Walking the Streets of the West

Soviet Spectators on Filmic Paths of Baltic Cities By Irina Novikova

/ by Irina Novikova

Cinema, with the advent of on-site filming, invited a city to play a role of City, giving it different names and cinematic identities.

Cinema has been tirelessly constructing its (in)visible imaginary cities, and since Ruttmann and Murnau, Lang and Chaplin, their lights and shadows have been living and travelling in our memories, to become part of our past…and stories about real cities… Fragments of cities are re-collected by films into “city” images that travel in time and memory, leaving the realness of fragments behind…

Giuliana Bruno compares city paths in cinema with architectural itineraries, “with its own montage of cultural space.” Films participate in urban museographies, as they “collect together various fragments of cultural phenomena from diverse geo-historical moments that are open for spectatorial recollection in space… The consumer of this architectural viewing space is the prototype of the film spectator.”

The Paris of Claire, Godard and Truffaud, the New York of Allen and Auster, the Moscow of Danelia and Men’shov, the Tokyo of Ozu and Wenders... These cities can, of course, play themselves, but they also allow the moving screen-images to re-embody their familiar cityscapes into something altered and unusual, knowable and simultaneously unfamiliar...

One day in the life of a great metropolis in Walter Ruttmann’s city symphony Berlin, Symphony of the Great city (1927). Night-time streets of Paris, playing the role of a future dystopic city in Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi noir Alphaville (1965). Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, Volkhov and Yalta were re-assembled into a utopic Soviet polis of The Man With a Movie-Camera (1929) by the legendary Soviet film director Dziga Vertov.


My American colleagues from the Sooner state eventually got to Riga, and decided to stay at the hotel “Yustus.” What an exotic name for a European old-town hotel, they thought. They liked online images of the hotel’s location – the curvy Jauniela street, famous for its art nouveau style. They were not aware of the hotel rooms and lobby. Or more precisely, the screenshots from the Soviet film that my friends were totally unaware of, from the film the quotes of which keep travelling in the post-Soviet vernacular space. Thus, when I entered the hotel lobby, my friends were impatiently waiting for me, as they had already been enlightened by a hotel porter about the famous scenes from the Soviet spy film, Seventeen Moments of Spring, in which this street emerged, in its Swiss identity. So, I was locked in the lobby for another half an hour while my dear friends were enthusiastically re-telling me the cinematic legends of the hotel- “Justus” street, including the name of the hotel itself. Though (my guess) never watching the film, when they were back to Oklahoma. Reverently they learned about Jauniela, passionately they rendered its cinematic legend to me…


Jauniela Street is often called the most cinematographic street of Riga, and its multi-faceted identity of a “western capital” was launched in a popular film of the 1950s, The Murder on Dante Street - a romantic curvy street somewhere in Paris, set during the Second World War. Later on, the words of famous French mime, Marcel Marceau, about Riga as the Baltic Paris added to the pleasure of Soviet tourists, who could feel like they were wandering along the streets of “Paris” in the Soviet Baltics.


Baltic cities and landscapes had already been used as sites for the shooting of “the West/Europe” in the Soviet cinema of the 1950s. The legendary film-directors, Grigorii Aleksandrov and Mikhail Romm, pioneered employing Riga’s capacity to be transformed into images of a "German city" in Soviet cinema, in Encounter Across the Elbe (1949) and Secret Mission (1950). This noir-ish, Ruttmann-esque image of the hostile and degenerate, spying and corrupting West, was again played by the Latvian capital, in the spy film Uninvited Guests. Eventually, Riga received a role of a “Western city” that proliferated in the Soviet spy films of the later periods. In a cult spy film, Out of Season, of the late 1960s, Tallinn also stepped into the role a distant European place, still inhabited by Nazi criminals and controlled by invisible intelligence services. An anonymous European city of immersion and escape, played by Tallinn and Riga, looms as the space of existential alienation and overwhelming crowds, of criminal mimicries and hidden identities.

Riga eventually played “herself” in the episodes of a fantastically popular film, The Shield and The Sword (1968), about Soviet intelligence activities in Germany during the Second World War. The urban scape of “Nazi Berlin” was shared this time by Berlin itself and Yurmala, a sea-resort near the capital of Riga. A spick-and-span highway between Riga and Yurmala, unique to the USSR of those days, was converted into a captivating image of a “German” roadscape. The breath-taking adventures of the Soviet spies, speeding their cars away from their enemies, fed the Soviet cine-tourist gaze with a seductive “highway” image of Yurmala, materialized in its exceptional popularity of a “western sea-resort” among summer-time tourists in the Soviet 1970-1980s.


