Stekliannyi Glaz (The Glass Eye) and Karmen – The Actress, Editor and Director Lilia Brik

Stekliannyi Glaz (The Glass Eye) and Karmen
The Actress, Editor and Director Lilia Brik

Adelheid Heftberger
Lilia Brik; Dziga Vertov; Ėsfir’ Shub; Vladimir Maiakovskii; montage; editing; cutter; postmodernism; constructivism; factographic film; avant-garde; self-reflexivity; female authorship.


Brik’s Usage of Self-Reflexivity and Factographic Film

The Film Stekliannyi Glaz

The Unrealised Film Project





Suggested Citation


In this work I hope to illustrate how female authorship-as-editing emerged within the circle of the Soviet avant-garde, using the example of Lilia Brik’s (1891–1978) little-known film Stekliannyi glaz / The Glass Eye (Lilia Brik and Vitalii Zhemchuzhnyi, 1929, USSR). Indeed, the mere presence of a female director during this era – albeit as co-director alongside Vitalii Zhemchuzhnyi – was quite remarkable, because so rare, and itself merits examination. In documentary, traditional distinctions between roles such as directing and editing often were quite blurred and here, similarly, while Brik wrote that she did the editing by herself (Brik 1993: 169), the exact working relationship and division of labour between her and co-director Zhemchuzhnyi remains unclear.

Brik’s cinematic network appears to be purely male – indeed, she herself only credits men as co-authors or mentors. She even emphasised Pudovkin’s help when making Stekliannyi glaz, though he was solely working on his own first film at the time, Mekhanika golovnogo mozga / The Mechanics of the Brain (1926, USSR), a documentary on, inter alia, Pavlovian reflex. Stekliannyi glaz is partly a compilation film about the technical possibilities of the camera-eye (the glass eye), and partly a mockumentary about the shooting of a film drama, and its protagonists are mostly men, presented as experienced, intrepid, creative experts (Golovnia, but also indirectly Kaufman), so that the audience can be assured of their commitment, technological expertise, and willingness to take risks.

Brik as an author remains invisible because a close reading does not reveal an identifiable style which can be attributed to her as a (female) filmmaker. I argue that methods of formal analysis and close reading – that is, the focus on motifs and structure – are less suited for the analysis of Brik’s work, specifically as a female filmmaker. Such an analysis, in my opinion, has to be supported by a critical reading of biographical writings (for example, journals and correspondence) and, in Brik’s case, the analysis of her own unrealised projects, such as Karmen. This analysis can help revealing her interactions within male, and more importantly female, networks such as, for example, Ėsfir’ Shub and Elizaveta Svilova.1 It is beyond the scope of this article, but it would be particularly exciting to explore Brik’s relationship to Shub, who also created her films from existing footage and was one of the very few women active in the Soviet avant-garde who was respected by her male colleagues.

Modern interpretations might be quick to suggest, that Brik, Shub and Svilova limited themselves to selecting and recombining film fragments and that since editing was a ‘female’ role, compilation film was a ‘female genre’. I, on the other hand, propose that questions about a specific female authorship might prove fruitless because foregrounding construction rather than creation was a common feature of Soviet constructivism/formalism (Beilenhoff 2005: 397). Marking a radical break with the traditional view, Brik’s husband Osip was one of the literature and film theorists who fought the concept of the ‘author’. In his article “Teach the Teachers” in Novyi lef 10 from 1927 he argued fiercely against the artist who creates work merely based on himself, his spirit, and his emotions. Rather, as Brik wrote, each era brings forth certain methods and devices that are used by artists. However, one cannot disagree that the influential female halves of Soviet artistic couples were gradually overshadowed in the public eye by their male partners. For instance, Varvara Stepanova, was well known in her time but, as the years went by, slowly disappeared behind her husband Aleksandr Rodchenko.2 Vertov, despite him stressing collaborative authorship over a single creator (e.g. Vertov 1984: 5), was always careful to immortalise his name and his statements in his writings and lectures. There are few comparable cases, in which women have published their theoretical reflections in the same fashion.

Stekliannyi glaz has two component parts – one documentary and one fiction – parts bound together in a curiously loose, and less-than-convincing fashion. When examining it, one is struck by its commonalities with other films of the Soviet avant-garde, especially Chelovek s kinoapparatom / Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), which is often seen as an influence on Brik’s, though they were released around the same time3. Important affinities can also be found between Brik’s film and works such as Moskva / Moscow (1927), directed by Mikhail Kaufman, Vertov’s brother and cameraman.

