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Archive for the ‘Soviet Cinema’ Category

Man With A Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, Soviet Union 1929

Posted by nicklacey on 8 August 2014



Sight & Sound‘s current issue suggests that Man with a Movie Camera is the best documentary ever made; this follows on from the film’s appearance in the top ten 2012 poll, in the same magazine, of the best films ever made. As long as we don’t treat such lists too seriously (it’s absurd to think one is better than all others unless you’re talking about Everton), such canons can be useful in highlighting films that might be neglected. I’m not sure Man with a Movie Camera is neglected but it is a great film.

It is a witty example of the ‘City’ film, such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, die Symphonie der Großstadt, 1927), as it documents a ‘day in the life’ of an anonymous city; actually an amalgam on Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. It starts with the city waking up, cutting between an anonymous woman rising and the start of the ‘rush hour’. It continues with work, focusing on factory and mining as well as the onrushing traffic. Toward the end we see people in their leisure time. The film’s bookended by an audience in a cinema watching Man with a Movie Camera.

It is this self-reflexivity that situates the film in the avant garde of the time. For much of the film we see Mikhail Kaufmann (Vertov’s brother) shooting the movie. A number of avant garde techniques, such as split screen and superimposition, are employed.

Clearly the ‘man with the movie camera’ is a bit of a ‘lad’ as early in the film the camera lingers on a woman’s legs. A cut to the camera lens, with an eye superimposed upon it (literally the ‘Kino-Eye’) is winking. The woman, once she realises she’s being ogled, gets up and walks off. He also likes his beer.

The wit suffuses the film that is also characterised by an astonishingly fast average shot length (ASL):

In 1929, the year it was released, films had an average shot length (ASL) of 11.2 seconds. “Man With a Movie Camera” had an ASL of 2.3 seconds.        (

At one point a registry office for marriage and divorces is intercut with a woman giving birth and funerals. The frenzy of the editing suggests that life can be encapsulated in these four events; Vertov’s wife, Yelizaveta Svilova edited the film.

There’s more to the film that technical wizardry, Vertov was making a political statement:

. . . it is a critique of Lenin’s temporising with the middle class with his New Economic Policy… Vertov shows us beggars and porters and bourgeoisie parading themselves in horse-drawn carriage . . . The Bolshoi Theatre, for Vertov an unacceptable relic of the old regime, is made optically to collapse on itself. (Winston, Sight & Sound, September 2014: 39a)

‘Dziga Vertov’, by the way, means ‘spinning top’.

Posted in Documentary, Soviet Cinema | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, USSR, 1959)

Posted by nicklacey on 12 June 2014

A mother's yearning

A mother’s yearning

Grigoriy Chukhray’s (he co-wrote and directed) war film was made during the Russian Thaw, the Khrushchev years before Brezhnev re-froze culture, and was remarkable for the fact that it showed that World War II hadn’t been personally won by Stalin. Instead, Chukhray focused on ordinary people’s stories as a young man, played by Vladimir Ivashov, tries to get home, on a couple days leave, to fix his mum’s roof. The Private is an accidental hero, he destroyed two tanks when in a desperate situation, hence he is given a few days to go home. After the opening sequence there’s little fighting in the film; it’s more a picaresque narrative where he, warm heartedly, encounters soldiers and civilians. Central to the narrative is his meeting with Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko) and the pair fall for each other.

So far so sentimental and I was afraid it might be too saccharine for my tastes as everybody, at the start, seems to be good. However, Chukhray, a veteran of Stalingrad, isn’t interested in painting a socialist realist scene (where things are as they should be rather than how they are) and we encounter the less admirable traits of humanity. The Private, though, retains his goodness and Ivashov’s performance shines with convincing naiveté. His relationship with Shura is beautifully developed and the moment, when they part, is brilliantly edited with her face superimposed on the passing landscape and his thoughts given to us in the voice over. This isn’t a spoiler, we learn that the young man is doomed from the start.

Chukhray, despite the Thaw, struggled to get the film made because, his critics on the artistic committee that had to pass the script, argued it was too frivolous a way to represent that giant sacrifices people made to win the war. However, as the Cannes Special jury recognised in 1959, it’s its humanism that makes it a great war film. It is noticeable, however, that all the authority figures are benevolent; an unlikely fact so probably a compromise that Chukhray had to make to ensure the film got made. This isn’t a Soviet issue, Hollywood films rarely question authority either in a meaningful way.


