In Abram Room’s 1953 Soviet propaganda film an evil scientist creates a deadly nuclear dust against the backdrop of racial oppression in the US. As SF it is derivative and clunky, but as a description of Jim Crow America it is eerily accurate. 5/10
Serebristaya Pyl. 1953, USSR. Directed by Abram Room & Pavel Armand. Written by Aleksandr Filimonov & August Jakobson. Based on play by August Jakobson. Starring: Mikhail Bolduman, Sofiya Pilyavskaya, Valentina Ushakova, Nikolai Timofeyev, D. Kolmogorov, Robert Ross. IMDb: 6.0/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
1953 was a peak year for science fiction on both the big and small screens. In 1950 was the year that kicked off the fifties SF craze with Destination Moon (review) and Rocketship X-M (review), and 1951 the one that gave us quality classics like The Thing from Another World (review) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (review), then 1953 was the year when studios realised SF:s commercial value, and quantity started outweighing quality. When a good year in the thirties and forties gave SF fans a half dozen films, in 1953, over 20 science fiction moves were produced. And after having been an almost exclusively US-American phenomenon in the forties and early fifties, 1953 was the year that the SF movie went global again. The UK produced three films and a hugely influential TV series, and in our next review we’ll tackle the film that re-introduced Mexico to the genre. Here, however, we will focus on the Soviet Union’s first science fiction film in 12 years.
Set in a fictionalised version of the small town Scottsboro, Alabama, Serebristaya Pyl contains two parallel plots. Both are connected to the central family of the movie, involving the young Allan O’Connell (Nikolai Timofeyev), returning from Europe, and his wife Jen O’Connell (Valentina Ushakova). Jen’s father, Dr. Steele (Mikhail Bolduman) is a rich and eccentric scientist who is experimenting with a devastating new weapon, which he calls “silver dust” — a radioactive dust, which, if sprayed over an area, will painfully kill all its inhabitants. Steele is peddling his invention to the highest bidder. There are two interested parties, one is a ruthless capitalist, the other a ruthless capitalist, who also happens to be a member of the — apparently wide-spread — US Nazi party.
The parallel plot concerns Jen’s brother Harry (Vsevolod Larionov), who is also a member of the Nazi party. When black and white workers stage a march for better working conditions, Harry and his mates incite a riot. With the help of the foxy bar girl Flossie (Lidiya Smirnova) he sets out to smear the black workers by accusing the of attempted rape. The black workers are abused by the police and awaken the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan. But while crosses are burning on the hilltops and the riders in white approach the black workers’ quarters, the white proletariat comes to the rescue, forming a human wall between the KKK and the black homes.
The two plots converge because one of the men falsely accused of rape is Ben Robinson (D. Kolmogorov), who so happens to be the son of the Steeles’ maid, Mary Robinson (Zana Zanoni). The accusations against Ben are enough for Dr. Steele to drag the poor boy into his dungeon. And in doing this, he reveals his dark secret: He has been kidnapping black citizens as test subjects for his Silver Dust. If the nominal protagonists have previously been worried about Steele’s plans to sell his weapons to the Nazi capitalists, then his abuse of the black workers is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. But having done nothing but fret for the whole movie, our heroes seem to be to late, as Steele and the buyers are now planning a large-scale test: detonating a dust rocket above the black workers’ neighbourhood …
The sci-fi element of the film is naturally the ”silver dust”, a radioactive dust that is instantly lethal. In fact, this was dangerously close to being actual science than fiction. The film was released just as the Soviets were developing nuclear warheads, but hadn’t quite gotten them to work yet. Instead Russian scientists argued that you didn’t need a nuclear bomb to achieve widespread devastation – all you needed was a way to spray radioisotopes in the air, that after a while would kill off all life in a certain area, or even a whole country. At the Foreign Policy Research Institute researcher John R. Haines cites Russian rocket scientist Boris Chertok, who explains that the script for the film was developed with the help of nuclear scientists to show how such a thing might be done – at the time it was still science fiction, but according to Haines, it didn’t take many years before the Soviets deployed the first test shooting of just such a rocket. Says Chertok: ”There is an old adage about a ‘dream come true’. This was a ‘film come true’.”
