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Archive for the ‘Soviet Film’ Category

Silent films made in the Soviet Union, also filmmakers and theory and argument.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty / Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh, USSR 1927

Posted by keith1942 on January 2, 2017

canone_04_romanov

This seminal Soviet film was screened at the Il Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016. With 2017 approaching this seemed like a harbinger for commemorations of the Great October Revolution and the revolutionary cinema that it produced. The film is a compilation of ‘found footage’ and is credited in direction and scripting to Esfir Shub. She was the key editor in the Soviet Cinema of the 1920s. Daria Khitrova writes in the Festival Catalogue of the ‘universal praise’ for her work in the Soviet film community.

“Shub learned the craft of film editing in a hard but creative way. For years, her job at the Soviet film factories was to doctor foreign (and later domestic) movies ideologically unacceptable for Soviet audiences. In many cases, it involved a full turn-around of the plot, characters, and situations, without, of course, any additional filming being an option.”

This experience developed Shub’s editing skills but her standpoint on artistic creation followed on from her involvement with the Soviet avant-garde and the Constructivist Movement. Importantly she collaborated with both the stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. This project was initially her suggestion and it offered merit to the Soviet Production arm Sovkino as there was no existing cinematic record of the Revolution. Initially the working title was ‘February Revolution’. The plan was to produce a compilation film, at this time a rare and undeveloped form, running from 1913 [the anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty] until February 1917, That month saw a revolutionary uprising in Petrograd, appropriately on Woman’s Day. This led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas and the end of the Romanov Dynasty. When soldiers broke away and supported the revolution the ruling class were unable to suppress the uprising. They did form a bourgeois government and this and the Soviet continued side by side, a period of ‘dual power’.

Note, Shub followed up this film with one on the October Revolution, The \Great Road (1927). Shub’s main source of ‘found footage’ was the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow but she also collected material from Petrograd where the earliest Soviet museum had been based. The film also credits M. Z. Tseitlin as ‘consultant’. He appears to been part of the Museum and presumably helped Shub identify material.

A subtitle for the film reads,

“montage of historical documents”

The footage includes newsreel and actualities filmed in Russia, film of the Romanov Dynasty including their own home films, and material from the period from elsewhere. Some of the war footage includes material filmed at Verdun and the French uniforms can be recognised. One piece of films appears to be from the USA and show soldiers setting off to war. As might be expected the film does not have a series of credits for source material. And the main function of the film is as illustration, so in the case of generalised events such as war different footage can serve a similar purpose.

The film is approximately six reels in length: these are not used as chapters or segments as is the case for some films of the period. However, the film, whilst the overall chronology runs from 1913 to 1917, is presented in sections which both chronicle events but also present thematic aspects of the narrative.

The opening reel introduces the audience to the ruling class, both in the form of the Romanov’s but also in the bulwarks of state power: the church, the military and the police including the secret force or Ohkrana. An opening title reads,

“Black Reaction”

The first sequence show us the military and then a religious procession. We move on to the State Duma,

“obedient to the Tsar”.

This is a collection of landowners, members of the bourgeoisie and clergy, supported by a network of Deputy Governors in the provinces. Footage also shows us the fortresses of religion, the monasteries, and the vast estates of the landowners and aristocracy. The film frequently uses footage of well known characters involved in events, many of whose names we would no longer recognised. But some remain familiar,

“Rasputin’s rival Illidor”

This is followed by film of the peasants, presented as obedient to the dominant classes.

In the second reel the audience are shown the extensive celebrations for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. At the end of the second reel, carrying on into the third, are presented the exploitation of the Russian peasants and workers. It introduces the notion of capitalism:

“Capital plunders, fighting for markets”

This leads into the competition across Europe and the increasing preparations for war.

“The hands of the workers were preparing death for their brothers”.

And there are shots both of factories and the production of munitions and armaments like the new form of warship, Dreadnoughts. We see film of the mobilisations early in 1914. Titles point out the resulting contradiction, as workers are drawn,

‘away from machines’ and ‘peasants from fields.”

The fourth reel opens with a series of explosions that lead into the eruption of war and the conflict across Europe. This section shows frequent explosions, large scale artillery but also the experience of the ordinary soldier involved in trench warfare.

A title card informs us that

‘ 35 million people, killed, wounded or maimed.’

There are shots of the dead, often frozen corpses lying in the remains of trenches. There follows film of the wounded and of refugees, dead animal carcases and the firing of ‘wheat fields’. There is film of the efforts of the ruling class to recruit more soldiers to die on battlefields, assisted by the church. Women replace the mobilised workers in factories, producing more ammunitions for the front.

“The country was being ruined”

and we see queues and the results of shortages. This lead into 1917, and a particularly severe winter. There are shots of wind, snow and huddled figures in the streets.

Around the start of the fifth reel there is film of soldiers walking away from the front line. Title cards present the call of the Bolsheviks to workers and peasants:

“Everyone under the Red Banner of Revolution.”

There follow footage of mass demonstrations; of soldiers demonstrating in the streets and of delegates of workers soldiers and peasants gathering sat the Tauride Palace. The bourgeoisie form the Provisional Government: there are shots of the ministers, including Kerensky. The crisis increases:

“Moscow sides with Petrograd.”

And soldiers come over

“to the side of revolution.”

canone_05_romanov

Reel six offers film of the opposing forces, the new government of the ruling class and the increasing crowds of workers, soldiers and peasants. Footage of the police and military imply the attempts at suppression. Soldiers form people’s militias and patrol the streets. The abdication of

“Nicholas the Bloody’

is greeted by cheering crowds.

On March 23rd there is a massive demonstration at the funerals of workers killed by the government forces. At the Petrograd Soviet Lenin calls for

“All power to the Councils of Workers.”

Endorsed by the deputies of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies the February Revolution is accomplished. Final shots of crowds, banners and deputies shaking Lenin’s’ hand.

As can be seen the tempo of the film increases as it approaches the key events of 1917. The found footage serves purposes that would have [in most cases] not been in the mind of the producers. So Shub appears to select the footage, partly on the basis of what it shows and how, but in addition, on what the context of the film provides in added meaning. This is a dimension that marks out Shub’s work from earlier example of compilation or found footage use. At the same time her selection relies on the literal information in the footage, marking her techniques off from those of the other Soviet Documentarists in the Factory of Facts. This also means that the pace of her editing is overall slower, as she relies on viewers extracting the information in the footage before relating this to preceding or following shots. The editing uses continuity rather than discontinuity. And the chronicle proceeds in a linear fashion.

The analytical aspect of the film relies on the title cards, some showing contemporary reports, statements or slogans: some providing information/comment. Cuts from one piece of footage to another illustrates and supports these. Shub’s experiences in editing imported films appears to have also relied on the addition of title cards of dialogue or plot information alongside the re-editing of the film footage.