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I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba, Cuba-Soviet Union, 1964)

Posted by nicklacey on 18 May 2014

Poetry about exploitation

Poetry about exploitation

A few posts back I wrote about the extraordinary cinematography of Ivan’s Childhood (Soviet Union, 1962) and how Tarkovsky wanted it to look as if it had been shot by Sergey Urusevskiy. This one is and I’m sure this is the most sensational cinematography I have ever seen. Teamed with director Mikhail Kalatozov, with whom he made The Cranes Are Flying (Soviet Union, 1957), Urusevskiy shot this propaganda film celebrating the Cuban Revolution of a few years earlier. Many critics bemoan the narrative, with its focus on types rather than individuals, and suggest the politics are naive, but are united in their praise of Urusevskiy. For me the narrative, about American imperialism, is entirely satisfactory and reminds us, 50 years on, that the US penchant for interference in other countries, in the interests of US corporations, remains undiminished. Four stories, focusing on a prostitute, a student, and two farmers, show how the people were exploited under the US-backed dictator, Batista; while these are effective it is the cinematography that makes it one of the  greatest movies ever made.

In the 21st century we are spoiled by the effects that can be created by CGI. I mean spoiled in the sense that cinema can never be the same again because the fact that anything can be shown means that nothing is special. Okay, that may be an overstatement, I did find the streets of Paris folding over in Inception (US-UK, 2010) impressive, but that experience is increasingly rare. In watching the long elaborate takes that fill I Am Cuba I find myself constantly assuming that CGI must have been used to cover the ‘joins’ except, of course, there was no CGI in 1964. There wasn’t even the steadicam. And Urusevskiy somehow manages to, despite often extremely rapid movement, beautifully compose the shots! His penchant for Dutch (canted) angles give the Social Realist narrative an Expressionist sensibility that intensely portrays the characters’ anguish caused by their exploitation. To give an idea of the complexity of some of the shots I’ve pinched this from Wikipedia:

 the camera follows a flag over a body, held high on a stetcher, along a crowded street. Then it stops and slowly moves upwards for at least four storeys until it is filming the flagged body from above a building. Without stopping it then starts tracking sideways and enters through a window into a cigar factory, then goes straight towards a rear window where the cigar workers are watching the procession. The camera finally passes through the window and appears to float along over the middle of the street between the buildings.

Sample the opening five minutes:

Now get hold of the film.

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Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962, Soviet Union)

Posted by nicklacey on 1 May 2014

Image as metaphor

Image as metaphor

Ivan’s Childhood is Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film and he started his film career running; unquestionably he is a ‘poet’ of cinema. He went on to make a number of masterpieces, such as Andrei Roublev (1967) and Solaris (1972), and his elliptical visual style is evident in his debut. But what does it mean to be a ‘poet of cinema’?

Unlike some of his later films, Ivan’s Childhood has a straightforward narrative. The titular boy acts as a scout for the Red Army toward the end of the war. Although there is very little action, and there’s a tender middle section, without Ivan, where the young medic Masha is courted by Captain Kholin, the story is straightforward. There are, though, four heavily symbolic dream sequences; however, because these are dreams the poetry of the sections are motivated by the narrative. The reason, I believe, ‘poetry’ is an appropriate metaphor for his films is because the mise en scene isn’t simply at the service of the narrative. Takes will extend longer than necessary revelling in the extreme beauty of the image. These images do contribute to the narrative but break out of Hollywood’s hegemonic idea of ‘narrative economy’. This is aided by the extraordinary cinematography of Vadim Yusov, who was mimicking Sergey Urusevskiy’s work in the seminal film of the ‘Russian Thaw’, The Cranes are Flying (Soviet Union, 1957). In the second dream sequence Ivan suddenly finds himself in a well, his mother is standing next to the opening when she falls suddenly and water splashes over her (see above). Proof that Tarkovsky uses the techniques of cinema brilliantly is the astonishing impact of the sequence that sounds bizarre in words.

