Early Soviet Cinema and the Revolutionary Imperative


There are a few times and places in cinematic history everyone agrees were extraordinary, and one of the most fabled involves a nation-state now that no longer exists. After overthrowing the centuries-old Russian monarchy, guardians of the newly formed Union of Soviet Republics wanted every element of society to reflect revolutionary change.  As ever slogan-ready Lenin said, “The past has been defeated, but not eliminated.” Film itself, as a very modern, newish, populist art medium, was the perfect art form to mold into fresh aesthetic and propagandistic shapes.

Thus ensued about a decade of remarkable artistic achievement that was widely admired as distinct from the Hollywood and European productions that had already come to dominate most of the world’s commercial exhibition. Films like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin or Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera were acknowledged as world classics from the start. But plenty of titles by those and other filmmakers have remained little-known abroad.

Their rediscovery is always an occasion worth noting—as did the National Society of Film Critics last month when they gave a coveted annual Film Heritage Award to Flicker Alley’s Landmarks of Early Soviet Film. That DVD box set attests to the variety and innovation of a phenomenal artistic moment. (All eight of the features, which are available on Fandor, are digitally remastered and with newly commissioned scores.)

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution (after an interim-government period, the USSR was officially formed five years later in 1922), the pre-existing film industry and even cinemas themselves were in complete disarray. The new state’s strapped economy made starting again from scratch onerous—a plus of sorts, as it allowed young artists time to collectively develop forward-thinking ideological and technical approaches before they could even lay hands on the expensive film stock that was in scarce supply.

Those tactics were heavily vetted for perceived usefulness and loyalty to the revolutionary imperative—art, like everything else, had to serve “the people” above all. Deciding just what was best for the people were, of course, bureaucrats. The tragedy of Soviet cinema would be how their fickle notions of ideological correctitude would often spitefully or arbitrarily hamstring (when not banning outright) filmmakers they’d once praised. This downside worsened from the 1930s on, as Stalin’s iron grasp warped the noble Socialist experiment into one of history’s most paranoid, oppressive autocracies.

But in the silent era, freedom and adventure still prevailed over towing the strict Party line. You can feel the sheer giddiness of making art for a brave new society in the “Landmarks” package’s two films by Len Kuleshov. His Experimental Cine-Laboratory developed theories of telescoping narrative and theme through montage for years before actually having the resources to make a film.

Their first feature, 1924’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, was devised as an exercise in bold economy of technique. It also sent up the Hollywood movies whose conventions it “reformed,” its manic slapstick progress ridiculing Perils of Pauline-type thrills as a titular ill-informed American fatcat (and his cowboy sidekick) travel to what they assume is a nation of “barbarians.” Preyed upon by a few unreconstucted local “aesthetes turned swindlers,” they bluster about boorishly themselves until appreciation dawns of the real Soviet Union’s industrial, cultural and military might.

Two years later Kuleshov would abandon that film’s frenetic pace for the stark seriousness of By the Law. Based on a Jack London story, it focuses on a group of Alaska gold prospectors who have to wait out the long, frozen winter in their one-room cabin—tensions much exacerbated by the fact that they’re holding captive a murderer. The director communicates claustrophobia and panic in strokes as vivid as he did Mr. West’s broad comedy.

1924’s ‘The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks’ was devised as an exercise in bold economy of technique. It also sent up the Hollywood movies whose conventions it ‘reformed,’ its manic slapstick progress ridiculing Perils of Pauline-type thrills as a titular ill-informed American fatcat (and his cowboy sidekick) travel to what they assume is a nation of ‘barbarians.’

Kuleshov’s protégé, Boris Barnet, scored a popular hit with 1928’s The House on Trubnaya, which reworks the old saw about a country bumpkin coming to the big city in distinctly Soviet fashion. Its naïve heroine is exploited by indolent employers until she joins the worker’s union, which not only improves her lot but punishes her bosses, too. Barnet wraps this moralizing gist in a bright cloak of crazy comedy that captures the make-do tumult of 1920s Moscow, even poking a little fun at the gap between revolutionary ideals and citizens’ messier everyday realities.

Propagandistic intent was more overt in the era’s documentaries, even if most incorporated staged narrative elements to get the message across. The very definition of “Soviet montage” style can be found here in lesser seen works by two world-renowned masters. Sergei Eisenstein‘s 1929 Old and New (also known as The General Line) illustrates Lenin’s stated imperative that the nation move from agrarian to industrial culture in an epic ode to farm-collectivization progress. Its visuals are always arresting—in his own way, Eisenstein fetishized unusual, even grotesque faces as Fellini—and some sequences are downright bizarre as well as kinetically exciting. There’s the weirdness of a hog processing plant’s operations intercut with a ceramic piggie whirling like a ballerina on a rotating plate; and a village “wedding” that turns out to be for appropriately attired cow and bull, the editing reaching a frenzied “climax” along with their copulation. The film ends with a triumphant procession of tractors that might have been choreographed by Busby Berkeley.

Already famed for his inventive newsreels, Dziga Vertov graduated to features with Stride, Soviet!, an episodic 1926 “lecture film” that would bore no one with its bold intertitle graphics and layered, avant-garde imagery. Its whirlwind state-of-the-union overview encompasses Soviet struggle both against (disease, starvation, damaged infrastructure, prostitution and other remains of “an obsolete and rotten lifestyle”) and for (electricity, education, industry, healthcare). There’s room for everything from brief stop-motion animation to rewound footage so a child is seen comically skiing backwards up a hill.

Esfir (aka Esther) Shub, one of the USSR’s first female directors, pushed the documentary form in an entirely different innovative direction with 1927’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Entirely composed of found footage, it recontextualized views of Czar Nicolas II, the bourgeois, landowners, church, and nobility—as well as allied “capitalist plunderers” abroad—as “dark elements of the old order,” who the proletariat had so recently been liberated from. Of particular interest is the virulent view of Russia’s WWI involvement, decried as a needless slaughter triggered by and benefitting only the rich imperialists.

By contrast, the perspective was entirely toward the future in Viktor Turin’s 1929 Turksib, a surprise hit that engaged audiences and critics alike with its stirring chronicle of a central railway’s construction—one bringing agricultural modernization and other progress to some of the nation’s farthest-flung peasant outposts.

Once the USSR’s silent era ended belatedly in the early-mid 1930s, many of these filmmakers found themselves out of favor with an increasingly censorious regime. One of very few who survived (professionally and otherwise) well into the post-Stalinist sound period was Mikahail Kalatozov, who today is best known for the incredible flights of camera mobility in such The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Letter Never Sent (1960), and I Am Cuba (1964), flowers of the liberalizing Khrushchev period. (He even made an English-language international co-production, 1969’s The Red Tent with Sean Connery.)

But the Georgia native’s sumptuous command of cinematic language was apparent many years earlier. Salt for Svanetia (1930) is a 53-minute “documentary” with huge streaks of narrative myth-making and lyrical style. This poetic peek at life in a village high in the Caucasus Mountains chronicles its citizens’ connectivity to the outer world after isolated centuries of tribal superstition and feudal economics. Yet despite this progressive tilt—capped by a paved road’s completion—it’s the unchanging customs and spectacular landscapes that catch Kalatozov’s eye. Like his more famous films decades hence, Salt experiences man and nature in a heightened state of visual rapture.

These titles only represent the tip of the Siberian iceberg; if looking elsewhere, Kino Lorber, where Animated Soviet Propaganda (1924-1984) sits alongside works by Sergei Paradjanov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky.

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