The screening used a 35mm print from Gosfilmofond with Russian titles, translated into English in a digital projection. The print was reasonably good. As would be expected the found footage in the print varied greatly in terms of quality: one assume this was the case at the time of the original selection and editing. There were also some racking problems with the print. And we enjoyed a piano accompaniment by Mauro Colombis, including I think some familiar tunes and themes appropriate to the subject.

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Shkurnyk / The Self-Seeker / The Story of a Philistine Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic/USSR 1929

Posted by keith1942 on September 17, 2016

self-seeker-3

The film was part of a programme at the 32nd Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, ‘Ukraine: The Great Experiment’. Under the All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Directorate  the Ukraine enjoyed a productive film industry in the 1920s. Moreover, because the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic enjoyed a degree of autonomy from  the central authorities in Moscow it had a distinctive features. In the last years of the decade there was a burst of experimental film making, often avant-garde. It also continued the radical political approach that was gradually losing ground in the Soviet Union as ‘socialist realism’ became a norm. Among the key films from this period are Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1928) and Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom 1929). After 1929 central control was asserted and the experimentation died away.

It is worth noting that whilst there was a distinctive Ukrainian approach to film and film content, it was still part of the Soviet Socialist Construction. The presentation at Il Giornate tended to stress Ukrainian differences and downplay the political. The best example of this is a comment in the Catalogue describing Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera as ‘apolitical’!

This is important in discussing The Self-Seeker. The film is a satire set during the Civil War (1918 – 1921]. It satirises both the opponents attempting to restore the old regime [aided by the USA, UK and France] but also the Reds, i.e. the forces of the new Soviet Union. This led to the film being banned by the central authorities:

“The Civil War is presented in the film only in terms of its dark ugly side. It shows only robbery, dirt, the stupidity of the Red Army and the local Soviet Authorities, etc. As result, a nasty lampoon on the reality of that time was produced.”

This seems to be a singular misreading of the film. Clearly it did not fit the heroic representation of the Reds in the Civil War which increasingly became the norm. But the film ends with victory by the Reds and with collectivised peasants reaping the harvest.

The film certainly makes fun of aspects of Soviet practices in the period, one of chaos, famine and dislocation. But it equally makes fun of those of the Whites, and it is the latter that actually commit atrocities in the film. Part of the film’s complexity is a critique of NEP-men, petty bourgeois entrepreneur’s (labelled philistines) who took advantage of the New Economic Policy of the 1920s. This introduced limited market activity, a contradiction to socialist construction and a political line that was hotly debated in the Soviet Union.

The title character is one Apollon, a ‘philistine’. Because he is always looking for a quick profit he is caught up in the conflict of the Civil War. At various times he is captured by the Reds and by the Whites. On each occasion he finds a way of making money even as he is dragooned into socialist or bourgeois activities. But on every occasion some Civil War action interrupts his profiteering. And at the end of the film he only survives through the good grace of a companion.

The companion is the brilliant stroke in the film, a two-humped [Bactrian) camel.

[Bactrian Camels are much less common than dromedary (one-hump). Bactrian camels are native to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.]

ucraina_07

 

 

The camel is commandeered at the same time as Apollon by retreating Reds: both are tied to a cart containing sugar, a rare commodity. Like Apollon the camel is tossed to and fro between the opposing forces. But, whilst Apollon is constantly having to dream up excuses or flee to safety, the camel adapts and survives. At one point he spits at a White NCO. On another occasion he surreptitiously drinks the forbidden hooch confiscated by a Soviet Committee. He several times saves Apollon at a crucial moment. And at the film’s end he is hailed by the celebrating peasants, liberated by the Reds and now returning to their harvest. They also involve him in this socialist work:

‘Although you are a hero, help us work.’

And this hero, at this point, once again saves Apollon from his just deserts. Many of the funniest sequences involve the Camel, who develops a persona equal to that of Apollon.

The satire on the Reds and on Soviet Commissars and Committees involves what can be seen as rather heavy-handed and ineffective restrictions. So at one point profiteers are bargaining for the sugar that is carried in the cart pulled by the camel. Meanwhile, a Soviet Committee debates halting ‘speculators and profiteers’, but the sugar is appropriated. Later we have a ‘struggle against hooch [illegal liquor]’. There is a more serious treatment of such campaigns in Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1930). But the Committee efforts are misdirected and vain.

The Whites are equally satirised. They veer from shooting Apollon as a Red to involving him in work in a military office. At one point the Whites HQ is sited in a monastery where the monks are salting away valuables. Apollon manages to acquire some of these but very soon loses them, with assistance from the camel.

There is one particular shot at the Whites HQ which probably did not meet with central Soviet approval. On the wall we see an anti-Red poster, dominated by a caricature which is obviously Leon Trotsky. His significant role in the Civil War was later erased when the opposition groups, including Trotsky, were subverted by Stalin and his supporters.

ucraina_08

 

The film also makes extensive use of the avant-garde techniques found in Soviet montage of the period. So, at times, we see fast and discontinuous editing. Much of the humour is achieved by unexpected cuts. The film uses iris shots, superimpositions and at one point a split screen. Moments of humour are also achieved by under-cranking and speeding up the film’s motion. So the film is inventively entertaining. The co-writer and director, Mykola Shpykovskyi, had worked in Moscow, including on the brilliant comedy Chess Fever (Shakhmatnaya goryachka 1925). At least two of his other films are also satirical comedies.

Il Giornate screened the film from a 2K DCP transferred from the 35mm original. The film had Ukrainian titles [with English translations]. As it was not released at the time no other titles were made. It seems it was only discovered in the archives of Gosfilmofond in the 1990s. The screening had a live accompaniment by Marcin Pukaluk. The fact that it is on DCP means that it is more likely to travel and be seen again.

My feeling is that it is a film supporting Socialist Construction. It would seem that the enmities and conflicts of the period meant the censors failed to grasp its full implications. However, there is now a risk that it will be seen as an anti-Soviet film, not I believe the case. It is certainly a brilliant satire and very, very funny. It is also an outstanding camel movie, an animal whose screen presence I always enjoy.

Stills courtesy of Il Giornate del Cinema Muto and Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev

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Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass / Entuziazm: Simfoniya Dombassa USSR 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on June 21, 2016

Enthusiasm poster

This is a documentary film directed by Dziga Vertov with Elizaveta Svilova and produced by the All-Ukrainian Photo and Film Administration. This was a pioneering experiment by Vertov and his comrades in the new sound technology. It is important to set out the production and the aims of this film classic as there has been a recent tendency to overlook or downplay the central aspects of the film’s original origin and purpose. When the film was made it was in the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Since 1991, what was known as the Donbass area became part of an independent Ukraine. And in the last few years it has been the site of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. In 1930s the Ukraine was a constituent part of the Soviet Union. The film has been billed in some performances as ‘a Ukrainian Documentary’. Yet its production and rationale was part of the Soviet project of Socialist Construction. Indeed, Vertov and his comrades had done their earlier work in Moscow for Sovkino. And their filming in the Ukraine was part of the political movement across the Soviet Union.