Tarkovsky’s films are full of such moments and it is possible that Ivan’s Childhood benefits from its brevity (around 90 minutes); he later went for three-hour long epics that have their longuers (which, I hasten to add, are worth it). As it stands the compactness of this film makes it a devastating experience. If the stunning beauty, of often devastated landscapes, isn’t enough, the film ends with documentary footage concerning Goebbel’s suicide and poisoning of his children. Afterwards I needed to put my head in a bucket of ice.

Love in desperate times

Love in desperate times

A note on the ‘tender middle section’. I’ve seen it suggested that the Captain is on the verge of sexually harassing Masha. He asks how many boyfriends she has had called ‘Lennie’. She says ‘none'; in reply he says you have one now. On the face of it he is being over-bearing but the performances bely that simplistic reading. They are soldiers ‘on the edge of death’ and so sex was, no doubt, something that was urgent (it may be the last time). Masha isn’t simply a victim of the Captain’s forwardness; she is interested. The scene ends, in a shot that last about 10 seconds, in the clinch (see above) that is shot from a ditch, almost as if it is a grave. Once again, I felt my breathe exhaling at the beauty and dramatic impact of the shot and narrative.

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Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, USSR 1971/1985)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 November 2013

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The Leeds International Film Festival excelled itself with this tribute to director Aleksai German who died earlier this year aged 74. I didn’t do any research before the screening and I was completely blown away by some of the scenes as well as intrigued by the overall ideological discourse of this anti-war film set during the bitter fighting in the Western Soviet Empire in the winter of 1942/3. It was only after the screening that I realised that I did know about German (or Gherman/Guerman to distinguish the hard ‘G’). I’m fairly sure that I saw My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1987 but I remember little about it except that I liked it very much. (The film is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian films.)

German was viewed with suspicion by the Soviet censors and it wasn’t until perestroĭka under Gorbachev that his films began to be seen in Russia or in the West. Trial on the Road was completed in 1971 but not released until 1985 (the date on the 35mm film print screened at the Hyde Park Cinema). The film is based on a story by German’s father Yuri, a legendary writer who wrote films for the director Grigori Kozintsev and acted as a war correspondent during 1940-5. He also wrote short stories and novels, one of which, Operation Happy New Year, became the basis of Trials on the Road. When the younger German began to show an interest in cinema he worked first under his father’s old colleague Kozintsev in the late 1950s. Find out much more about Aleksai German’s films from this interesting blog.

Trial on the Road (there are other English translations such as Checkpoint etc.) is a film about The Great Patriotic War and therefore in the 1970s expected to show the heroism of the Red Army. There is heroism in the film, but it’s complicated and there is realism and humanism to the fore. The ‘Eastern Front’ was the major theatre of the Second World War in Europe (or ‘Eurasia’). Many of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states opted to or were forced to fight for the Nazis or the Red Army as they were occupied by one then the other. Others simply became refugees. Many must have changed sides to stay alive. It wasn’t clear to me where exactly this film was set but there are references to Estonia and to the railway line to Pskov – a town in Western Russia close to the borders with Estonia and Latvia.

Lazarev is a former Red Army soldier who defected to the Germans but now wants to change sides again and fight for the partisans behind the German lines. He surrenders to a group of partisans who might just be expected to shoot him as a traitor. (And this has been argued as one of the reasons that the film was not released under Brezhnev – it was seen as counter to the conduct of the war.) Instead the militia leader (or ‘Senior Citizen Lieutenant’ as the subtitles put it) Lokotkov decides that Lazarev could be useful in an audacious plan to steal a food train. Lokotkov also demonstrates a basic humanity. The ‘trial’ of the title refers to the various struggles within the partisan group over Lazarev and the plans for the train. Lazarev proves himself in an attack which captures a German military car. In doing so one of the other partisans is killed and the Red Army Major attached to the partisans tries to blame Lazarev for the death. But Lokotkov (the leading character in the film) gets his way and the plans are brought to fruition. The actor playing Lazarev, Vladimir Zamansky, is said to have been cast because he was not a celebrated actor or a recognisable face. He struck me as an enigmatic but attractive figure, often silent but with a face that could light up – the only flaw in the casting for me was the notion that he had been a taxi driver before the war (I probably have the wrong view of taxi drivers). The main point is that although he does perform ‘heroically’ in redeeming his earlier conduct in going over to the enemy, he can’t be the official ‘hero’ required by the censorship authorities under Brezhnev.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