But the SF angle seems more an aside, as the central the plot concerns US race issues, a sore point in the American reputation abroad, and one that the Soviet propaganda peddlers would have been crazy not to take advantage of. It wasn’t that the Soviet Union necessarily treated their minorities any better that the Americans, but at least officially every man and woman was equal in the USSR. Propaganda posters had people of all colours walking hand in hand, something unthinkable in the US in the fifties, when they couldn’t even ride the same bus. The USSR also had a black American scholar-cum-actor called Robert Ross set up as an official ”welcoming committee” for black Americans visiting Moscow, to show the, how well regarded black people were in the Soviet Union (read more about him in my review of The Mysterious Island). In reality, of course, the Soviet Union brutally repressed many of its own minorities. Robert Ross actually appears in Serebristaya Pyl as well, in a small bit-part. An interesting observation: looking at science fiction films from the forties and fifties, it appears as though there were more black actors working in Moscow than there were in Hollywood, which probably says more about Hollywood than about Moscow.
Serebristaya Pyl is based on the 1952 stage play Šaakalid (Ameerika elulaad) — or “Jackals (The American Way of Life)” by Estonian playwright and author August Jakobson, regarded as Estonia’s foremost Stalinist writer, described as ”ideologically militant”. Estonia, with its history as part of the Swedish empire, and its proximity in geography and language to Finland, was one of the countries where the Iron Curtain was thinnest, and Estonians could partake of news and entertainment from the West, smuggled and pirate broadcast from Finland, better than most Soviet countries. Thus it was probably no coincidence that Jakobson more than once referenced the US in his work, and apparently had a rather detailed knowledge about the race struggle in the country.
To what extent the screenplay adheres to the play is difficult to say, as there is very little to be gleaned on the web about this largely forgotten piece, but Jakobson did collaborate on the script with screenwriter Aleksandr Filimonov. If I interpret a short write-up from the Estonian paper Nõukogude Õpetaja (“The Soviet Teacher”) from September 1954, the film seems to follow the general outline of the play. In an article celebrating Jakobson’s 50th birthday, H. Päärn writes: “In the play Šaakalid, Jakobson highlights a number of typical phenomena and situations of the “American lifestyle”, [as the Americans] apply science against humanity and dream of world domination. The main character of the play is Professor Steel, who […] is occupied with inventing a weapon of mass destruction, and when he finally discovers it, it is sought after by representatives of trusts and monopolies. […] The author rightly shows the contradictions between the imperialists’ rage against all progressive-minded people, their hatred of the USSR [and the image of the US] as an melting pot of peace and democracy.” (Estonians will kindly forgive the wobbly translation.)
Second screenwriter Aleksandr Filimonov was no stranger to science fiction, as he was one of the people behind the 1935 movie Cosmic Voyage (1935, review), a lunar mission movie made 15 years before George Pal’s first American ditto, Destination Moon (1950, review).
Even though it was never released in the States, Serebristaya Pyl caused outrage overseas, after America’s fiercely anticommunist ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, was somehow able to attend a screening of it, and attacked it in a column in Time magazine. Luce called it ”vile propaganda”, despite the fact that most of what the film showed was happening in the USA at the time, even down to the secret medical testing of black people, without their knowledge or consent. For Luce (a former senator) and her contemporary conservatives, who must have known quite well about racial discrimination and the (often officially condoned) activities of the Ku Klux Klan, the film seems to have hit a sore spot. Luce later caused another film-related controversy, and ironically confirmed the racism she denied earlier, when she demanded the 1955 rock n’ roll film Blackboard Jungle be withdrawn from the program at the Venice Film Festival. It starred black actor Sidney Poitier and was later nominated for four Oscars.
But Luce wasn’t the only one upset about Serebristaya Pyl. According to Charlotte M. Manning’s book On the Performance Front the US delegate to the UN called it ”an extravagant fiction”, and James Reston of the New York Times described it as ”the most venomous anti-American movie in the history of [the Soviet] film industry”.
There is little of Abram Room’s cinematic genius on display in this movie. Adapted as it is from a stage play, Serebristaya Pyl is extremely talky, and consists to a large extent of people sitting or standing and talking. The acting is either pedestrian or hammy, for the most part. There are some visual moments of beauty, such as the image of the Ku Klux Klan attacking the workers quarters at night with the cross burning in the background. But they are few and far between.
