Seventeen Soviet Films* Eileen Jones
The October Revolution unleashed cinematic brilliance that even decades of political censorship couldn’t extinguish.
1 * to 4 **** ratings for level of visual interest.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (dir. Lev Kuleshov, 1924)**
If you’re an American, it’s rare and refreshing to watch a film featuring Russian communists mocking American capitalists. This silent slapstick comedy is about the misadventures in the newly formed Soviet Union of an American named J. West, “President of the ymca,” who looks like a middle-aged, slightly demented Harold Lloyd. He’s read “certain New York magazines” before his trip and consequently brings with him a defensive American flag to wave plus a maniacal cowboy sidekick. Mr. West sees menacing “Bolshevik barbarians” behind every tree, all of them, in his fevered imagination, sporting hugely overgrown moustaches, ratty fur hats, and a lot of murderous weaponry. Though Mr. West does get menaced in Russia, it’s by impoverished aristocratic White Russians running long cons. Eventually Mr. West is rescued by kindly Reds.
Though the film drags on a bit and comedy doesn’t seem to be Kuleshov’s particular forte, it’s one of the first to emerge from the Moscow Film School he co-founded, where he taught basic film theory and practice to pioneers of Soviet montage cinema including Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein. Kuleshov demonstrated through experimentation that editing is central to cinematic art. If you’ve heard of Kuleshov, it’s because of his famous experiment revealing the “Kuleshov Effect.” The experiment showed that an audience would attribute the appropriate emotion to the actor whose face was intercut with shots of various stimuli such as a bowl of soup, a coffin, or an open prison door. Viewers praised the actor’s ability to convey hunger, sorrow, and joy. The punch line was that it was the same shot of the actor’s neutral face each time — a revelation that helped to squelch film theorists’ desire to study film performance seriously for decades to come.
Strike (dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)***
Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film after years of directing radical agitprop theater, Strike is best remembered today for its climactic scene showing the massacre of striking workers symbolically intercut with the grisly slaughter of a bull. It’s still agonizing to watch. The symbolic bull-slaughtering conceit was stolen by Francis Coppola for Apocalypse Now’s ending.
Battleship Potemkin (dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1929)****
Eisenstein’s most famous film, this is the one that awed the world and got banned in several Western nations for decades. Even Stalin wound up shelving it for fear of its power to incite rebellion. As Third Reich minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels expressed it in grudging admiration, “Anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film.” Eisenstein’s sensational montage techniques in certain famous sequences look better and better as time goes by and popular film-cutting styles get almost as fast and furious as Eisenstein’s.
When an abused sailor of the Russian Imperial Navy stationed on the battleship Potemkin gets fed up with another serving of maggoty meat and breaks a plate, that plate gets broken in a fusillade of cuts that makes plate-breaking an extended act of smashing violence that will carry Russia from the fomenting year of 1905, when the film is set, with its worker strikes, peasant revolts, and military mutinies, right through the world-shaker of the 1917 revolution up to 1925, when Eisenstein gleefully sliced and diced the film in accordance with theories of Marxist dialectic.
The film’s legendary “Odessa Steps” sequence is still film history’s most famous editing tour de force, with the possible exception of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. In it, a tsarist military force of formidable machine-like uniformity marches down the steps slaughtering Odessian citizens who scatter before them. Those who hesitate, protest, or plead for mercy are cut down in the same mechanical rhythm, and you’ll remember all the victims’ faces — the mother bearing her trampled child, the widow with the baby carriage that gets knocked down the steps as she is shot and falls against it, and the bespectacled woman whose glasses are bloodily broken by Eisenstein’s film cut that represents a sword strike.
Mother (dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1926)***
Based on a novel by Maxim Gorky, Pudovkin’s silent film drama about the political radicalization of a downtrodden middle-aged woman still packs a surprising punch. In the USSR, it was the most popular of all the Soviet montage films. Note the clever camerawork at the beginning of the film featuring high-angle shots looking down on the abject creature worn out by work and abuse at the hands of her drunken brute of a husband. The shots level out as Mother is drawn into the revolutionary activities of her idealistic son, then end in low-angle shots gazing up admiringly at the transformed revolutionary as she catches the fallen red flag and leads the marchers on their way to free political prisoners, her son included. Moscow Art Theater graduate Vera Baranovskaya as sad-faced Mother will slay you.