I saw the film in a 35mm print at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2005. The preceding year had seen a major retrospective at the Festival of the work of Vertov and his comrades in the Factory of Facts. The 2005 screening was unusual as we had a sound film at a Festival of silent film. But Enthusiasm was a transitional film. We were fortunate that the print was the version restored by Peter Kubelka in 1972 and which came from the Osterreichisches Filmmuseum. Kubelka’s restoration was primarily concerned with restoring the sound track and its relationship with moving images. However, we are now also getting screenings with live musical accompaniment to a version of this film. As will be apparent in the extracts from Vertov’s own writings below the main rationale of the film was to develop the use of sound, especially actual sound in documentary film. The production used newly developed system for sound recording by Alexander F. Shorin.  So screening the film without its soundtrack is somewhat odd. Indeed, when the film was screened at the London Film Society in 1931 Vertov, who accompanied the film, “Insisted on controlling the sound projection.”

Enthusiasm is a paean to the five-year plan which was seen as the main weapon in the ongoing Socialist Construction in the Soviet Union. The Giornate Catalogue sets out the overall shape of the film:

“As a whole, the film has a tripartite or ‘three-movement” form, as Vertov himself indicated in various talks and articles from the period. Beginning with n overture (Reels 1 and 2) on the elimination of all the old detritus impeding full socialist construction (specifically religion, alcoholism, and various tsarist residues) the film moves into a long middle section (Reels 3 through 5) that passes through many of the stages of heavy industrial production, from the initial call to industrialize, through mining, smelting, and the emergence of iron itself, culminating (in  Reel 6) in  a final ,movement, where the products of industrialization flow back to the USSR (most notably to the countryside) and are celebrated.” (Michael Loebenstein, 2005),

The style and techniques of the film are familiar from the earlier works of the Kinocs: montage, noticeable camera angles, superimpositions, split screens, changing focal lengths….. The sound includes actual sound recorded with the images, and commentative sound, sometimes asynchronous in a form of sound montage. In Kino-Eye The writings of Dziga Vertov, edited by Annette Michelson and translated by Kevin O’Brien (Pluto press, 1984), there is a descriptive outline of the film by Vertov, Symphony of the Donbass (Enthusiasm),

” I       A church with crosses, chimes, double-headed eagles, the tsar’s monogram and crown, with anathema pronounced against the Revolution, the pope, a religious crusade, drunkenness, brawling, women weeping, idlers, unconsciousness, broken heads and the moaning of the wounded with ‘God Save the Tsar,’ old women in a state of addiction, religious icons kissed, ladies in coats of Persian lamb, crawling on their knees, and other such shades of the past.

Transformed (not gradually, but in a revolutionary leap, with an explosion of crowns, crosses, icons, etc., with the shades of the past executed by the hurricane blaze of socialist factories),

into a club for factory youth with red stars, a revolutionary banner, with pioneers, Komsomols, a radio fan listening to the march,…”

Vertov’s writing also include a description of the Sound March (FROM THE FILM SYMPHONY OF THE DONBAS) which he constructed with  composer Timofeev,

“I         A clock is ticking.

Quietly at first. Gradually louder. Louder still. Unbearably loud (almost like the blows of  a hammer). Gradually softer, to a neutral  clearly audible level. Like a heart beating, only considerably stronger.

Footsteps approaching, climbing a staircase. They pass. The sound dies away. A clock is ticking. Again approaching footsteps. They come close. Stop. The clock ticks, like the beating of a heart.

The first sound of a tolling church bells. The reverberation dies out, giving way to the ticking of a clock. The thirds stroke of a church bell, gradually expanding into a feast-day carillon.

Fragmenting of the church service (the better known motifs) are commingled with the sound of the bells. The chimes, mingled with the motifs from the service, cannot maintain a solemnity for long. A note of irony appears. The solemnity is continually undercut. The religious motifs seem to dance about.

For a moment or two the sound disappear, replaced by the ticking of a clock, then once again waves of sound quickly begin to rise. A long, powerful factory whistle bursts in to meet and intercept them. After the first whistle, a second, then a third, sunder the music and the tolling. As if frightened, the sound slow down and come to a halt. Freeze. The church bell tinkles a last two times. All is quiet.”

Enthusiasm still

The ” radio fan listening to the march.” is an important image. In fact, almost immediately in the finished film, we are presented with a young women [from the Komsomol] wearing earphones and listening to a radio receiver. We return to her several times in the opening of the film. This brings a note of reflexivity into the film, a strand that is so important in the earlier Man With the Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom, 1929). Another sequence, even closer to usage in Man With a Movie Camera, is when we see the conductor, standing before the microphone, raising his baton to conduct the performance of the music that we hear on the soundtrack. Both point up another important strand in that film and across the work of Vertov and his comrades, the emphasis on radio. Alongside cinema this was the great new technology that provided a medium for the revolutionary contact with the mass of working people. it was especially important in working the peasants, where even as the Soviet Union developed its transport and electric power networks, was still often in less accessible places.

But the central message of the film is the first of the Soviet Union’s five year plans. Among the many sequences we see a number of groups of workers commit themselves to achieving and even overachieving the plan. Importantly many of these are ‘shock workers’, bought in to tackle, develop and increase production. These are the ‘enthusiasts’ which gives the film one of its titles. Unlike the earlier Man With the Movie Camera this film addresses the political line fairly uncritically. In fact the whole implementation of this plan was problematic, especially in the Ukraine, where there were unforeseen consequences, resistance and often silent opposition. The film features  a number of sequences of mass rallies, both by advanced workers and by masses of workers and the general populace. One can discern [read in?] a less committed participation in the latter scenes.

Looking back it is apparent that the emphasis in the plan and its successors was on technology and especially heavy industry. One criticism of the Bolshevik political line, especially in this period, is what is known as the ‘theory of productive forces’. This line varies from the main thrust in  Marx’s writings where the forces of productions can be seen to include not just technology but the social relations between the people using that technology. In Enthusiasm the emphasis is on workers’ and people’s behaviour but not on the underlying social relations. The film opens with the condemnation of religion, alcoholism and ‘other capitalist detritus’. But the organisation of labour power under capital is not addressed. In the sequences where the ‘shock workers’ address or are addressed the emphasis is on ‘working harder’, including Saturday working.

