1. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed / The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926) (re-watch)
2. Dom na Trubnoy / The House on Trubnaya Square (Boris Barnet, 1928)
3. Turksib (Victor A. Turin, 1929)
4. Shagay, Sovet! / Stride, Soviet! (Dziga Vertov, 1926)
5. Padenie dinastii Romanovykh / The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty
(Esfir Shub, 1927)
Another paean to the end of the Tsars and the Revolution, this essentially charts the 4 years from 1913-1917, in which Tsar Nicholas puts on a huge pageant celebrating 300 years of his family's rule - contrast with starving people - followed soon after by a war involving all of the autocrats who dined in pomp and circumstance with him the year previously, led by well-fed generals smoking their fine cigars and drinking their champagne - while the proletariat die in the trenches - followed by unrest and eventually, revolution! This is a well-made but fairly conventional (especially by the brilliant Soviet standards of the time) documentary that goes over ground I've seen in dozens of films and doesn't provide much that's new or interesting. Perhaps had I seen it before so many other masterworks I'd be a little more enthusiastic, but as it is it struck me as "fine", nothing special.
6. Otets Sergiy / Father Sergius
(Yakov Protazanov / Alexandre Volkoff, 1918)
7. Shinel / The Overcoat
(Grigory Kozintsev / Leonid Trauberg, 1926)
Two films based on works by two of the greatest of 19th century writers - Tolstoy and Gogol respectively - and two films involving life-long, destructive obsessions.
was made literally in the middle of revolution, as the Tsars - who would have disallowed a film that portrays the leader as having extramarital affiairs - gave way to the Communists, who would have objected to the relatively positive portrayal of religion and of the feverish sexual tensions on display. So as one IMDb comments suggests, a film that couldn't be made again in the country for many decades. Ivan Mozzhukhin, one of the great mostly forgotten figures of European cinema from this period, is Prince Kasatsky, a lesser noble who makes the mistake of falling for Countess Korotkova, who is having an affair with the Tsar; interestingly enough, this isn't a problem for the Tsar or the woman ultimately - she agrees to marry our smitten count - but for the pious or at least puritanical Kasatsky, who cannot tolerate finding out that she was the Tsar's consort. He immediately leaves the world behind and becomes a celibate priest, but the world won't leave him behind, any more than his memories... this is a powerful portrait of obsession and a lifetime of grief, and on a certain level of a man not being able to understand himself; it feels rather ahead of it's time as a psychologically realistic portrayal of a man unable to commit either to God or man's world, and Mozzhukin embodies this tension beautifully.
is based on two Gogol stories, "Nevsky Prospekt" and "The Overcoat", both of which I read in college (in English) when I was going through my phase of obsession with Russian literature. I had only the dimmest of memories and if you'd asked me before seeing this film I'd have said perhaps that I remembered the latter story as sort of a forerunner to Kafka, or in the same vein as Melville's "Bartleby" - a portrait of a small man in a mad world in some sense, with a dose of something like surrealism. And that's relatively accurate. The two tales don't blend perfectly - in the first our meek clerk Baschmachkin (to have been played by Chaplin, had the filmmakers been able to tempt him to risk his American resident status) gets involved with swindlers in an attempt to meet a beautiful lady, but realizing that they are only using him, retreats into isolation and decades later as an old man dreams only of a new overcoat, and saves and scrimps to get one, only to find out that the moments of happiness are fleeting. Very well done with a dour, sardonic and cynical tone, but as I said the two parts don't quite gel perfectly - and the print on this could certainly have been better.
8. Suramis tsikhe / The Suram Fortress
(Ivani Perestiani, 1922)
Another film based on a 19th-century literary source, though much more obscure (at least in the west) than Tolstoy or Gogol, this comes from Georgian writer Daniel Chonkadze's novel of the same name, published in 1860; it was adapted again by Sergei Parajanov in the 1980s, though the Paranjanov film is not anything like a straightforward moralizing adventure tale as this version ended up being. This was an OK copy with readable subs but it feels like there is something missing anyway, and I suspect that's in the filmmaking - too rushed an opening, too many characters who aren't clear in their relations to each other, and who mostly disappear early on. The main story becomes one of two lovers who are parted when the man, Durmishkan, goes away to earn money to free the woman, Vardo, but forgets her and ends up marrying another - at which point a revenge theme which we saw early in the film re-asserts itself in a new context. I think this has some promising stuff and it's nicely shot with some location work that's different from what I've seen in most films of this era - ancient stonework towns and fortresses out in the rural vastness - but the story just didn't come together, too much not well explained in a short running time.
