The Disappearing Theoretician: From Anna Li to A.N. Pudovkina

The Disappearing Theoretician: From Anna Li to A.N. Pudovkina

Natalie Ryabchikova
Anna Pudovkina; Anna Zemtsova; Anna Li; Vsevolod Pudovkin; Lev Kuleshov; Boris Chaikovskii; Iuliia Solntseva; Elena Kuz’mina; Pera Atasheva; first female filmmakers; early film theory; early Russian cinema; Soviet cinema; film history; archive; montage

The Disappearing Theoretician: From Anna Li to A.N. Pudovkina

The Three Pillars in the Archive

Memories and Memoirs

In Her Husband’s Words

Her Own Words

Back in the Archive





Suggested Citation

Studying the work of early women filmmakers, be they directors or scriptwriters, producers or distributors, editors or theoreticians, requires historians to be attuned to questions of film historiography (see, for instance, Dall’Asta and Gaines 2015). As Giuliana Bruno showed early on in her seminal work on the films of Elvira Notari, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map, marginalised figures and knowledge concerning them that was hidden or disguised by “by the systematizing discourse” requires not simply battling but analysing “the configuration of the historical silence” (Bruno 1993: 24). Thus, for instance, Women Film Pioneers Project, the database edited by Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal and Monica Dall’Asta specifies its metahistorical aspirations, as opposed to providing “final facts” with “the authoritative tone of traditional historical writing,” and encourages “highlighting not erasing the conditions of research” (Gaines, Vatsal and Dall’Asta 2013). Research on women filmmakers challenges accepted notions of what constitutes historical evidence, valid cinema practices (such as collaboration) and even traditional markers of success or failure. The question of failure is what this article will address: failure both to create and to narrativise.

This article’s rhetorical movement attempts to replicate a cinematic zooming-in on the figure of Anna Zemtsova-Li-Pudovkina. It moves from the ‘long shot’ of her appearance in historical narratives, together with two other wives/collaborators/archivists of major Soviet filmmakers; through a ‘medium shot’ of memoirs that picture her alongside her director husband, Vsevolod Pudovkin, mainly as an actress and then a hostess; to a close-up of her own filmography and bibliography, and, finally, to an extreme close-up on her failure as a theorist, an artist, and a memoirist. Neither “the long shot,” nor the “extreme close-up,” however, exhaust the possible ways of looking at the career, life, and legacy of Anna Pudovkina. Whether the gesture even brings one closer to her or whether her image gets lost in refractions or dissolves into fine grain, is for the readers to decide.

The Three Pillars in the Archive

In 1939 Sergei Eisenstein recounted a story of how, ten years previously, he, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Aleksandr Dovzhenko celebrated the completion of their latest films and “весело и бесшабашно […] разверстали между собой титанов Ренессанса. […] Мне выпадает Леонардо. Довженко — Микеланджело. И, яростно размахивая руками, Пудовкин претендует на Рафаэля” [“merrily and recklessly we distributed the titans of the Renaissance amongst ourselves. […] I get Leonardo; Dovzhenko gets Michelangelo. And, violently waving his arms about, Pudovkin stakes out a claim for Rafael”] (Ėizenshtein 1997: 215, 234).1 The three tortoises, carrying the world of Soviet cinema, have remained unchallenged throughout many decades, and this particular grouping is still invoked today, with some reservations about the Ukrainian Dovzhenko and the (re)introduction of the former “formalist” Lev Kuleshov and the documentarist Dziga Vertov into the canon.

Even the 1982 overview of the archives of Soviet filmmakers, which looked back at the beginning of all film-related collections in the Central State Archive for Literature and Art (TsGALI, now – RGALI), was built on these three names: “Eisenstein – Dovzhenko – Pudovkin (How We Collected Materials on the History of Cinema)” (Krasovskii 1982). In the article itself, however, its author, the archivist Iurii Krasovskii, visibly shifted the focus from the filmmakers themselves to their widows. He connected the inception of the film collection at TsGALI to the phone call from Eisenstein’s widow, Pera Atasheva, in October 1948, eight months after the death of the director and seven years after the archive itself had been established (as The Central State Literature Archive). In the early 1950s, a significant part of Eisenstein’s own archive was transferred to TsGALI and was later augmented several times, while Pera Atasheva continued to sort through mountains of materials that remained after Eisenstein’s death and to prepare them for publication. After her death in 1965, this work was continued by her former assistants, including Leonid Kozlov, Efim Levin, and Naum Kleiman.

Iuliia Solntseva, the widow of Dovzhenko, spent several years “restoring” his archive, which had suffered great losses during the war. In the article, Solntseva is described as a “tireless collector of Dovzhenko’s artistic legacy”, who visited film studios, made copies of documents relating to Dovzhenko, and urged colleagues and acquaintances to write memoirs which were also added to the collection (ibid.: 463). In addition to that, “Solntseva was an energetic propagandist of Dovzhenko’s work” (ibid.). Outside of the article’s focus, of course, was also the work that she did as a film director, bringing a number of her husband’s unrealised scripts to the screen. After completing his last film, Poėma o more / Poem of an Inland Sea (Iuliia Solntseva, 1958, USSR), she went on to direct on her own for another twenty years and was hailed as a “female auteur” on the occasion of her 2017 retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York (Tafelski 2017).

The third part of Krasovskii’s article is marked by a shift in tone. Despite the postulated triumvirate of the title, he has to admit that Pudovkin himself answered the preliminary queries of archivists saying that they would not get much out of him: “Ох, не люблю бумажного мусора!” [“Ah, I do not care for waste paper!”] (Ibid.: 465). After his death, the archivists began talks with his widow, Anna Pudovkina:

В принципе вдова не возражала против передачи архива, но желала повременить, подумать. И думала она долго и основательно. Ее пригласили приехать в ЦГАЛИ, познакомиться с его работой. Приехала. Познакомилась. Обещала. Продолжала думать. В феврале 1963 года она передала в ЦГАЛИ несколько фотографий Пудовкина. Но дальше дело не пошло. (Ibid.: 466)

On principle, the widow did not object to the collection’s transfer [to the archive], but she wanted to take her time and think. She thought long and hard. We invited her to come to TsGALI, to get to know its work. She came. She got to know it. She promised. She kept on thinking. In February 1963 [a decade after Pudovkin’s death] she gave TsGALI several photos of Pudovkin. That was the end of it.