ЛЮБ4: The Icon Versus the Artist

Lilia Brik chose – quite consciously – the less glamorous path for her film career. She could have limited herself to the role of actress and continued to play romantic heroines in ballet costume, as in her first film Zakovannaia fil’moi / Shackled by Film (Nikandr Turkin, 1918, USSR). In Stekliannyi glaz she is also invisible; she grants the position in front of the camera to the younger Vera Polonskaia. Brik decided to work on the other side of the screen, beginning with editing. She writes nothing about this work in her published memoirs, so it would be worthwhile examining it, using the work she left behind.

Though already married from a young age to the influential literary critic and formalist Osip Brik, the Russian author Lilia Brik would become Vladimir Maiakovskii’s muse and, indeed, romantic obsession, connections which clearly lent a certain tone to her public image. Her reputation as a vamp in a scandalous love-triangle on the one hand, along with her image as an intellectual and a brave fighter for the memory of Maiakovskii’s work when he was out of favour with Stalin on the other, are merely two of the poles which form the multifaceted figure of Lilia Brik. Though always recognised for her intelligence, cleverness, and charm, one could also make the provocative argument that she often served simply as a surface, a screen onto which were projected the fantasies of her male cohorts. Brik’s face alone spurred her contemporaries to make assumptions about her character. For example, the art historian and husband of Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Punin said: »Есть наглое и сладкое в ее лице... много знает о человеческой любви и любви чувственной. / There is a spirited and sweet character to her face...she knows a great deal about human and sensual love.«5 (Grashchenkova 2014: 137) The literary critic and formalist Viktor Shklovskii also seems unable to resist describing her with an avalanche of female stereotypes: »Она умела быть грустной, женственной, капризной, гордой, пустой, непостоянной, влюбленной, умной и какой угодно. / She could be sad, feminine, capricious, proud, empty, volatile, wise, or however else she pleased.« (Bosenko 1998)

Similar descriptions can even be found in contemporary scholarly literature about Lilia Brik. She is presented in surviving photographs as a woman who is, on the one hand, an untouchable young girl, yet simultaneously a femme fatale – with (of course) no children, nor the desire for any (see Grashchenkova 2014: 138). Her relationship with Maiakovskii, which began in 1915, continues to be presented as scandalous, despite Brik’s active efforts to lessen the stigma surrounding her ménage à trois and to explain her unusual marriage with Osip Brik. It should also be noted that Brik shared the greater part of her life with her third husband, Vasilii Abgarovich Katanian – Maiakovskii’s biographer. Her interest in fashion, a topic about which Brik regularly corresponded with her expatriate sister, the influential author Elsa Triolet (née Ella Kagan), is also frequently highlighted and commented upon as a feminine (and therefore frivolous) quality. Even contemporary publications, when attempting to characterise Brik in a positive manner, seem unable to escape descriptions filled with gendered clichés:

Умная, смелая, энергичная, деловая, умевшая пользоватся своей женской соблазнительностью, циничная, ЛЮБ стала одной из самых знаменитых и весьма редких женщин советской эпохи, проживших жизнь по своим собственным законом. (Bosenko 1998)

Bright, bold, spirited, energetic, who knew how to make use of her feminine charms, cynical, LIUB became one of the most recognised women of the Soviet era, an unusual spirit who lived life according to her own rules.

Such characterisations effectively – even if unintentionally – undermine Brik’s professional ambitions and successes. Nevertheless, we can assume that Lilia Brik was taken seriously in the constructivist movement: she certainly moved with ease in their circles. Collaboration among constructivist scholars and artists was close, and spanned a broad range of disciplines (for financial reasons, among others). As is well known, Viktor Shklovskii wrote screenplays for over twenty films, the director Lev Kuleshov worked with Osip Brik, and, for Iurii Tynianov, the years 1926 and 1927 were marked by successful cooperation with the Leningrad collective FĖKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor). These collaborations resulted in some of the most famous works of Soviet avant-garde cinema, such Po zakonu / By the Law (Lev Kuleshov, 1926), Tret’ia Meshchanskaia / Bed and Sofa (Abram Room, 1927), or Dom na Trubnoi / The House on Trubnaia (Boris Barnet, 1928). During these early years of cinema, directors developed their own specific methods, perspectives, and approaches, particularly with regard to montage; however, they also expressed their understanding of the roles of text, sound, and colour in film. Artists discussed their varying positions in emotional terms in the Soviet press and at conferences. Overall, the advent of sound cinema was welcomed by Soviet filmmakers, even though it was pointed out that “sound is a double-edged invention” and its usage as a mere illustration “will destroy the culture of montage” (Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov 1988: 234). Shub for example, saw the potential of sound especially for “non-played film” (see Shub 1988: 271), like Vertov she was more interested in learning to record sound authentically on site which “must be organic raw material just like the film footage” (ibid.).