This is warfare of the most brutal kind carried out in an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of snow-covered plains, ramshackle villages and sparse woods. German shot the film in black and white with three different cinematographers used for his complex tracking shots across the terrain. Two of the set piece scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen. In one German soldiers appear as wraiths out of the fog overwhelming a Russian lookout. I know that’s been done before but the handling of the scene is terrific. I won’t spoil the second example which was just stunning. The ending of the film celebrates the advance of the Red Army into Germany, but again the director avoids the triumphal and the super-heroism decreed by Soviet socialist realism. Instead he hones in on comradeship and a meeting of the principals from the food train hijack.

This is a must see. I discovered that a free download at reasonable quality is on the Internet Archive website (with links to an English subtitle file. None of German’s films is easily available on DVD outside Russia yet his high status as a filmmaker is not in doubt. If anyone else is brave enough to screen this in a cinema near you, drop everything and go.

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Il Cinema Ritrovato 2012

Posted by keith1942 on 30 July 2012

This archive film festival held in Bologna at the end of June is now in its 26th year. It has grown over that time, with over a 1000 registered members and four auditoriums dedicated to all-day screenings: added to this are the justly renowned open-air screenings in the city’s Piazza Maggiore. Even the most dedicated cinephiles cannot see everything on offer; so the week is both full of rare delights and agonising choices.

One strand over the week was a retrospective of the Soviet filmmaker Ivan Pyr’ev. The programme was titled ‘Mosfil’m’s Enigma’: Pyr’ev was, for a period in the 1950s, director of the studio. His films ranged through political dramas, literary adaptations and much-maligned musicals. Like many of his colleagues he also experienced periods of disfavour in the 1930s.

One of his admired films is The Civil Servant (Gosudarstvennyj Činovnik, 1931). The plot details anti-social actions both among rightist criminals and the Soviet growing bureaucracy. The filming is stylish but quirky; comparisons were made to the work of FEKS. Pyr’ev is one of those Soviet directors who can make inventive and slightly subversive jokes – there is a delightful pastiche of the Odessa Steps sequence which mirrors the action, camera shots and editing. Several of the musicals were shot in glorious Magicolor [A Soviet subtractive colour system] and were paeans to the Soviet collectivisation. On the one hand there was a sense of aplomb in the work of the committed peasantry, on the other hand the continuous upbeat tone create a sense of extreme simplification. Cossacks of the Kuban (Kubanskie Kazaki, 1950) was in many ways typical: it songs were visually and emotionally powerful: “the estranged heroine’s song (we hear “All through the war I waited for you”) is transformed into an anxious choral crescendo and a shot of deliriously singing young females…” [Olaf Möller in the Festival Catalogue].  The final film of this programme was an expressionist version of Fëdor Dostoevskij’s Idiot (1958). Pyr’ev’s career carried on into the 1960s, but this film provided a splendid finale.

Another programme celebrated the work of Lois Weber. She worked in Hollywood from 1913, having already directed one-reel films in New York. She went on to become a top director at Universal Studios and the first woman member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She typifies a surprising number of women filmmakers who enjoyed important positions in the emerging industry: women only rescued from the ‘enormous condescension of film posterity’ in recent decades. I missed some of the films due to the programme overlapping with that of Pyr’ev. What I saw presented a filmmaker who was technically inventive and who developed clear dramatic narratives [which she usually scripted with he husband, Phillips Smalley]. Her films now would probably be classed within the ‘social problem’ genre, and she frequently focussed on the issues facing women. The titles of some of the film suggest this: Idle Wives: Where are my Children? [It is available on Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900 – 1934]: Saving the Family Name, all from 1916. Shoes (1916) depicts the travails of a young shop assistant who is unable to afford the new footwear that she so desperately needs.