After Anna Pudovkina’s death in 1965, the archivists discovered that she had willed the collection to a friend of hers, who, in her turn, finally transferred it to the archive. Sadly, they had to conclude that Pudovkin’s collection turned out to be almost fifteen times smaller than either Eisenstein’s or Dovzhenko’s. Despite overtly attributing the relative insignificance of Pudovkin’s archive to his own lack of predisposition towards collecting, by drawing the comparison with the work of Atasheva and Solntseva, the article implied that Anna Pudovkina had also clearly failed to do her work of memorialising.

Pudovkina’s apparent attempt at controlling the fate of her husband’s archive backfired. The editors of his three-volume Collected Works that came out in 1974-76 lamented the fact that many documents were unavailable to them because of their delayed transfer to the archive and that they mostly had to rely on copies made while Anna Pudovkina had been alive. The almost obligatory companion collection of memoirs about the director, Pudovkin v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov (Pudovkin in the recollections of contemporaries), had been at least six years in the making when it finally came out in 1989 (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1: Anna Pudovkina and Vsevolod Pudovkin. Source: Pudovkin, Vsevolod. 1976. Sobranie sochinenii v trekh tomakh. Tom 3. Moscow. Insert between p. 288 and 289.

This volume of reminiscences began with four pieces arguing the importance of Pudovkin, reminding the readers of his position as a figure from the classic pantheon of Soviet cinema, written by other classics: Leonid Trauberg, Mikhail Romm, Viktor Shklovskii, and Tamara Makarova2. Only then, before the proper “chronological” run of the volume began, came the two “family” memoirs: by Pudovkin’s widow and his younger sister. Mariia Pudovkina’s piece “About my Brother” spanned the time from her childhood until the death of their mother, and discussed the director’s family, especially his other sisters, in a lively and engaging way, and revealed that, for almost ten years after Pudovkin’s death, his mother had been made to believe he was still alive (1989: 76-99). In contrast, Anna Pudovkina’s “Pages from Memoirs,” was a third as long and gave few specific details about their life or his work. It did not help that the note at the back of the volume explained that these “pages” had been first published in the journal Iskusstvo kino (Cinema Art) in 1958, that is, 30 years previously, and were reproduced without change. What neither that note, nor Krasovskii’s article mentioned was that Anna Pudovkina’s title, “Pages from Memoirs,” was not a metaphor: Pudovkin’s archive that had been transferred to TsGALI indeed contained more than 1,700 pages of her memoirs about her late husband.

Memories and Memoirs

Early Soviet filmmakers are, in many cases, also known as theoreticians, and many of them were also journalists, film critics, and teachers. Therefore, the written element of their legacies has been significant in determining their place in the canon and in the written and rewritten history of Russian cinema. Many were also prominent memoirists. Lev Kuleshov and Aleksandra Khokhlova constitute, perhaps, the best-known example, with several books written in tandem. Mikhail Romm and his actress wife Elena Kuz'mina created their memoirs separately, but Kuz’mina’s two-part volume is no less interesting than Romm’s famous oral history of Soviet cinema (Romm 1989). While neither Atasheva nor Solntseva wrote memoirs about their husbands, their archiving and publishing work has shaped, albeit in various ways, the context of research into the lives and works of both Eisenstein and Dovzhenko and has determined the development of their posthumous reputations. Consequently, all of these helpmeets of the classics have also claimed their own place in film history.

In the virtual absence of her own voice, Anna Pudovkina’s image is currently present in the history of Russian cinema through others’ memoirs, in which she has been relegated to a figure on the edges of Pudovkin’s artistic and even private life. She appears invariably as a beautiful lady of the house – but little more.

Painter Andrei Goncharov met Pudovkin at the end of the 1920s and later dined at his house on occasion:

Всегда было тепло и уютно, а Анна Николаевна, заставив ждать своего появления несколько дольше положенного, наконец, выходила к гостям в особом туалете, гордо заявляя, что задержалась она оттого, что мыла пол и готовила пирожки. Было ли так на самом деле или это было своеобразным кокетством – каждый из гостей мог решать по своему усмотрению. (Goncharov 2018)

There was always an atmosphere of warmth and comfort, and Anna Nikolaevna, having made us wait for her appearance a little bit longer than was customary, would finally come out to greet the guests wearing a special outfit, proudly proclaiming that she was tardy because she had been washing the floor and baking pirozhki. Whether that was truly the case or whether this was an affectation of sorts, each guest could decide as they pleased.

Romm and Kuz’mina (who had been previously married to another director, Boris Barnet) were also sometimes part of those stately dinners later in the 1930s. Kuz’mina noted, as did many others, that Pudovkin was a “chameleon,” showing different sides of himself to different people at different times, and often slipping into various roles in his everyday life. Pudovkina, Kuz’mina wrote, was the complete opposite; she would “glide out of the dinner room” to invite everyone to the table, “languid and calm”: “Мне всегда казалось, что она могла бы давать нам, актерам, уроки, как надо себя вести, играя аристократов” [“It always seemed to me that she could give us actors lessons of deportment needed for playing aristocrats”] (Kuz'mina 1989: 513). Kuz’mina describes how Pudovkina’s invitation to sit down to dinner affected the previously jovial host:

К моему удивлению, Пудовкин как-то сразу стих. Он вдруг напомнил мне цветок, около которого слишком быстро поставили раскаленный утюг. Он пролепетал:

– Да-да, пойдемте...

Мы вошли в удивительную по тем временам столовую. Все мы тогда жили неустроенно, по каморкам и углам. И нам показалось, что мы попали в какой-то другой мир.

Это была большая комната с раздвинутым во всю ее длину столом. На белой накрахмаленной скатерти стоял буквально царский хрусталь. Фужеры, рюмки, графины отражали свет хрустальной люстры.

Все ахнули и зааплодировали хозяйке, стали рассаживаться вокруг стола. Немного осмотревшись, все сникли, как и сам Пудовкин.

