So you think you have a decent understanding of Soviet cinema. Clever uses of montage? Check. Operatic storytelling? Check. Propaganda? Check. Maybe a tragic ending? Check. Those shots of people with alarmingly big smiles, usually because a tractor’s on the way to the collective farm or something? Double check!
Then along comes a film like The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) (maybe the long title parodies dime novels?) and turns many of those stereotypes on their heads.
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 →