October: Ten Days That Shook the World (dirs. Sergei Eisenstein & Grigory Aleksandrov, 1928)****
Named after John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, this film commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Bolsheviks’ revolt. Intended to celebrate revolutionary heroes Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the film was harshly truncated as Trotsky fell dramatically out of favor and was eliminated from the film. Still, it contains some of Eisenstein’s boldest experiments in “intellectual montage,” generating ideas from the collision of images. Eisenstein illustrates the dreadful ease with which monarchies return to power through shots of a statue of the tsar, pulled down earlier by revolutionaries, reassembling itself. He satirizes Provisional Government head Alexander Kerensky’s lofty ambitions, through shots of his climb up a long flight of stairs intercut with shots of lavish crystal goblets and china figures of Napoleon seeming to watch his progress approvingly.
Man with a Movie Camera (dir. Dziga Vertov, 1929)****
Director Dziga Vertov scorned Eisenstein’s films for what he considered their hopelessly old-fashioned nineteenth-century theatrical narratives. This should give you some idea of Vertov’s visionary radicalism and furious montage techniques. Man With a Movie Camera is nominally part of the “city symphony” documentary trend paying tribute to the day in the life of a single city, but Vertov adapts the subgenre to his own purpose, creating a dynamic composite Soviet city by assembling bits of what he called “life caught unaware” in Moscow, Odessa, Kiev, and Kharkov. Vertov’s camera can go anywhere, surveying the bustling urban populace on top of buildings during the workday or hiding in a glass of beer to surreptitiously observe Russians at leisure. Through the use of superimpositions and dissolves, fast motion and slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, stop-motion animation, and a reflexive examination of how cinema works by showing us footage of Man With a Movie Camera being shot, edited, and watched by an audience in a theater, Vertov advocated for the power of the “Kino-eye” to reveal the moldable plasticity of modern reality and to launch humanity into the communist future as technologically enhanced super-beings.
Turksib (dir. Viktor A. Turin, 1929)***
A documentary about the Turkestan-Siberia Railway’s construction, Turksib features awesome footage of the USSR’s harsh landscapes and the people who lived there, including fur-hatted Turkic men mounted on camels. Turin’s propulsive shots of seemingly unmanned railcars transporting lumber and other materials necessary to keep building out the railroad suggest the force of the people’s will behind the immense project. Turksib was a big influence on John Grierson’s left-wing GPO Unit documentaries that distinguished 1930s British filmmaking.
Earth (dir. Alexandr Dovzhenko, 1930)****
Ukrainian director Alexandr Dovzhenko’s mesmerizing drama of a rural village community’s transition to collectivized farming. Their biggest obstacle is presented as being “kulaks,” whose affluence depended on hoarding land granted to them under the tsars. Dovzhenko’s ability to represent with equal seriousness and beauty farmers, horses, cattle, and newly harvested vegetables would inspire the poetic cinema of directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov. The celebrated “It’s here!” sequence is an ecstatic montage of hope as the poor villagers welcome the delivery of their first tractor.
Chapayev (dir. Sergey & Georgi Vasilyev, 1934)**
A definitive film in the Socialist Realist style instituted by Stalin and his appointed head of the film industry, Boris Shumyatsky. Stalin banned the Soviet montage experimentalism of Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and Vertov on the grounds that it was aligned with decadent Western art movements. Instead, “people-centered,” “party-minded” films were mandated that were almost invariably tales illustrating how to be a better communist. Chapayev, a huge hit, was Stalin and Shumyatsky’s Exhibit A. A fictionalized celebration of Russian civil war hero Vasily Ivanovich Chapayev, the film features stirring scenes of bravery in battle, such as the one introducing the title character riding across open fields in a wagon adorned with jingling bells, urging his fleeing comrades to stand and fight. Stalin particularly loved the scene when Chapayev uses assorted potatoes to explain complex military maneuvers.
The plot functions allegorically, with the barely literate Chapayev representing the revolutionary fervor embodied in the Red Army as he’s taught to appreciate the sophisticated organizational leadership of his superior officer, representing the Communist Party. Teamwork makes them great!