9. Oblomok imperii / Fragment of an Empire
(Fridrikh Ermler, 1929)
2 viewings. Let this review be an object lesson in doing at least the minimal research, folks! At least when watching an older, more obscure film - and a silent one at that. I'd known about this for years, remember reading some great review of it somewhere but never had gotten around to it. Few votes on IMDb or ICM, not available at my library or on any of the various discs I have, so I stupidly just went for the easy route and checked the link on ICM which led to a very poor-quality 72-minute YouTube copy. I watched it anyway and was glued to the screen right away, even though the images were so dim - the beginning of the film is mostly set at night with low, maybe natural light sources and even in a higher grade copy it's a little difficult, but in this low-res version almost impossible. And yet the story and the editing were immediately compelling - a man lost in himself, amnesiac, saves another, younger man from certain death during the war, and then goes back into his own miserable life only to be "re-awakened" a decade later by a wisp of a memory, a moment's vision of a woman on a train. Rapidly figuring out himself, who he was an who she was, he goes in search of her...
I watched to the end and though there were parts that were indecipherable due to the poor quality it was mesmerizing anyway. A man lost for more than a decade, who has missed the whole revolution, coming back to St Petersburg - even the name of the city has changed! - in search of his old master, his wife, roaming the streets, alone, crazed-looking - this is compelling both despite and because of the politics, at the same time. Because - he doesn't have to be a serf anymore, all men are brothers, we all work together...despite - the ending does get a big heavy-handed, and the final act is a little problematic in it's attitudes about women, or maybe I should say it's unclear to me and I feel it shouldn't be. But all in all it was a powerful experience, despite the extremely low quality of the source. So much so that I read up a little bit about it - including a review by a member here who mentions seeing it at a festival; so perhaps there was a better copy in circulation after all? About 30 seconds looking gave me the answer - the 2018 restoration, running almost 40 minutes longer and about 100x better quality (even in only 480p) was in fact on YouTube, so last night I watched it again.
And this time I certainly got enough to be able to rate it, and in fact I find it among the greatest of all Soviet silent films, a masterpiece in both it's brilliant and characteristic montage (used carefully and somewhat rarely) and it's more conventional - but still brilliant - filmmaking moments. The scene of the streetcar for example is a great example of both high-quality filmmaking in a live environment in this early era - on a real streetcar - and editing as our hero Filmonov makes more realizations about how the world has changed in a dozen or so years. And the scene with the young soldier wanting something to drink when there is only a mother dog near the beginning - and what happens to the dog and the soldier - and how it is recalled later in the film. But perhaps the greatest takeaway from the film for me - unusual for a Soviet film of this era which is just as stunning in it's overall filmmaking as anything - is the performance of Fyodor Nikitin in the central role of Filmonov, the lost soldier, hanging on himself to his "fragment of empire" until he finds his place in the new world, and finds others more lost than himself in a different way (this is the part of the ending that really works). Nikitin is absolutely amazing, fully inhabiting this role and embracing both a subtlety more characteristic of later sound film and just enough of the wild overacting that we often see in the silent era - and which is actually appropriate to this wild-man character.
Brilliant - the best film I've seen this month or in the last 2-3.
10. Odinnadtsatyy / The Eleventh Year
(Dziga Vertov, 1928)
Like the Esfir Shub film above, this is a relatively prosaic and lesser documentary/propaganda work from this period in my eyes. There are some brilliant moments - the particular way Vertov uses superimpositions and split-screen techniques is impressive, and the several long-ish tracks through or outside of factories are lovely, but this is another of those "see what the Soviet system has accomplished so far and see what we WILL accomplish in the future when the workers of the world unite" films, and it doesn't offer anything I haven't seen before apart from maybe different locations - much of this is set along the Dnieper in what is now Ukraine.