In addition, these filmmakers were well-connected internationally and were actively engaged in dialogue with foreign film theorists and filmmakers, and strongly defended themselves against criticism.6 Throughout her life, Lilia Brik surrounded herself not only with Russian but also with international artists, some of whom were close personal friends: for example, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Aleksei Kruchenykh, as well as the French painter, sculptor, and director Fernand Léger. She corresponded with filmmakers such as Ėizenshtein, Kuleshov, Barnet, and Pudovkin, and regularly took notes on the impressions films made upon her during her visits to the cinema (Brik 1993: 189). Her only role as actress was in the film Zakovannaia fil’moi, in which she plays a ballerina who exits a canvas and comes to life. The film, which only remains as a short fragment, was based on a screenplay by Vladimir Maiakovskii, who also plays the main role. After a break of ten years Brik began working on the documentary film Evrei na zemle / Jews on Earth (Abram Room, 1927), and appears as “organiser of footage” (организатор съемок) in the opening credits. Maiakovskii und Shklovskii collaborated to transform the screenplay into the film script. Room’s involvement is also interesting in light of the fact that he had studied at the Psychoneurological Institute in Leningrad and was taught by Vladimir Bekhterev (as was Vertov) and, later on, studied the perceptual experience of the film-viewer, in the children’s film department of the Narkompros agency (see Vöhringer 2007: 139).7

The selection and arrangement of the documentary fragments in Stekljannyi glaz is clearly in tune with an artistic movement interested in displaying and explaining the processes of filmmaking. It is certainly justified to assume that Brik was influenced in this by her husband Osip, or developed her artistic trajectory alongside him. He clearly explained his convictions in the issue of Kino from November 8, 1927: “I began working in cinema as a publicist. I had a motto: ‘For the newsreel; against narrative film’”. (Brik 2010 [1927b]: 95). In other words, in contrast to theatre, film should make use of not words, but, rather, genuinely filmic acts like gesture, mimicry, and movement. Brik is thus a vehement defender of the factographical film, as can be seen, for instance, in his 1927 contribution to the journal Novyi Lef, where he promotes the replacement of the emotional arousal brought about by film through a “sober attitude toward reality” (трезвым отношением к действительности) and an “active relationship to the known facts” (активным отношением к познанным фактам) ( Brik 1927a: 29). Shub’s film Padenie dinastii Romanovykh / The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) is, in this sense, one of Brik’s favourite examples of evidence confirming the greater power of Cinema Truth – a term invented by Vertov, and also the title of a newsreel series which ran between 1922 and 1925 – to possess in contrast to narrative film (see Brik 2010 [1927a]: 95).

Shub defended her work as a creative activity, in which an author (in the sense of a director) is also a screenwriter of a special sort:

The conviction that everyone can just throw a “Kulturfilm” together, by having just a faint idea, surrenders this work to people who - with only very few exceptions - don’t have the right training, or produce only very few films until there is the opportunity to work in feature film finally. (Schub 1967 [1929]: 133)8

The peculiarities of this work require that, besides being appropriately qualified and having good ideas, the director of the non-acted film should have the political knowledge and qualities to be able to fill each topic with social content in the sense of the revolution (see ibid.: 134). Shub, in addition, mentioned the poor working conditions in non-acted film, and called for their improvement (see ibid.: 135). Furthermore, toward the middle of the 1930s, documentarists increasingly faced the accusation of accomplishing no worthwhile work in service of socialism. This added a precarious political position to the already precarious professional position. Shub was, like other filmmakers, later forced to vehemently distance herself from the factographic films and to condemn their orientation toward facts as the central flaw of documentary film:

We considered facts as material for the montage and partly - this has to be honestly said - as material in order to experiment with montage. Urbanism, formalism, schematism, films without sujet, without subjects - all of that had its place in our films (Schub 1967 [1936]: 139)

Brik’s Usage of Self-Reflexivity and Factographic Film

Self-reflexivity related to filmmaking was a common feature of Soviet films of the 1920s, both in fiction films, e.g. Pocelui Mėri Pikford / The Kiss of Mary Pickford (Sergei Komarov, 1927, USSR) and documentaries, for example by Vertov and Brik herself. The allusion to the medium itself can, on the one hand, act as a pedagogic tool or, on the other, can be employed simply for entertainment purposes. It is not uncommon to see both purposes combined within a single work. I would like to concentrate on two central techniques employed by Russian avant-garde filmmakers: first, the putting-on-display of cinematographic processes, for instance, slow motion or montage, and, second, the use of archival materials – in this case, previously available acted or documentary film materials.

