Charlie Chaplin in Moscow

Early Soviet filmmakers took great inspiration from Charlie Chaplin, but his critique of mass production put him at odds with them.

A still from Modern Times. YouTube

In Charlie Chaplin’s 1914 film The Fatal Mallet, you can see “IWW” chalked on a wall in the background. While no one knows if the director — who grew up in south London’s slums and became a globally recognized comedian — supported the Wobblies at the time, we do know that the characters he played in dozens of short films in the 1910s and early 1920s would have.

In The Adventurer, he plays an escaped convict; in Police, an ex-con forced into burglary by unemployment; in The Bank, a janitor working next to, but unable to get ahold of, money; in Work, a downtrodden contractor; in The Immigrant, a migrant so frustrated by his treatment he kicks an immigration officer; and, of course, in The Tramp, a homeless man looking for a stable life. All these men, who populated the rapidly changing, expanding, and radicalizing United States, might well have written IWW on a fence in Los Angeles.

Chaplin wouldn’t state his politics explicitly until well into the 1930s, a move that would put him in the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ crosshairs. But in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, young Soviet artists, designers, and filmmakers already thought they knew exactly what his politics were.

In 1922, the new Moscow magazine Kino-Fot, edited by the constructivist theorist and committed Communist Aleksei Gan, published a special issue on Chaplin. Throughout, painter and designer Varvara Stepanova depicted the actor as an abstract object, his body’s parts transformed into exploded shards and flying polygons, identifiable only thanks to his trademark hat, cane, and moustache.

Aleksandr Rodchenko’s text declares, manifesto-style:

[Charlie’s] colossal rise is precisely and clearly — the result of a keen sense of the present day: of war, revolution, Communism.

Every master-inventor is inspired to invent by new events and demands.

Who is it today?

Lenin and technology.

The one and the other are foundations of his work.

This is the new man designed — a master of details, that is, the future anyman.

That same year in Petrograd, teenagers Grigori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg, and Sergei Yutkevich, who collectively called themselves The Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS), published something called “The Eccentric Manifesto.” Under the sign of “Charlie’s arse,” they demanded:

ART AS AN INEXHAUSTIBLE BATTERING RAM SHATTERING THE WALLS OF CUSTOM AND DOGMA. But we have our forerunners! They are: the geniuses who created the posters for cinema, circus, and variety theatres, the unknown authors of dust jackets for adventure stories about kings, detectives, and adventurers; like the clown’s grimace, we spurn your High Art as if it were an elasticated trampoline in order to perfect our own intrepid salto of Eccentrism!

Meanwhile, a film director was perfecting a technique that would eventually bear his name: the Kuleshov effect, in which the juxtaposition of unrelated material creates a new mental link between them. He argued against slow paced, European montage, which treats cinema as a high art form akin to theater, and for the high-speed American montage that thrilled audiences.

Somehow, these people, all trying to create art in the young Soviet Union, agreed that Chaplin represented their ideal. In a series of theatrical productions and films over the next decade, they would try to make something that had the same effect on their viewers — a socialist, avant-garde slapstick comedy, informed by silent farce, technological romanticism, and contempt for high culture.

This history sits a little strangely with what many know about the Soviet Union’s first fifteen years of experimental filmmaking. Its directors, including Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, and Vsevelod Pudovkin as well as documentary pioneers like Dziga Vertov and Esther Shub, have earned formidable reputation for applying Marxist methodology to film.

Their contributions, including “the montage of attractions,” the “camera eye,” the “intellectual montage,” and the aforementioned Kuleshov effect, have grounded film curricula since the 1960s, often used in contrast to Hollywood’s formulaic spectacles. In fact, when French filmmaker Jean Luc-Godard stopped making crowd-pleasers in the 1960s and opted instead for punishing Althusserian didactic tableaux, he signed his films Dziga Vertov Group.

What this story leaves out is how Soviet directors’ ideas came out of their obsessions with the crassest and most lurid kinds of American film, its chases, special effects, and pratfalls. In translating Chaplin for Lenin, they combined these elements with their equally strong interest in another aspect of 1910s America: scientific management and industrial efficiency, especially the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford.

The resulting films shared a bizarre and unstable comic Americanism, which you can see still in films like Kuleshov’s Adventurers of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, a high-speed, Keystone Kops satire about Western perceptions of the Soviet state; Boris Barnet’s Miss Mend, where an international communist secret society foils the evil plans of nefarious capitalists; Sergei Komarov’s A Kiss For Mary Pickford and Pudovkin’s Chess Fever, which used footage of American stars on Soviet visits and put them into new, bizarre farces; and Eisenstein’s first feature, Strike, where insurgent workers move with all the bounce and assurance of a mass circus troupe.