The most fascinating of these was a fairly lengthy drama from the same year, The Dumb Girl of Portici. This sparked much interest because it offers a rare opportunity to see the famed ballerina Anna Pavlova on film, in the part of Fenella. The film was adapted from an opera by Daniel Auber La Muette de Portici, first performed in 1828. The story is set in C17th Naples where excessive taxes and expropriations spark a revolt against the rule of the Hapsburgs. Fenella’s brother Masaniello (Rupert Julian] becomes a leader once the insurrection breaks out. The film has brutal extortion, exploitative seductions and popular rampage worthy of D. W. Griffith: the ending also shares his rather conservative values [the original opera seems to have been more progressive, it certainly sparked a riot in the revolutionary year of 1830]. But the dynamic section of the film, in the town square and in particular as the rebellious people lay siege to the palace of the occupiers has great elan. The striking shots of the advancing rebels reminded me at one point of the equally powerful final shot of Scaramouche  (1923), where the Sans-Culottes advance on the Bastille fortress.

Japan speaks out! The First Talkies from the Land of the Rising Sun was another fascinating programme. The focus on the arrival of the new sound technology produced a variety of films and filmmakers rather different from the film director or studio programmes I have seen in the past. The transition to sound in Japan took longer than anywhere else in the international film industry, with silents being produced as late as 1935. This was in part due to the benshi, who provided voice-over and commentary for silent films. They were clearly a better-organised and more forceful lobby than their equivalent, the thousands of silent musicians in the USA and the UK who lost their employment. In fact some of the early talkies were Katsuben Talkies, pre-recorded benshi tracks accompanying films.

The programme included films by now famous directors like Kenji Mizoguchi (Fujiwara Yoshie No Furusato / Hometown, 1930) and Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo No Onna / A Woman of Tokyo, 1933) and the fairly small Sala Mastroianni auditorium was literally heaving for these screenings. However, what was more instructive were the two versions of the famous ‘Tale of the loyal 47 Ronin’: Chushingura, a version directed in 1912 by Shozo Makino and re-issued as part of a compilation Katsuben Talkie in the late 1930s: and Dai Chushingura, directed in 1932 by Teinosuke Kinusaga. Their different presentations of the tale actually made it far more comprehensible for me. A slightly more bizarre offering was a Katsuben Talkie version of Harold Lloyd’s Why Worry (1923 – Japanese title Kyojin Seifuku). This version was shorter than the US release, and that and the Japanese commentary meant it took some time to adjust to the film, but much of Lloyd’s humour survived into the new version. Indeed Harold Lloyd was a popular film comic in Japan in that period. A completely Japanese sound film was Namiko (Hototogishu Yori Namiko, 1932). It was adapted froma popular novel whose title translates as The Cuckoo: clearly a reference to that bird’s mating and rearing habits. There had been several earlier silent versions of the novel. In this version Yaeko Mizutani who had already performed the role on stage played the heroine of the title. The film used the Western Electric sound system. The technology seems to have been the major factor in the use of predominantly long single takes. In fact this technique seems to emphasise the almost fatalistic tragedy that occupies the film.  And we viewed a Katsuben Talkie produced on behalf of the Ministry of Education, Kagayaku Ai (Shining Love, 1931 directed by Hiroshi Shimazu). This socially conscious tale contrasted the careers of the sons of a working class cooper and a middle class salaried worker. Despite the moral tone it achieved an absorbing and humorous narrative. Intriguingly it was also reminiscent of an earlier Education Ashita Tenki Ni Naare (May Tomorrow be Fine, 1929 directed by Yasujiro Shimazu). One wonders if the Ministry had a few standardised plots that they handed out to filmmakers.

Chushingura 1932

As with previous Festivals there were restorations carried out by the World Cinema Foundation. One was After the Curfew (Lewat Djam Malam, 1954), an Indonesian film made not along after the successful struggle to liberate the country from Portuguese colonialism.  The film’s director was Usmar Ismail and he also co-wrote the script. The film follows the return of a soldier who has fought in the Liberation army in the mountains. His return is marked by disillusionment as he finds complacency, even repression by the authorities and evidence of war crimes by his one-time commander. The film dramatises the conflicts as the new society emerges from its colonial chains. It was interesting but I did not find it totally convincing. It seems to want to combine a sort of Neo-realist style with the narrative tropes of film noir: they made uneasy bedfellows.

