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 →
4/9/18, 9:30 pm: As I’m writing this, it’s been a few years since I’ve beheld the 1920s Soviet sci-fi extravaganza Aelita: Queen of Mars. My memories of it are somewhat murky, because truth be told, I fell asleep halfway through it. But! It’s always good to give half-watched films a second chance, and since I have a bit more knowledge of Soviet cinema under my belt right now methinks I shall sit down and behold it once more.
4/10/18, 8:15 am: Darn it, I fell asleep again!
Someone ain’t happy.
Aelita is somewhat familiar to silent film fans, but mention it to the fabled “regular folks” and you’ll get a “Huh”? It was an ambitious film once meant to rival the masterworks of Germany and the U.S., and while it was popular in the Soviet Union it didn’t seem to make a big splash anywhere else (at least not in the US, where it wasn’t released until 1929). Today, despite nicely-scored restorations being available and occasional photos being shared on social media, it can’t quite climb out of obscurity. 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.