Vladimir Nabokov was one of the few Russian émigré intellectuals who made it off the continent when the Nazis invaded France in May 1940. Soon after he relocated to the United States, his first American story, “The Assistant Producer,” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. It begins in a darkened auditorium: “Tonight we shall go to the movies. Back to the Thirties, and down the Twenties, and round the corner to the old Europe Picture Palace.” In the story that follows, the cinema becomes a device for revisiting and fictionalizing interwar Europe as a space of exile.
“The Assistant Producer” was in fact the culmination of Nabokov’s sustained engagement with silent and early sound cinema, a fascination that reached back to his Russian-language fiction of the 1920s. He was born three years after the first film screening in Russia, and his childhood in early twentieth-century St. Petersburg paralleled the nascent medium’s development. By the 1920s, when Nabokov, having fled the Russian Revolution with his family and relocated to Berlin, was trying to make his mark as a writer, the cinema was also coming out of adolescence. As Jean-Paul Sartre, Nabokov’s near contemporary, put it in his autobiography: “We had the same mental age: I was seven and knew how to read; it was twelve and did not know how to talk.”
Nabokov frequented movie theaters in Berlin, often using tickets supplied by his friend Georgy Gessen, a professional film reviewer who could spare a free pass or two. Between November 1924 and March 1931, Gessen was the house critic for the daily Rulʹ (The Rudder). Gessen and Nabokov were sons of two of the newspaper’s three founders, Iosif Gessen and Vladimir D. Nabokov, whose names appeared on its masthead. In their contributions the sons avoided their famous surnames, appearing instead under pseudonyms and initials: Nabokov as “V. Sirin,” Gessen as “G. G.”
For younger émigrés like Nabokov and Gessen, directly engaging with the cinema, albeit not without irony, meant accepting the challenge of displacement and making do without the crutch of an inherited identity. Their embrace of cinematic culture can also be viewed as the instinctive rejection by young writers of what they considered to be the grumbling of an older generation. But this was in fact encouraged by the editors of Rulʹ, under whose patronage Nabokov and Gessen fils were expected to make sense of their ultramodern environment for the newspaper’s readership of literary and artistically cultivated exiles. Nabokov’s and Gessen’s stories, poems, and reviews read as reports from a new European culture—one markedly different, as many émigrés stressed, from the fabled high culture remembered from their travels before the Great War.
Rulʹ treated the cinema as an emanation of the city itself. Unlike the literary section, located in the middle of the paper, film notices and reviews appeared in the “In Berlin” segment at the back, which showcased performances and entertainment. “Cinema” was sandwiched between “Theater and Music” and “Sport.” Underlining the integration of movies into urban mass culture, it was not uncommon for film reviews to appear next to pictures of chess grandmasters at the board or heavyweight champions in the ring.
This orientation suited Nabokov and Gessen. Avid sportsmen, they were often sparring partners. Andrew Field relates the story of Gessen unexpectedly bloodying Nabokov’s nose during a friendly exhibition, ironically intended to recruit boxing pupils for the cash-strapped young writer: once the myopic Gessen removed his glasses, “the fog cleared” and Nabokov’s face swam into view. Nevertheless, the friends repeated the bout in a public demonstration in September 1930 at the Schubert-Saal in Berlin, during an artistic evening convened by the “Union of Russian Journalists in Germany” that featured a film exhibition alongside a sport program, with their match as the centerpiece.
Nabokov’s residence in West Berlin put him at the heart of Weimar cinematic culture. He lived within walking distance of the densest concentration of Filmpaläste, the newly constructed “picture pal- aces” that sprang up in the mid-1920s to host premieres and other events. Gessen attended hundreds of showings at these high-end movie theaters. His writeup of perhaps the grandest premiere of the Weimar period, the September 1925 reopening by the Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa), Germany’s major film company, of the Ufa-Palast am Zoo, one of its flagship cinemas, paints a picture of the scale of these events:
This premiere—the most pompous so far in Berlin—was organized by Sam Rachmann, the manager of leading New York movie theaters, who was specially called for this purpose from America. He was able at once to deafen, blind and stun the Berlin audience—but failed to save this unsuccessful premiere. Almost 3,000 viewers fit now into this hall, re-painted from gray-green to red with gold; the orchestra of 75 people plays without a moment’s silence for two and half hours straight; ten (or more?) projectors, hidden and on view, flood the orchestra and stage from above, behind and the sides with blue, white and yellow light and beam against the walls; the hall is saturated with the smell of roses—along the balcony is strung a thick garland, and every female attendee receives a bouquet.
