This is the final post for Soviet Silents Month. The research wasn’t easy, but it was a fascinating and important era to explore. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along!
It opens with vistas of ripening wheat fields, rippling in the wind of the Ukrainian steppe. Fertile seeds from fertile soil–there’s a long history behind the familiar sight. It cuts to a medium shot of a young woman standing beside a sunflower, with the sky providing a natural background. Both are also connected to the fertile soil. Seeds, fields, sun, harvest, life–those few shots elevate their humble subjects into symbols of the most natural, the most beautiful order of things.
Thus begins Earth (1930), perhaps the most poetic of the Soviet silents, frequently placed on “Greatest Films” lists. Like Eisenstein’s Old and New (1929) it was made to glorify collective farms, finishing shooting shortly before Stalin’s deadly policies of forced collectivization went into effect. Yet there is depth in the operatic Earth that seems to transcend its subject–at least according to many interpretations.
Because of Diana Serra Cary’s passing, I delayed this post for a couple days. My piece on this strange and fascinating film could’ve been twice as long–I hope you find it enlightening!
Now we are able to carry on a determined offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their output by the output of the collective farms and state farms. Now, dekulakization is being carried out by the masses of poor and middle peasants themselves, who are putting complete collectivization into practice…Consequently it is now ridiculous and foolish to discourse at length on dekulakization. When the head is off, one does not mourn for the hair.
–Stalin’s speech on agrarian policy, December 27, 1929.
…On some occasions, the exemplary organization of local work, even on a small scale, turns out to be more efficient for the State than a large number of State institutions under centralized control.
–Lenin quote from the opening titles of Old and New
To many people, the phrase “collective farm” has little meaning. It’s a dry-sounding term, something you might find in wordy papers on yesteryear’s agricultural practices. And that’s partly true. However, few other phrases from the 20th century have such an incomprehensible weight of dramatic, tragic, and deadly history behind them. To say that the two words “collective farm” represents one of the biggest disasters of the last 100 years is putting it in mild terms.
When Eisenstein began work on the often-overlooked The General Line, later called Old and New (The Old and the New, technically) he was ostensibly doing his duty as a loyal Soviet director. One of the great plans of the communist Soviet government (its “general line,”) was to restructure the very foundation of the USSR: its agriculture. Old and New’s propaganda on this weighty topic would perhaps be the most blatant of Eisenstein’s career. It’s a pity he didn’t have a crystal ball. Continue reading →
With his dome-like forehead and shock of wild hair that looked like the aftermath of a bad experience with an exposed wire, it’s easy to mistake Sergei Eisenstein for a stereotypical mad scientist. Somehow, though, “film director” seems equally fitting–and “intellectual” goes without saying. And if you think about it, “scientist” isn’t too far off the mark either. His experiments weren’t with with tubes and liquids, of course, but scissors and strips of nitrate film–his exciting world of the editing room.
Forging new paths.
Much like the way his revolutionary films surprised audiences, reading about Eisenstein’s life can be an eye-opener. It’s easy to come away from the “The Father of Montage’s” dense prose and feel that he was more of a shadowy Historical Figure than a human being. But his serious, studious side was only one part of the complex montage that made up Sergei Eisenstein. Continue reading →
Think back to the last time you were at a movie theater, sitting through all the previews. We’re all familiar with the style of those previews: montages introduce the main characters, show pieces of action, throw in snippets of dialogue, and everything’s set to music. For action films, there’s usually a fast-paced guns-a-blazing montage towards the end. You may not realize it, but every time you see these kinds of montages you’re glimpsing Battleship Potemkin (1925).
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 →
On this day back in 1918, Bapaume, France was retaken by the British forces and the Second Battle of Noyon ended.
You’ve watched clips of girls screaming at the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, and you’ve seen footage of the vast crowds at the original Woodstock. Maybe you’ve sighed, “Those were the days of true rockstars–man, that must’ve been exciting!” (Or maybe you sighed because you remember that time and wouldn’t mind reliving it). But that spirit of rockstardom was around earlier than the 1960s, or even the ’50s–many decades earlier, in fact. For if you ask me, few events would ever rock harder than the Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin United States tour for the benefit of the third Liberty Loan drive of 1918. Bear with me.
