Landmarks of Early Soviet Film
US DVD: 20 Sep 2011
I’d classify the eight films in this collection as four titles that are merely historically important and fascinating, and four absolute jaw-droppers.
Lev Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of Bolsheviks (1924) is a broad farce that tries to apply principles of fast-paced, briskly edited American action films to a story about an American tourist hoodwinked by stereotypes and recidivists. As a comedy about modern Soviet life, Boris Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya (1928) is better and with a more appealing sense of film style, using elaborate multi-leveled stairway sets and tricks like stop-motion and reverse to make visual jokes about a country bumpkin in the city. When her boss asks if she belongs to a union, she answers, “No, I’m a virgin.” Before the tacked-on ending, it gently undermines the serious notions of workers’ progress found in other films of the era.
Dziga Vertov’s Stride Soviet! (1926) and Esther Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) are pioneering documentaries constructed out of found footage and applied to a point of view. Vertov’s film is based on simple comparisons between the bad old times and the new era of progress; I wonder if it’s the first movie ever to show a flushing toilet, presented as wondrous evidence of modernity.
Shub mines the archives for newsreel footage of the Czar and various officials, recontextualizing their former hagiography by contrasting their pomp and splendour with shots of poverty and ironic title cards. Then comes stark footage of the Great War, presented as the outcome of capitalist Europe’s tendencies, and finally an account of the two revolutions—one with an interim government condemned as counter-revolutionary, and then Lenin’s Soviet revolution. Shub doesn’t mention what became of the abdicated Czar or the other officials, but her audience knew. As a rare woman in the film industry, she makes a point of including footage of women’s contributions to war and revolution. When she ends the film with shots of Lenin, who has now effectively replaced the Czar as the embodiment of one type of rule over another for the Russian people, the modern cynic may be inclined to think “New boss, same as the old boss.” That surely wouldn’t have been Shub’s intention, though it’s interesting that the possibility for such a reading remains.
Let’s move on to the jaw-dropping. Kuleshov’s By the Law (1928), based on a Jack London story, is a stark, lovely, expressive, riveting, sometimes over-the-top psychological melodrama of murder and madness set in a miner’s cabin in the frozen wastes. Sergei Eisenstein’s Old and New (also called The General Line, 1929) promotes the formation of rural farm co-operatives through astonishingly beautiful shots and sequences about a peasant woman’s evolution with the farm—they get a bull, they get a butter machine (a famous sequence edited for transcendant ecstasy with glimmering metal and milk amid craggy close-ups), they get a thresher. This could be the prototype for the sort of “boy meets tractor” tales mocked by Western critics, but rarely are they rendered with such raw, fierce beauty. There’s plenty of Eisenstein’s trademark associative or metaphorical editing, often comparing people with animals.
Finally, two ethnographic documentaries celebrate the modernization of far-flung corners of the Soviet Empire and the alleged conquering of primitive cultures and superstitions. Viktor Turin’s Turksib (1929) concentrates on building a railroad through Turkmenistan, with much footage of indigenous nomads, deserts, camels and such clearly influenced by Eisenstein. The cream of the lot is Mikhail Kalatozov’s staggeringly gorgeous Salt for Svanetia (1930), all glittering, mind-blowing, manipulative and manipulated images of an alien culture that the film admires and despises at the same time. (And could this be the earliest movie to show urination and lactation?) It’s a documentary in the same sense that Eisenstein’s film is a drama: a beautifully strange and harsh hybrid.