In terms of their narrative devices, the silent films of the late 1920s – just before the introduction of sound film – were highly sophisticated. Particular techniques had, thanks to the broad distribution network at the time, also become established internationally, enabling audiences to decode these according to their own visual habits and previous visual experiences. Such conditions are required for a self-reflexive and therefore also playful and ironic engagement with motifs and their presentation, but also for the use of processes such as montage. Sound film developed globally at dramatically different rates and the Soviet Union was one of the last territories where it established itself. As Ian Christie writes: “Even when production was underway, sound and silent cinema continued to coexist for nearly six years – a length of transition exceeded only in Japan.” (Christie 1991: 177)9 Therefore, Soviet montage remained in use and was known internationally as a highly developed art.

In addition, Soviet filmmakers were de facto forced to use footage from their own and others’ work. The Soviet Union imported all of its film equipment, which was difficult during the Civil War, raw film was rare, and, therefore, filmmakers had to find new and unusual solutions in order to work. Kuleshov, for example, ‘filmed’ his rehearsals with an empty camera (фильмы без пленки) (Kulešov 1979), including the shots that make up the now-famous Kuleshov effect. According to Iutkevich, using already-existent film material also offered an economic advantage: »[...] если мы предложим картину, в которой надо будет мало снимать заново и которая на две трети смонтируется из уже существующего материала, нам ее дадут скорее поставить / [...] if we can propose a film for which one needs to film little new material and two thirds of which one can edit together from already existent material, we can also deliver it more quickly. (Iutkevich / Levshin 1985: 22). The fact that filmmakers also used material from their colleagues’ films led to situations such as the fact that Dziga Vertov’s oeuvre, upon closer inspection, becomes a cinematographic puzzle, with some parts filmed by the director himself and some simply “found” by him. This perspective is fully congruent with Vertov’s own film theory, though the director’s sensitivity to the use of his material by other filmmakers was certainly higher.10 Vertov’s occasionally also cannibalised his own films, which led in many cases, to works – for example, Vertov’s earliest newsreel Kino-Nedelia / Film-Week (1918-1919) – that can no longer be reconstructed in the original form.

On the other hand, this practise was promoted and inspired by the primacy of Soviet montage, in which the individual pieces themselves are less important than their place within the context – in the assembled sequence in the film. Accordingly, screenplays were composed summarily, in few sentences and were treated more like a “scenario” of sorts, an orientation for the later construction of the film.11 Montage, as well as the way in which the end product gains sense and meaning, also alerted the audience’s visual focus on the process: the image of the filmmaker(s), surveying the shots on the editing bench, became a popular and widespread motif. The fundamental principle, though, was that the genuine visualisation of the truth, the revelation of reality, primarily came about through the organisation of facts, which stands in stark contrast to the predominant perspective earlier – that a work of art was to be seen strictly as the work of an artist’s creative genius. Ėsfir’ Shub, a vehement opponent of fiction film, described the function of factographic montage as:

Engagement with facts, not simply reflected but deeply illuminated, compelling, leading to further contemplation, space and environment, showing the individual in this environment with the greatest of clarity and combining this material in a manner so meaningful, associative, and universal that it also clearly reveals the relationship of the author to the facts at hand (Schub 1967 [1929]: 135)

It was also essential that the standard fiction film would be exposed for what it is, its technical tricks be revealed, as well as its predictable staging and formulaic performance. In the case of Stekliannyi glaz we are dealing with a peculiar format, since elements of documentary film and of narrative film appear within the same work. The connection between these two component parts is, however, very loose and its motivation not particularly compelling. In addition, the lack of balance in the temporal division of these genres causes the fictional plot to appear more like a dangling appendage. It aims to lay bare the processed nature of narrative film, but is not able to generate much productive commentary regarding how a socialist narrative film could look other than in the form of parody.

The Film Stekliannyi Glaz

Stekliannyi glaz is Lilia Brik’s only work as a director. The film premiered on January 15, 1929 and was listed with an original length of 1300 metres, in 5 reels. The print in the Russian state film archive (Gosfil’mofond of Russia) has a length of 1438 metres. Since film copies more often lost than gained length when subjected to interferences or misuse, this seems quite strange. However, it is most likely the result of a clerical error during the film’s early handling.

The film was shown to and received by the contemporary public, which can be already judged as a success for a film of this kind.12 The journal Sovetskii ėkran even published an article about the shooting of the film, though it is somewhat misleading, since it only describes the narrative film sequences (Kaufman 1928a: 8). Two full pages, richly illustrated with stills, are devoted to the film in yet another article from the same journal, which describes the subject as rather unusual, and therefore distinct from other cultural films. It could be seen as following the French genre of “filmic review (kino-obozrenie)”, a genre in which the camera is the only protagonist (Kaufman 1928b).

