Eccentrism at 100: celebrating the forgotten mavericks of the Soviet avant-garde

The Factory of the Eccentric Actor during the making of their lost first film, The Adventures of Oktyabrina (1924). Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg are left and centre of the back row.

The Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s – the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Lev Kuleshov – is famous throughout the world for its contributions to film form and theory. But our understanding of this crucial period of film history has always been incomplete. Away from the new Soviet capital of Moscow, other filmmakers were pursuing their own idiosyncratic experiments.

One of the most striking examples emerged in Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg, soon to be Leningrad). ‘FEKS’, or The Factory of the Eccentric Actor, was a stage and screen collective centred around two Ukrainian upstarts, Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. Their brand of ‘eccentrism’, which they announced in a dizzying 1922 manifesto, drew on the speed and virtuosity of American popular cinema, the athleticism of the circus, and the shock value of vaudeville. The group produced several groundbreaking silent films before their early momentum waned. Kozintsev and Trauberg would go on to have noteworthy directorial careers – first together in a string of early sound classics, then separately after the war – but the significance of FEKS to the Soviet avant-garde has largely gone unexamined in the century since.

Film historian Ian Christie was part of the first retrospective of FEKS in Britain in 1978; four years later, he met and befriended Trauberg during a trip the elderly director made to London. Now, he has compiled Eccentrism Turns 100: FEKS and the Early Soviet Avant-Garde, a ‘centenary anthology’ that features the first complete translation of the FEKS manifesto, alongside a facsimile of its original ‘eccentric’ typography, with a portfolio of stills, original polemics, and later reminiscences by the founders. To celebrate the release of the book, we’re publishing the following edited extract from its introduction and afterword, in which Christie reflects on his encounters with Eccentrism, its place in Soviet film history, and the role that artists like Kozintsev and Trauberg can play in contemporary reimaginings of Soviet and Russian culture.

Poster advertising an early Eccentrism theatre show in Petrograd

In June 1922, a pair of young men drove in a lorry through Petrograd hurling copies of a strangely printed brochure into the street. This was a manifesto announcing the launch of Eccentrism, printed on rough paper with irregular typography to match its title, and a motto taken from Mark Twain: ‘better to be a young pup than an old bird of paradise’.

The young pups with Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev, twenty and seventeen respectively, both newly arrived in the former Russian capital from Ukraine. Trauberg’s father ran a printing works, which had enabled them to have the manifesto printed. The movement they proclaimed belonged to a tradition that could be traced back to Futurism, launched in a manifesto by the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti and published in a Paris newspaper in 1908. Or more recently in Russia, to A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, issued in 1912 by a group of poets who wanted to ‘throw overboard from the ship of modernity Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy’, and proclaim an new aesthetic of the ‘self-sufficient word’.

But after the revolutions that had transformed Russia and ‘shaken the world’ in 1917, Kozintsev and Trauberg declared their ‘parents’ to be cabaret singers, circus posters, jazz bands, American song and dance routines, and movies – especially those of Charlie Chaplin. However seemingly strange to us today, demanding ‘Americanisation of the theatre’ was not considered anti-Soviet in 1922. Many young people in revolutionary Russia saw American media, speed, and efficiency as essential to carrying through the Soviet project.

Still from The Devil’s Wheel (1926), the earliest surviving FEKS feature film

In 1978, the British Film Institute’s National Film Theatre presented a ground-breaking programme – ‘Russian Eccentrics’ – conceived by John Gillett as a showcase for many offbeat films from the Soviet silent era that he had discovered in archives around the world (at a time when there were no videos to view, or internet to browse). He asked me to join forces in planning the programme, and editing a booklet to accompany it, FEKS, FORMALISM, FUTURISM: Eccentrism in Soviet Cinema. The season helped put a mixture of mainly Leningrad and Georgian filmmakers on the map, and made available for the first time a partial translation of the Factory of the Eccentric Actor Manifesto, together with contemporary and modern writing about this little-known group.

Meanwhile, in 1982 the surviving co-founder of FEKS, Leonid Trauberg, visited London at the invitation of the BFI, and proved a popular guest. His and Kozintsev’s most ambitious ‘silent’, New Babylon (1929), had its original Shostakovich score re-synchronised, and played on three consecutive nights at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, to wide acclaim. This early restoration of an authentic score was also recorded for BBC TV transmission, with an introduction by Lindsay Anderson.

Forty years later, what was once Petrograd, then Leningrad, is now St Petersburg again, and it is time to mark the centenary of Trauberg and Kozintsev publishing their polemical booklet, Eccentrism 1922, in a starving yet vibrant city renamed ‘Eccentropolis’ for the occasion. Two years after their irreverent stage debut, they would branch into film, with two serial-influenced projects, the unrealised Edison’s Daughter and The Adventures of Oktyabrina, which seems to be irretrievably lost. However, the earliest film by their friend Sergei Eisenstein, Glumov’s Diary, was rediscovered as recently as 1977, and provides some clues about what Oktyabrina may have been like.

after the revolutions that had transformed Russia and ‘shaken the world’ in 1917, Kozintsev and Trauberg declared their ‘parents’ to be cabaret singers, circus posters, jazz bands, American song and dance routines, and movies – especially those of Charlie Chaplin

Their earliest surviving film, The Devil’s Wheel (1926), is still too little known, compared with work by Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and other Moscow-based directors. Yet it remains strikingly modern: the story of a sailor from the Aurora who jumps ship to spend the night among Petrograd’s low-life with a girl he meets in the amusement park. A truly eccentric Gogol adaptation, The Overcoat, followed; then an excursion into Russia’s revolutionary past, SVD, or the Society of the Great Cause, and New Babylon, made in 1929 during the final and most experimental year of Soviet silents.