Жидкость в хрустальных графинах казалась неправдоподобно прозрачной. Закуски на переливающихся огнями блюдах напоминали бутафорию. (Ibid.: 514-15)

To my surprise, Pudovkin immediately subsided somehow. He suddenly reminded me of a plant, next to which someone has put a white-hot iron. He mumbled: “Yes, yes, let us go…”

We entered a dining room, extraordinary by the standards of the time. All of us, in that period, lived disorderly, in little nooks and crannies. And it seemed to us that we had found ourselves in some strange world.

This was a big room with a table extended through its full length. On the starched white tablecloth there were cut glass pieces simply fit for the Tsar. Wine glasses, shot glasses, and decanters reflected the light of the crystal chandelier.

Everyone gasped and applauded the hostess, then started taking their places round the table. Having taken a look around, everyone’s spirits deflated just as Pudovkin’s had done.

The liquid in the cut glass decanters seemed unbelievably clear. The hors-d’oeuvres on the sparkling platters looked like stage props.

The party, says Kuz’mina, broke down soon but, once outside, everyone got merry again, including Pudovkin, who came out to see everyone off. When someone suggested going to a restaurant because they still felt hungry, Pudovkin was the first one to agree, with much enthusiasm. Once home, Romm and Kuz’mina note, they decided that they much preferred their simple living to dining on cut glass and crystal.

In memoirs, Anna Pudovkina is usually presented in such domestic settings, as a beautiful remnant of the old order and the antidote to Pudovkin’s and the memoirists’ creative pursuits and passions. While Pudovkin himself is described as someone who either does not notice or need such comfort or is even smothered by it, material comfort seems to be all that his wife is interested in.

In July 1936, Dziga Vertov, suffering from oppressive heat, Boris Shumiatskii’s silence, and ear-splitting shouts from the nearby drunk tank, writes down in his diary:

Немножко меньше застенчивости. Анна Николаевна предлагает: зачем Вам мучиться и стоять целую ночь за белыми туфлями, когда это очень просто. […] [Я] достану туфли [за] несколько минут.

– Каким же образом? По блату?3

– Ну зачем же так думать? Нет. Просто по знакомству.

Она живет с Пудовкиным в прекрасной квартире, специально обставленной под ее руководством. И страшно поражена тем обстоятельством, что у меня нет квартиры. Очевидно, презирает меня за мое неумение найти ходы и знакомства. (Vertov: 1936-37: 39)

A little less timidity. Anna Nikolaevna makes a suggestion: why do you want to suffer and queue all night for white shoes when it is very simple? […] I will get you shoes in a couple of minutes.

– How would you do that? Through nepotism?

– Why would you think that? No, just through my connections.

She and Pudovkin live in a beautiful apartment, which was custom furnished under her supervision. And she is appalled by the fact that I do not own an apartment. She probably despises me for my inability to find ways and connections.

Even the Soviet Union’s entrance into the Second World War and a threat to Moscow does not quite seem to shake Anna Pudovkina’s poise. In a scene set by Tat’iana Tess, a well-known Moscow journalist, she habitually disrupts intellectual conversations that the two neighbours, Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein, have at Eisenstein’s summer house in Kratovo, to the south of Moscow, in the presence of other assorted creative personalities in the late summer of 1941.

Начинало смеркаться, сквозь верхушки сосен быстро и тревожно просачивался багровый свет заката. И тут на тропинке перед дачей появлялась жена Пудовкина Анна Николаевна.

Не входя на террасу, она останавливалась у ступенек, издали здороваясь со всеми присутствующими. Красивая, торжественно сложенная, в легком нарядном пальто из серой каракульчи, она стояла на тропинке. […] Завидев Анну Николаевну, Эйзенштейн бросался ей навстречу, рыцарски предлагая даме руку. Но подняться на террасу Анна Николаевна отказывалась. Пудовкин умолкал и, вздохнув, вставал из-за стола. Близилось время воздушных тревог, и он должен был проводить жену вместе с ее старушкой матерью в вырытое неподалеку от дачи бомбоубежище. (Tess 1985: 236–37)

It would begin to grow dark, the crimson light of the sunset would seep through the tops of pine trees quickly and ominously. At this moment, Pudovkin’s wife, Anna Nikolaevna, would appear on the little path in front of the dacha.

Without entering the veranda, she would stop by the steps, greeting everyone from a distance. Beautiful, of stately build, wearing a light elegant coat of grey astrakhan, she would stand on the path. […] Having caught of glimpse of Anna Nikolaevna, Eisenstein would rush towards her, chivalrously offering his arm to the lady. But Anna Nikolaevna refused to go up on the veranda. Pudovkin would fall silent then and, sighing, would rise from the table. The time of the air-raid warning was drawing near, and he had to escort his wife and her elderly mother to the bomb-shelter dug out not far from the dacha.

Tess presents Anna Pudovkina almost ridiculous in her aloofness, her disregard for the “fearless” attitude of the others, and even in her beauty. Other acquaintances and colleagues were downright hostile. For actress Galina Kravchenko: “умеющий проявлять характер в том, что касалось работы, Пудовкин в семье был абсолютно под влиянием своей жены. Он даже, как мне кажется, немного побаивался ее. Властная Анна настолько подчинила его себе, что он не решал ни одного вопроса без ее участия” [“While capable of showing some spine in everything related to work, in his family life Pudovkin was completely under the influence of his wife. It seems to me that he was even a little bit scared of her. The imperious Anna subordinated him to such an extent that he did not decide anything without her input”] (Tess 1989: 128).