The shooting took place during August 1928, as is documented in a letter of Lilia’s to her husband Osip. In it, she describes the progress modestly: “We filmed for four days. The room of the cameraman has become very orderly. We have not yet seen the other parts.” (Brik 1993: 176) Brik’s letter also reveals that she was assisted by Vsevolod Pudovkin, whom she thanks profusely: “Пудовкин страшно помогает. Я просто не знаю, что мне от благодарности делать! / Pudovkin proves incredibly helpful. I simply don’t know how I can show my appreciation!” (see Grashchenkova 2014: 139) Pudovkin’s support seems believable, when one remembers that one of Brik’s protagonists was Anatolii Golovnia, Pudovkin’s long-standing cameraman, who decisively influenced the style of their collaborative works, and often even participated in the writing of the screenplays (see Cavendish 2013: 17).13

The film begins with an intertitle, which informs us that the film makes use of material from foreign newsreels as well as from the documentary film Moskva by Mikhail Kaufman. 36 minutes of the film (two thirds of its entire length) are made up of archival material, which was specifically chosen and edited for Brik’s film. The audience is informed shortly afterwards in an intertitle that the Lumière brothers invented cinema in 1895. Then follows an animated scene in which the camera comes to life: the camera starts cranking by itself and then attaches its lens, an effect enhanced by superimpositions. This sequence is reminiscent of the living camera sequence in the nowadays better known Chelovek s kinoapparatom, a cinematic choice which was similarly comically executed by Brik, palpably winks at the audience with a similar attitude.

Shortly thereafter, we are presented with one of the first (Russian) films: The ascent to the throne of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896, followed by a further coronation ceremony, this time in an exotic location (for Russia): the appointment of George V. as Emperor of India in 1911. A contemporary review (Kaufman 1928b: 9) mentions “the mechanisation of kissing”, which might be a link to Pudovkin’s documentary film Mekhanika golovnogo mozga. These scenes were, according to the review, edited together with the images of Nikolai II, to create a humorous effect (ibid.). These shots have not survived in the print, for reasons which are not clear. Then follows a series of varied themes: two female models wearing furs, wealthy people at the racetrack, a report on the fire and fire-fighting operations at the Moscow Malyi Teatr in 1914. The hard cuts and the lack of semantic coherence both reveal, following the constructivist tradition, the montage process (as a process), and give room for individual interpretation by the viewer. While the exotic setting may have been the thematic connection, perhaps the relational connection between the English king to the Russian Tsar should also be explored further by the viewers of that time.

The bustling traffic on Moscow’s streets is visually and thematically tied to technophilia and ideology of progress of the time, even though some shots might have scared viewers as well, especially when shown in the countryside. Several particularly striking shots are taken from Kaufman’s Moskva, such as bird’s eye view of the graphic patterns of tram rails, the then-named Sverdlov Square in front of the Bolshoi Theatre or the Sucharevka Market, redesigned in 1924 by the architectural pioneer Konstantin Melnikov (see Rüthers 2007: 176). These images are stylistically reminiscent of Rodchenko’s; visually adventurous and composed from extreme low angles or extreme high angles. It also pays tribute to the new medium of film’s ability to change the viewer’s perspective simply through the movement of the camera, as well as “Neues Sehen”, and is a “defamiliarisation” and transcendence of our usual, accustomed way of perceiving things – without so much as needing to adjust one’s position in the theatre seat.

In the next, fairly long ethnographic section, the glass eye, as the intertitle tells us, penetrates “all corners of the earth”. Brik and Zhemchuzhnyi edit newsreel footage together, a technique which, in similar fashion to Shestaia chast’ mira / Sixth Part of the World (Dziga Vertov, 1926) or other exploration films of this era, both satisfies the curiosity of the Soviet public and visually conquers the world. For the next section, centres on sports, focusing first on winter sports such as skiing, ski jumping, tobogganing, and skijoring, Brik takes entire sequences from archive sources. For example, my research shows that Brik included sequences from Das weiße Stadion / The White Stadium (Arnold Fanck, Othmar Gurtner, 1928), an iconic film about the 1928 Olympic games, whose unusual and aesthetically compelling camera work is owed to the renowned cameramen Hanns Schneeberger and Sepp Allgeier. The shots of the ice dancers are particularly impressive, following the furious turns and jumps of the athletes in slow motion, managing in this fashion to aesthetically “analyse” them. This was the starting point for looking for similar images in films of the 1920s which show big sports events. Depicting sport in slow motion was by then a well-established cinematic device which was used later on in newsreels as well.14 This approach can be deemed typical for the sports film of the time, in which the film camera also functions as a scientific instrument – a potential, which is repeatedly emphasised and made use of by different directors, including Soviet ones.