The second film was a Hindi Cinema classic from 1948, Kalpana. The director Uday Shankar, was the brother of Ravi Shankar and a central figure in the developments in Indian dance in this period. He had set up a dance academy in the late 1930s and the film seems to is an imaginative working out of this trials and tribulations in this project. Much of the 155 minutes of running time is given over to dance: and a varied programme of traditional Indian dance forms from different regions and communities, together with experimental modern dance forms. The film also has a dream-like hallucinatory quality in many sequences: parts of the film have an almost surrealist quality to them.

Shankar Kalpana

There was a second Indian film, the seminal Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, 1960), scripted and directed by the great Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. The Cineteca di Bologna has produced a restoration that does full justice both to the black and white cinematography and to distinctive soundtrack. We enjoyed an earlier Ghatak film in 2010, A River Called Titas (Titas Ekti Nadir Naam, 1973). Though less well-known known outside the sub-continent he is clearly as important a director as Satyajit Ray, though unfortunately he produced far fewer films.

One of the events at the Ritrovato is the Awards for DVD issues. The good news here is an Award for a box set of the World Cinema Foundation which includes Redes (The Wave, Mexico 1936); Hyènes (Senegal, 1992); Mest (Revenge USSR, Kazakistan, 1989), Trances (El Hal Morocco, 1981).  At the moment this is only available in the French language version: however, I was assured that the English language version [in Pal and NTSC] is on its way.

The main pleasure of the Festival is listed in the Catalogue under The Cinephiles Heaven: the screenings in the Piazza Maggiore. My greatest pleasure trip was a beautiful digital restoration of Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979). The cast, lead by Nastassia Kinski, are excellent: the cinematography is superb, and many of the sequences feel very close to the sense created when reading Thomas Hardy’s original novel. This was an epic screening of nearly three hours; then we had the even longer Lawrence of Arabia (1962, the director’s cut) in a 4k digital restoration. The screening was introduced by Grover Crisp from Sony Pictures, a restoration artist whose previous work has also graced the Festival. Both of these will presumably circulate in the UK, as almost certainly will a new restoration of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) now running for four hours and fifteen minutes. And hopefully, a new digital version of Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961) will come round.

There was a lot more. The Festival continued it centenary explorations, this time presenting films from 1912, a series of programmes of actualities, drama and newsreel footage. There was a whole programme of film directed by Raoul Walsh, of which I only caught a couple: and the same was true for the retrospective of French director Jean Gremillon. There was After the Crash: Cinema and the 1929 Crisis, perhaps compulsory viewing for the whole European and North American establishments.

This year all the venues were able to accommodate live music, and as always the compositions and performances were a key part of the Festival pleasure. We had great contributions from Festival regulars such as Antonio Coppola, Gabriel Thibaudeau, Neil Brand, Maud Nellissen and Stephen Horne. There were orchestral performances; several led by Timothy Brock. And there was one performance that was really distinctive, the accompaniment on the final night for the two short films that preceded the final Chaplin comedies. Two popular Sicilian singers, with a variety of instruments, produced a lyrical and slightly soulful accompaniment to L’Eruzione Dell’Etna (1910) and North Sea Fisheries and Rescue (1909): in the vast but crowded Piazza Maggiore the effect was magical. This and the preceding week have made a return in 2013 imperative.

Still courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato –

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Japanese Cinema, Silent Era, Soviet Cinema | 1 Comment »

The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, USSR 1925)

Posted by keith1942 on 28 April 2011

USSR 1925. Black and white, silent with musical accompaniment, 1337 metres / 71 minutes.

The British Film Institute is providing a welcome release at the end of April, the recent restoration of Sergei Eisenstein’s political classic. Perhaps some enterprising exhibitor will programme the film for May Day: not the British Spring Bank but International Workers Day. Unfortunately I rather suspect that is still true that more people have seen one sequence from the film, The Odessa Steps, than have seen the entire drama. Yet even now, as well as being a moving and inspiring spectacle, the film remains immensely influential. One can discern its impact on filmmaker as diverse as Oliver Stone, Ousmane Sembène and Mani Ratnam; i.e. among many others.