Another exceptionally famous Soviet spy-film, a TV-series File Omega (1975), played heavily this time on Tallinn’s “European authenticity” during the World War II. The main character, a Soviet intelligence officer called Skorin, is isolated in a villa after his arrest, under observation of an Abwehr officer, Schlosser, and the plot unfolds as an intellectual duel between the two. The city acts as a border-space of the Soviet-German intellectual collision of analysts and strategists, for the film’s major effect – the victory of Russian brain-machine Skorin over German aristocrat Schlosser, despite his enviable genealogy and education. The Tallinn cityscape plays the film’s full-fledged “character,” with its secret signs and codes, ambushes and ambiguities, double identities and conspiracies. Tallinn’s Hanseatic “essence” sends itself out to the Soviet TV-gaze through enticing “postcard” panoramas and close-ups of its snowy Old Town curves and spires, as well as in premises of an old aristocratic villa as if fenced off the stormy history.


“Tallinn” and “Riga,” the two cinematic fantasies of alterity, double-ness, noir images of the hostile and ambiguous, spying and corrupting “West,” were proliferating in the Soviet popular cinema of the later Soviet period. And another popular genre that projected a certain image of European-ness upon selected sites of the Baltic capitals, became a screen adaptation. The vicinities around Tallinn provided the gloominess of the Baskerville mysteries in the legendary TV-series on the detective adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Downtown Riga was dandified into murky sites of imperial “London,” and the Jauniela Street was destined to become the legendary Baker Street in the online guides and tourist maps (in Russian) of the city since that followed.

Tallinn and Riga provided Soviet cinema with their architecture, culture and history shaped through different European imperial colonizations. However, it was the act of filming these cities that crystallized certain fantasies of Western-ness and European-ness in the Soviet cine-mapping of the world. Historical and literary, contemporary and nostalgic, distant and alienated, nocturnal and dystopic, these fantasies loomed large through the city images “played” by the Baltic urban sites, having inflected them with the cinematic connotations of existential and exotic otherness, if not sublimated alterity.

Soviet cinematic “masks,” affixed to Tallinn and Riga, and their “roles” of an undifferentiated “European great city,” glossed over the tensions of the region’s Sovietization and its successfully peripherized status in the Soviet political geography. The filmic mapping of Riga and Tallinn actually manifested a certain ideological facilitation by the Soviets of a spatial positioning and understanding of the “Baltic region,” its transgressions and ambiguities, in the Soviet political cartography after 1944. Teresa Castro defines this process as cinema’s mapping impulse “which is less about the presence of maps in a certain visual landscape and more about the processes that underlie the understanding of space.”

Not uniquely for a “romance” between cinema, location and tourism, filmic heterotopics of Riga and Tallinn generated a powerful heterochronic effect, mainly due to exploiting the attractions of architecturally and historically “frozen” skylines of the old towns in historical, adventure and musical films. Filming of the Baltic setting’s historical “European authenticity” in spy films, romantic adventures and adaptations, a kind of a glossy “stranger at home,” in fact was a powerful cultural procedure of erasing their dis/own/ed pasts, memories and experiences from the Soviet cine-tourist gaze.

Simultaneously, a variety of these images generated a kind of a tourist spectacle, imposed upon the otherwise repressed historical and subaltern social experiences of the Baltic societies within the Soviet Union. Soviet “cine-lamination” of the Baltic region into a “Western historical aura” and “European realness” oozed enchantments of its “occidental exotics,” pivotal to rising industries of tourism, entertainment and consumption. Soviet Riga and Tallinn came to embody “Europe” and “the West” as an imaginary space which gradually gained a measure of cultural primacy in the Soviet perception of the Baltic region. The first cocktail bars, the first night clubs, the first disco clubs - sooner or later these symptoms of “decaying western taste” were destined to emerged in the Baltic capitals, very much to prop up their cine-occidentalized “otherness-in-us” (following Jean Baudrillard, the materiality of specific places is very much defined by their cinematography). Baltic urban “postcard” images and “retrospective authenticities” that continuously elaborated on the region’s cine-mapping as a “Western” habitable space and identity in the Soviet cinematic gaze and tourist industry, however, abjected the haptics of a real place.

The Baltics turned into a seasonal tourist attraction of “going to our West,” to feel at home among strangers (actually, here I have borrowed the title of Nikita Mikhalkov’s film Свой среди чужих, чужой среди своих). But within the contemporary political cartography of the region, divided by the EU border from the former power, post-Soviet holiday tourism has gradually acquired a different connotation, for Baltic strolls down memory lane. Soviet cinematic “otherness-in-us,” embodied in the spy/detective schizo and hiding repressive mechanisms of the region’s “adaptation” to the system, eventually, its political incompatibility, has been swiftly re-connoted into post-Soviet nostalgic mapping of Riga's Old Town. Just yesterday I watched local news on the eve of the New 2017 Year, about the passengers of a daily train, arriving from Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. One of them was looking forward to the Christmas holidays with his family in Riga, including their visit to the famous Baker Street, the memory lane of post-Soviet nostalgic “us-in-otherness.”