Here, one must remember that this practise was, on the one hand, ideologically motivated: the “constructor” is given privilege over the “creator”, eliminating the status of the work as an inviolable original and making it instead – to put it dramatically – a storage facility for others. On the other hand, filmic authorship was not understood at the time in the same way as it is today. There are, however, unfortunately limits in researching the exact usage of archival material. For example, Brik used certain parts of Das weiße Stadion and left other parts out. It would be a worthwhile approach to expand research by including archival sources, in the sense of performing research on all the different footage used in Stekliannyi glaz.

Through a lyrical transition, in which melting ice floes break on a waterfall, we enter warmer seasons and are led to summer sports. As the title announces “The cinematic eye also sees under water”, we follow female swimmers and divers as they plunge into the water, after they – also in slow motion – have demonstrated and made legible their virtuosity.15 We remain underwater for the next theme, which demonstrates the film camera’s purpose as a scientific device: we observe divers as they stroll across the ocean floor, gathering rock samples for further analysis. A longer sequence shows, in great detail, a surgeon and his team remove a saw from the belly of a prisoner, as a modern, globe-shaped camera is able to show in all of its medical detail from overhead. From the gaze through the microscope, under which the composition of blood is explored, we are then led once again, with relatively little transition, into the wide world and follow the “traces of mankind in the ancient cities of Asia”, as is explained in the intertitle.

Although the documentation of the backwardness of largely rural areas (such as in Yemen or Japan, among others) would be expected by the viewer , the usual socialist rhetoric is missing. Instead of contrasting the backward land with the highly-progressive, socialist Soviet Union, as one would expect from the genre of the cultural film, the film opts to display model modern metropolises, such as Paris, London, New York, or Berlin, which are shown as ideal living spaces. Well-known motifs from the so-called City Symphonies of the 1920s are strung together, including the now-iconic panoramic view over the skyline and harbour of New York, images of the Eiffel Tower with dizzying images of the city far below, filmed from inside the elevator16, as well as the demonstration of London’s Tower Bridge’s operation. Other topoi are less bound to a particular country; rather, they visually describe a universal modern metropolis of the 1920s, in which the increasing street traffic is regulated by a policeman, the shop-windows are full of new and exciting items for consumption, and the inhabitants nevertheless throng to traditional markets, to buy toys, clothing, as well as to gawk at and buy technological novelties like the gramophone.

These motifs and scenes, a visual commonality of the NEP-era in the Soviet Union, therefore also comprised the Soviet filmmaker’s raw material with which to experiment with formal actions for compaction and defamiliarisation, such as, for example, overlapping images to “clothe” naked mannequins or to insert fast-motion clips that further potentiate the rushed tempo of the streets. In any case, Stekliannyi glaz attempts to compel the audience not on the material level, but, rather, on the idealistic level. Being well-to-do and having a functioning infrastructure is not most worthy of aspiration; rather, it is peaceful coexistence and social justice for all. Instead of marching soldiers, the peaceful population gathers on 1st of May on the streets of Prague and Moscow to demonstrations. The communist workers’ movement is presented in the film as peace-loving, energetic, dynamic, and ethnically diverse (as can be seen in the participants’ traditional dress).

These optimistic images are contrasted through imagery of the decadent bourgeoisie, who continue to entertain themselves with concerts and lavish dinner parties. We see women preparing for a theatre or music hall performance, applying makeup and putting on flamboyant wigs and costumes, though it is unclear whether they are private individuals or professional entertainers. These scenes finally form the bridge to the narrative portion of the film, which takes over without much mediation and fills the final 14 minutes of the film.

Without further introduction, we find ourselves in the middle of the filming of a conventional film drama, which is presented to us, as is typical of the avant-garde, in an anti-mimetic fashion. In this way defamiliarization is taken further than for example in Chelovek s kinoapparatom. All major participants – the heroine (Vera Polonskaia), the hero (Nikolai Prozorovskii), the director (E. Gvozdnikov), and the villain (A. Zdrok) – are exaggerated through their over-the-top acting and makeup (for example, the villain has dark circles around his eyes and wears a monocle). A part of a ship, which is presented in a storm with the help of wind machines and water jets, forms the setting, around which we see the actors rehearsing and repeating their scenes, as well as (prominently, of course) the film crew, including the cameraman, busy with their work. The story of this film-within-a-film is simplistic and predictable: A beautiful young woman is under threat by an older villain, but is saved at the last moment by a youthful and athletic hero. At the climax of this turbulent plotline the lovers jump into the water. The ship sinks in the heavy storm, but the pair are able to save themselves by swimming to the shore, drive to their wedding in a car conveniently waiting on the beach for them and live happily ever after. The film shows in a playful, parodistic manner how powerfully typical image motifs and montage sequences had already entered the standard visual repertoire and how this familiarity allowed the audience to follow sequences on the screen relatively well. Close-up shots of female hands clinging despairingly to pieces of furniture illustrate the threatened state of the clearly inwardly agitated heroine. Similarly, the villain’s intrusion into the room is conveyed through single shots, in which the audience can only see single body parts or parts of objects: The door handle, the foot, and then the hand, edited alternately. The montage does not always make much sense, because it looks like formal devices are merely lined up sequentially, e.g. a sequence of faces in close up - a strategy which is easily recognisable as parodistic.

