Landmarks of Early Soviet Cinema (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Harlow Robinson 

Dziga Vertov's Stride, Soviet

Dziga Vertov's Stride, Soviet

Produced by Jeffery Masino and David Shepard with curatorial assistance by Maxim Pozdorovkin and Ana Olenina; new digital mastering by Bret Hampton; speed correction, digital cleaning, image stabilization, and audio layback by Lobster Films Studios, Paris; film materials from Blackhawk Films Collection and Harvard Film Archive; English intertitle creation by Deluxe Media Corp. A four-disc box DVD box set of eight silent films, 1924–1930. B&W, total running time of 595 min. A Flicker Alley release.

The 1920s was a miraculous golden age for Soviet cinema, both for features and documentary. The eight films included in this meticulously curated and handsomely presented collection convey the incredible excitement filmmakers felt at the opportunity to participate in the construction of the world’s first socialist state. Freed from the need to make money that drove the Hollywood industry, they could focus on “educating” the new Soviet population. Even Vladimir Ilych Lenin, the father of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the first leader of the country that would become the U.S.S.R., understood that cinema, an art based on technology and machines, was the most suitable one for a country founded on the transformation of humanity through industry and technology. Cinema was nothing less than “the most important art,” Lenin famously declared. Experimentation was the order of the decade. It was a brief but brilliant interlude, before Joseph Stalin came to power and cast a puritanical and paralyzing pall over all the arts, including cinema, in the early 1930s.

In the thick booklet of detailed critical essays that accompanies the DVDs, curators Maxim Pozdorovkin and Ana Olenina write that their goal is to expand understanding of the early Soviet film industry beyond the relatively well-known work of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. (So highly respected was Eisenstein by the end of the 1920s that he was even invited to Hollywood in 1930 to work at Paramount Studios.) Pozdorovkin and Olenina sought to chronicle the development of Soviet Montage and to showcase “the many ways of approaching that mysterious moment between two shots…. Though the films collected here run the gamut of genres and montage styles, what unites them is a belief in the power of fragmentation, recombination, and juxtaposition. They take an active, transformative approach to the footage and display an acute awareness of the medium’s power over the spectator. They believe in cinema’s ability to transform the spectator.”

Four feature films and four documentaries make up the set. The directors are a who’s who of kino luminaries: Lev Kuleshov (The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr.West in the Land of the Bolsheviks and By the Law), Sergei Eisenstein (Old and New), Dziga Vertov (Stride, Soviet), Esfir Shub (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty), Mikhail Kalatozov (Salt for Svanetia), Viktor Turin (Turksib), and Boris Barnet (The House on Trubnaya). All the films were originally released between 1924 and 1930. Each has a nifty new musical score, using both previously composed and original material. Robert Israel compiled four of them; his score to the early morning Moscow street scenes inThe House on the Trubnaya makes ingenious use of Sergei Prokofiev’s piano cycle, Fugitive Visions, to set the mood.

The films of Eisenstein and Kuleshov are the best-known. In Old and New, completed in 1929 with his trusty codirector Grigori Aleksandrov, Eisenstein (1898-1948) was responding to the Communist Party’s appeal to artists in all media to create work that addressed the transformation of the backward Russian countryside. The film’s production was severely complicated by the frequent changes in official policy on economic development in the agricultural sphere, and Eisenstein had to several times reedit and retitle the film. The dominant theme (as in so many other Soviet films of the late 1920s) is the triumph of the machine over outdated traditional methods. In this case, a cream separator represents the apotheosis of progress and a symbol of the shining future. Eisenstein considered the playful sequence in which the cream separator springs into action, spewing luscious cream, an experiment in “cinematic ecstasy” resembling (in Olenina’s words) “an erotic or religious rapture.” Farmwork never looked so sexy. The failure of the excessively “formalist” Old and New, roundly booed by the party press at its premiere, left Eisenstein traumatized. For nearly ten years afterwards he failed to complete another film, despite numerous false starts both in Hollywood and in Moscow. Only with the simplistically propagandistic Alexander Nevsky would he resurrect his career.

Like Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov (1899-1970) not only made films, but also wrote extensively on film theory. His imaginative parody The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr.West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) upends negative Western preconceptions about Russians and Bolsheviks, even as it consciously imitates the style of the American action films he so admired. With an all-star cast that includes the manic, leering Aleksandra Khokhlova and cameo appearances by two directors (Boris Barnet and Vsevolod Pudovkin), Mr.West reaches its Buster-Keaton-like climax in a memorable chase sequence. “Placing a cowboy in fringed chaps on the snowcovered streets of Moscow and having him lasso an unsuspecting Russian coachman,” writes Olenina, “is a strategy that bespeaks Kuleshov’s pursuit of comic defamiliarization.” By the time he made By the Law two years later, in 1926, Kuleshov’s style had dramatically changed, becoming less artificial and more moody and psychological under the influence of German expressionism. This gloomy story (adapted from a short story by Jack London) of murderous jealousy and passion among three prospectors under extreme pressure in the Klondike packs considerable emotional power, with another hyperkinetic performance from Khokhlova.