In 1991, a Lithuanian film director, Šarūnas Bartas, made a film about three days of two Lithuanian guys in Kaliningrad. They come to the city that has never been able to rid itself of a whiff of its names - Königsberg and Karaliauius, Twangste and Królewiec, the city loaded with borders and conquests, erasures and palimpsests, exclusions and abjections, a “peripheral” Russian exclave/EU enclave territory. A closed military zone, Kaliningrad was overshadowed by the Soviet Baltic cine-tourist limelights of the Riga-Tallinn-Vilnius axis.

In the film Three Days, Kant’s city becomes a desolate place in the post-sublime condition, dysfunctional and corroded through Soviet urban modernity. A cinematic tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky's metaphysical wasteland, the Dying Zone of Kaliningrad spreads not so much across a wreckage of rusted industrial plants, collapsing telephone lines, and buildings overtaken by dark forests, as around a “wreckage” of its inhabitants’ lives, dreams, identities. A general air of purposelessness, spiritual collapse and moral degradation brings out the condition of solipsistic inevitability for urban inhabitants locked in their private worlds and stories. The city is more of a game of mirror-like reflections, the disembodied sounds of loudspeaker announcements, urban life and lambadesque entertainment. Announcements by the female loudspeaker voices somewhere in a seaport, or rude remarks of accidental characters dissect this otherwise silent world of overwhelming existential alienation. The auditory “ghosts” of these distant loudspeakers serve as an acoustic mirror of power, invisible and re-embodied in gendered “transcended” forms (female voice), irritating and creating a sense of spectatorial discomfort (vs. mechanisms of creating spectatorial desire in popular cinema).

This abject space of invisible and anonymous people, abandoned and hidden in their private spaces, is boring to Bartas’ men, walking as tourists around the city, as well as it is irritating to the spectator’s gaze, trained in the film industry’s aesthetics of pleasure and desire. Amidst the human “relics” of the imploding Soviet system, Bartas’ urban inferno emerges as a zone of social exclusion and displacement that affects both protagonists and spectators, and disables their cine-tourist gaze. The protagonists feel displaced, and their sluggish and disoriented walking, instead of pleasurable flaneurie, is used by Bartas to create the effect of de-dramatization as employed in the cinema of walking. De-dramatization and incidence/walking have to do with Bartas’ shift from focused storytelling toward associations in which the plot diminishes nearly to zero, toward minimalism, slow rhythm, undramatic incident, plotless-ness and speechlessness, close-ups and statics, silence and associative technique.

This economy of storytelling, non-professional actors and isolated fragmented spaces in the city, generates a sense of incidence (chance) and incoherence that questions each of the codes of coherence, stability and the fullness of being: continuity through the centered frame; the untroubled, perfect eye of the camera, essential for the epistemology of identity in film practice. Such film aesthetics challenges a hegemony of representation of the “real” created by a monocular perspective, pleasurable for the spectator/tourist as s/he identifies with the camera’s/gaze’s point of view and its ideal, unified space of vision.

This spatial closure of classical visual representation based on the Alberti-Brunelleschi monocular perspective is combined with Bartas’ radical marginalization of the word in this filmic reality, replaced by the unfolding of intertextual references to different cultural signifiers, symbols, texts, and images. In patching up his intertextual continuum from Alberti to Fassbinder, Bartas confronts his spectators with the ugly and the abject of imploded urban modernity, as well as with internalized illusory mechanisms of maintaining a vision of the ideal home that awaits its reconstruction.

Two friends come back home, an unchanged ancestral place somewhere in the Lithuanian countryside, an immobile object that changes just colors and hues with the seasonal rhythms, as in Claude Monet’s impressionist series, Haystacks. Yes, Kaliningrad seems to be a horror territory of ontological difference to the “authentic home” shattered by socialist modernity, the peripheralized terrain of rural purity and origins. Though it is the end of the film, following Lyotard’s L’Acinema, that creates a reflexive decolonial tension and connection at the same time between late Soviet urban realness, rejecting pleasures of gaze and flanerie, and a mythic post-Soviet return to “home” and purifying significations of its “ideality.”

Irina Novikova

is professor and chair of Literary and Cultural studies at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Latvia. She has also directed the Center for Gender Studies since 1998. Her major research interests are gender and race in literature and visual arts. She is currently finishing a book project on race and blackness in Soviet cinema.