Hold everything–there’s a silent film version of Dostoevsky’s riveting classic Crime and Punishment that is German Expressionist, is very faithful to the text, has Russian actors, and was directed by the same guy responsible for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Is this the recipe for a perfect forgotten classic?!
If you’re a regular reader you might recall that my review forGenuine (1920), another German Expressionist film by Robert Wiene, began pretty much the same way. Now, in Genuine‘s case rosy expectations were, uh, not met (really not met). But in the case of the overlooked Raskolnikov (1923)? Circulating prints have their drawbacks, but from what I can (sort of) see it’s a pretty darn good adaptation. It could well be a minor classic of the German Expressionist era–but funnily enough, not really because of its German Expressionist sets.
Nosferatu (1922) fans such as myself (and, hopefully, yourself) are highly aware of its iconic status, its gothic cinematography, and its limitless ways to inspire today’s filmmakers. It may not be as jump-out-of-your-seat scary as some later horror films, but we highly appreciate how it broke ground and managed to create a beautifully haunting atmosphere.
Oh, and we’re also well aware of this guy:
This acquired taste in human form is Gustav von Wangenheim, the source of a few unintentional chuckles in the early scenes of the movie. But maybe that’s a little harsh. As I wrote in my Nosferatu review, Gustav’s babyface and habit of laughing just a little too long actually make his later scenes with Count Orlok pretty effective–if a character that happy-go-lucky starts getting scared, it must be for a good reason.
In fact, his acting left enough of an impression that I decided to take a closer look at this young actor. How did he come to star in Nosferatu, and what happened to him thereafter?
Post #1 of Soviet Silents Month is here! I hope you enjoy reading about this fascinating (and rather intense) area of film history!
Few things summarize our idea of Soviet silent films better than the opening of the 1968 restoration of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926). As a projector (audibly) sputters to life, through a swirl of artificial snow a bold white “1905” looms on the screen. Snow continues to swirl around a series of black and white illustrations of the 1905 Russian Revolution, showing masses of the working class squaring off against soldiers in wintery city squares. The music is bombastic–deeply dramatic. The screen fades to black. And then it’s filled with a rather wordy quote by–who else?–Vladimir Lenin.
A dramatic poster for Mother (1926).
You’re no doubt assuming I’m going to say that there’s more to Soviet silent films than government-approved propaganda–including 1968 imitations of government-approved propaganda. There were delicate dramas and rollicking comedies made in Russia just like everywhere else, it’s true. However, they were always released with a catch. For from the early 1920s onward every film in the USSR was squeezed through the sieve of government censorship, including American imports (which were wildly popular). Analysis of Soviet film must forever dance between admiration of the finest examples of its artistry, and recognition that much of that artistry was in service of communist propaganda–often willingly.
From October (1927)
And thus the history of Russia’s bold, futuristic, cutting-edge early cinema is a fascinating one, and well worth consideration. Few other nations would seize on a new form of expression as doggedly as the Soviet government. And few filmmakers would reach such heights of artistic achievement within such increasingly rigid confines, causing such a global superstar as Douglas Fairbanks to declare in 1926: “The finest pictures I have seen in my life were made in Russia. They are far in advance of the rest of the world.” Continue reading →
When I find myself not liking a film, it’s usually because it just isn’t my taste, or because I find it boring. Maybe the subject matter doesn’t interest me, maybe it’s poorly made, or maybe there’s way too many giant robots and the stupid things all look practically the same.
But then there are a few films, a very very few films, that not only aren’t to my taste but make me want to stand up, grab my little flat screen TV, and throw it straight through the wall. L’Inhumaine (1924) is one of those films.
If ever there was a film that you could point to and say, “This is surely everyone’s favorite short experimental animated German Dadaist film,” it would have to be artist Hans Richter’s endearing Ghosts Before Breakfast (1928). (And yes, I know it’s perfectly impossible to choose a favorite German Dadaist short.) If you roll your eyes at modern art, which admittedly describes what my own eyes do 85% of the time (don’t even, Damien Hirst), never fear. Somehow, Ghosts Before Breakfast manages to be both over-your-head artsy and charmingly accessible.
There are certain films I love to watch the most in the late evening when all is quiet, the room is dim, and there’s a couple lit candles in the corner. (I have a slight mania for candles, and their glimmer adds hugely to the atmosphere of a Special Film Experience. Feel free to share in my quirk.) There’s an hour or so to while away until bedtime, a period of peace when your mind is free. And if it isn’t free, maybe a great film can give you an opportunity to let it rest and refresh itself while drinking in that hour or two’s worth of art.
One such piece of art that I like to save for an occasional Special Film Experience is a short masterpiece called Ménilmontant (1926). Maybe a few of you cinephiles recognize the name, since critic Pauline Kael said it was her favorite film. She explained that this obscure, 37-minute French silent directed by the little-known Dimitri Kirsanov had “a lyricism Chaplin could only dream of.” I’ll admit I watched it after reading Kael’s recommendation, and quickly realized that she was right. Continue reading →
A hearty welcome to all readers of the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently! I’m happy to contribute with this particular topic, one that’s interested me for quite some time. Feel free to leave comments–I love comments like Mary Pickford loved posing in quaint photos with puppies (very much).
If you like movie posters as much as I do, you’re probably familiar with some of the more iconic ones: Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, etc. Many of these feature basic, accessible artwork: Rhett and Scarlett, sci-fi heroes in heroic poses, a shark’s jagged mouth.
But if you go back back to the poster art of the silent era, a surprise awaits you. While looking at the carefully painted and posed images of Chaplin, Gish, and other familiars, you’ll suddenly stumble across an entire world of sharp, bold, imaginative images. Bright blocks of color and slashing diagonals grab your attention. Figures half-realistic and half-graphic wheel amid daring compositions.