Marx proposed that there were three key divisions in society: that between town and country, that between the manual and intellectual labour and between men and women. The film certainly addresses the first and to a degree the last. But there is little on the second. In fact in several sequences there is a clear division between the ordinary workers performing or preparing for manual labour and the leading elite, who seem involved in intellectual or bureaucratic labour. But these divisions are addressed in the earlier Man With the Movie Camera.

enthusiasm-ORIGINAL

Whilst Enthusiasm enjoyed positive responses abroad it came in for much criticism at the time, both within and beyond the Soviet Union. Some Soviet criticism was political, some addressed the film’s ‘unconventional’ form and technique: at least unconventional in comparison with the developing line for ‘Socialist realism’. The film also suffered from production problems, possibly due in part to political opposition. And it seems that the surviving film was reduced to 1800 metres. Apparently Vertov had enough material for a film over 3,000 metres. Some of this was to have dealt with cultural and leisure aspects: an omission of issues which are extremely important in the political presentation in Man With a Movie Camera. Vertov’s career suffered as ‘Socialist realism’ became the main conventional film form. By 1939 he would write,

“I run my legs off, proposing one thing, then another.

And the audience watches and listens. And remains silent.

And I feel as if I’m way at the bottom.”

And Enthusiasm was forgotten, only to enjoy renewed interest in the 1960s. In 1972 the Osterreichisches Filmmuseum received a copy of the film from Gosfilmond. However, the soundtrack on the print appeared to be ‘out of sync’ with the image. It is thanks to Peter Kubelka that we can now enjoy a print in which the sound ‘actual and commentative’ is placed in correct relationship to the image.

Finally I feel impelled to comment on one line in some publicity for a screening, “Dziga Vertov’s avant-garde black and white film glorifies the Communist illusion…” In a decade in which we suffer the latest crises of capitalism this seems a bit rich. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of the context for the film and its subject. Vertov’s, and his comrades’, film work demonstrates an understanding and commitment to the liberation of the working classes. That is as relevant now as it was in 1931. The politics of the film are as important just as the soundtrack is important. One hopes that screenings of the film will allow audiences to enjoy and engage with the film in that way.

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Unexpected Eisenstein

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016

A sketch by Eisenstein for Ivan the Terrible

A sketch by Eisenstein for Ivan the Terrible

This is an exhibition at the Grad Gallery (Russian Art and Seeing) in Little Portland Street, near Oxford Street in London. The exhibition is sponsored by the Kino Klassika Foundation and curated by Ian Christie with the Exhibition Design by Calum Storrie and Katya Sivers. It is a small exhibition but very well researched and designed. I spent over an hour there and could have lingered longer if I had the time. The exhibition is themed around Sergei Eisenstein’s visit to London in 1929, part of a longer tour which took in Europe, the USA and [famously] Mexico.

The entrance contains a semi-circle of screens playing video film extracts: from Eisenstein’s classics Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin 1925) and October (Ten Days that Shook the World 1928): offering comparison between Alexander Nevsky (Aleksandr Nevskiy 1938) and the British Henry V (The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France 1944): and a montage of photographs, stills and clips around Eisenstein’s visit. You can spend quite a bit of time enjoying these stimulations.

The main exhibition consists of seven display tables. This are predominantly sketches and drawings by Eisenstein. And each table also has a wall mounted frame that explains background or context. Table one cover some early Eisenstein drawings for a possible production around the detectives Sherlock Holmes and Nick Carter, [the latter US character was extremely popular on film in this period]. Then on two we have designs for a production of ‘Macbeth’ in 1922. One is struck by the influences, especially cubism and constructivism. Those of Lady Macbeth are really powerful and struck me as suitable for the later Shostakovich opera, ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’.

Table three consists of erotic drawings around the notorious affair between the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. This occurred in London in the 1870s, so there is a connection. Eisenstein’s erotic drawings are a cause celebre: especially the later ones that he drew in Mexico and which were confiscated by US customs. Probably better there that in the USSR.

Table four is based on Alexander Nevsky. The wall frame includes the drawings showing the interaction between the images and the musical score by Prokofiev. These were included in Eisenstein’s’ The Film Sense (1943). There is also the intriguing story of a radio production based on the film and the music by the BBC in 1941. This was an event which led to the influence of Olivier’s film of Henry V.

Table six concerns Eisenstein’s childhood. There are early drawings, in particular a beautiful detailed and picaresque depiction of a queue. The notes record his admiration for the French artist Daumier, a favourite also for me.

Table seven has the drawings for Ivan the Terrible. Here there are sketches for a sequence involving Queen Elizabeth of England, another London Connection. This was never filmed but explains the comparison in the video display between this film and Orlando, [which follows].

There was also a wall-mounted monitor playing a short film by Mark Cousins on Eisenstein and D. H. Lawrence, the really great if sometime reactionary English novelist. And there is also a film by Derek Jarman Imagining October (1984).

The final piece in this exhibition was an audio recording available on MP3 players. The idea was to listen to the soundtrack, first watching the video displays and then taking a walk round the local area. We missed out the latter part when it started raining. The track,’ Eisenstein’s Circle’, comments on some of the London connections. But the bulk offers suggestive comments on the use of geometric symbols in Eisenstein’s’ work – circles, triangles and parallel lines. This was really interesting and I enjoyed it even without the walk round the vicinity.

This is a really stimulating exhibition, [it’s on until April 30th]. It is good to be reminded of Eisenstein’s artistic genius beyond cinema. And the London connection is fascinating. Connected with this is an event at the Regent Cinema in London around Eisenstein’s never completed ¡Que viva Mexico! (1932) on April 24th.

 

 

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The 34th Giornate del Cinema Muto

Posted by keith1942 on October 16, 2015

 

GCM_LOGO

This year’s festival ran from October 4th until the 11th. The weather was rather below par: cloudy most days, though we did get more sunshine towards the end of the week. But the content was well up to standard, though it was not one of the really great years: given the commitment to new or restored screenings, this is inevitable. But there were an awful lot of pleasures.

One of the stand-out events of the week was the screening of Chuji Tabinikki / A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (Japan, 1928). This was a cross between a Samurai and Yakusa films and originally ran for six hours; but only a 111 minutes survive, mainly from the second and third parts of the film. It was screened at an earlier Giornate, but this time we watched a restoration with tinting. We also enjoyed a Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka [the Japanese narrator of early cinema] with live accompanying music from the Otowaza ensemble. It helps to have seen the film before because the fragments from Part 2 need some explanation. However later sequences have beautifully set and filmed scenes in a Sake Brewery, with the protagonists surround by vast barrels  between which they and the camera work. Then there is the finale of the film. This is a long bravura sequence, with Chuji’s band fighting off the police and his mistress guarding the ageing warrior.

CHUJI_02

We had another restored film from an earlier programme Les Misérables (France 1925-26). This was directed by Henri Fescourt and is the longest screen version that I have seen of the novel. It is fairly faithful to the book and has an excellent cast. The film offers finely presented exteriors, though the interiors are not  quite as good. The weakest part is the Paris insurrection and barricades, where the later version  by Raymond Bernard is superior. It is an epic production running over six hours. The accompaniment for the whole screening was performed by Neil Brand, a performance a impressive as the film.