For the most part the film feels staged and confined to a few sets, as if the budget was fairly low, and the filmmakers had a hard time recreating an American setting. The few shots from town feel like a cramped Hollywood backlot, and for some reason feels like a vision of USA cobbled together by artists who had never visited the country and tried to reimagine it from what they had seen in westerns. The Coca-Cola signs are the wrong colours and there’s a bar called ”Joe Twist Bar”, like a strange travesty of American names. The characters’ names; Harry Steele, Upton Bruce, Charles Armstrong and Dick Jones, all feel as if they are ripped from cheap detective novels. The bar girl is called ”Flossie” – a name that recalls the flappers of the twenties rather than a fifties barfly.
The actors behind the roles of the scientist, his wife and the two capitalists play broad stereotypes. Ushakova and Timofeyev are quite all right in their roles as the ”good guys”, and black actor D. Kolmogorov, probably an amateur, does his role as Ben Robinson with loveable sincerity. Zana Zanoni, playing Mary Robinson, is also quite good, although playing in blackface. Zanoni was fairly dark-skinned to begin with, and probably of Asian heritage, and the make-up is surprisingly believable; I actually had to check twice and thrice to be certain that she was actually wearing blackface. The most memorable performance is put up by Lidiya Smirnova playing Flossie, really an all-American small-town floosie through and through.
The movie does pick up speed toward the end, and becomes thoroughly dramatic as things start rolling, but by that time it’s a bit too late. I do like the fact that the racial struggle of America is tackled with such an openness and accuracy as it is. But the sci-fi element falls below the mark, and seems all too familiar not only from American movies but also from Soviet fiction going back decades. It is basically yet another take on the 1923 Grindell Mathews death ray controversy, adapted by Lev Kuleshov for the film The Death Ray (review) in 1925 and by author Alexei Tolstoy in the book The Garin Death Ray in 1927.
Serebristaya Pyl is an oddity inasmuch as it is partly colourised, a practice that had more or less disappeared in Western cinema by the fifties. The colourisation is fairly skilfully done, even if it has strangely subdued hues and it’s like there’s a filter of grey over everything. The print I watched was pretty dilapidated and the colour has spread and thinned, leaving much if the image blotched or black-and-white. But you can see the skilful work in the stills.
There are few reviews of Serebristaya Pyl to be found online. The sole review in English I have been able to dig up comes from Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings, who doesn’t understand the dialogue: “There’s not a whole lot I could get out of the film on my viewing under these circumstances; with the exception of a handful of scenes, the movie is extremely talky and conveys its story through dialogue rather than visuals. One reaction I did have was that it might have had a bit of trouble seeming real; the story takes place in the U.S., but despite the presence of English words and lettering on all of the sets, the locations never quite look authentic, and though this probably wouldn’t have bothered a Russian audience, I think it wouldn’t have passed muster with an American audience.”
At the independent online culture journal Colta film historian Maxim Semenov writes that Serebristaya Pyl would have been too fantastic even for Russians to take seriously as a true representation of the US: “The frame is bursting with former Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, communist rallies and secret laboratories, whose interiors anticipate Star Trek … A priest invokes the spirit of Jesus Christ, the Negro community sings religious hymns, and the cook’s son is threatened with lynching. But there is also a love story!” But, still, notes Semenov, the movie was special for its time inasmuch as it actually showed Russians, at least a propagandistically exaggerated version of real life in contemporary US: “Room’s America, though caricatured, takes corporeal form. The Americans are no longer just a concept, but actual people existing somewhere.” In the book On the Performance Front: US Theatre and Internationalism, C. Canning also notes that Serebristaya Pyl was one of “the most extreme” Russian films in terms of its anti-American stance. But if Semenov thinks that the story was too caricatured and extreme for a Soviet audience to take at face value, Canning writes: “The Soviets probably had no idea that it touched so closely on actual experiences”. At the business-oriented daily Kommersant, noted film critic Mikhail Trofimenkov also notes the film’s crudely hewn caricatures: “Gangsters, a racist sheriff, a depraved occultist priest, a sensible doctor and human rights activist, progressive veterans, a re-educated prostitute — all of them are cardboard cutouts. But yet the the film is still fascinating, and its suspense has not diminished.”
It is rather odd to see a once so lauded and artistic director like Room degraded to doing the sort of low-budget productions that this film ultimately is. It’s a bit like Alfred Hitchcock would have suddenly directed Flight to Mars (1951, review). But despite all its flaws, it is still extremely competently filmed and, as said, there are moments when you get glimpses of Room’s brilliant cinematic style. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more had I understood more of the dialogue. But judging from the overall plot and the acting, and what I do understand, I have a feeling that most of it is quite predictable, as the above critics note: the film rolls out all the stereotypes of these kind of movies. The mass scenes are very well directed, though, and especially the scenes with the Ku Klux Klan are emotionally very strong.
