As 3D cinema enjoys a revival with Hollywood blockbusters, an unexpected retrospective in Moscow revealed that the Soviet Union began entertaining its citizens with homegrown 3D films as early as the 1940s.
The films may lack the exotic plots of Hollywood 3D blockbusters such as James Cameron’s 2009 “Avatar” and Ridley Scott’s latest release, “Prometheus,” but they are of an astonishing technical quality and sophistication.
In a color film called “In the Avenues of the Park,” a young woman in a print dress stretches her hand holding a rose toward the viewer, while young men in baggy trousers stroll and schoolboys in caps run about.
The crystal-clear film shows Moscow’s Gorky Park in 1952, a year before Stalin died, yet the 3D technology similar to that now filling multiplexes makes it feel eerily current.
“3D before our era,” Kommersant newspaper headlined a story on the films, which were shown in a special program at the recent Moscow International Film Festival.
The films in the program were restored and digitized by two enthusiasts, Nikolai Mayorov and Nikolai Kotovsky.
“We have all got used to hearing various legends that 3D cinema came to us from the United States,” Mayorov told an audience at the festival. “In fact, it came there from Russia.”
Surprisingly, the first showing of a 3D film in Russia was in 1911, several years before the first one in the United States. The first commercial Soviet 3D film was “Concert” or “Land of Youth,” first shown in 1941, a few months before the Soviet Union joined World War II.
A tour de force showing off scenes from ocean waves to a ball in around 40 minutes, it was designed for viewing without glasses. Viewers watched the film through a wire grid that meant the left and right eye saw two different images at the same time, creating an illusion of depth. The system, called stereo cinema, was created by a Soviet inventor named Semyon Ivanov.
“Concert” was mainly black and white but had sections where it burst into color — a technique also used in Hollywood for the 1939 hit “The Wizard of Oz” — causing a sensation at the time.
Among the sections shown at the festival were scenes of storks in a pond and a cockatoo on a ring, set to trilling music — somewhat short on thrills but showing off the technical possibilities of 3D.
Mayorov found the negatives and sound recordings, still in a good condition, at the State Film Fund. He worked first on the black-and-white sections, and has also restored some of the more complex color sections.
He first showed the film, which he has adapted for viewing through modern 3D glasses, at a specialised archival festival in Moscow last year.
“Concert” was hugely popular in its time, showing continuously from Jan. 14, 1941, until the outbreak of war in June that year at a specially adapted cinema.
“Half a million people watched it and only the war stopped the showings,” Mayorov said.
After the war, the authorities opened a new cinema for 3D films on central Ploshchad Sverdlova, now Theater Square, gaining a new audience for more ambitious acted films.
But 3D cinema never really took off like it did in the United States during its brief heyday in the 1950s and seems to have gradually faded away. “It had no booms nor disasters,” Mayorov said.
Viewers clapped and chuckled at a charming short adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s comic stories called “The Burbot Fish” from 1954 — complete with budgerigars flying out from an aristocrat’s country estate.
“The films really are worth watching because unlike a lot of foreign ones, the 3D is very good, really good quality,” Mayorov said. “You just saw ‘The Burbot Fish.’ You saw what kind of film it is. And that was back in 1954.”
A number of 3D films are being produced again in Russia, including the animated 2010 hit “Belka and Strelka: Star Dogs” about the two dogs from the Soviet Union who were the first animals to return from space.
Legendary Russian director Fyodor Bondarchuk is making a keenly anticipated epic 3D film about the World War II Battle of Stalingrad between Nazi German invaders and Soviet forces.