In Her Husband’s Words

Though there are many descriptions of the Pudovkins’ domestic life, discussions of her contribution to his creative output – which he himself held in high regard – are much rarer. Cameraman Grigorii Kabalov had known Pudovkin and occasionally worked with him since the mid-1920s and was the director of photography on his 1930 film Prostoi sluchai / A Simple Case (USSR). Many years later Kabalov wrote about the editing of this film, which took place not at the main studio space on Leningradskoe shosse, but in the office building of Mezhrabpom-Fil’m on Triumfal’naia Square:

Часто в монтажной и просмотровой можно было увидеть Анну Николаевну, жену, друга и помощника Пудовкина. Они жили в этом же доме, на той же лестничной клетке, где помещались правление и монтажная. Мне запомнилось как однажды, после просмотра двух частей, подготовленных к озвучанию, Пудовкин проводил жену до входной двери своей квартиры и поцеловал руку Анны Николаевны. (Kabalov 1967: 14)

In the editing room and the screening room, one often could see Anna Nikolaevna, Pudovkin’s wife, friend, and helper. They lived in the same house, on the same stairs with the office and the editing room. I remember once, after the screening of two reels that had been prepared for sound mixing, Pudovkin saw his wife to the door of their apartment and kissed Anna Nikolaevna’s hand.

This paragraph was not included in the published versions of his memoirs (Kabalov 1983; Kabalov 1989). Pudovkin’s letters to his wife also occasionally urge her to look at material and rough edits of his films while he is away and to report her opinion. These also remain unpublished. And none of the authors of the memoirs that show Anna Pudovkina as a housewife, if not quite a house tyrant, even seem to suspect that she was or had been anything other than a housewife. These omissions raise a number of questions including: have the creative contributions of Anna Pudovkina to the editing of Pudovkin’s films been underestimated? As noted in the introduction to this issue of Apparatus (see Pearlman & Heftberger 2018), the contributions to creative decision making that may have been being made by Soviet women in the editing rooms, are generally undocumented. This lack of archival documentation of the informal processes, the conversations, the possible trying out of variants, is particularly problematic for Anna Pudovkina’s historical recognition. We cannot know the extent of her influence. Further, that which is documented in the perspective of contemporaries gives a somewhat pejorative view of her, but does not take into account how or how often she may have worked side by side with Pudovkin on making creative judgments about edits. We cannot therefore, provide “final facts” (Gaines, Vatsal and Dall’Asta 2013). However, a critical estimation of her creative work in other spheres, particularly acting in and theorising of film, as will be discussed below, adds evidence of capacities that should perhaps be considered before passing judgment on her value and influence in partnership with Pudovkin.

Pudovkin, famous for his work with actors as much as for his editing skills, talked to the British journalist Marie Seton around 1933:

I will use anyone. My actors are anywhere, in the street, on the farms, in the factories. Every human being is film material if they are physically and psychologically right, but I must feel that they are the person they are portraying. I must know their feelings before I photograph them.

M.S.: Then you use people simply as instruments upon which you play your own tune?

VP: No, that is wrong. I draw out the elements which I seen in them. For instance, you know Anna, my wife? All other directors make her act a woman of the world. But I see her in the role of a simple girl in Mother. That was my best film. (Seton 1933: 13)

In fact, before that Pudovkin had employed Anna in another film, as someone that was neither a woman of the world, nor quite a simple girl, but a heroine of a romantic comedy. Shakhmatnaia goriachka / Chess Fever (Vsevolod Pudovkin, Nikolai Shpikovskii, 1925, USSR) was a short film shot at the Mezhrabpom-Rus’ studio over a couple of weeks to capitalise on the popularity of chess and the World Chess Tournament that was taking place in Moscow in the fall of 1925. The author of the script and Pudovkin’s co-director was the very talented and tragically underrated by film critics and historians Nikolai Shpikovskii.

The male lead was played by Vladimir Fogel', a member of Kuleshov’s collective together with Pudovkin. Cameos included dancer Natalia Glan (Boris Barnet’s wife at the time), popular actors Ivan Koval'-Samborskii and Anatolii Ktorov, film directors such as Iakov Protazanov, even some members of the studio’s administration, – and Raoul Capablanca, the ruling world champion in chess. The fact that the main heroine, opposite Fogel’, was played by Pudovkin’s wife is not always noted, probably because she it credited under her maiden name, Anna Zemtsova. (Fig. 2)


Fig. 2: Anna Zemtsova in Shakhmatnaia goriachka. Source: YouTube.

Since Shakhmatnaia goriachka was a short, shown in sessions with another Mezhrabpom-Rus' production, its few reviews mostly centered on the film’s timely topic and surprising mastery of the genre. The work of actors was not discussed. Privately, however, Pudovkin wrote to Anna from Leningrad:

Если бы Вы знали, насколько важна для меня Ваша радость. Это настоящее, настоящее счастье чувствовать, видеть Вашу улыбку, для меня ничего не жалко, никаких сил, ничего ничего. Ужасно хорошо, что Вы всем очень понравились, а главное то, что Вы об этом знаете и радуетесь этому. То же и в Ленинграде. Меня сразу же по приезде спрашивали, кто эта актриса в «Шахматной горячке», «как замечательно играет», другой говорит – «немудрено, что хорошо удалась картина, каких актеров Вам удалось достать! Кто эта женщина?» (Pudovkin: 1926-33: 1; emphasis in the original)

If you knew how important your joy is for me. It is a real, real happiness to feel, to see your smile; I would spare nothing, no effort, nothing, nothing. It is awfully good that everyone liked you very much, and the main thing is that you know about it and take heart in it. It is the same here in Leningrad. As soon as I arrived, they asked me who this actress in Chess Fever was: “She plays so wonderfully”; someone else said: “No wonder the picture turned out so well, you were able to get such actors! Who is that woman?”

Her work in Mat / Mother (Pudovkin, 1926, USSR) was even less noticed publicly if that is possible. Apart from Pudovkin’s words reported by Seton, no one mentioned the not so “simple” girl, clearly from the intelligentsia, who approaches Pavel (played by Nikolai Batalov) at the beginning of the film asking him to temporarily hide the illegal weapons at his house, and is later present, with anguish in her face, at his trial. There seem to be hints of a love story in her performance, buried under the drama of Pavel and his mother who unwittingly betrays him, only to take his place in the revolutionary struggle later (Fig. 3).


Fig. 3: Anna Zemtsova in Mat. Source: YouTube.

