4 Unique Examples Of Soviet Silent Animation (I Am Sorry)

So here’s a post I couldn’t quite fit into my Soviet Silents Month schedule. The idea was there, but the time? Not quite there. (I could’ve used a few extra, err, years for that month’s research.)  But I decided to dust the idea off and post it now, because after watching these films I need to know that others have experienced them, too. I need that kinship. That camaraderie. I’m not trying to say that watching these shorts brings on a creeping sense of Kafkaesque dread, but I’m sure not denying it, either.

Dziga Vertov's Soviet Toys | HISTORY OF RUSSIAN AND EASTERN ...

No secret dog whistles to Cthulhu here! No, sir. (Image credit: Animation-Stories)

If you’re in need of a major distraction, look no further than these curious examples of silent Soviet animation–because you’ll find it impossible to look away. But a word of caution: if it’s bedtime and you’ve just eaten something weird, believe me, these will not help the nightmares. Consider yourself forewarned. Also, just wanted to say right away: I am sorry. Continue reading

Thoughts On: “Earth” (1930)

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, 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. 

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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. 

screenshot Earth 3 cows Continue reading

Obscure Films: “Old And New” (1929)

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

Marfa Lapkina in Staroye i novoye (1929)

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

Obscure Films: “The Extraordinary Adventures Of Mr. West In The Land Of The Bolsheviks” (1924)

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.

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Image credit: Senses of Cinema

…Or does it?
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The Monumental Cinema Of Sergei Eisenstein

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.

Eisenstein editing

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

Thoughts On: “Battleship Potemkin” (1925)

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).

Image result for battleship potemkin Continue reading

“Art Into Life”–The Radical History Of Soviet Silent Cinema

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.

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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.

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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

Thoughts On: “Aelita: Queen of Mars” (1924)

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! 

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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