They were not the pretty pictures of "willows by the river or beeches in the fog" that he was after, but rather the landscapes of a world violently "disturbed" by man.
Peter Bock-Schroeder (1913-2001) was the first West-German photographer to be allowed to work in the USSR after World War II. As part of a western film production he had to follow a script that was monitored by the Russian authorities. Peter Bock-Schroeder, equipped with only a double lens Rolleiflex, was able to work almost without interference.
In 1956, one year after the peace treaty between Russia and Germany, Peter Bock-Schroeder was the first West-German photographer to get permission to work in the USSR. The Assignment came from a West-German Film Production. The task was to travel with an international film crew on the production of the documentary: Russia today, We saw with our eyes. The film was approved by the Soviet authorities. It was made under the same conditions in which all Western journalists in the Soviet Union worked at the time. In almost a year's production, they created the documentary under unimaginable difficulties.
Several times the German and the Russian film crews had threatened to cancel the production. After months of hard fought negotiations the German production company and the Moscow Central Documentary Film Studio agreed on the version of the respective authorities and their censorship institutions, although sometimes grudgingly given. The Soviets, who came up for all the expenses of the four western camera groups in the USSR, were granted an extensive veto, control and participation rights. All of the material had to be "tuned" with the Soviets.
The film was to be completed with production assistance from the Russians in the Moscow Central Studio for Documentary Film, including music, photographs and text recordings. Section three of the contract provided: "Theme of the film is the objective reporting of the USSR, the work of the Soviet people, their everyday lives, their art, recreation and other aspects of social and cultural life."
Soon after filming began, the usual declarations of peace and friendship on both sides failed to materialize, and filming, recording and photographing became a tenacious struggle for consistency. Most of the discussion focused on the core word objective.
Is the inadequate footwear of the mausoleum visitors of the Red Square in Moscow suitable for conveying an objective or a false impression of the state of the Russian shoe industry? On the basis of the Lenin quotation, that an objective behavior includes the duty to accept the criticism of the other side, the German film people tried to persuade their Soviet opponents. The Russian Censors defended themselfes with yet another Lenin quotations: "Objectivity is what promotes friendship between peoples."
However, negotiations with the officials of the Moscow Central Studio were still harmless in comparison to the obstacles to come. In the Caucasus republics it turned out that the presence from the Moscow officials was rather a burden. Without them, the camera groups would often have been able to work more freely and better.
In the Georgian capital Tiflis, the head of the film production - each Soviet republic had its own film studio - made it clear that he would not lift a finger to support a film which bears the misleading title "Russia Today". "The Soviet Union is not Russia and Russia is not the Soviet Union."
In addition there was the eternal rivalry of the various authorities and organizations. In Baku it took patients and the support of a ministerial film official who had to come from Moscow, to get permission to film in the oil fields. A local trade union committee took offence at the fact that the film people photographed barracks idyll with dirty laundry. The trade unionists protested to the Oil Ministry and the shooting had to be interrupted for two days.
One of the main evils for the Western cameramen was the almost insurmountable differences in mentality. Soviet documentary film did not know the human everyday life: everything in it was staged for propaganda effects. The Soviets suspected that the Westerners wanted to position camouflaged cameras in the streets to photograph the faces of people unnoticed.
The Moscow Authorities resisted all attempts to an improvised visit to any apartment. Instead, after weeks of effort, the Central Studio arranged the filming permit for the apartment of a Moscow architect, which stood out so advantageously from the standard homes that the DCF people termed it "Potemkin apartment". While filming a Moscow backyards, one Russian film official addressed the Film Team with a glossy paper picture book of Hamburg, which he had brought with him: "There are no backyards here either, so why do you want to film backyards in the Soviet Union? This kind of realistic reporting is an insult to the Soviet people"
On the eve of his departure for West Berlin, Bock-Schroeder sewed most of the exposed rolls of film into his trench coat and brought his work out of Russia into West-Berlin.
Bock-Schroeder's photographs show the differences and similarities between lifestyles in the east and the west of the late 1950's. His work describes the Russian daily life in all its austerity and authenticity. He witnessed solemn religious services and processions of the Orthodox Church, photographed the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and took part in sport events and mammoth military parades.
His journey took him through the huge space of the former Soviet republics - from the oriental south to the far north, from western Russia to the Siberian east. He photographed people, the big cities, the historic buildings and gigantic construction sites. Peter Bock-Schroeder was amazed by Russia and the Russians. He admired their culture, their friendly nature and their hospitality. And there was a longing to find his own roots. Bock-Schroeder's father, who he had never met was Russian.
For more information about the series please contact the Bock-Schroeder Foundation: Enquire