What you think of the film may vary on how you choose to see it. As far as sci-fi goes, it offers very little else than the old rumination of the dangers of science without morals. The production values and the acting are OK, better than your average low-budget Hollywood movie, but not up to the standard one would expect from an Abram Room movie. The broad stereotypes of the evil capitalists are just as bad as the broad stereotypes of communists seen in American cold war films, however Rostislav Plyatt as one of the Nazi speculators is superb. Taken out of its propagandistic context, the film was really groundbreaking in the way that it – surprisingly accurately – highlighted the discrimination and racism of Jim Crow United States.
Abram Room suffered the same fate as many of the great Soviet cinematic pioneers. So revered during the experimental phase of the liberal twenties in the Soviet Union, he soon found himself stifled by the Stalinist rule and the constraints of Soviet realism. He studied psychology and theatre and worked as both a stage director and journalist before making the leap into films in the mid-twenties. Perhaps not as visually inventive as Eisenstein or Kuleshov, Room was more of a cinematic poet, and many of his early films deal in visual symbolism, often framing his characters in mirrors or between buildings and sets designed to send a message, or shooting them through veils. In his films room often dealt with introspective themes, exploring the inner workings of his characters, their persuasions, doubts, incompleteness and not seldom sexuality – his aim was to bring psychological reality to the screen, rather than drown his characters in fictional clichés.
Room’s portraits of strong women and the role of women in the Soviet society proved controversial. In the 1927 silent film Bed and Sofa (Tretya meshchanskaya) he tells the story of a woman getting pregnant while living with two men, without knowing who the father is. The men assume she will have the child aborted, and she dutifully seeks out an abortion clinic. But while sitting in the waiting room she suddenly decides to keep the baby, leaves the two men in the apartment and leaves the city by train. (It may be hard to believe, but in the Soviet Union abortion was made legal under any circumstances as early as 1920.) The film is regarded as his best by many, but was met with scepticism by Soviet authorities. In the thirties all form of ambiguity or unnecessary artistry in films were outlawed under the decree of Soviet realism – the cinema show the world for what it was, simply and plainly, and most important of all – show the people of the Soviet Union how great Soviet socialism was. Period. This meant gagging and containing many of the great artists of USSR. Kuleshov was stuffed away in a teaching position, Eisenstein briefly fled to America, and so on.
Room had his final falling-out with the authorities with the film Strogiy yunosha, Stern Boy, in 1935. In the film he portrayed the ideal socialist youngster – he was a master at anything he set his mind on: poetry, art, sports, science, music, a moral example for all, and always striving to improve himself ans humanity. But between the lines and in the symbolism of the film, Room portrays him as a deeply flawed character, an empty vessel for preconceived virtues and clueless when it came to love and sex. There’s a famous scene in a bathhouse with the semi-nude young man surrounded by nude classical statues, which draws parallels between the dead marble of the perfectly shaped stone men and the stern boy – but it also enhances the feeling of homoeroticism prevalent through the movie. The film also contains the first – and probably only – erotically shot scene of full female nudity of the Stalinist era (shot from the back, though). The film caused such an outrage that it was immediately shelved after its premiere, and Room was stripped of all his honorary titles and awards.
Room struggled on through the forties trying to please the Soviet censors, and occasionally managed to turn out a decent movie, like 1945’s Invasion, but was severely hampered by the restraints on his filmmaking. In 1953 he apparently decided to give the censors what they wanted: a properly socialist, anti-American movie without any artsy subtexts or frills. That was to be Serebristaya Pyl. And it is true that there’s not much art to be found in this rather dull affair.
Unfortunately the film wasn’t the comeback quite Room had hoped for. The film was tolerated, even if, according to Manning, Soviet critics called it ”crude” and ”not accurate in terms of artistic truth”, which means that Room still hadn’t quite understood what the censors were looking for in terms of ”Soviet realism”.
