Colourisation of b&w classics as the road to acid Nazis: Circus (1936)

Colourisation of old Soviet black and white films has recently become a major trend among Russian TV channels. Circus/Цирк, directed by Grigory Aleksandrov and Isidor Simkov at the Mosfilm studio in 1936, also couldn’t avoid this fate, and in November 2011, the coloured version of the film was broadcasted on Channel One.

Before and After

Circus is a spectacular musical comedy that has a combined duty of being a pro-communist propaganda of the blackest dye (now also available in colour). Not that the creators had any other option – the following 1937 and 1938 became the peak years of the Great Purge undertaken by Stalin.

The new coloured version revived the interest in the forgotten classic, and I am no exception – the colourised steam-roller of Soviet propaganda brought me under and here I am, praising this film.

Circus is truly spectacular: where else would you see a seal spinning the pro-communist world model on his nose?

Moscow, the 1930s. Circus troupe from the United States comes to the USSR with their sensational number “Flight to the Moon”. Marion Dixon (Lyubov Orlova) is the star of the act, bullied by a Nazi theatre agent (character type, nothing to do with ideology) von Kneishitz (Pavel Massalsky). They are assisted by Chaplin’s double.

The trio turn out to be obvious replicas of Marlene Dietrich, Adolf Hilter and Charlie Chaplin, and such combination is totally blowing my mind.

Circus’ main heroine is an obvious tribute to the great Marlene Dietrich

The creators of the film themselves admitted that the name (and, in my opinion, the looks) of Marion Dixon is a tribute to the great German-American singer and actress. Saying that Von Kneishitz is allusion to Hitler can be a bit far-fetched; he is more of a generalised character of a cruel Nazi. But the tiny moustache he’s wearing solves it for me. Finally, Charlot is always Charlot. Apparently that’s how Soviets imagined an average circus troupe from the West.

Soviet Charlot, played by Nikolai Otto

After numerous tribulations, presented by mixing situation comedy with high-pitched drama, Marion Dixon finds love, happiness and new homeland in the Soviet Union.

In the end of the film the circus workers and public sing a song in various languages, symbolising the friendship between different ethnicities inhabiting the USSR (although Stalin did not want to be friends with Jews, so the bit sung in Yiddish was later cut off by his personal order). In accordance with the Zeitgeist, last shots of the film show the parade carrying Stalin’s portrait on the Red Square.

Comeback at Triumph of the Will

In the face of crisis, colourisation appeared to be a rather cheap way to fill up the television broadcasting and return the drawing capacity to the long forgotten films. But, what TV producers considered to be re-branding, some devotees of Soviet film classics saw as abuse.

For instance, the colouring of Seventeen Moments of Spring/Семнадцать мгновений весны (1973), a very tense Soviet espionage thriller, resulted in a sort of rebellion on the part of general public. Apart from numerous legal claims, colourisation of the beloved spy genre classic provoked a wave of raging popular art; for instance, this brilliant sketch from a Russian parody TV show (no subtitles, but you’ll get the idea) elegantly mocks the tendency.

Acid Hitler and the Third Rave:
a still from Seventeen Moments of Spring, coloured by a blogger

Although being a hater of this colourisation spree, I have to admit that Circus, in my opinion, benefited from it. The new version looks organic, as well as the colouring company did a very nice job at restoring the film, cleaning it from scratches and improving the sound.

P.S. Oh God, prevent them from colouring Battleship Potemkin.

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