The early notion of cinema as, above all, performance, event, and screen-adjacent spectacle is palpable. The feature itself—Charley’s Aunt, an “essential disappointment”—is almost an afterthought, and to Gessen best forgotten.
Russian émigrés like Nabokov were intimately involved with the cinema not only as moviegoers and critics but also as directors, producers, screenwriters, stars, and, most notoriously, uncredited extras. The scholar Rashit Yangirov points out that across the emigration their numbers appeared to dwarf even those of Russian balalaika players, taxi drivers, and taxi dancers. In a 1925 letter to his mother, Nabokov describes his own uncredited work in front of the camera and complains about the all-day shoots: “Today my eyebrows are still black (from indelible makeup) and bright spots swim in my eyes when I look at something white (by the way, it has snowed), which always happens after a blinding light, with which they bombard the extras, as if with cannons. I was paid 10 marks for this pleasure.”
Yet he was also considered for more important roles, as a letter from 1924 shows:
A good friend of mine—an up-and-coming film star [kino-zvezda]—decided to get me involved in the business too. She brought me to her director, who looked me over in raptures for two hours and offered me the starring role in his new film. Eh? He was told that I am an actor, who has performed a lot in the south of Russia.
He was involved in the Russian cabaret scene, writing skits with his friend Ivan Lukash, and tried his hand at movie scripts. As he wrote to his mother, “Now we are busy with writing film scenarios. I write with Lukash, I write with Gorny, I write with Alexandrov and I write alone. I visit film divas, who call me the ‘English prince.’” In another letter to her, he reflected on his progress:
Lukash was just here and we worked on a scenario (for you). It seems it won’t come out too badly. I’ve been asked for a scenario by three different directors—there is a huge demand for them and they pay from 1,000 to 3,000 dollars for a synopsis [ekspoze]. But I’ve figured out that you really have to create for the cinema, and that it is not so easy. I will get there.
Nabokov continued to work on the scenario “The Love of a Dwarf ” (“Liubovʹ karlika”) and later that summer reported that he had sold the cabaret script “The Chinese Screens” (“Kitaiskie shirmy”) for $100, but only received $15 as his portion. “Pretty slim,” he added.
Russian émigrés with occupations in the cinema feature across Nabokov’s Russian fiction and drama—the extra Ganin in Mary (1926), the actress Marianna in The Man from the U.S.S.R. (1927), and the producer Valentinov in The Luzhin Defense (1929–1930)—along with their German counterparts, Magda the would-be actress and Kretschmar her financial backer in Camera Obscura (1932–1933). (In the 1938 American rewrite, Laughter in the Dark, they become Margot and Albinus.) To Nabokov, the spectrality of film seemed not to distort reality but to hold a mirror up to the ghostlike and insubstantial existence of dispossessed Russians in cities like Berlin and Paris. As the émigré critic Yuly Aikhenvald, his friend and mentor, put it in 1927,
Do not the erasable shades of the cinema and the ceaseless turnover of its fleeting contents constitute a symbol of our reality, which in fact is just as fleeting and transparent as that life which every evening lures viewers through the inviting doors of electric theaters, where they show emptiness, but also instruct in the inner meaning of that outer emptiness?