The film premiered in the then Soviet Union in December 1925. Essentially the film’s plot dramatises a famous episode of the earlier 1905 Revolution. A mutiny on a Tsarist battleship leads to a ferment and upsurge of democratic sentiment in the southern city of Odessa. The autocratic regime responds with brutal suppression. The parallel to present events is clear.

However, what made the film such a seminal work was the approach to form and style by the radical team of artists. In the 1920s Soviet filmmakers pioneered an unconventional approach to films. The mainstream movie represented by Hollywood developed a story through continuity and engaged spectators emotionally in the dramas built around their stars. The Soviet model tended more to types, representing the class relations of the time. They utilised radical discontinuities in technique, especially in the editing of shot to shot. Eisenstein developed the most complex ideas around montage and Potemkin is a coherent presentation of these.

The film caused a sensation both among advanced elements in the USSR and among workers and intellectuals abroad. My favourite reminiscence of the time is Luis Buñuel who recalls building a barricade outside the cinemas after a screening: [an example followed by radical students after a screening of the Argentinean documentary La hora de los hornos / The hour of the furnaces, 1968].

However, Eisenstein’s film suffered at the hands of authorities. In Germany the censors cuts sequences from the film. In Britain it was banned completely: though the intellectually safe bourgeois London Film Society was able to screen the film. With the rise of conservative forces and ‘socialist realism’ the Soviet authorities joined the act. Among pieces excised was a title card bearing a quotation by Trotsky. And when a sound version was produced in 1949 The Odessa Steps sequence included re-editing that fitted more comfortably with continuity conventions. There was also a Hollywood World War II version, Seeds of Freedom (1943), in which the events surrounding the Potemkin are presented in a flashback by a partisan fighting the German invaders. All sorts of mishaps and elisions can happen to films over the years: I saw one 16mm version in which there were only two stone lions instead of the three following the Steps sequence. And the original Russian title cards were often poorly translated.

Part of the resurgence around silent film has involved the restoration of lost or mutilated classics. This involves careful research in film archives and through contemporary published sources: careful study of surviving film footage: and sophisticated technical processes applied to actual film stock. The film may require reconstruction and new translations. There have been several restoration works on Eisenstein’s film. The current release is the most recent. Enno Patalas with the Deutsche Kinemathek carried out the restoration, and it has been the most painstaking. The resultant print is the closest yet to that screened originally in 1925.

Of particular interest for UK film buffs is that the main constituents for this restoration are  surviving copies in prints held by the British Film Institute. One is the version shown at the London Film Society in 1929. Eisenstein and his team had bought this from Moscow to London, though fresh English title cards were inserted.

The London screening also featured an accompanying score by Edmund Meisel. He was a German composer experienced in theatrical accompaniment and commissioned to compose a score for the German release. In many ways the score is as vital and complex as the film. On one occasion the German authorities banned the music but allowed the film to be screened. The British Film Institute is circulating this version of the restoration in a High Definition digital package, which includes a recording of the score synchronised with the film. There is a drawback to this format, as the HD projector runs at 24 frames per second. When the film was screened at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in a 35mm print it ran at 18 fps. It would seem that this digital version has been processed through computer software to adjust for the different in film speed. Even so what we will have is the best approximation to Eisenstein’s masterpiece in it original form.

Enno Patalas has described the restoration in an article in the Journal of Film Preservation, 2005.

Still courtesy of the bfi and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.

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BIFF 2011 #19: Goya (East Germany/Russia/Bulgaria/Yugoslavia/Poland 1971)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 7 April 2011

In one of the film's funniest sequences, Goya shuffles the line-up of the Spanish Royal Family for a famous (and satirical) painting.

The biggest treat for me and many others in this year’s festival was a rare chance to see one of the epic productions from Eastern Europe that competed with Hollywood’s international productions in the 1960s and 1970s. We were told that this was probably the first time that the film had been shown in the UK and that the print was probably one prepared for a screening in Paris at its time of release. The fact that it was a 70mm print in good condition was arguably the main attraction for festivalgoers on the Widescreen Weekend. There was only one slight problem. This print had German dialogue and French subtitles. My French and German are both too poor to deal with complex dialogue so I did miss some aspects of the plot – I’ve had to research the life of Francisco Goya in order to try to sort out some scenes. Though I felt slightly frustrated, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film. I hear German slightly better than French, but I found myself blotting out the dialogue and reading the subtitles. I think that this shows how ‘institutionalised’ one can be in reading subtitles. I also noted that because I was reading a language I only dimly remember learning, I often couldn’t decipher the whole subtitle line before it had disappeared. This at least means that I can now appreciate the difficulty slow readers have with subtitles. The film did actually include some dubbing since two language versions (German and Russian) were produced and actors came from several countries.