The fact that Seton recorded Pudovkin’s allusion to “other directors” who had cast his wife, bears pausing over, because, to all intents and purposes, Shakhmatnaia goriachka and Mat are the only two films she is known for at the moment. However, Anna Zemtsova’s filmography includes films by at least two other directors: Boris Chaikovskii and Dyk Rudenskii. On the mysterious case of Rudenskii’s production, which is absent from Russian-language filmographies of Zemtsova, see below. The other director, Boris Chaikovskii, employed her as early as 1918, and under a yet another name.

This name, Anna Li, given the tantalizing lack of details surrounding her early life and career, sounds more like “It is truly Anna?” rather than “Anna Lee” in Russian. It appeared in the credits of the rather hastily composed film of the respectable Khanzhonkov studio, Sliakot bulvarnaia / Boulevard Slush (Boris Chaikovskii, 1918, Russia).

The two reviewers who noted its release in the late spring of 1918, also remarked on the leading lady. Valentin Turkin, later an important theorist of scriptwriting, noted:

Из исполнителей нельзя не отметить, кажется, впервые показывающуюся на экране г-жу Анну Ли. Ей не все еще удается, не овладела она еще своей экранной наружностью, но она – достаточно убедительна и местами хорошо драматична. (Veronin 1918: 7)

Among the actors, one cannot help but mention Ms. Anna Li, appearing on the screen, it seems, for the first time. She is not yet successful in everything that she does, she has not yet fully mastered her on-screen appearance but she is sufficiently convincing and at times dramatic in a good way.

Her heroine was given a double name: Elena, a bored bourgeois wife of a poet, who “for some reason turns into Lilith and goes through the full course of the ‘merry’ life all the way to cocaine and appearing on the stage of some café” only to take poison in the end (Rimidalov 1918: 10).

All explanations of why Anna Zemtsova used the name Anna Li are at this point speculative. Perhaps, Lilith loaned one of the syllables of her name to Zemtsova. Or, perhaps, she took the name from the songs that apparently inspired Lev Ostroumov’s screenplay. The song that provided the title of the film was from the repertoire of the salon idol Aleksandr Vertinskii: “Kokainetka” / “Cocainette” (1916) and featured the lines “Вас уже отравила осенняя слякоть бульварная // И я знаю, что крикнув, Вы можете спрыгнуть с ума” [“You have been poisoned already with the autumn’s boulevard slush, // And I know that if you scream, you can go insane”]. Another popular line from the musician’s repertoire went: “Где Вы теперь? Кто Вам целует пальцы? Куда ушел Ваш китайчонок Ли?” [“Where are you now? Who is kissing your fingers? Where has your little Chinese boy Li gone?”]. Vertinskii himself had been an occasional actor with the studio since 1913 and certainly knew Anna Zemtsova in Moscow.

Valentin Turkin’s review of Anna Li’s performance was much kinder than the other review of the film, published in the journal Mir ėkrana (Rimidalov 1918: 10). Turkin wrote it for the new newspaper, Kino, which appeared in 1918 and was edited by Vsevolod Chaikovskii. Kino was published, according to rumors, by Chaikovskii’s older brother, none other than the director of Sliakot bulvarnaia, Boris Chaikovskii. This newspaper also reported in late June, 1918 that a part of the Khanzhonkov troupe from Moscow was setting out for Yalta on the Black Sea, in order to reunite with the rest of the company including its owner, Aleksandr Khanzhonkov. Among those leaving, the newspaper listed Anna Li (“Khronika” 1918: 11). Whether that particular departure took place or not, by the end of 1918 Anna Zemtsova was back in Khar’kov, in the vicinity of which her family lived at the time. This looks to be the end of Anna Li’s acting career that had barely begun.

With the Civil War, mass emigration, and the general upheaval that eventually brought film production to an almost complete stop, the films made in the transitional period (1917-19) suffered the most. Even though the Khanzhonkov catalogue has survived to a far greater extent than those of other studios (in no small part thanks to his second wife, editor and archivist Vera Popova-Khanzhonkova), Sliakot’ apparently did not last either physically or in people’s memory. It is probable that, returning on the screen in 1925, Anna Pudovkina was reluctant to go back to her early pseudonym because in 1924 another actress had taken it. Nina Li (real name Nina Popova) had appeared in three of Vladimir Gardin’s films by the end of 1925. This, however, also meant that very few people could connect Anna Li from 1918 and Anna Zemtsova from 1925, and Shakhmatnaia goriachka became her new debut. However, taking into consideration her early appearance in a “pre-revolutionary” (in terms of political and aesthetic discourse, not chronology) Russian film as a femme fatale, Zemtsova’s acting in Shakhmatnaia goriachka can be seen much clearer as self-reflexive and performative. She does not play melodrama, she plays at melodrama (Fig. 4, Fig. 5).


Fig. 4: Anna Zemtsova performing melodrama in Shakhmatnaia goriachka. Source: YouTube.


Fig. 5: Shakhmatnaia goriachka: “I will poison myself.” Source: YouTube.

Her Own Words

Even though the actress Anna Li has been all but forgotten, there is another side of Anna Zemtsova’s use of the pseudonym “Li” in her early career that is harder to reconcile with the later image as a housewife. As ‘Li’ she was of one of Russia’s first film theorists. In the summer of 1918, around the time Sliakot’ bulvarnaia was released, Anna Li published three articles in that same newspaper Kino, whose pages were mostly dominated by theoretical texts and reviews by two authors: Valentin Turkin and Boris Chaikovskii (see below in Russian).

Anna Li’s first article, “To Film Authors and Directors,” published in June 1918, argues for the real “calling” of cinema: “to take a human being more often out of the world of the grey everyday life and to plunge her into a kingdom of dreams and oblivion” (Li 1918c: 10). She even pleads against the types of movies to which her own recent one belongs. The viewer longs to “find herself” in the movies, to merge with the “I” of the world, “to the cosmos, to the world harmony,” because, as it is,

будни вокруг нас кишат, как черви, съедая все молодые зеленые побеги. Мы хотим вырваться из этого заколдованного круга будничной житейской пошлости, а попадаем все в тот же круг «бульварной слякоти», «кухни», «грязного белья». (Ibid.)

the daily routine around us swarms like worms, eating all the tender green shoots. We want to break away from this vicious circle of the humdrum commonplace of everyday life and yet we find ourselves again in the same circle of the “boulevard slush,” of the “kitchen sink,” of the “dirty linen.”