Ivan the Terrible Part I (dir. Sergei Eistenstein, 1945)****
Stalin loved it, which was all that mattered.
He watched practically every film that came out in Russia and was one of those harsh critics who might send you to the gulag if he didn’t like your film. Ivan the Terrible represents director Sergei Eisenstein’s attempt to preserve a film career that was founded on radical montage experiments through this new, lethal era when those experiments were strictly forbidden. He cannily chose to film a historical biography of a figure Stalin identified with — the “terrible” tsar (“terrible” meaning scarily awesome) who sought to unify Russia and repel foreign invaders with extreme prejudice.
But while Stalin was admiring Ivan’s ruthless machinations in acquiring and holding power in the cutthroat imperial court, Eisenstein snuck past him a ton of stylized formalism that looked nothing like Socialist Realism’s approved techniques. As long as he stuck to the “no montage” rule, Eisenstein was allowed every baroque flourish and bizarre operatic artifice imaginable, such as fantastically coiffed, costumed, and bejeweled actors, lit by ostentatiously fake painted-on rays of sun or plunged into expressionistic shadow, holding mad poses as if imitating hawks, bears, and other beasts of prey.
Ivan the Terrible Part II (dir. Sergei Eistenstein, 1946)****
Stalin hated it, which was all that mattered.
Unless you study up on it, you might be puzzled to understand why Part I got the Stalin Prize but Part II got Eisenstein a one-way ticket to early retirement. Maybe there’s a bit more paranoia and plotting and assassination in it that could be seen as an uncomfortable allegory for life under Stalin. For example, there’s an astonishing color sequence late in this black-and-white film, a wild and sinister party where murder plots collide, shot all in red, gold, black, and green. The sickening blacks and greens take over the image as Ivan saves himself from imminent assassination by tricking the most vulnerable dumb bunny in the court into putting on the tsar’s robe and crown and walking into the dark cathedral alone, where he’s promptly mistaken for Ivan and stabbed to death.
But apparently what really ticked Stalin off about Part II was the flashback structure, showing pre- terrible Ivan as an androgynously beautiful boy cowering in shadowy corners of the imperial court. All that tender young vulnerability, seared in terror, is shown by Eisenstein to be at the root of Ivan’s adult ruthlessness, and you could see how Stalin would say that kind of psychologizing is a bunch of bourgeois bullshit.
The Cranes Are Flying (dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)****
During the “thaw” period following Stalin’s death, a “New Humanism” manifested itself in film. Films about World War II now focused on the plight of young people caught up in devastating events, and sympathized with their lack of traditionally dauntless Socialist Realist heroism. Young filmmakers like Mikhail Kalatozov were allowed to draw on Western trends like widescreen filmmaking, and Kalatozov responded with an internationally heralded work of genius, dynamizing that daunting long rectangular frame that German director Fritz Lang condemned as good only for filming “snakes and funerals.”
Tatiana Samoilova as Veronika set a new standard for psychological realism in Soviet cinema with her complex and compelling portrayal of a young woman braving the loss of her boyfriend and her parents in the appalling violence of World War II.
Ballad of a Soldier (dir. Grigoriy Chukhray , 1959)****
The loveliest mother in the world waits on a dirt road for the return of her young soldier son coming home on leave. It takes him so long to get there on foot that he only has time to embrace her once before he must turn around and start the long walk back to the front, where we already know he’ll be killed. Another “New Humanist” film of the post-Stalin thaw, Ballad of a Soldier features some amazing battle cinematography including a rotating camera shot to convey the world-turned-upside-down terror felt by our young soldier as he’s relentlessly pursued across the war-torn landscape by a Nazi tank.
Ivan’s Childhood (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962)****
The bitter and the beautiful combined is a hallmark of Soviet cinema, and this film is among the greatest examples. It deals with a scout spying on the Nazis for the Soviet army, whose traumatic experience of the war, and obsession with avenging the deaths of his mother and sister, have made him a freakishly hard-bitten old veteran in a boy’s body.