For me the best programme of films was Other City Symphonies. Generally shorter films, there were a number of fine examples which fell between documentary, poetic and essay films. De Steeg / The Alley (Netherlands 1932) was a study of a poor neighbourhood in Rotterdam. Another film from the Netherlands was Pierement / Barrel Organ (1931) which followed this instrument around a working class area. There was the well produced A Day in Liverpool UK 1929) sponsored by the Council and extolling the ‘virtues’ of the great city. And there was the first film  by the long-lived but now deceased Manoel de Oliveira Douro, Faina Fluvial / Labour on the Douro River |(Portugal 1931) this was possibly the most poetic of the films. There was one substantial documentary Weltstadt in Flegeljahren. Ein Bericht Űber Chicago / Chicago / A World City in its Teens. A Report on Chicago (Germany6 1931), running 74 minutes. This made fine use of the cinematography, both in conjuring up the urban architecture but also in placing the people in evocative positions. Generally these films were observational, though there were few sequences that appeared staged.

'The Alley'

‘The Alley’

Despite the title Russian Laughter was a programme of Soviet films. KinoKariera Zvonaria / A Bell-Ringer’s Film Career (1927) was a delightful two-reel comedy. As the title suggests the plot involves a film crew and their tale is told with real visual wit. Dva Druga, Model I Prodruga / Two friends, a Model and a Girlfriend (1928) was another engaging comedy. The ‘model’ was in fact a labour-saving machine and the humour revolved both around the machinations of an NEP villain and some less than socialist bureaucrats. Gosudarstvennyi Chinovnik / The State Official (1931) had appeared t the Giornate before but was interesting to revisit. More than most films it dramatised the politics of Socialism in One Country, with its plots by subversives and little attention to social relations. There was Serdtsa I Dollary / Hearts and Dollars (1924). The film was incomplete and appeared to be influenced by  the far superior The Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924). But apart from that I was non-plussed. It was either an avant-garde production  of extreme experimentation or there was something odd with the archival treatment. The plot was clearly out of sequence [decades before Jean-Luc] and event the title cards numbers were out of sequence. Clarifications appreciated.

The featured director was Victor Fleming. I enjoyed the familiar Mantrap 1926). This is Clara Bow’s best role on film, which is presumably why Kevin Brownlow used a film still in the titles for his great Hollywood series. There were two early films featuring Douglas Fairbanks, offering excellent humour. And there were two new titles for me, To the Last Man (1923) and Wolf Song (1929). Both has excellent photography and some beautifully realised scenes out in the wild west. The former had Richard Dix in a typical role: the latter the young Gary Cooper, looking quite beautiful. His co-star, Lupe Velez responded with the most palpitating bosoms I can remember seeing for  a long time.

The canine performance of the week – one of very few this year – was a Border Collie, Jean, in Ramona (USA 1928). The actual film was rather lacking in drama, apart from one great scene with Dolores del Rio in the title role. The talented dog graced innumerable scenes and displayed an uncanny ability to select the key position in the frame at any time. However, the film was less careful: parted from her mistress Jean only re-appeared in the final scene, quieting my worries. However, her journey there was missing from the plot.

'Ramona ', with Jean well placed in the foreground.

‘Ramona ‘, with Jean well placed in the foreground.

A slightly odder programme was Italian Muscle In Germany. These were films made in Germany featuring Italian actors: ‘muscle men’. The most entertaining was Mister Radio (1924). The star was Luciano Albertini. The film was set in an Alpine setting and utilised rock climbing and mountainous locations. The mountaineering was the most bizarre I have ever seen on film, the Everest climbers would have been petrified. And the film cut between actual locations and studio constructions. As long as one did not take it seriously it was very entertaining. The Invincible / Der Unȕberwindliche (1928) was a rather limp sequel. Familiar locations appeared but with little connection to the plot; presumably the crew just loved these sets.

Special events included Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful Romeo und Julia im Schnee / Romeo and Juliet in the Snow (Germany 1920). This feature looked great as well. And to end the week we had a digital version of The Phantom of the Opera (USA 1925) with Lon Chaney. This has a violent but terrific ending, rather unusual for Hollywood at the time. And a real treat – Hal Roach’s The Battle of the Century (1927). This long-lost Laurel and Hardy has a splendid second reel involving [apparently] 3,000 pies. Let your imagination work.

BATTLE_05

I missed a number of screenings as I was recovering from an operation. And some of the features are best passed over in silence. Also I want to address the tribute to African-American Bert Williams separately. There were some Latin-American short films and features. However the main offering from Mexico, El Automóvil Gris / The Grey Automobile (1919), a crime story in 12 episodes, was restored and presented on digital. I had seen the films before, un-restored, however my memory was that they looked a lot better on 35mm. The DCP lacked definition and the tinting had an odd palette. About half the Festival was delivered on digital formats. Some of these were excellent, but  a number were not. So it is frustrating to watch digital when 35mm prints are available. Moreover, even when 4K is used in the process, many of these films are presented in 2K DCPs. The latter do not appear to have equivalent definition  or contrast to 35mm.

If some of the source material was of lower quality the music was not. We had most of the regular accompanists performing and two new members. Predominately the music was excellent and mainly avoids the pitfall of over-powering the films. This Festival was also the last with David Robinson as director. So he received a well-deserved Tribute and applause from the Giornate audience.

 

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival – finale.

Posted by keith1942 on September 21, 2015

Anzac Cove.

Anzac Cove.

Sunday morning returned us to World War I. The scene was set with a presentation on how film had treated the ill-fated Gallipoli failure. This was an event on which troops from the then empire – especially Australia and New Zealand – suffered heavy casualties. It is even now a day of remembrance in Australia. We watch several aspects including two films based [rather differently]] on the same book by Ernest Raymond. One was the relatively recent Gallipoli (1981) following the fate of two Australian recruits. The second was from a 1930 sound film, Tell England. A recent film, The Water Diviner (2014) also deals with these events: interestingly it provides much space and a certain sympathy for the Turkish combatants: not noticeable in the earlier films.

Tell England was also the morning feature. This was filmed by British Instructional Films and directed by Anthony Asquith. Asquith is a much neglected British director. His earlier silent films are very fine, and so is this early sound film. His output in the 1930s is less distinguished which is presumably down to the failings of the British industry. Whilst some of the sound sequences are clichéd there are stand-out action sequences. The most impressive is one featuring the allied landings, which intercuts specially filmed material with ‘found footage’ from 1915. Asquith’s early films show the influence of Soviet cinema, which he presumably saw at the London Film Society. There are examples in editing and montage in this film: and Asquith not only learnt from the techniques of Soviet filmmakers, but also clearly comprehended their use of montage. There are three listed cameramen, Jack Parker, Stanley Rodwell and James Rogers, and their black and white cinematography is extremely well done. The editor is Mary Fields and she also was obviously a fine talent.

