(5/10) In a nutshell: The first Soviet sci-fi film in 12 years, translated as Silver Dust in English, is set in a fictional US town where a mad scientist conducts deadly experiments on the black population in order to develop a radioactive weapon to sell to capitalists and fascists. The 1953 film’s surprisingly accurate portrayal of racial discimination in the US caused a stir in America, and this was unruly master director Abram Room’s attempt at getting back into the good graces of the Soviet censors. Rather uninteresting as a sci-fi yarn, but decades ahead of its time regarding social issues from a Western perspective.
Serebristaya Pyl (Silver Dust, 1953). 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, Zana Zanoni, D. Kolmogorov, Aleksandr Pelevin, Lidiya Smirnova, Robert Ross. Produced for Mosfilm. IMDb rating: 6.6/10
I’m nearing the end of 1953 on my science fiction odyssey through the ages, and in retrospect I’ve got to say this was the year when sci-fi really broke into Hollywood mainstream. On a good year in the thirties and forties, five or six sci-fi films were made. I reviewed four from 1952. I have now reviewed 17 films from 1953, and that’s excluding a couple I couldn’t find, as well as one more to come after this one. And the one thing all of these 17 have in common? They were all made in English, and 15 of them were American, which is a fair description of most of the science fiction movies of the early fifties. But now for something completely different: the first Soviet science fiction film since 1941’s pseudo-sci-fi movie The Mysterious Island (review).
Or, to be honest, it’s not really THAT much different, since the film is a mad scientist film set in USA with cold war message, which is basically any two thirds of all sci-fi films since 1944. And to be perfectly honest, the ”science fiction” in the film is dangerously close to actual science, and it is really only used as a MacGuffin. The title of the film, Serebristaya Pyl, or Серебристая пыль, translated to Silver Dust, which is the informal name of the film in the US – or actually ”silvery dust” if we want to nitpick. Since it was never officially released in America, it has no official American title. It was released in East Germany as Geschäft mit dem Tode or ”A deal with death”
While cold war paranoia was was gripping not only Hollywood itself and USA as a whole with the McCarthyist witch hunts, it was also a highly lucrative theme for films in America. It feels like 95 percent of all sci-fi films made in Hollywood in the late forties and early fifties were in some way either paranoid about the Communists or nuclear war, or then they were paranoid about the paranoia. It might therefore come as a surprise that over on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the film business really didn’t care very much about the cold war. In the Soviet Union people had real problems to deal with instead of making up imaginary ones. So while much of the Soviet film output of the time was highly propagandistic (it was required to be), filmmakers were generally more interested in looking inward than out. It was more about praising socialism and lambasting capitalism as a phenomenon than actually worrying about being attacked by the Americans. And so it is symptomatic that the one cold war sci-fi film that was made was more about feeling sorry for the American people, and praising American socialists, than demonising America as a country.
So with that out of the way, let’s take a look at the plot. I will be unusually short in my synopsis, since I haven’t been able to find a version of the film with with subtitles. I do understand a bit of Russian thanks to studying the language in high school, and had some help from a few synopses I found online, but still much of the dialogue went over my head. But the gist of it:
The film is really an ensemble piece, but set up as the main couple is Allan O’Connell (Nikolai Timofeyev), the young husband of Jen O’Connell (Valentina Ushakova), who returns to his wife’s hometown Scotsboro to find the rich father of the bride conducting his final experiments with a radioactive dust. The father, Dr. Steele (Mikhail Bolduman) lives in a big mansion with his stuck-up wife Doris (Sofiya Pilyavskaya) and entertains a scheming capitalist businessman and an ex-Nazi (now also a businessman) who both want to buy the secret to his deadly invention. He invites both the bidders to his dungeon lab, where he shows them the effect of the highly deadly ”silver dust” on a monkey – safe behind thick, black-painted lead walls.