The finale of Stekliannyi glaz is fittingly introduced with the title “Enough!”, the meaning of which is further clarified through a long explanatory text panel: only in the land of Socialism does the ‘glass eye’ (in the meaning of camera lense) courageously show life as it truly is, the strenuous productivity and the great victories of the freed proletariat. The film closes, therefore, unsurprisingly with images of the development of the Soviet Union, with shots of construction sites and power plants, as well as a visually compelling shot of an icebreaker seeming to head straight for the camera. Similar motifs can be found in other Soviet documentary films of this time, for example in Dva okeana / Two Oceans (Vladimir Shneiderov, 1933, USSR). The last scenes of the film show the forward march of pioneers in sports clothing and the laughing faces of children, until the title “End” marks the film’s conclusion after approximately 50 minutes of total run time.

The Unrealised Film Project

In 1929 Brik wrote a screenplay for a melodrama for Mezhrabpomfil’m – which never came to fruition – bearing the title Liubov i dolg (Love and Debt), which, in similar fashion to the preceding film, aimed to settle a score with the “trivial, unprincipled, indifferent and anti-artistic” film industry (Brik 1993: 130).17 Her concern was to explore the widespread practice of editing Soviet films for foreign markets (for instance, America), taking into account both the particularities of censorship and national taste of each country. Foreign films were also customised for Soviet distribution and the Russian Formalists recognised the relationship between the necessary practice of editing foreign films, and the inspiration they received for their own filmmaking. Sergei Ėizenshtein together with Shub gave Fritz Lang’s famous Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler / Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) his own interpretation, even at the same time as he was finishing his own film Stachka / Strike (Sergei Ėizenshtein, 1925, USSR) (see Tsivian 1996: 336). Also, Georgii and Sergei Vasiliev – known as the Vasiliev brothers – were employed as editors for Soviet remakes, work which not only made them very familiar with western cinema but also, through the intensive montage work it involved, influenced their own films (see ibid.). It was also Sergei Vasiliev who wrote in his book Azbuka kinomontaža (The ABC of Film Montage): “the meaning of any scene can be radically altered and […] the meaning of any piece of art depends on what other pieces of film it is juxtaposed with.” (Ibid.: 338).

Brik’s screenplay is based around the literary figure of Carmen, a smuggler from the Apache-milieu.18 Brik wanted to play her herself; Maiakovskii was meant to play the male lead, despite the fact that the two were no longer romantically involved, as Brik emphasised. The storyline was inspired by Mérimée’s tale of Carmen; however, it transforms the plot into the following three parts (see Bosenko 1998). The young public prosecutor with the sonorous name Hugo von Hugenberg is meant to marry Lucille, the daughter of a rich merchant, but falls in love with Carmen instead. The jealous Hugo – who, in the meantime, has joined the Apaches – ends up killing Carmen in a fight. According to Brik’s plan, the following three parts of the film were meant to conflict with each other through the use of montage (Brik 1993: 129). In the first variant – or second part of the film – the darkly erotic tale is transformed into a child-friendly version, in which Carmen is sent to jail and Hugo and Lucille live happily together. In the third part we see the film as it was edited ideologically correct for the Soviet Union and in the third part, finally, as a comedy for the American market. The parodic juxtaposition of Soviet Russia and the USA, including plays on cultural differences and social conventions, was, in fact, a common subject in films of the 1920s, whose most famous manifestation was Neobychainye prikliucheniia Mistera Vesta v strane Bol’shevikov / The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Country of the Bolsheviks (Lev Kuleshov, 1924). Brik shows not only that she approves of this type of parody, but takes it even a step further - as a reflexion on editing practices for different ideologically conditioned audiences and/or market places.