The second, much bigger article, “The Screen and Rhythm,” appeared in early July and discussed the three rhythms that have to be synchronised in order to present movement on the screen correctly and create the needed response in the audience: the tempo of an actor herself, the camera speed and the “rhythm” of the projector (Li 1918a). Sliakot’ bul’varnaia was criticised for an unsatisfying portrayal of Anna Li’s dance in one of the sequences, and the article seems to have been born in response to that:

Уродливые результаты танцев, даже при наличности профессионального исполнения, подтверждают и подчеркивают отсутствие ритма на экране.

Аппарат, действуя, очевидно, медленнее, не успевает уловить всей пластической гаммы движений танца, и они проскальзывают, не фиксируясь. Отсюда — выпады, пробелы, угловатость исполнения, а в публике зачастую хохот, вместо эстетического наслаждения. Тогда как танец, хореография, по своей сущности — в тесном сродстве с экраном, как пластическим искусством. (Ibid.: 5)

The grotesque results of dancing [on the screen], even in the case of professional performance, confirm and emphasise the absence of rhythm on the screen.

The camera, which apparently functions slower, does not have time to capture all the range of the dance’s moves and they slip by without a trace. Hence, there are ruptures, gaps, awkwardness of performance, and in the audience, often laughter instead of aesthetic pleasure. Whereas dance, choreography in its essence is intimately related to the screen as a plastic art.

The third article, “The Screen and the Synthesis of Arts,” was published in August 1918 and developed Anna Li’s thoughts about rhythm. It prophesied cinema becoming “a conductor of thought” and reflecting both the physical and the spiritual reality through its synthetic nature (Li 1918b: 6). The text concluded with the promise to present some “specific possibilities in reaching the synthesis of the arts” (ibid.) in the next article, but it never appeared because, as we know, Anna Li left Moscow.

Mikhail Iampolski, in his groundbreaking 1994 article “Kuleshov’s experiments and the new anthropology of the actor,” included Anna Li’s second text in the context of Kuleshov’s early views on montage, presented, first of all, in his article “The Art of Cinema” published in the same newspaper Kino: “Kuleshov’s article was written before Anna Lee’s [sic!] piece. But it contains a direct response to ‘The Screen and Rhythm’” (Yampolsky 1994: 40).

Even though her “solution” to the problem of representing movement on the screen “looked extremely naive” (ibid.), the significance of Anna Li’s article, according to Iampolski, lies in the fact that Kuleshov continued to polemicise with it in his later texts, which in turn can help explain his classic theory of montage:

The basis of cinema is rhythm (as in Anna Lee [sic!]) but its realisation is in montage. Lee’s article apparently had a powerful effect on Kuleshov and played a particular role in his theoretical evolution. In 1920 in his theoretical “summing up,” “The Banner of Cinema,” he openly argued against “The Screen and Rhythm,” beginning the exposition of his own theory with precisely the question of dance. Without naming Anna Lee, he sets out, with some misrepresentation, her position on the discrepancy between the camera and the choreography of cinema. (Ibid.: 41)

Kuleshov presents a solution that would also make use of the unique possibilities of cinema as art, namely, montage, and his polemic with Anna Li, Iampolski suggests, “explains the origin of one of Kuleshov’s experiments, ‘the dance’. But it is equally evident that it also follows the broad outlines of film theory at that time, from the rhythmic anthropology of man to rhythmic montage as its cinematographic quintessence” (ibid.). These “outlines” of film theory are presented by the work of Anna Li as well as of Turkin, actor and director Gardin, and also Chaikovskii, whose theories and teaching remained beyond the scope of Iampolski’s article but are essential in understanding Li/Zemtsova’s early work.

Unfortunately, the common context of both Kuleshov’s and Li’s articles from 1918 is obscured in Iampolski’s article because, while acknowledging her later marriage to Pudovkin, he seems to be unaware of Anna Li’s acting career and an erroneous Russian name is given: Anna Zaitseva-Selivanova (ibid., 40). Whereas, it is highly plausible that Kuleshov was acquainted with Anna Li’s thoughts on rhythm and movement on the screen even before the article’s publication, because he was the art director of Sliakot’ bul’varnaia (Fig. 6). Their acquaintance was renewed when Anna Zemtsova returned to Moscow in 1922; by that time Kuleshov was teaching at the Film Technicum, and Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of his students.


Fig. 6. Sliakot’ bul’varnaia: Anna Li, M.P. Smelkov and V.A. Kriger (in Kino 21 (1918): 7). Production design by L. Kuleshov.

Back in the Archive

In all likelihood, we will never know if there might have been actual discussions on and off the set of Sliakot bulvarnaia between Anna Zemtsova/Li, Lev Kuleshov, and Boris Chaikovskii about actors, actors’ movements, rhythm, and montage. But Zemtsova’s early texts written under the name Li in Kino are assertive, if not fully original. Her correspondence with Pudovkin and her later texts that remain in their archive, however, present a picture of her that is hard to align either with the theories of Anna Li or with the portraits painted in others’ memoirs. What emerges is the figure of a woman deeply unsatisfied with her life, a creative person who for some reason could find no outlet for her ideas and skills and veered from sudden flashes of confidence to suicidal thoughts. Her creativity tries to assert itself again and again but, for various reasons, all these attempts fail.

One of her drafts in particular is important. Probably after Pudovkin’s death and certainly post-1941 Anna Pudovkina started writing a text that she called “An Autobiography (auto-confession)” or “a conversation with myself” (n.d.: 145–51). She opened it with an epigraph of sorts: “Мой ‘[б]едный неудачник,’ говорил Всеволод” [“my ‘poor might-have-been,’ Vsevolod used to say”] (ibid. 145). This phrase did indeed appear in one of his letters from the late 1920s (Pudovkin 1926–33: 80).

This autobiographical piece presents a litany of woes, which perversely takes the form of a list of accomplishments:

Я не хочу никакого признания себя, ни выявления гордости — ничего этого нет. Только печаль, огромная тень жизни моей встала передо мной — неудачника...

