Featuring an astonishing blackface scene that even D.W. Griffith might’ve drawn the line at, and featuring an enema joke that would surely never have made it into the American action serials that inspired it, Miss Mend‘s DVD release late last year seems to have inspired a bit of amazement in the reviews I’ve read online. Soviet cinema actually produced populist films! This was what Soviet audiences wanted to see rather than Potemkin! Who knew! At the risk of sounding smug (my chief occupational hazard), this was hardly a revelation to me; if a country’s film industry is big enough (as the USSR’s was), then logically it must actually have some popular appeal, and apart from that I’ve already seen other examples of what you’d call Soviet populism, films like Aelita that are hardly obscure. Just as I’m sure Nazi German cinema wasn’t all Triumph of the Will and The Eternal Jew, so Soviet cinema wasn’t all Eisenstein and montage. (Bordwell & Thompson’s Film History says something like less than 30 “montage” films were made, and constituted very much the minority.) It’s just that, hitherto, the montage films have been the ones we know best from silent Soviet Russia.
Miss Mend was thus more in line with Russian popular taste than the montage films were, but in successfully answering the government’s call for films appealing to the masses, its makers were charged with being too “Western” and ideologically vacuous, proving some people were never happy. It survives now as a fascinating insight into how the popular culture of early Soviet Russia wasn’t necessarily that far removed from that of the West. Though inspired by American adventure serials (as witness the female titular heroine), it takes its overall form more from Feuillade’s Fantomas, i.e. a few feature-length episodes rather than several short ones, more like a TV mini-series. This probably helps the film, which seems to hold remarkably good pace over four and a bit hours without having to come up with a new climax every 20 minutes; the plot—involving a capitalist conspiracy to eradicate the USSR with a plague—should still have been broadly satisfactory in propaganda terms for the government, and the performances are winning enough to suit the film’s essentially pulp-adventurous nature, light but with some surprisingly dark flavour underlying it. It’s not high art, nor was it intended to be, and it’s pleasing to be reminded that for all the ways in which politics tries to demonise people on the other side of wherever the divide is at any given time, your average Soviet citizen of the mid-20s at least seems to have enjoyed trains smashing into cars and people jumping out of high windows and that sort of thing just like your average Westerner of the same time. Or this time, for that matter.