We also meet the son of Dr. Steele, Harry (Vsevolod Larionov), a member of the American Nazi party, who parttakes in a riot downtown between the Nazis and the ordinary working people and black people of the city. He escapes arrest, and his friend, the raunchy bar girl Flossie (Lidiya Smirnova) fool the police by convincing them that a group of black bystanders tried to rape her. The black men are brutalised by the police and taken into custody. Among them is Ben Robinson (D. Kolmogorov), who so happens to be the son of the Steele’s maid, Mary Robinson (Zana Zanoni). Allan and Jen bail out Ben, but by this time the Ku Klux Klan has already been mobilized, and start marching on the black workers’ quarters, only to be stopped by the white (presumably socialist) workers, who block the roads, while a cross is burning ominously at the top of a hill in the background.
While all this goes on, the businessmen keep on courting Dr. Steele, as Allan and Jen become more and more worried about the ramifications it could have if anyone of them – especially the Nazi – would get a hold on the silver dust. They also have a falling-out the the racist Harry. Soon they discover an even darker secret, as Dr. Steele drags the rape-accused Ben into his dungeons: Dr. Steele has been keeping black people locked up or use as guinea pigs for his experiments with the silver dust! And with the help of the buyers, he is now planning to test it on a large scale by deploying it in a rocket which would be set to detonate over the black workers’ neighbourhood, spreading the deadly dust over the inhabitants. Allan tries to tell the people of the town about the dangers of Dr. Steele’s invention, and soon it’s all-out mayhem between the Nazis and the mobsters and the Ku Klux Klan and the socialist workers, and it isn’t until Steele’s own son falls victim to the silver dust that Dr. Steele sees the evil he has created. But how will it all end?
That’s the story in a nutshell as far as I have been able to figure it out – if some of my readers speak better Russian than I do, then please correct me.
The sci-fi element of the film is naturally the ”silver dust”, a radioactive dust that is instantly lethal. In fact, the film was released just as the Soviets were developing nuclear warheads, but hadn’t quite gotten them to work yet. Instead Russian scientists showed that you didn’t need a nuclear bomb to spread 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 the 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 more than anything, the play is about American race issues, a sore point in the American reputation abroad, and one that the Communists 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, and the USSR had a black American scholar-cum-actor called Robert Ross set up as an official ”welcoming committee” for black Americans visiting Moscow, to show how well regarded black people were in the Soviet Union (read more about him in my review of The Mysterious Island), as opposed to the situation in the States. In reality, of course, the Soviet Union brutally repressed many of its minorities, as well. 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 in Russia than there was in the US, which probably says more about Hollywood than about Moscow.
The film was based on a 1952 stage play by the 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 parttake of news and entertainment from the West, smuggled in 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.
Whether the part about the silver dust was incorporated in the play Saakali (the jackal) is impossible to say based on the sparse information about on the web. It may also have been added by the second screenwriter Aleksandr Filimonov (Jakobson also collaborated on the film script). 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, the film caused an 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 over the movie, and somehow a bunch Americans were able to view it. 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”.
The movie was directed by Lithuanian director Abram Room, counted as one of the five giants of early Soviet cinema, along with Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Lev Kuleshov and Dziga Vertov. And like all of these directors, 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. Adapted as it is from a stage play, the film 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 some 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” – who has ever heard of such a nickname?
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 – this film could never had been done in the US, and probably should have been shown there to raise awareness of the problem. So that’s an extra star from me for that. 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 Tolstoi in the book Engineer Garin and his Death Ray in 1927.
The film 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.
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 on he other hand, this blog is full of examples of films I have enjoyed thoroughly without understanding all that is said. And judging from the overall plot and the acting, and what I do understand, I have a feeling that most of it is quite predictable. The mass scenes are very well directed, though, and especially the scenes with the Ku Klux Klan are emotionally very strong.
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 stated earlier, 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 ”Trotskiyites” 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 before his real 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 and beautiful films 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.
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. But taken out of its propagandistic context, the film was really groundbreaking in the way that it – surprisingly accurately – highlighted the discrimination and racism going on in the United States. Had it not been made in the Soviet Union, it would probably be hailed as a progressive film years before its time in regards to its social message (sans the blackface).
Serebristaya Pyl (Silver Dust, 1953). 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.