Другие скажут — отчего быть недовольной? Вы прожили яркую, интересную жизнь. Все человеку мало...

Не в этом дело... Бесплодно прожила я век свой — не выявила своей дух[овной] сущности. Не из честолюбивых помыслов — а, мне кажется, ч[елове]ку положено, дана потребность к выявлению себя, своего тв[орческого] образа, своего дух[овного] существа. (Pudovkina n.d.: 145-145 verso; ellipses in the original)

I do not want any recognition for myself, neither do I want to exhibit pride: nothing like that. Only there is sadness, a giant shadow of my life that has risen in front of me, <life> as a failure…

Others would say: why be unsatisfied? You have lived a vivid, interesting life. And yet you cannot get enough…

That is not the point… I have spent my allotted age in vain: I have not expressed my spiritual essence. Not for ambitious reasons; I think, a human being is supposed to, possesses a need to express herself, her creative image, her spiritual essence.

After a description of her family (mostly her father, an amateur opera singer and a talented doctor), Anna Pudovkina chronicles her early love for the theatre and writing; occasional recognition for her dancing and outfits at costume balls in a small town near Khar'kov, and even more occasional successes with public speaking. Then, in the same abbreviated way, she recites the loss of everything, including her own and her father’s manuscripts during the Civil War, and the death of her father in 1920. She mentions her two larger articles from 1918 and an offer that Aleksandr and Antonina Khanzhonkov made her in Khar’kov the next year: to go abroad to continue her career in cinema. This was obviously not accepted, and Khanzhonkov himself returned to Moscow several years later. Among other new details, the date of her meeting with Pudovkin finally emerges from this list: 1922, after her exam with Kuleshov, probably still at the State Film School, which he left with a small group of students, including Pudovkin, in December of that year. The fact of her, however brief, study there (or was she not accepted?) is not mentioned in memoirs.

Another intriguing detail on the list is the republication of her two articles from 1918: the place of this second publication has not yet been determined. Pudovkina gives the date 1923, and her name (Anna Li) does appear in the list of contributors in the new short-lived journal Kino, whose editorial board consisted of Aleksandr Anoshchenko, Grigorii Boltianskii, and Valentin Turkin. Kuleshov and Chaikovskii were also listed as contributors (as was Pudovkin) and did indeed contribute. However, Li’s 1918 texts were not published; indeed her name does not even appear on the pages of the journal outside that list. In her chronology she also lists two further articles that she apparently wrote: “Cinema and Literature” and “Cinema and Music” and concludes: “Кулешов не пожелал напечатать. ‘Вздор’—сказал. А сейчас об этом везде пишут—то, о чем я еще тогда—писала” [“Kuleshov refused to publish them. ‘Rubbish,’ was what he said. And now they write about it everywhere, about what I already wrote on then” (ibid.: 151 verso).

According to her chronology, Anna Zemtsova spent the years from 1922 to 1924 ‘saving’ Vsevolod Pudovkin from succumbing to the family ailment, tuberculosis (which killed his brother and sister around that time). Her creativity and sewing skills found outlet in designing a garment (“The Chameleon”) that could transform into twenty different outfits, including a coat, a suit, and an evening dress. A public demonstration took place and a patent for the outfit was forthcoming from the State Committee for Inventions, but somehow the death of Lenin in January 1924 put a stop to Pudovkina’s designing activity ([Pudovkina 1950s–1963]: 17).

Next on the list are Shakhmatnaia goriachka and Mat’, and in this context Pudovkin’s reassurances of her success in the first of these take on a different tone. Anna Zemtsova was starving for recognition. There is no information yet whether she tried to further her acting career in the Soviet Union at the time. After the two films that were destined to remain the bulk of her filmography, the list includes, under 1927, “Berlin. The film Svoi sobstvennyi naslednik [His Own Heir]” (Pudovkina n.d.: 151 verso). This was actually in 1929 and the original German title of the film was Klippen der Ehe / The Cliffs of Marriage, which was finally (after two bans) released in Germany and Austria in 1930 as Die Ehe der Maria Lavalle / The Marriage of Maria Lavalle (Dyk Rudenskij, Germany). The film, written and directed by the mysterious Dyk Rudenskij, who left no other visible trace (at this point, it is tempting to identify him with a Soviet immigrant David Rudenskii who had written one script in Moscow in 1925), was a melodrama about a woman whose marriage is in some trouble. The couple go on a trip to a glacier, but they are followed by the husband’s mentally unbalanced brother. Through an accident, both brothers fall from the glacier, and Maria Lavalle’s brother-in-law dies. But the brothers look so similar that she assumes that it is her husband who died, and “two people who have been husband and wife for a long time, face again a happiness they had almost lost” (“Die Ehe der Maria Lavalle” 1930: 12). The actress who played the unfortunate (and inattentive) wife was credited as “Anna Pudowkin.” Some advertisements even tried to sell the film with the claim that Vsevolod Pudovkin himself took part in its production, fresh off the success of his own Potomok Chingiskhana / The Heir of Genghis Khan / Sturm über Asien (1928, USSR) and Das Ehegesetz (Der lebende Leichnam) / The Living Corpse / Zhivoi trup (Fedor Otsep, 1929, Germany, USSR) shot in Germany with him in the leading role (Gandert 1993: 138).

The German film is absent from Anna Li/Zemtsova/Pudovkina’s Russian filmographies and the circumstances surrounding its production need further exploration. The most relevant part is that both Pudovkin and his wife worked in Germany in the period when the Soviet government’s fears of defection of its citizens peaked. Couples, even as highly placed in the Soviet hierarchy as were the Pudovkins, could almost never go abroad together; while Anna was working on Klippen der Ehe, Vsevolod had to go back to the Soviet Union. The added problem was that while Pudovkin had worked on an official Mezhrabpom-Rus’ co-production, the company that produced Pudovkina’s film, Gestus-Film GmbH, is not known for anything else, certainly had no official ties to the Soviet Union, and therefore could reflect very badly on the reputation of both Pudovkin and his wife – unless she intended to stay abroad, that is, defect. Pudovkin bombarded her from the Soviet Union with self-contradictory letters. He volubly acknowledged the importance of this work in a foreign production for her career and the need to stay on to act in another film in order to establish herself in the industry, and yet begged her to return for his sake: not his political sake but his personal happiness. She acquiesced and, apparently, was never again given permission to accompany her husband abroad. What is more, Anna Pudovkina must have treated this return as another – perhaps, her biggest failure as a separate creative entity. The next few years yield no results in her list: “28–29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35... ?” (Pudovkina n.d.: 151 verso; ellipsis in the original).