Future director Boris Barnet (1902-65) began as a Kuleshov protégé, but they parted ways after Barnet nearly killed himself doing a stunt in the role of the cowboy inMr.West. Soon he had a successful career as a director in his own right. Barnet’s fourth film, The House on Trubnaya (1928), a witty social satire on life under the limited capitalism allowed by the New Economic Policy, made him famous abroad as well. Written by a stellar quintet that included the formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky, The House on Trubnaya deals with one of the favorite topics of the era: the Moscow housing shortage. As thousands of peasants flooded into the capital, they resorted to all sorts of ruses to find a place to live, crowding into communal apartments that provided ample material for domestic comedy. Barnet uses an open staircase in an apartment building for lots of up-and-down action. “Chopping wood on the staircase is not allowed!” warns a poster, but some of the brawny barechested residents do so anyhow. Parasha (played with physical gusto by Vera Maretskaya), the country girl who has come to Moscow in search of her uncle, ends up as a domestic servant to a pretentious bourgeois hairdresser. But he gets his comeuppance when she joins the union and asserts her proletarian rights.

Barnet uses lots of entertaining visual tricks and puzzles: stop-frame with reverse motion, reflections in puddles and mirrors, even a car seeming to move in a full circle with small stop-motion jumps. A scene of a workers’ march through the city streets becomes a symphony of flags and flagpoles floating disembodied in the sky. Unlike most Soviet films of the period, The House on Trubnaya illuminates human feelings and foibles within an ideological framework, in a manner reminiscent of Ernst Lubitsch. A highly original and versatile talent, Barnet later made spy films that have been favorably compared to Hitchcock’s.

In Soviet cinema, documentary film occupied a highly privileged position. As Maxim Pozdorovkin writes in his accompanying essay, “Nonfiction film was recognized both as an art form and as source material for the writing of history.” Many Soviet filmmakers blurred the line between feature and documentary; Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and October provide only two of the best examples. In his ground-breaking Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (his real name was the more prosaic David Kaufman) proved that documentary film could be exciting and artistic. In this collection, Vertov is represented by his informational “lecture-film” Stride, Soviet (1926), a plotless and heavily edited assortment of scenes from the daily life and labor of Moscow. Without the aesthetic integrity of Man With a Movie Camera, it requires patience (and probably some political background) from the viewer, but offers in its best moments a dynamic portrait of a “city-in-progress.”

Boris Barnet's The House on Trubnaya

Boris Barnet's The House on Trubnaya

Esfir Shub (1894-1959), one of the few female directors in the early Soviet film industry, had a less “activist” view of documentary than Vertov. Her masterpiece, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), is a “montage of historical documents” that she found in newsreels, official film records, and home movies of the Tsar’s family. For Shub, montage meant allowing the original footage to speak for itself without excessive formal manipulation. Because the footage she discovered is so emotionally revealing, exposing the amazing indifference of the Russian aristocracy to the squalor that surrounded them during the horrific slaughter of World War I, what emerges is a powerful documentation of “living reality,” as fellow director Vsevolod Pudovkin described it. The pace of the editing is slower, more deliberate, than in most other Soviet documentaries of the period, but the analytical message condemning the evils of the old regime no less incisive.

Vertov and Shub paved the way for the work of two other directors who took documentary in a more artistic, impressionistic, and even ethnographic direction: Viktor Turin and Mikhail Kalatozov. Both explored the remote and exotic territories on the southern fringe of the newly formed U.S.S.R., in documentaries produced outside the mainstream Russian studios. Both also celebrate the progressive mission of the Soviet government in bringing technological improvements to the lives of people whose lives had been virtually untouched by modern civilization. In Turksib (1929), made by Vostok-Kino in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, Turin chronicles the construction of a new railroad linking the textile industry of southern Siberia with the wool and cotton producing regions of Kazakhstan. His treatment of the harsh beauty of the Kazakh steppe is breathtaking, its endless sandy expanses sculpted by the wind into weird abstract patterns. To illustrate the need for a reliable connection between the textile industry and its suppliers, he shows a long caravan of camels overtaken and submerged by a violent sandstorm. Pumping pistons and speeding locomotives provide the solution. Turin uses many of the same techniques (visual metaphors, striking informational graphics, allegorical montage) seen in other Soviet documentaries of the period, but with unusual taste and restraint.

The setting for what may be the most remarkable film in this set, Kalatozov’s Salt for Svanetia (1930), is an isolated village high in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. Made by the Georgian state studio with Kalatozov as cameraman, it bears an introductory quotation from Lenin: “The Soviet Union is a country so big and diverse that every kind of social and economic way of life is to be found within it.” So Kalatozov (who was himself of Georgian origin) spends most of his time showing the bizarre, vivid world of the Svan community, living a highly ritualized and brutal existence to which the cinematography lends a mythological dimension. The village’s problem is that it has no salt with which to support life for both humans and animals. Graphic images of death and suffering abound. Only the arrival of a Bolshevik brigade in the film’s final moments promises relief.

Several decades later, Kalatozov would become world famous for his searing antiwar film, The Cranes Are Flying, and for his sumptuous portrait of the Cuban Revolution,I Am Cuba. Salt for Svanetia prefigures both of them in its unorthodox and arresting visual imagery. Pozdorovkin calls it “the most visually liberated film of the silent Soviet era,” with its preponderance of crazy angled shots and exaggerated naturalism. The evocative new score by Zoran Borisavljevic, which draws on traditional Georgian music, only heightens the emotional impact.

The quality of all the films restored for the Landmarks of Early Soviet Film DVD box set is exemplary. All but two of them (Turksib and The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty) have the original Russian intertitles as well as easily read English subtitles. The critical material in the accompanying booklet gives extensive historical background and information on the films, but there is one odd omission: the running time of each film is nowhere to be found. But anyone interested in Soviet film, or the early history of documentary, will want to own this set.

Harlow Robinson is Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History at Northeastern University and is working on a critical biography of Lewis Milestone.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.