Goya is a biopic of the Spanish painter (1746-1828) who straddled the final years of the tradition of the old masters and the birth of modern fine art. The full German title of the film is Goya – oder Der arge Weg der Erkenntnis, which translates as Goya – or the Hard Way to Enlightenment. This full title gives a clue to what marks this film out from the several other Goya biopics (a Spanish film appeared in the same year and the most recent film to feature Goya was Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghost (2006)). Goya as envisioned in Eastern Europe was a figure who had created for himself a position of some importance as a ‘court painter’ to Spain’s ancien régime. But he was also a man of sexual appetite, a believer in the rights of his Spanish compatriots and a supremely talented artist eager to try new ideas and develop new techniques. It was inevitable that he would struggle in a situation in which ‘enlightenment’, embodied in the French philosophes of the late 18th century, would come to Spain, first peacefully but eventually via war and occupation. In the meantime, Goya and other liberal figures faced not only the protocols of court but also the terrible power of the ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Being labelled a heretic could lead to flogging, imprisonment and then exile – even for those who ‘abjured’.

Goya was one of ten films made at the great DEFA studio in Berlin in a 70mm format. The sheer scale and cost of the film required resources from across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia stood in for Spain but a genuine Spanish musical group contributed to the score. The original cut was some 164 mins (with an interval) but this print was 134 mins and we watched it straight through. This is described as the ‘director’s cut’ in the DVD promotional material but there was discussion around this screening as to what actually prompted the decision to cut the film. The popular theory was that because the film was quite complicated in terms of narrative, the cuts were made because there was a danger of audience alienation. This is interesting because in my experience cutting often makes a narrative more, not less, opaque.

The film was introduced by Wolfram Hanneman (see his introduction here) who told us we would find the film ‘difficult’ even without the language issues. I didn’t really take this on board at the time, but when I researched Goya’s life afterwards I realised that the film was non-linear in its presentation of events. Since the juxtaposition of scenes still made sense in terms of revealing Goya’s ‘path to enlightenment’, this didn’t bother me too much. I don’t really have any strong feelings about 70mm (the main interest for much of the audience) and I can’t really comment on the quality of the print, except that it seemed in pretty good nick. The production was indeed epic and there was plenty of visual feasting unencumbered by language difficulties. The remarkable set pieces around the procedures of the Spanish Inquisition work very well and, as Keith remarked afterwards, this is a biopic of an artist that really does seem to say something about creativity and the artistic process. DEFA employed a small army of illustrators and artists to copy Goya’s paintings at different stages of development.

Goya (Donatas Banionis) with The Duchess of Alba (the Yugoslav actress, Olivera Katarina)

The other major interest in the film is Konrad Wolf as director and Donatas Banionis as Goya. The Lithuanian actor Banionis is the cosmonaut in Solaris and I thought he was terrific as Goya (he also played Beethoven in another DEFA biopic). Wolf (1925-1982) is controversial as a German Jew who fled with his communist family to Moscow in the 1930s and was educated and trained in the Soviet Union before returning to Berlin to work at DEFA. Despite his high status within DEFA there must have been some concern that Wolf was pro-Soviet, although others thought that he had liberal tendencies. I found it difficult to discern any authorial thumbprints on the Goya story that might hint at ideological sub-texts. The film was an adaptation of a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger and Wolf shared screenplay credit with the Bulgarian Angel Vargenshtain. This isn’t my field but perhaps someone would like to comment on Wolf’s political views?

A Region 1 DVD of the film with a slightly cropped image is available on Amazon and I’m told some of the extras are interesting. It’ll have to go on my long list of movies to acquire so that I can re-watch it with English subs.

Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, German Cinema, Russian cinema, Soviet Cinema | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »


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