After lunch we had a presentation on Early British Advertising Films. These ranged from 1903 to 1947. We saw scotch, matches, boot polish soap, railways, cycling and hot drinks. The early ones ran for under a minute. Then oddly there was a period of extended advertisements of several minutes, reverting in the 1950s to the earlier and shorter length. This is what we suffer today. The blessed aspect of early adverts is the absence of sound. I tend to think that the dialogue and commentary in contemporary adverts is somewhat worse than the images.

A 1920s advert.

A 1920s advert.

The last two films in the programme had already featured at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto. So, being fairly wacked, I am afraid I missed them. The first is a very fine late Scandinavian silent, Ragens Rike (The Kingdom of Rye, 1929). This is a rural drama with fine location filming: one of the pleasures of Swedish silent cinema.

The final film was Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1929 Arsenal. This is a classic of Soviet cinema, always worth revisiting. The film had a newly prepared electronic score by Guy Bartell. I have to ask friends how they found it. I trained back to Leeds, tired but replete.

This was a rewarding four days, and extremely well delivered. I did have some minor reservations, which are worth airing because they seem to me to be on the increase. The advance programmes did not have information on formats. One of the helpful De Montfort organisers provided me with a partial list. But even in the programme notes it was not always clear what format would be screened: there were 35mm, DCPs and DVDs. With some of the films from elsewhere it apparently was not always certain what format would arrive. But the bulk of the programme came from the BFI, so there must have been certainty in these cases. There is a mistaken assumption that watching digital is the same or better than celluloid. I thought, as with the Hitchcock silents and on this occasion with the Keaton, that this is not the case.

The notes on 35mm did provide frame rates. But this was not the case with DCPS. The sound films would run at 24 fps, but what happens with silents. FIAF has now provide specifications for silent running rates on digital: but there seems to be very little usage of these in the UK.

And none of the notes provided aspect ratios. This was a particular problem because early sound films tended to be in 1.33:1 with the framing reduced by the added soundtracks. And there was apparent frequent cropping in the 35mm sound prints. These require appropriate projection plates and lenses, which I assume the Phoenix do not have. But it would have been good to have been forewarned about this.

One of Leeds' 100 year-old cinemas.

One of Leeds’ 100 year-old cinemas.

Still my views are predominately positive and hopefully there will be future silent festivals. So I wanted to add two suggestions. One is that by number nineteen it will be long overdue to have a festival in the North of England. Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle and Sheffield could all provide excellent venues. And my own city of Leeds could also do so: and there are in or nearby the city five working cinemas that a hundred years ago were already exhibiting the films that are the subject of these festivals. We could also have an overdue appreciation of Louis Le Prince.

My other suggestion is regarding content. The films were fine, but I did weary slightly of the uncritical patriotism. It would be good to have early films from the Socialist and Labour Movements. Groups like Kino and the Film and Photo League continued making silents into the 1930s. And there were talented and interesting filmmakers like Ivor Montagu and Ralph Bond. Some of these films certainly survive, even if only in their original 16mm format. Wheel them out?

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival – Day 3.

Posted by keith1942 on September 19, 2015

An example of a Windjammer.

An example of a Windjammer.

Saturday had a distinct maritime flavour. We opened with the 1930 Windjammer. Loraine Porter introduced the film and we learnt that the project started as a film record of a voyage of Grace Harwar from Australia to England carrying grain. The voyage rounded the Cape Horn, so it was long and arduous. A.J. Villiers, [author of a book By Way of Cape Horn) recorded the voyage with cameraman Gregory Walker: who died near the voyage’s end. They filmed at silent speed, though it is not clear if it was a hand-cranked camera. After the voyage Villiers attempted to get the record released as a film. The first attempt failed, but there was more success with Wardour Films and it was released in a sound version. This unfortunately led to a disappointing version. The on-ship footage is often impressive, but only about 2,000 foot [a third of the total] made it into the 58 minute release. The rest was a sort of dramatic addition, filmed either in a studio or on the port-moored ship. This offered the poor sound and dramatic qualities of the early thirties. And the silent footage was speeded up, maybe from 20 to 24 fps? Villiers also suffered because he had great difficulties in getting any share of the income, which was less than the production and release costs. A missed opportunity unless someone can find surviving footage.

the RMS Lusitania

The RMS Lusitania

Following this there was background and film examples about the notorious sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. There were some particular interesting examples of the use of animation for wartime propaganda. The session then offered Imperial War Museum material on Lord Kitchener: a chance for landlubbers to regain their feet. I was fascinated to learn that Kitchener was possibly gay and involved in such a relationship.

After lunch we had more water with Buster Keaton and his Steamboat Bill Jnr (1928). Some of my friends were very taken with this digital version, [which is getting a UK general release]. I found it had that flat surface patina that is a problem with digital versions. The better side of the session was Neil Brand, first talking about Keaton, and then providing a sparkling accompaniment.

After tea – the refreshment breaks were frequent and well done – we had another early sound film, The Great Game from British Instructional Films (1930). The ‘great’ game was football. The film effectively combined fictional dramatic sequences with actual footage, including Wembley and the FA Cup. The plot was fairly generic, and included a young footballer trying to make the first team. But the central conflict was in the Board Room, twixt Chairman and Manager. Rather nicely, and presumably reflective of currents in the 1930s, the emphasis was on the team. Surprisingly for me, it was also a period with debates about transfer fees, which made it seem quite up-to-date.

The actual FA Cup 1930.

The actual FA Cup 1930.

The afternoon finished with another Soviet feature, The Cosmic Voyage (1936). This originally had a synchronised score but had an electronic accompaniment at the Phoenix. It had also been screened at the previous Giornate del Cinema Muto. This science fiction feature offered a preview of a coming Soviet Moon shot, with impressive designs and construction, whilst aiming for a scientifically based view of the future.

In the evening the Festival moved to Leicester Cathedral and the new tomb of Richard Third. The film, Jane Shore (1915), was set during the Yorkshire vs. Lancaster Wars of the Roses. Richard, as villain rather than hero or wise monarch, appears in the film. The film’s notable appeal is in the use of location settings with large numbers of extras. The version screened also had the original tinting restored. And there was a live accompaniment by Orchestra Celeste. So the day ended land-bound again.

Jane Shore booklet

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival – Day 2.

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2015

Maurice Elvey - the film director.

Maurice Elvey – the film director.

The Friday was devoted to silent films and included some titles from Europe. We opened with a film by the British director Maurice Elvey, The Rocks of Valpre (1919). Elvey was a prolific but uneven filmmaker. This however was one of his finer films. Unfortunately there were at least two, probably three, missing sequences. However, the film followed fairly closely [I was advised] the adapted novel by Ethel M Dell and even with plot ellipsis it was possible to make sense of events. What distinguished the film was the locations [partly filmed in Torbay though set in France) and the style, with distinctive use of iris, shot placement and cutting. And there was a fine piano accompaniment by Neil Brand.