Kozintsev’s and Trauberg’s subsequent careers, together and separately, are still in urgent need of reappraisal. But this anthology is confined to the period when the Eccentrist group, which included Sergei Yutkevich and peripherally Sergei Eisenstein, was at the forefront of an early Soviet avant-garde. Mayakovsky was a major inspiration, quoted in their first scenario. And their admirers and collaborators included the leading ‘formalist’ writers Viktor Shklovsky and Yuri Tynyanov, both now widely translated and admired.

This celebration of the FEKS centenary comes at a time of wide and justified condemnation of Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine, when we inevitably recall that Kozintsev and Trauberg were born in pre-revolutionary Kyiv and Odesa respectively. But its immediate aim is to shed greater light on that exhilarating period when, as Shklovsky memorably recalled, ‘Petrograd was fluttering like a flag between memory and the hope that this memory held for the future’.

Still from New Babylon (1920), for which FEKS commissioned a score from Dmitry Shostakovich

So why persevere, and seek publicity for even this small corner of Soviet Russian culture? My short answer is that within the massive superstructure of Soviet art and cinema, what the FEKS group represented in the early 1920s was already a challenge to the monolithic edifice that Stalinism would create during the 1930s and 40s. Stalin is said to have lectured Eisenstein and Aleksandrov in 1929, before they left for a journey that would take them to America, and eventually Mexico, insisting that cinema really was the most important art for impressing the outside world – a twist on Lenin’s famous dictum about it being potentially the most important art for Soviet Russia.

Whether or not he ever said this, he certainly made cinema central to his cultural policy in the 1930s, ruthlessly promoting and suppressing films and their makers, to forge a cinema that expressed a triumphalist message which was emphatically Soviet Russian. His leading director, Eisenstein, was denied both his Mexican epic and the film he worked on after his return, Bezhin Meadow, before he delivered Alexander Nevsky, just in time to rally resistance to Nazi Germany. And another of the USSR’s most talented filmmakers, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, born near Chernihiv, was tormented by Stalin’s paranoia over Ukrainian nationalism – this after inflicting the Holodomor famine on Ukraine in 1932-3.

But what has this to do with celebrating the FEKS, whose work as a group pre-dated Stalin taking full control at the end of the 1920s? Kozintsev and Trauberg became model exemplars of Stalin’s ‘socialist realism’ during the 1930s, with their ‘Maxim’ trilogy: films that made Boris Chirkov’s Bolshevik agitator-turned-commissar both an approved and truly popular hero. But that didn’t stop them being attacked in 1945, with Trauberg singled out as a ‘cosmopolitan’ Jewish intellectual.

To continue to ignore the artists who were silenced or sidelined during the Soviet era in the name of protest against Putin’s war is to play into his hands. Hence this celebration of Kozintsev, Trauberg and the FEKS, so often overlooked in the dominant narrative of Soviet art in the 1920s

I was lucky enough to get to know Trauberg in the early 1980s, after he had rebuilt his career as a teacher of some of the leading post-Khrushchev generation of filmmakers. But it was also the time of another call to boycott Soviet culture, after Brezhnev’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. This is not the place to debate what part the nine-year Afghan war played in bringing Gorbachev to power and ultimately finishing the USSR. But nothing I have observed during forty years of exploring the art and cinema of this vast ‘sixth of the world’, as Vertov called it, leads me to think that a boycott is useful.

On the contrary, I believe that continuing to shine light into its many dark and unfamiliar corners is the most useful thing we on the outside can do. The fact that both Trauberg and Kozintsev grew up in what is now Ukraine – as did Brezhnev and a host of others routinely considered ‘Russian’ – should help us appreciate the cultural complexity of the present conflict. Nikolai Gogol, their most revered inspiration, was born and raised in what was then the newly-acquired Ukrainian territory of the Russian Empire, although he has until recently been almost invariably considered a Russian writer. For most of Kozintsev’s and Trauberg’s working lives, their identity was inescapably ‘Soviet’, although the youthful experiences they brought with them to Petrograd were from Kyiv and Odesa. And as Richard Taylor reminds me, Leonid Trauberg continued to state his nationality as ‘Jewish’.

Yes, it’s complicated – like Ireland’s relationship to England and Scotland, to bring it closer to home. We can’t and shouldn’t try to rewrite history, but we can surely learn to write it more scrupulously, as the art historian Allison Leigh proposed in her recent essay ‘Farewell to Russian Art’. To continue to ignore the artists who were silenced or sidelined during the Soviet era in the name of protest against Putin’s war is to play into his hands, to bolster the shameful claim that Russian culture is part of his arsenal. Hence this celebration of Kozintsev, Trauberg and the FEKS, so often overlooked in the dominant narrative of Soviet art in the 1920s. And the need for more research on their colleagues, such as the cinematographer Andrei Moskvin and the designer Yevgeni Yenei. My hope is that it will lead to more celebration, and more discovery in a cultural field that cannot be ceded to Russia’s current corrupt rulers.

Purchase a copy of Eccentrism Turns 100: FEKS and the Early Soviet Avant-Garde here.

Ian Christie is a film historian, curator, and broadcaster, and Anniversary Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has written and edited books on subjects as diverse as early film, the work of Powell and Pressburger, Martin Scorsese, and Terry Gilliam. He has also written and edited a number of groundbreaking works on early Soviet film, and Sergei Eisenstein in particular.