This Autumn is the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of London’s independent cinemas are hosting a season of films by Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and Shub – plus Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) based on the personal account of the events of the Revolution by John Reed. The Phoenix in East Finchley and the Rio in Dalston have screenings on alternate Sundays mostly starting around lunchtime/early afternoon. If you’ve never seen these Soviet classics, here is a great chance to catch up on an extraordinary period of filmmaking. Download further details here: Spark Programme.
Welcome to 2017 in which we celebrate the centenary of the Great October Revolution. One film that both recorded and dramatised that shock was Sergei Eisenstein’s film of the historic event, Oktyabr (Ten Days That Shook the World 1928).
Other key films from the Soviet Montage Movement include
The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon 1929) directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. A powerful dramatisation of the historic Paris Commune of 1871: a forerunner for the October Revolution.
Mother (Mat 1926) directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin. Set during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and based on the 1906 novel ‘The Mother’ by Maxim Gorky.
The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Padenie dinastii Romanovykh 1927) a seminal compilation documentary written and directed by Esfir Shub recording the years from the 300th anniversary of the Romanov imperial reign to its demise in 1917.
The Girl with a Hatbox (Devushka s korobkoy 1927) directed by Boris Barnet and starring Anna Sten. The film satirises the ‘Nepmen’, entrepreneurs who were allowed to conduct commercial business during the New Economic Policy of the 1920s.
Bed and Sofa (Tretya meshchanskaya 1927) directed by Abram Room and finding comedy in the strains experienced as the Socialist Republics were transformed.
Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom 1929) directed by Dziga Vertov and both celebrating and analysing Soviet Construction.
Old and New (Staroye i novoye 1929) directed by Sergei Eisenstein and the transformation of a village under collectivisation.
Earth (Zemlya 1930) directed by Aleksandr Dovzhenko and set during the collectivisation programme with resistance from the rich Kulaks [wealthy peasants].
Enthusiasm (Entuziazm / Simfoniya Donbassa 1931) directed by Dziga Vertov. A film celebrating Socialist Construction in the Don Valley of the Ukraine. Needs to be seen and heard with its original soundtrack rather than with live music.
Famously Sergei Eisenstein worked on an unfinished film in Mexico in 1931 and early 1932. The visit to this country came at the end of a tour that took in Europe and the USA, including Hollywood. Europe was productive, Eisenstein was involved in making a short avant-garde film at a conference of progressive filmmakers. Hollywood was [predictably] unproductive though Eisenstein did work on some unfinished screenplays. In Mexico he found an empathetic environment and, for a time, was supported by the US socialist Upton Sinclair in producing a film. The film was to be ¡Que viva México!, which remains one of those lost but tantalising projects in film history.
Now Peter Greenaway has written and directed a film about Eisenstein’s sojourn in Mexico. It is typical Greenaway fare, with his usual stylistic flair but also his idiosyncratic treatment of a subject. I saw Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) at the Leeds International Film Festival. This screening was the low point of the Festival if not the entire year.
The characterisation of Eisenstein offered in the film clearly possesses some of his known traits, in particular his sexual orientation. There is an incredibly long sex scene. But there is little attention to his intellectual and artistic prowess. And whilst there are number of sequences where we see Eisenstein, with his colleagues Eduard Tissé and Grigori Alexandrov, filming, Greenaway’s treatment shows little real interest in this lost but much discussed film.
In addition Greenaway includes sequences from the seminal films that Eisenstein had already made in the Soviet Union. However, these appear to be from not great quality video and [even worse] they have been reframed in to the 2.39:1 anamorphic frame. There are other recent perpetrators of this practice, but few of them have actually inflicted the very wide letterbox on archive footage.
Greenaway does show more interest in the erotic drawings that Eisenstein produced during his stay. A whole truckload of these were confiscated by the US customs on his return journey. Some of them could be seen in the recent exhibition in London, Unexpected Eisenstein.
Greenaway’s film is now receiving a limited general release. It is recommended only for masochists and anti-Bolshevik types. What would have been more illuminating would be the event held in April at the Regent Cinema Eisenstein in Mexico. This event, jointly organised by A Nos Amours and Kino Klassica, included screenings of several films developed from the some 200,000 plus footage shot by Eisenstein and his colleagues. There was Marie Seton’s Time in the Sun (1939), Alexandrov’s ¡Que viva México! (1979), and a film I have yet to see. Mexican Fantasy (1998). There were also talks and discussions during the event.
My fantasy wish is that the Metropolitans get the Greenaway film and that we deprived northerners get the three-film event.
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. (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-man-with-a-movie-camera-1929)
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.