There followed Not for Sale from the Stoll Company (1924). The film was scripted by Lydia Hayward who has featured in earlier festivals with adaptations of stories by W. W. Jacobs. This was early example of the ‘romcom’ or romantic comedy. Ian Hunter plays a rich aristocrat, Lord Denny, whose spindrift ways are bought to a sudden halt by his father. He is forced to find paid employment and moved from a Mayfair flat to a lower class boarding house run by Anne (Mary Odette). Hunter played the lighter comic touch well and there were many engaging scenes and, as you might expect, economic and romantic travails. The film also enjoyed a suitably light accompaniment from John Sweeney.

Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter

The day also saw two films on which the young Alfred Hitchcock worked at the London studio of Famous-Players. Hitchcock is credited with the film titles, though none of the actual title cards survive. Charles Barr provided introductions to the films and a possible relationship to the body of Hitchcock’s full directorial work. The Man From Home (1922) followed a young US heiress on a European tour and mainly set on the Italian Rivera. The plot was fairly generic and predictable, with the young heiress and her brother tempted astray by continental fortune seekers. But the production values of this US company were notable. The second film from the same studio was a unusual, bizarre example. Three Live Ghosts (1922) only survives in a re-edited version from the Soviet Union and Gosfilmofond. In the 1920s films from the capitalist west were frequently changed through editing and titling to accord better with the socialist values of the new Republic. There were performances of Intolerance (1916|) with added live choral inserts to improve the film. And Eisenstein, whilst learning his craft with Esfir Shubb, did some re-editing on films by Fritz Lang. Unfortunately whoever worked on this film was not of the same calibre. The changes relied almost wholly on new titles and the plotting was confusing and the political comment simplistic to say the least. However, it is a rare example of a uncommon cinematic form. We also enjoyed a fine Swedish import, Den Starkaste / The Strongest (1929). The films had previously been screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2013, but this fine production is worth several viewings. It is partly a romantic drama, but much of the film involves arctic voyages and hunts, and the quality of the settings and cinematography is admirable. Stephen Horne provided a suitable and lyrical musical accompaniment.

Ivan Mosjoukine.

Ivan Mosjoukine.

The evening screening was Michel Strogoff (1926). This was one of the French films involving Russian émigrés in the 1920s. It stared Ivan Mosjoukine, a really charismatic actor of the silent era. A Siberian adventure based on a Jules Verne novel, one of the attractions of this film version was the use of Pathecolor [a stencil colour process] for a dramatic sequence. It was also an epic, running 169 minutes.

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[The] Man With a Movie Camera/Chelovek S Kinoapparatom, USSR 1919.

Posted by keith1942 on August 25, 2015

Vertov32

This Soviet classic has been re-released by the BFI on a DCP: sadly there is not a 35mm print available. However, it is a good transfer and the source is high quality: also as the recommended frame rate is 24 fps there is not a problem with step-printing or running too fast. The actual print used is from the Nederlands Filmmuseum. This was screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2004. It is the most complete print known of the film. The original release was 1839 metres, this version is 1785 metres. It includes the chapter divisions which the author Dziga Vertov and his colleagues used in the film. The digital version now on release is a restoration by the Eye Institute and Lobster Films. Both are in the forefront of archival work on early cinema. Moreover the restoration has taken the opportunity to re-instate at least some of the missing footage. Included is the following:

“the one that shows, point blank, the moment a baby is being delivered , the most direct manifestation of Vertov’s direct cinema, which may be the reason that it has been censored from the Dutch print.” (Yuri Tsivian in the 2004 Giornate Catalogue).

Tsivian also explain the ‘provenance’ of the print. An opening title provides this information on the DCP. Dziga Vertov visited Western Europe early in the 1930s. He bought with him a print of the film from the Soviet Union and this was the print retained in the Nederlands. Apart from the importance of providing an almost complete version of the film this also provides a parallel with another important Soviet filmmaker. The most complete surviving print of Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) is the version that Sergei Eisenstein and his colleagues bought with them to London and which was screened at the London Film Society with Edmund Meisel leading the musical accompaniment composed for the release in Germany.

Vertov and Eisenstein had rather different approaches to film and both were inclined to express their approaches with decided emphasis. In fact there were frequent and sometimes volatile disputes among the Soviet artists in this period: not surprisingly as they grappled with the form and style appropriate to the new society and new culture. Yuri Tsivian discusses the feud in the seminal study, Lines of Resistance Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (2004, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto). He suggests that there may have been a personal dimension to the arguments. That may be, but it would seem that in fact these two leading filmmakers had as much in common as they did in difference. I was struck revisiting Man with a Movie Camera by shots, especially in industrial settings, that reminded me of the films of Eisenstein, especially Strike (Stachka, 1924). Moreover, their use of montage has more in common than, say, that of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Both Vertov and Eisenstein were concerned to record reality, but also to address the social relations involved in that reality. Their major difference was that Eisenstein tended towards dramatisation: Vertov emphasised that of the record. Eisenstein’s reflexive techniques aimed to position the audience in relation to the film: Vertov’s use of reflexivity aimed to draw the audience into the tapestry of the film itself. It struck me that just as among cinematic pioneers the Lumières are seen as proponent of actuality and Méliès of fiction, so in political cinema these two great artists can be seen as parallel proponents of two approaches, to a degree complementary.

A main title credits Dziga Vertov as “Author and Supervisor”, not as frequently printed in reviews and commentaries, ‘director’. He was the lead comrade in a movement of ‘kinocs’:

” We call ourselves kinoks as opposed to “cinematographers,” a herd of junkmen doing rather well pedalling their rags.” [Annette Michelson adds a footnote}, (“Cinema-eye men”). A neologism coined by Vertov, involving a play on the words kino (“cinema” or “film”) and oko, the latter an obsolescent and poetic word meaning “eye”.” (Kino-Eye, 1984)

Vertov27

A trio of kinocs were key to the filmography attributed to Vertov in the 1920s, though other comrades also contributed: the collective were also known by the title Factory of Facts. Aside from Vertov there was the cameraman Mikhail Kaufman and the editor Elizaveta Svilova: both of the latter are key to the final film. We not only see Kaufman repeatedly within the frame, but his positioning and framing with the camera contribute greatly to the visual impact. And Svilova, also seen several times in the film, produced [under Vertov’s supervision] the dazzling sequences of shots that compose the film.

Man with a Movie Camera is composed of seven reels and the Nederlands print retains the numbered divisions between parts. There is the Introduction and then the following six sections. The film opens with the Credits, importantly this stresses that this is a film

‘WITHOUT THE HELP OF INTERTITLES’

and a film

‘WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCRIPT’.