Ivan’s childhood before the war haunts him, and us, in his dreams. All the film’s scenes are noteworthy, but two absolute stunners include the use of foreboding, irradiated-looking negative imagery during Ivan’s dream of his apple-picking outing with his little sister, and the mesmerizing seduction scene in a birch-tree forest.
Soy Cuba (dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)****
A hot contender for the international Greatest Cinematography of All Time Award, this Russian-Cuban coproduction mourns the Western exploitation of this “most beautiful island in the world” from its ill-fated discovery by Christopher Columbus through its rescue via the Cuban Revolution, whereupon the film turns triumphant. Each major segment is shot in a different gorgeous style, as Kalatozov shows off his own stellar technique in celebrating the wonders of Cuba and its people. Pay special attention to the beginning of the painful sequence showing Cuba at the mercy of the sex tourism industry. It features a jaw-droppingly complicated, unedited tracking shot as the camera threads through bikini-clad Cuban women being judged in a beauty contest by cocktail-swilling American and European cavorters on a Havana hotel rooftop, then glides down the side of the building onto a lower-level terrace where it plunges into the pool to swim with the jetsetters.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (dir. Sergei Paradjanov, 1965)****
Born in Georgia of Armenian descent, and aesthetically inspired by Tarkovsky’s film Ivan’s Childhood (1962), director Sergei Paradjanov departed from what he considered to be the worthless films he’d made up to that point and plunged into the folkloric mists of Ukraine’s long ago Carpathian Mountains culture. Paradjanov’s spell-casting tale is of Ivan, a Carpathian man of constant sorrow, whose loss of his great love Marichka turns the richly colored world of the film to black-and-white. After much suffering, Ivan’s magical reunion with Marichka, who drowned, takes place in the autumn forest where he finds her again in the dark reflection of the water. Her long white reaching hands uncannily take on the look of surrounding tree branches as they extend toward him. The scene culminates not in an embrace but in Ivan’s haunting off-screen scream, and a series of images of red branches frozen into twisted sculptures.
Paradjanov paid a big price for his departure from the principles of Socialist Realism with films such as Shadows and the even more avant-garde Color of Pomegranates. His creative defiance plus his bisexuality put him in the crosshairs of the KGB, and he was packed off to a Siberian labor camp for four years. “The bugs covered you instantly,” he recalled calmly in interviews, and “never left you until you died or were freed.” His international fame was instrumental in getting him an early release, but his ability to make films was in constant peril thereafter.
Stalker (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)****
Kids, don’t try this at home, because only Andrei Tarkovsky is any good at this kind of hypnotically slow, enigmatic, mind-blowing dystopian sci-fi. (See: Solaris.) One of Tarkovsky’s last films before he defected to Europe, Stalker is an allegorical journey through a ruined postindustrial landscape into “the Zone” where, rumor has it, human desire can be fulfilled at certain possible costs to one’s progeny. Filmed in murky blues and browns by the notoriously color-phobic director who manages, as always, to allegorically suggest both political condemnation and cosmic significance.
Come and See (dir. Elem Klimov, 1985)****
Well, I’ll never see it again, but if you have a high tolerance for the horrors of war captured convincingly onscreen, I can recommend this brutal and harrowing film about two teenagers caught between armies trying to survive the Nazi invasion. This takes the tentative “humanizing” of young people caught in the savagery of World War II much further into chaos and the abject struggle for survival. As brilliant as the film is, I never wanted to leave a theater so badly, in hopes of avoiding what I knew was coming — the scenes of Nazi rape, torture, and massacre of an entire village. The film’s highly immersive bombing scenes, which create the effect of traumatic near-deafness in the audience, inspired aspects of the great D-Day sequence in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
Director Elem Klimov, a friend of Mikhail Gorbachev’s, played an active role in the aspects of perestroika (restructuring) that applied to the film industry. As head of the Soviet filmmakers union, Klimov supervised the release of formerly banned films and the removal of censorship rules in preparation for a planned new era of glasnost (openness) in the Soviet Union. It never came to be.
*Publicado originalmente en Jacobin Magazine, el 5 de diciembre de 2017.
Ilustraciones reproducidas de Seventeen Soviet Films, Eileen Jones, Jacobin Magazine, 5 de diciembre de 2017.