The list does not lay blame on anyone for her failures explicitly: apart from Kuleshov. There are hints, however, that at least in the privacy of her own notes throughout the years, she occasionally blamed Pudovkin as well; could not help but compare herself with him, even as he insisted on her importance in his life and art. In one letter to her, post-Klippen, Pudovkin wrote:

[К]ак я горжусь и радуюсь за Вас, когда читаю Ваши такие редкие радостные письма. Я так люблю Вас такой, готовой закричать от восторга, улыбающейся и отчаянно уверенной в себе. […] На Вас налетело несчастье, дорогой мой бедный птиченыш. Оно прошло. и Вы обязаны вернуть все. (Pudovkin 1926-33: 82)

I am so proud of you and glad for you when I read your too infrequent joyful letters. I love you so much when you are like this, ready to scream from delight, smiling and recklessly self-confident. […] You had flown into misfortune, my poor dear little bird. It has passed, and you ought to get everything back.

After his death, sorting their correspondence (likely in conjunction to her work on the memoirs), she added a note to the newly typed copy of this letter that explained to what occasion he must have referred:

В один из моих приездов в Кисловодск […] я особенно остро почувствовала, что все, что растеряно — за многие годы — священное, дорогое, творческое — я, вдруг, вновь обрела. Я вернулась к себе. Я нашла себя — ту, которую Лодя встретил во мне – в 22-м году, — ту, в которую он поверил и в которой […] — нашел себя. […] Я ликовала — и, помню, взяла какую-то веточку с дерева и писала «Я» — утверждая этим себя. И чем выше я поднималась, тем крупнее пис[ала] «Я» и, взойдя на вершину горы, — я из веток сделала букву «Я» и повесила ее на горе. (Ibid.: 85–85 verso; emphasis in the original)

During one of my visits to [a sanatorium in] Kislovodsk […] I felt especially keenly that everything that I had lost throughout the years: everything sacred, creative, and dear to me — I had suddenly found again. I returned to myself. I found myself, the woman that Lodya had met in me, in 1922, the one in which he believed and in which […] he had found himself. […] I rejoiced and I remember taking a twig and tracing “I,” affirming myself by this. And the higher up I went, the bigger were the “I’s” that I wrote, and, having climbed to the top of the mountain, I made the letter “I” out of tree branches and hung it on the mountain.

This, apparently, did not last either. In 1935, she records, she was supposed to “work with Vs[evolod] in directing. The accident [катастрофа] with Zarkhi” (Ibid.) The accident she refers to took place in the mid-30s. While working on the new script with Natan Zarkhi, Pudovkin reshuffled and refreshed his creative team. In particular, Mikhail Doller, his usual assistant and co-director, was finally supposed to be given his own film to direct. In the summer of 1935, the car in which Pudovkin was driving them both to Moscow, crashed. Zarkhi died the next day. The film, with a much-remade script, was finally released three years later as Pobeda / Victory (1938, USSR) to a lukewarm critical reception. Doller had returned to Pudovkin’s side as assistant and Anna’s opportunity to assist, it seems, had fallen victim to this personal and creative tragedy. She continued the list: “From [19]35 to [19]41–” (Ibid). After another couple of lines, the list stops.

After Vsevolod Pudovkin’s death, she might have felt both the desire and the pressure to provide an account of his life and career: hence the 1,700+ pages of memoirs in the archive. But a researcher hoping for a final word from her is quickly disappointed. More than ten folders of them are mostly designated as rough drafts. The possible titles of the projected book include Vospominaniia / Memoirs; Stranitsy vospominanii / Pages from Memoirs; Chelovek sovremennosti / A Man of Today, and Otdai svet dushi svoei / Give Back the Light of Your Soul.

The problem is that the pages never seem to go beyond drafts; that Pudovkina wrote and rewrote the same passages over and over again. She especially agonised over the beginning, over setting the tone of the memoirs and apologised for even writing them. What seemed to bother Pudovkina most of all was that it was impossible for her to write memoirs about her late husband without writing about herself as well, but at the same time, this felt presumptuous. Perhaps as means of overcoming her own uneasiness, she argued over and over for “love as a special form of cognition,” defending its clear-sightedness. To combat what she perceived as her bias, she filled the pages with quotes from others, more “worthy” people who had known Pudovkin. And still she was unsatisfied. The few pages that appeared in Iskusstvo kino in 1958 and were republished in Pudovkin v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov in 1989 were practically polished to death, but the rest was left in a depressing state of disorder.

For a while she tried to find a form for this memoir that would not be strictly chronological. At some point, she took inspiration from her scrapbooking: albums with photos of Pudovkin that she had compiled while he was still alive (and approved by him). The origin of this hobby, most likely, lay in her own album of press clippings, which had perished during the Civil War. She recorded the fact in her “list of failures” but obviously had not restored it.

In the memoirs, she confirms that Pudovkin was not interested in material comfort and that, were it not for her, he could have been satisfied with a tiny room instead of an apartment with cut glass and crystal that memoirists admired and despised in the same breath. Anna Pudovkina, however, explains it as an outlet (perhaps the only one left to her) for creativity:

[У] меня эта потребность — формы окружающей обстановки, удобства, — вытекала, очевидно, из моих способностей к оформлению. Всякая способность стремится к реализации, к воплощению. И я всю свою жизнь уделяла этой непреодолимой потребности. (Pudovkina [1950s-1963]: 54)

[T]his need in me, the need for [providing] a form to the surroundings, for accommodation, arose, apparently, from my propensity for decoration. Any propensity strives for actualisation, for realisation. And I have devoted my whole life to this compulsive need. (Fig. 7)