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Aleksandr Andriyevsky’s Robinzon Kruzo

Aleksandr Andriyevsky, Robinzon Kruzo (Robinson Crusoe), 1947, still from a stereoscopic black-and-white film in 35 mm, 85 minutes. Robinzon Kruzo (Pavel Kadochnikov).

WAS ONCE, LONG LONG TIME AGO, great big Cold War joke—Russian claim to have invented lightbulb, radio transmitter, and even TV set. Also, to have developed feature-length 3-D movies shown without special glasses—which, in fact, they did!

The Soviets won that virtual space race by five years. The first postwar stereovision fiction feature was neither House of Wax (1953) nor Bwana Devil (1952) but rather the 1947 Soviet production Robinzon Kruzo, adapted from Daniel Defoe’s classic. And thanks to the lenticular screen developed by engineer Semyon Ivanov, no glasses were needed to experience the illusion of cinema depth—at least by those positioned in perfectly aligned seats.

Stalin himself had supported Ivanov’s 3-D auto-stereovision project. The first public demonstration of the system, in 1941, a few months before the German invasion, presented the filmed vaudeville show Land of Youth. This unusual musical, featuring a harpist and singing birds, was directed by forty-two-year-old Aleksandr Andriyevsky, whose most celebrated previous film had been the anticapitalist sci-fi fable Death of Sensation (1935), an unauthorized adaptation of Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., in which unscrupulous American capitalists replace honest workers with monstrous robots. The work in 3-D was suspended during the war, but in 1946 a pair of documentaries were projected on the huge and hugely expensive glass screen of the new 176-seat Stereokino, beside the Bolshoi Theater in central Moscow—and then, just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of the October Revolution, Andriyevsky’s Robinzon Kruzo made its debut.

Filmmaker Slava Tsukerman, who saw Kruzo as a child, recalled the tunnel-like theater’s magical atmosphere and excited spectators, describing the event as being “more like a circus than a movie.” Robinzon Kruzo ran for two years at the Stereokino but required sixty-plus to have its US premiere, at the Museum of Modern Art last fall, brought to New York by Munich Filmmuseum director Stefan Drössler. Although the restored print is short, per Drössler, by fifteen minutes (which were possibly shot in color), Kruzo’s distinctively square image provided a trove of visual stimulation—at least for the film’s first half—as Andriyevsky contrived to have his hero continuously lost in space, either defined against endless oceanic expanses or confined by a tangle of jungle creepers. Indeed, the sense of wonder projected by Robinzon’s excursion into a 3-D rain forest anticipates that communicated by the hero of Avatar as he explores Pandora’s lush landscape.

Sergei Eisenstein devoted his last essay, “Stereoscopic Films” (1947–48), to the possibilities of stereo cinema, noting the format’s two most evident tendencies—its capacity to pierce the “depth of the screen” and, alternately, its ability to create a “palpably three-dimensional” image that “pours out of the screen.” He found the latter to be stereo’s “most devastating effect,” citing a number of Robinzon Kruzo’s jungle stunts—the spiderweb that effectively pushes Robinzon back into the frame, the birds whose circular flight simultaneously brings space forward and pulls it back, the panther that walks a branch into the viewer’s face. Eisenstein deemed 3-D inherently progressive (“Mankind has for centuries been moving toward stereoscopic cinema”) and hence naturally Soviet, whereas “the bourgeois West,” by contrast, regarded “the problems of stereoscopic cinema” with scornful indifference. Robinzon Kruzo even provided its own metaphor for the medium’s development. Eisenstein singled out the scene of the castaway’s raft “trying to slip through the overgrowth (one of the most convincing stereoscopic shots in Andriyevsky’s film)” as representing “the myriad difficulties [yet] to be surmounted in the destiny of stereoscopic cinema.”

The Soviets produced three examples of proletarian stereoscopic cinema during the period of Hollywood’s early-1950s 3-D efflorescence, and two new stereoscopic theaters opened in Leningrad and Astrakhan in 1955. Thereafter, the Russians averaged one 3-D production a year for the next three decades—all shown exclusively without the need for glasses until 1968, when an alternative 3-D system (closer to our own) was introduced. At MoMA, Drössler showed an excerpt from a later Andriyevsky opus, the 70-mm Parade of Attractions (1970), which begins underwater, reprises Kruzo’s birds fluttering and “empty world” overhead shots, and generally designs each setup expressly for the spectator to savor its depth.

What did Defoe’s novel mean to the Russians? Anglo-Saxon critics have typically characterized Crusoe as a quintessential middle-class Englishman (practical, enterprising, and commercial minded). There is, of course, a Marxist take. A few years after Robinzon Kruzo had its premiere, the British socialist critic Brian FitzGerald characterized Defoe’s novel as “the great allegory of the capitalist system [and] the supreme affirmation of the individual.” Marx himself said as much in Capital when he used the self-reliant castaway’s meticulous bookkeeping to illustrate the labor theory of value.

Of course, in the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, it was surely the spectacle of Robinson’s survival that appealed to the Soviets. Hadn’t Maksim Gorky called Robinson Crusoe the “Bible of the Unconquerable”? And hadn’t Stalin himself during his 1915 exile been something like the “Robinson Crusoe of Siberia”? Andriyevsky’s Robinzon Kruzo wasn’t a song of bourgeois capitalism but of Soviet endurance and ingenuity: When it opened in 1947, there was socialism in one country, 3-D in one theater.

J. Hoberman was, for more than thirty years, a film critic at the Village Voice.