As I have noted previously on this blog, Joseph Stalin was a complete film nut, who insisted on private screenings of most major films released in the Soviet Union for approval, and in some cases he was involved in pre-production as well, even calling up directors for private chats, giving ”suggestions” about how a script should be written and a film directed. The notion of Soviet realism sprung directly from Stalin. But he was also smart enough to know talent when he saw it, which is why most of the country’s top directors avoided being shipped off to Siberia, or worse. He knew that if he could just get ”Trotskyites” like Eisenstein to return to the fold, they could turn in some truly remarkable propaganda pieces for the home market. And as internationally renowned artists, they were instrumental for winning hearts and minds in the West.
With the death of Stalin in 1954, the reins of the film industry were loosened somewhat, evident in the slow trickle of more fantastical and experimental films from the Soviet Union, and it also led to the old masters being rehabilitated. Room, however, still had to wait some years for his renaissance. In between, he created a few more films in the fifties, including the sci-fi movie Tayna Vechnoy Nochi (The Mystery of the Eternal Night, 1957). He was 70 years old when he released the first of what became a trilogy of films based on beloved Russian literature. From 1964 to 1972 he made very well-regarded adaptations of books by Aleksandr Kuprin, Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky. Kinomosurka describes them as dealing with ”love, music, the greatness of women and the beauty of human labour”. It was a return to form. Room passed away in 1976.
Mikhail Bolduman was one of the top actors of the Moscow stage, and as such garnered heaps of Stalin Prizes and Orders of Lenin and so forth, as it was the custom of the Soviet Union to turn all great artists into walking Christmas trees of bling. His film output was rather meagre. Sofiya Pilyavskaya basically plays herself in the film – a noblewoman with a distaste for ”plebeian” culture. Also a stage actress, her ”refinement” and aristocratic air didn’t win her any favours in the Soviet system and she often had difficulties finding roles. She appeared in around 20 films, most notably in small roles in We’ll Live Live Till Monday, that won the Golden Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1969, and the 1967 adaptation of Anna Karenina.
Actress Valentina Ushakova had a long career that spanned from 1950 to 2005, although she often had supporting parts, rather than leads. Her best known films are Musorgskiy (1950), which was nominated for the Grand Prize at Cannes, and the artsy rom-com Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980). Nikolai Timofeyev, more or less the lead actor in the film, was a noted film and stage actor who appeared in over 50 movies from 1950 to 1986. He is somewhat interesting for this blog, as he appeared in two other science fiction films. Most notably Mechte navstrechu (Encounter in Space, 1963), an overlooked little gem that was edited into the Roger Corman movie Queen of Blood (1966). The other one was Humanoid Woman (1981) or Cherez ternii k zvyozdam, where he had a small bit-part.
Vsevolod Larionov, playing Harry Steele, was a very prolific film actor, who later did much voice work with animations, including the popular sci-fi film Mystery of the Third Planet (1981), or Tayna tretey planety. Lidiya Smirnova (as Flossie) matured into one of the biggest stars of Soviet cinema in the sixties and seventies. In 2015, 100 years after her birth, the Russian postal office released a commemorative post card with her face on it.
The movie was filmed by legendary cinematographer Eduard Tisse, frequent collaborator of Sergei Eisenstein, who worked on such masterpieces as Battleship Potemkin (1925), Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible, part I (1945). He also worked on the pseudo-sci-fi film Aerograd (1935, review). The music for the film was composed by Mikhail Chulaki, a famous public figure in the Soviet Union, who wrote books on composing, wrote several ballets and was a director at the Bolshoi Theatre for two decades. Art director Aleksei Utkin also worked on Cosmic Voyage.
Serebristaya Pyl. 1953, USSR. Directed by Abram Room & Pavel Armand. Written by Aleksandr Filimonov & August Jakobson. Based on the play Saakali by August Jakobson. Starring: Mikhail Bolduman, Sofiya Pilyavskaya, Valentina Ushakova, Nikolai Timofeyev, Vsevolod Larionov, Vladimir Belokurov, Rostislav Plyatt, Grigori Kirillov, Alexandr Khanov, Gennadi Yudin, Zana Zanoni, D. Kolmogorov, Aleksandr Pelevin, Lidiya Smirnova, Osip Abdulov, Sergei Tsenin, Nadir Malishevsky, Vladimir Savelev, Yuri Chekulayev, Arkadi Tsinman, Isaak Leongarov, Robert Ross. Music: Mikhail Chulaki. Cinematography: Eduard Tisse. Art direction: Aleksei Utkin. Sound: Vladimir Zorin. Special effects: P. Malanichev. Produced for Mosfilm.