Yet it was Nabokov who first articulated this idea, in his story “A Letter That Never Reached Russia” (1925)—in which the narrator goes on a late-night tour of Berlin’s street attractions and encounters “the huge face of a girl with gray, shimmering eyes and black lips” on a movie theater’s “moon-pale screen”—and then more fully in his debut novel, Mary. Its protagonist, Ganin, has worked as an extra, like Nabokov and, the narrator assumes, many of his émigré readers, whom he addresses with the conspiratorial “as many of us have”:
More than once…he went out to the suburbs to work as a movie extra on a set, in a fairground barn, where light seethed with a mystical hiss from the huge facets of lamps that were aimed, like cannon, at a crowd of extras, lit to a deathly brightness. They would fire a barrage of murderous brilliance, illuminating the painted wax of motionless faces, then expiring with a click—but for a long time yet there would glow, in those elaborate crystals, dying red sunsets—our human shame.
The imagery of death is not subtle: deathly, murderous, dying; even the faces are, in Russian, literally “stiffened” (zastyvshikh) like corpses. No less blunt is the association with prostitution (a reality for some Russian émigrés, as for even middle-class Weimar Berliners during the period of hyperinflation) and the overtones of a Faustian bargain. “The deal was clinched,” the passage continues, “and our anonymous shadows sent out all over the world.”
Later in the novel, Ganin sees the film and recognizes himself:
On the screen moved luminous, bluish-gray shapes. A prima donna, who had once in her life committed an involuntary murder, suddenly remembered it while playing the role of a murderess in opera. Rolling her improbably large eyes, she collapsed supine onto the stage. The auditorium swam slowly into view, the public applauded, the boxes and stalls rose in an ecstasy of approval. Suddenly Ganin sensed that he was watching something vaguely yet horribly familiar. He recalled with alarm the roughly carpentered rows of seats, the chairs and parapets of the boxes painted a sinister violet, the lazy workmen walking easily and nonchalantly like blue-clad angels from plank to plank high up above, or aiming the blinding muzzles of klieg lights at a whole army of Russians herded together onto the huge set and acting in total ignorance of what the film was about. He remembered young men in threadbare but marvelously tailored clothes, women’s faces smeared with mauve and yellow make-up, and those innocent exiles, old men and plain girls who were banished far to the rear simply to fill in the background. On the screen that cold barn was now transformed into a comfortable auditorium, sacking became velvet, and a mob of paupers a theatre audience. Straining his eyes, with a deep shudder of shame he recognized himself among all those people clapping to order, and remembered how they had all had to look ahead at an imaginary stage where instead of a prima donna a fat, red-haired, coatless man was standing on a platform between floodlights and yelling himself to insanity through a megaphone.
The narration alternates between scenes of reception and production, between the images in Ganin’s memory and the ones onscreen. Neither is privileged. Memory has the advantage of sociological fact, revealing the extras to be a “mob of paupers,” but the film is convincing in its alchemical transformation of poverty into luxury.
And yet the camera does preserve the truth of the Russian extras’ lives in emigration, once we know how to decode the images with the aid of Ganin’s memory and the narrator’s commentary. Not only does the film preserve the extras at the moment of filming, the details of their clothing also present visible traces of a former life, when the émigrés wore these “threadbare but marvelously tailored” clothes in reality and not as costumes—a secondhand authenticity that the casting agent appreciates and the cameraman captures. This was two years before Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928), in which the Weimar film star Emil Jannings plays the former Tsarist general Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, who in exile is reduced to a Hollywood extra (“Works for $7.50 a day”) and is one day picked out by the director Leo Andreyev, himself a former Russian revolutionary, to play none other than a Tsarist general made up in a costume uniform—to which he appends his own authentic medal.
In Mary, this momentary resurrection of multiple pasts gives Ganin a sense of life’s “evanescence”—in the original Russian nepovtorimostʹ, literally “unrepeatability.” The past can be recreated, not repeated; the image, by contrast, is endlessly repeatable. As Ganin leaves the movie theater, “he thought how his shade would wander from city to city, from screen to screen, how he would never know what sort of people would see it or how long it would roam round the world.” Back in his boardinghouse, he produces the most sophisticated film metaphor in Nabokov’s early work: “And when he went to bed and listened to the trains passing through that cheerless house in which lived seven Russian lost shades, the whole of life seemed like a piece of film-making where heedless extras knew nothing of the picture in which they were taking part.”