The following article, which purports to record a conversation I. Teneromo had with L. N. Tolstoy on the latter's eightieth birthday, was published in the New York Times, January 31, 1937. To my knowledge, no Russian version of the conversation exists.
A few words of warning concerning Teneromo and the authenticity and accuracy of what follows. Teneromo (born Isaak Fajnerman) was, for a short time in the late 1880s, a Tolstoyan who lived near Yasnaya Polyana. According to L. Anninsky (ќхота на Ћьва, p. 68), Teneromo was something of a parasite who parlayed his passing acquaintance with Tolstoy into a lifelong career: contemporary journalists even coined a verb based on his name,тенеромить, that meant "to exploit a theme." For our purposes, his most significant "achievement" was writing the screenplay for one of the first films based on Tolstoy's life, ”ход великого старца (Flight of the Great Elder) (1912, see filmography), directed by a young Protazanov.
In Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, Jay Leyda remarks that when he asked Aleksandra Tolstaya (LNT's daughter) about the interview when it was published in the New York Times, she remarked that "there are several aspects of this record that make it suspect, but that it incorporates remarks that Tolstoy may have made, either to Teneromo or others, but not on his eightieth birthday" (p. 410).
TOLSTOY ON THE CINEMA
He Foretold the Future of the Medium While It Was Still in Its Infancy
New York Times, January 31, 1937
By DAVID BERNSTEIN
ALTHOUGH Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is one of the four or five novels
that have been made into moving pictures more often than any others, the sage
of Yasnaya Polyana never had to go through the torture that is scenario writing
in Hollywood. But Leo Tolstoy had his own troubles with the movies, nevertheless.
All through the last years of his life, when his writings and philosophy were
revered the world over. Tolstoy was bothered by an unceasing flow of visitors,
who questioned him on all sorts of things, from literature to vegetarianism.
And, on the eve of his eightieth birthday, in August, 1908, the motion picture
camera men flocked into his home for a few historic shots. Said Tolstoy on that
occasion to his friend. I. Teneromo and the visitors: "You will see that
this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution
in our life-in the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods
of literary art. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and
to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary. I have thought
of that and I can feel what in coming."
* * *
"But I rather like it. This swift change of scene, this blending of motion
and experience-it is much better than heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing
to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and
transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane.
The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.
"When I was writing 'The Living Corpse,' I tore my hair and chewed my fingers because I could not give enough scenes, enough pictures, because I could not pass rapidly enough from one event to another. The accursed stage was like a halter choking the throat of the dramatist; and I had to cut the life and swing of the work according to the dimensions and requirements of the stage. I remember when I was told that some clever person had devised a scheme for a revolving stage, on which a number of scenes could be prepared in advance. I rejoiced like a child, and allowed myself to write ten scenes into my play. Even then I was afraid the play would be killed.
"But the films! They are wonderful! Drr! and a scene is ready! Drr! and we have another! We have the sea, the coast, the city, the palace-and in the palace there is tragedy (there Is always tragedy in palaces, as we see in Shakespeare).
"I am seriously thinking of writing a play for the screen. I have a subject for it. It is a terrible and bloody theme. I am not afraid of bloody themes. Take Homer or the Bible, for instance. How many bloodthirsty passages there are in them- murders, wars. And yet these are the sacred books, and they ennoble and uplift the people. It is not the subject itself that is so terrible. It is the propagation of bloodshed, and the justification for it, that is really terrible! Some friends of mine returned from Kursk recently and told me a shocking incident. It is a story for the films. You couldn't write it in fiction or for the stage. But on the screen it would be good. Listen-it may turn out to be a powerful thing!"
And Leo Tolstoy related the story in detail. He was deeply agitated as he spoke. But he never developed the theme in writing. Tolstoy was always like that. When he was inspired by a story he had been thinking of he would become excited by its possibilities. If some one happened to be near by, he would unfold the plot in all its details. Then he would forget all about it. Once the gestation was over and his brain-child born, Tolstoy would seldom bother to write about it.
* * *
Some one spoke of the domination of the films by business men interested only
in profits. "Yes, I know, I've been told about that before," Tolstoy
replied. "The films have fallen into the clutches of business men and art
is weeping! But where aren't there business men?" And he proceeded to relate
one of those delightful little parables for which he is famous.
"A little while ago I was standing; on the banks of our pond. It was noon of a hot day, and butterflies of all colors and sizes were circling! around, bathing and darting In the I sunlight, fluttering among the flow-era through their short-their very short-lives, for -with the setting of the sun they would die.
"But there on the shore near the reeds I saw an insect with little lavender spots on its wings. It, too, was circling around. It would flutter about, obstinately, and its circles became smaller and smaller. I glanced over there. In among the reeds sat a great green toad with staring eyes on each aide of his flat head, breathing quickly with his greenish-white, glistening throat. The toad did not look at the butterfly, but the butterfly kept flying over him as though she wished to be seen. What happened? The toad looked up, opened his mouth wide and - remarkable! - the butterfly flew in of her own accord! The toad snapped his jaws shut quickly, and the butterfly disappeared.
"Then I remembered that thus the insect reaches the stomach of the toad, leaves its seed there to developed and again appear on God's earth, become a larva, a chrysalis. The chrysalis becomes a caterpillar, and out of the caterpillar springs a new butterfly. And then the playing in the sun, the bathing in the light, and the creating of new life, I begin all over again.
"Thus it is with the cinema. In the reeds of film art sits the toad - the business man. Above him hovers the insect-the artist. A glance, and the jaws of the business man devour the artist. But that doesn't, mean destruction. It is only one of the methods of procreation, of propagating the race; in the belly of the business man is carried on the process of impregnation and the development of the seeds of the future. These seeds will come out on God's earth and will begin their beautiful, brilliant lives all over again."
Thus, decades before the motion picture was anything but a series of "Great Train Robberies" and "Perils of Pauline," a great master of one kind of art was able to foresee the rise of a new and totally different kind of art. Perhaps there is a special significance in the fact that "Anna Karenina" has been filmed so often.