tatiana Lavrova. Physical strength gave way to brains and analytical reason.

Film director Mikhail Romm and actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky in a Mosfilm makeup room before shooting. Photo by I. Sinitsyn, June 1961

Georgy Natanson’s “Once Again About Love,” based on a play by Edward Radzinsky, starred Tatiana Doronina as Natasha and Alexander Lazarev as Scientist Yevdokimov. The film became a success overnight. This tragic love affair between a female flight attendant and a physicist was seen by an estimated 40 million people.

In the 1960s, Mosfilm churned out great work like “Seryozha” by Georgy Danelia and Igor Talankin, “Girls” by Yury Chulyukin, “Nine Days of one Year” by Mikhail Romm, “My Friend Kolka” by Alexander Mitta, “The Diamond Arm” and “Dog Barbos and Unusual Cross” by Leonid Gaidai, “Hussar Ballad” by Eldar Ryazanov, “Ivan’s Childhood” by Andrei Tarkovsky, “Walking the Streets of Moscow” by Georgy Danelia, “War and Peace” by Sergei Bondarchuk, “White Desert Sun” by Vladimir Motyl and other noted films.

1970s: Everything according to plan

On the eve of Mosfilm’s 50th anniversary, Vorobyovy Gory boasted the largest film facility in Europe, with 13 soundstages and 5,000 employees. By that time, the studio had released 1,200 films and had received 166 and 32 awards at international and  national film festivals, respectively.

Mosfilm became the only place where it was possible to build a medieval castle or a spacecraft in just a few days, to obtain pheasant feathers or artificial eyes.

The film factory was run under an integral state plan, turning out a preset number of films about the working class, collective farmers, comedies and historical epics. And the studio released them.  It also released real masterpieces.

Andrey Tarkovsky’s “Solaris,” based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem on humankind’s ethical problems, starred Donatas Banionis and Natalia Bondarchuk and won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

Shooting “Solaris,” based on the science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem, at Mosfilm Studio. February 1972

At that time, Leonid Gaidai directed his “Twelve Chairs,” based on the novel by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov. Starring Archil Gomiashvili as Ostap Bender and Sergei Filippov as Kisa Vorobyaninov, it became a box-office hit, with a viewership of 39.3 million.

Sergei Kolosov directed “Remember Your Name,” with Eldar Ryazanov completing his “Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia.” Sergei Bondarchuk directed “They Fought for Their Motherland,” and Andrei Konchalovsky released the musical “Romance for Lovers.” In turn, Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa completed his “Dersu Uzala.”

The 1980s: A brave new world emerges

The 1980s went down in history as a time when people expected life to change. As the decade roared along, Vladimir Menshov released the mind-boggling “Moscow Does not Believe in Tears.” The film became an all-time box office hit and also won an Oscar. In all, 84.4 million people watched it in the Soviet Union.

At the time, films about industrial production themes, including Vladimir Basov’s “Facts of a Bygone Day” based on the novel “Work Safety” by Yury Skop, also carved out their own niches. This particular film focused on a conflict between the director of an ore processing plant above the Arctic Circle and its chief engineer. It is remembered for a galaxy of Soviet stars, including Andrei Martynov, Mikhail Ulyanov, Vladislav Strzhelchik, Alexander Abdulov, Lyudmila Chursina, Valentina Telichkina, Yekaterina Vasilyeva, Larisa Udovichenko, Leonid Kuravlyov, Alexander Shirvindt, Yevgeny Zharikov, Valentina Talyzina, Lev Borisov and others.

In the 1980s, the Soviet film industry noted the emerging younger generation’s problems for the first time, releasing such great films as “Plumbum or the Dangerous Game” by Vadim Abdrashitov and Karen Shakhnazarov’s “The Messenger Boy.” Shakhnazarov also directed “We are from Jazz” starring Igor Sklyar and Yelena Tsyplakova, as well as “Winter Evening in Gagry.”

The best films of the 1980s also included Eldar Ryazanov’s “Say a Word for the Poor Hussar” and “Station for Two,” Pyotr Todorovsky’s “Waiting for Love,” (aka Lyubimaya zhenshchina mekhanika Gavrilova),  Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Family Relations,” Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Nostalgia,” Rolan Bykov’s “Scarecrow,” Vladimir Menshov’s “Love and Doves,” Georgy Danelia’s “Kin-dza-dza” and Sergei Solovyov’s “Assa.”

The Russian film industry had trouble staying afloat throughout the 1990s; however, it eventually received new equipment and attained modern technical capabilities. The glorious Mosfilm continues to make history and is expected to release 86 films in 2018. Another soundstage and a concert hall are scheduled to be built soon. Under a construction project with no funding from the state budget, Mosfilm will change considerably, becoming more advanced and preserving and expanding the traditions of previous generations.

Statistics tell the story

Since January 1924, Mosfilm has released over 2,500 films, including the following box office hits:“Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” by Vladimir Menshov, 1980: 84.4 million viewers

— “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” by Vladimir Menshov, 1980: 84.4 million viewers

— “The Diamond Arm” by Leonid Gaidai, 1969: 76.7 million viewers

— “Kidnapping Caucasian Style or the New Adventures of Shurik” by Leonid Gaidai, 1966: 76.5 million viewers

— “Air Crew” by Alexander Mitta, 1979: 71.1 million viewers

— “Shield and Sword” by Vladimir Basov, 1968: 68.3 million viewers.

Set design shop at Mosfilm Studio. Photo by I. Gnevashev, Moscow, 1980