Stage director Vsevelod Meyerhold helped pioneer this style. From the early 1920s onwards, he developed a “biomechanical theater” that borrowed equally from the circus’s high-wire tricks and gymnastic leaps, from Charlie Chaplin’s and Buster Keaton’s jerky, ironic slapstick, and from the USSR’s development of Taylorism, led by government-sponsored think tanks like the League of Time and the Central Institute of Labor. The latter’s founder, Aleksei Gastev, a former metalworker, union leader, and poet, became a key figure for most of the 1920s avant-garde.

Looked at coldly, his ideas are unnerving and dystopian. He imagined the new Soviet working class as nameless machines working in seamless unified motion, a somewhat unlikely and wholly unfulfilled demand of the chaotic, largely rural, and unskilled labor force of the Soviet 1920s. Yet while Taylorism involved monitoring the worker’s motions to transform them into a predictable, high-performance cogs, Meyerhold’s biomechanics saw its protagonists as Chaplin-like comic machines, capable of humor and exuberance, not drab labor.

This appears even more strongly in another form of Soviet Chaplinism, which comes from an unlikely direction — formalist literary criticism. The great Viktor Shklovsky used Chaplin as an exemplar of his concept of “ostranienie” or “making-strange.” In his 1922 Literature and Cinematography, he tried to work out what set Chaplin apart from other actors, finally deciding that “the fact that [the movement] it is mechanized” makes it so funny.

In the American context, Chaplin was satirizing industrial, mass-production labor, but in the Soviet landscape — destroyed by seven years of war and economic collapse — the little tramp who moved with jerky assurance through a mechanized world was exactly the sort of “new man” they needed.

American visitors found this all disconcerting. The sympathetic artist Louis Lozowick had to explain to eager young constructivists in Moscow that he didn’t know anything about biomechanics, and that they, the Russians, had invented it themselves. A Ford Motor Company representative, treated by his hosts to some biomechanical theater, thought the whole thing ridiculous and farcical.

In the mid-1920s, the Soviet Eccentrists would move away from the leaps, special effects, and extravagant silliness of movies like The Adventures of Mr West and develop a more sober style, although equally indebted to the frantic pace of American montage and cartoonish American acting styles. The results, such as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Pudovkin’s Mother, had a mixed reception in the USSR but became international sensations. Their kinetic action sequences changed cinema history, and their rousing revolutionary narratives got them banned across the free world.

This is when Charlie Chaplin first became aware of his Soviet fan club. He opposed the bans and helped get these films shown to American audiences. When Eisenstein made an abortive attempt to film Dreiser’s American Tragedy in Hollywood, the two directors became fast friends. But the Soviet film director who had the strongest effect on Chaplin — whose feature films like The Gold Rush and City Lights had become ever more sophisticated and socially critical — was Eisenstein’s great adversary, Dziga Vertov.

A groundbreaking documentarian, Vertov thought fictional films were inherently bourgeois and escapist. Nevertheless, his special effects, comic juxtapositions, and pounding sense of rhythm made him an Americanist in his own way. In 1930, he made the first Soviet sound film, Enthusiasm — Symphony of the Donbas. This hour of grueling industrial propaganda doesn’t much resemble The Fatal Mallet. It depicts mechanizing the Donets coalfield in Eastern Ukraine and teaching the mineworkers Taylorist efficiency.

Chaplin, however, was attracted to the unrivalled intensity of its juxtaposition of sound and image. Using field recordings from Ukraine’s mines and steelworks, Vertov created an industrial jazz of still-astonishing power, a relentless clanging pulse echoing that puts the soundtrack closer to Einsturzende Neubauten than to Al Jolson. Chaplin called it “one of the most exhilarating symphonies I have ever heard.”

Six years later, he made his response. Modern Times has become justly famous for its definitive critique of Taylorism and Fordism. In the factory sequences, machines feed Chaplin, his all-seeing boss monitors him on film, and the production line eventually eats him, until he floats, weightless, through the cogs inside, a tragic and bitter image of the smooth and seamless mechanized labor the Soviets longed for. Insisting on keeping the film wordless, Chaplin used a soundtrack of rhythmic clangs and crashes that mirrored Vertov’s “Donbas” symphony.

Coming when Taylorist speed-up was sparking some of the greatest strikes in American history — not to mention the CIO’s formation — you might expect that the Soviets welcomed the film as a critique of American capitalism’s brutality.

They didn’t. In a text called “Charlie the Kid,” Eisenstein criticized his friend for his satire’s infantilizing and utopic take on what mass production does to workers. Regarding the factory sequence, he asserted, “At our end of the world, we do not escape from reality to fairy-tale, we make fairy-tales real.”

The tramp of Modern Times, exhausted by labor and made homeless by unemployment, accidentally picks up a red flag midway through a strike, getting him arrested as a dangerous agitator. Chaplin himself would be notably supportive of the Soviet Union, and his refusal to fall in with McCarthyism was admirable; but the tramp might have silently held other opinions about industrial efficiency and five-year plans than those he helped inspire.