On this day back in 1918, day two of the Second Battle of the Somme was raging. Albert, France was recaptured by the British.
This is a tale that begins in the strangest and most humble of locations–a bin of odds and ends in a Goodwill store. Wait, let me be more specific–it was a bin of odds and ends in a Goodwill outlet store. (Yes, that is a thing. You can buy clothes by the pound!)
That bin was where my brother (who runs across the darnedest things in that store) scrounged up a copy of a very old, dark green book: Private Peat, written by Harold R. Peat and published in 1917. While a little worn on the ends of the spine, it was in otherwise great shape, the yellowed pages clean and with a little crispness in them yet.
He showed it to me when I dropped by for a visit, and after reading a few paragraphs I was intrigued. Harold Reginald Peat was a Canadian who had been a private in WWI, and Private Peat was his detailed account of his wartime experiences and his thoughts on the war itself. The writing was engaging, witty and had plenty of little details about serving “over there” that only an actual soldier could know. So I just had to borrow it, and just had to read it from cover to cover.
After doing a little research I discovered Private Peat was not only a very popular book in its day, but it was also made into a movie with the same name–starring Peat himself! (Only in the silent era, folks.) While it’s sadly lost, thankfully some stills and info still remain.
This is a repost of the piece I wrote for the WWI in Classic Film blogathon, which I cohosted with Movies Silently a few years back. (Hopefully I caught any 4-year-old typos!) I’m still pleased with it, although Current Me probably would’ve added more info on how many battle scenes Griffith had to stage, since feature-worthy combat footage was very difficult to get. FYI, I’ve since discovered that there is indeed a better print of Hearts of the World out there, although for whatever reason it’s not available on DVD (yet!).
On this day back in 1918, the Second Battle of Noyon began, one of the many battles of the Hundred Days Offensive (which would ultimately end the war).
By 1917, World War I had been raging for nearly three years. Europe was reeling from the ever-increasing death tolls and relentless destruction of cities, villages, and farmlands in France and Belgium. The scale of the war, involving all the nations with the most economic power at the time, truly deserved the phrase “unlike anything the world had ever seen.”
The U.S. had managed to stay neutral throughout most of the conflict, which was starting the leave the more battered European nations at their wits’ end. At some point in the winter of 1916 and 1917, the British War Office Cinematograph Committee decided to contact the one person who they felt could change the minds and emotions of the American people…none other than D.W. Griffith, who had recently completed Intolerance. Propaganda films were common at the time, and the Committee reasoned that Griffith, King of Filmmakers, would be certain to turn out an excellent propaganda film that would inspire Americans to finally join in to help defeat Germany.
On this day back in 1918, the Czech-Slovaks declared war on Germany and Britain officially recognized them as part of the Allies.
As we covered in my first article for WWI in Film Month, film was used for propaganda purposes on a major scale during the Great War–a scale that had never been seen before. Just around the time Edwardian magazine and newspaper writers were declaring, “There are no two ways about it, the moving pictures are here to stay,” government officials across the globe were getting mad gleams in their eyes.
They basically wanted this, in movie form.
Escapist films (your typical dramas and comedies that had nothing to do with the war) were still big draws for theater-goers, but many filmmakers also put out patriotic contributions to the “great cause,” sometimes by government request (as in the case of D.W. Griffith, who was asked by Britain to make what turned out to be Hearts of the World). Some propaganda was practical, such as sharing tips on rationing food or urging people to buy war bonds, while others famously seized upon the stereotype of the “beastly Hun” to create some pretty hair-raising melodramas. (Ads proclaimed these films were sure to “wake up” audiences to the dangers of Germany.)
Von Stroheim as the Menacing Hun in The Heart of Humanity (1918).
So here’s a list of 8 typical WWI propaganda films, some obscure, some that you’ve probably heard of before, and a couple that are downright eyebrow-raising. Continue reading →