Brik took economic aspects into account and advertised the conservation of resources that her approach would provide. She underscored the fact that one would need no additional material for the further parts of the film (see ibid.). Had the film been made, it would have entertainingly and effectively illustrated that the film and its integrity was subject, to a certain degree, to the commercial and political interests of the foreign distributors. Karmen would have therefore been a convincing, illustrative example of the power of montage, through which a single exemplar a whole array of variants could be made. These then not only change the narration, but also influence the messages attached to the film, which serve the audience in different ways. In addition, Brik brought up the potential of economic savings for the film studio:

Таким образом, фактически придется заснять только первый основной вариант. Остальные три варианта комбинируются из уже заснятого первого варианта. Стоимость постановки такой полнометражной фильмы должна благодаря этому обойтись чрезвычайно дешево. Комедийный эффект фильмы заключается в том, что зритель увидит одни и те же эпизоды, совершенно различно осмысленные. Формально такая постановка интересна как попытка достичь кинематографического эффекта чисто монтажными средствами. (Bosenko 1998)

In this way one must only, in effect, film the first version. The three further versions can be made by combining the already-filmed footage from the first version. The production cost of this feature-length film therefore becomes extremely low. The comical effect of the film lies in the fact that the viewer will see the same episodes, only with an entirely different meaning. Formally speaking, this production is interesting as an experiment of reaching the cinematographic effect through montage alone.

Brik’s rhetoric explains montage not simply as an artistic device , but also as a useful tool for saving costs. Whether this optimism was indeed justified (when looking at the technical feasibility in the end) would have become evident during production. In the fifth part the film accepts the consequences and commits “suicide as a medium”, as Anke Hennig aptly named it (see Hennig 2006). Brik writes: “The film strip cannot cope any longer, it revolts, and the film reels wheel back into the studio to get themselves erased19 (Brik 1993: 130)20 The director and Maiakovskii had big plans – the film was supposed to be produced with sound and also include animation sequences (see Grashchenkova 2014: 141). Although both of them worked on the project with enthusiasm and were able to engage their friends, as Brik wrote in her journal, they were eventually foiled by the studio’s lack of willingness (see Brik 1993: 131). After this, Brik ended her work in cinema.


Even when traces of Brik as a person and filmmaker do appear, a satisfying answer (in view of the less-than-expansive and heterogenous corpus of works) would have to be found – in this special case – through a combined examination of sociological investigation and formal analysis. Only in this way can unexamined mindsets be avoided, that Karmen would have become an autobiographical film, in which a sexually active, attractive woman (like Carmen as Brik’s alter ego) can only be a vamp (see Grashchenkova 2014: 142). Such assumptions must be read with the greatest of care, if not entirely rejected. It seems to me to be more evident that Brik wanted to make use of her role as Carmen, to lay bare her image and the male projections connected with it, to reflect on this and, simultaneously, even to parody it.

Brik’s originality is that she goes yet another step further – not only does she reflect reality, she parodies it as well. Fundamentally, we can understand Brik’s method of working in its consequent evolution as a postmodern “avant la lettre”, in which a chosen topic is developed in an intriguing intellectual process of quote and parody. Seen in this fashion, her seeming preference for creative editing and re-combination transforms from feminine-coded “submission” into a genuine expression of her individual style. Rather than merely embracing a constructivist refusal of authorship, Brik writes herself into her work as an author through her very originality, in Stekliannyi glaz but especially in Karmen, since the film would have consistently carried on Brik’s ideas (the film is self-reflective, the film production is self-reflective, the woman is self-ironically self-reflective). Interesting as well is the choice of a very classic title – perhaps also meant to mislead the audience and then make the surprise that much greater? It would have also broken the expectation that the protagonist would be the seductive and (self-)destructive woman, for the main role was reserved for the roll of film. The film empowers itself in the last part of the film, by completely withdrawing from the screen. And without wanting to make overly banal comparisons, this story is also that of Lilia Brik, whose attainment of solidarity with the medium was also her departure from it.

(Translated by Alisa Rethy)


Adelheid Heftberger

German Federal Archive / Film Collection


Dr. Adelheid Heftberger is a slavicist and film scholar, and currently holds the position of head of film access in the German Federal Archive (Berlin). Previously she held positions at the Brandenburg Center for Media Studies (Potsdam) and the Austrian Film Museum (Vienna) as researcher, curator and archivist. Her main areas of expertise include Digital Humanities, Film Cultural Heritage and Russian/Soviet Film. She is the author of the book Kollision der Kader. Dziga Vertovs Filme, die Visualisierung ihrer Strukturen und die Digital Humanities (forthcoming in English in 2019) and has published on Russian cinema, archival collections and visualization of filmic structures.


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Suggested Citation

Heftberger, Adelheid. 2018. “Stekliannyi Glaz (The Glass Eye) and Karmen - The Actress, Editor and Director Lilia Brik.” Women at the Editing Table: Revising Soviet Film History of the 1920s and 1930s (ed. by Adelheid Heftberger and Karen Pearlman). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 6. DOI:


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