The collective’s earlier films had made extensive use of title cards. One of the radical aspects in Kino Pravda was the use of title cards, often carefully designed by fellow constructivists. In fact, as one critic, Khrisanf Khersonsky, pointed out:

“A film without intertitles, says Vertov. But this is not true [either]. There are various kinds of intertitles, and what, if not intertitles, are the shots of, for example,: a sign on a church saying ‘Workers’ Club’, an urn with the words ‘Citizen, keep things Tidy’, edited into a sequence of a girl washing, shop[ signs and so on.” [The majority of these are translated in the DCP by English subtitles]. (Lines of Resistance).

But the status in the film of a title card and of words within a frame is different. This distinction re-enforces the emphasis on the recording of reality, and avoiding the didactic commentative card. Something similar applies to the claim regarding the absence of a script. Vertov and his colleagues were criticised for not producing scripts before a production. The State financing body Goskino [which fired these filmmakers] relied on this to allocate resources. In fact, Vertov did produce ‘analyses’ beforehand: though much less detailed than a printed script. Indeed it is apparent that there is an overall structure to the film and that the relationship of parts to other parts and to the whole is very carefully worked out and calculated.

The film introduces itself in an extremely reflexive manner. We enter a film theatre, the projectionist prepares the print, the audience enters and the musicians appear. Now the film ‘proper’ begins, on the screen within a screen. This is kino-eye:

“When The Man with a Movie Camera was made, we looked upon the project in this way: … we raise different kinds of fruit, different kinds of film; why don’t we make a film on film-language, the first film without words, which does not require translation into another language …” (Kino-Eye, 1984).

We now enter the world of the cameraman, Mikhail Kaufman, but it is both the world of the cinematic collective and the larger world, the Soviet Union and its attempts to build a new society. In fact, there would have been several cameramen involved in the filming, since we frequently see the cinematographer himself in the frame. It is also a camera of record, sometimes apparent to the subjects, sometimes apparently not.

“To be able not to act [the requirement for documentary] – one will have to wait a long time until the subject is educated in such a way that he won’t pay any attention to the fact that he is being filmed. …

Following that line of thought I constructed a sort of tent, something like a telephone booth, for Man with a Movie Camera. There has to be an observation point somewhere. So I made myself up as a telephone repairman. There weren’t any special lenses, so I went out and bought a regular camera and removed the deep-focus lens. Standing of to the aside I could still get things very close up …” (Interview in Imaginary Reality, 1984).

At other times the cinematographer is emphatically in the frame. Lying by rail tracks to film an oncoming train: climbing up a tall tower to film from its top: standing in tram tracks in order to catch the approaching or retreating vehicles.

Vertov29

The first of six sections introduces us to the city and its people. This is the start of the day, we see silent buildings and empty streets. Gradually people rise and commence the day.

The second section shows us the city in full swing. People are active, machines move: the trams, a frequent sight, move round the city. And the urban crowds commence their activities.

The third section shows us Svilova at work, editing the film. Then we see various cultural actions: weddings, divorces, birth, death and funeral’s We also see the treatment of the victim of an accident and a fire brigade racing through the streets.

The fourth section shows labour processes in full swing. There is a contrast between cosmetic activity for women and women involved in manual labour. We see both business activity, such as a telephone switchboard, and the heavy manual labour underground in a mine.

With the fifth section formal productive labour comes to a halt. The section’s focus is on cultural and leisure activities. These include entertainments, sport and beach activities.

The final sixth section brings an overt political focus to the film. There are shots of both Lenin and Marx: and shots of the Soviet Workers’ Clubs: we see a woman shooting. Another image references the rise of the fascist threat. The key image is a collapsing Bolshoi Theatre, using superimpositions. Tsivian comments on this:

“Along with some other innocuous objects and artefacts from the Imperial era, soon after 1917 the Bolshoi was caught in a process which I venture to call “revolutionary symbolization”. In some cases – like ours – this symbolization could take the form of symbolic destruction …” (Lines of Resistance).

Vertov28A

This final section also included references to radio, another technological and cultural form that was extremely important in the Socialist State. For the Kinocs radio was an important component for their new language: the next film produced by Vertov was Enthusiasm (Symphony of the Don Basin / Entuziazm, 1931), which used sound alongside the visual components in an extremely adventurous manner. Vertov, in an article on the film, commented,

“[My article] … speaks of Radio-eye as the destruction of the distance between people, as the capacity of workers of the entire world not only to see but simultaneously to hear one another.” [in Lines of Resistance].

But the most important component in this final section is the return to the audience we encountered in the Introduction. An increasing tempo alternates shots of the cameraman, shots by the cameraman and shots of the audience watching in the theatre. So that the film resolves itself finally with a reflexive manner which aims to involve audiences in the tapestry of the film.

The music track on the DCP is provided by The Alloy Orchestra. They provided the accompaniment at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, though on this occasion the print screened was from the George Eastman House. The Alloy Orchestra went back to the musical notations that Dziga Vertov provided for the original screenings. These were translated for the occasion by Yuri Tsivian:

“Vertov’s handwritten notes outlining a “music scenario for The Man With a Movie Camera – five pages of guidelines mapping out what kind of music Vertov wanted to go with what sequence. These written notes were intended to help three composers employed by the Music Council of Sovkino for the cue sheets they were supposed to write for an orchestra assigned to play for the film during the opening night on April 9, 1929;

[there is Verov’s] permanent tendency to start a sequence with conventional music steadily growing into the pandemonium of noises, his desire to “freeze” music, reverse it or make it sound “slow-motion” in the same manner as films shot do …” (Griffithiana 54 , October 1995).

This is the performance that The Alloy recreate for the DCP. However, whilst I remember the use of noises, both productive and human, in the 1995 performance I think they have taken advantage of digital technology to add to these.

One of the strongest impressions from the film is the almost frenetic pace of the editing. Shot constantly follows shot. Some of these offer some sense of continuity, many suggest counterpoint and discontinuity. The influence of Kuleshov’s ideas on montage appear: as the film constructs a series of images that are actually separated by time and space: the weddings utilise film shot both in Odessa and Moscow.

The framing of Kaufman’s camera work is impressive. The film uses a range of camera shots and of editing techniques as varied as any in this period of cinema. Annette Michelson describes the film thus:

“This film, made in the transitional period immediately preceding the introduction of sound and excluding titles, joins the human life cycle with the cycles of work and leisure of a city from dawn to dusk within the spectrum of industrial production. That production includes filmmaking (itself presented as a range of productive labour processes), mining, steel production, communications, postal service, construction, hydro-electric power installation and the textile industry in a seamless organic continuum, whose integrity is continually asserted by the strategies of visual analogy and rhyme, rhythmic patterning, parallel editing, superimposition, accelerated and decelerated motion, camera movement – in short, the use of every optical device and filming strategy then available to film technology. …. ‘the activities of labour, of coming and going, of eating, drinking and clothing oneself,’ of play, are seen as depending upon the material production of ‘life itself’. (Introduction in Kino-Eye).

Whilst the film’s editing is distinctive even in Soviet cinema, there are parallels to other film works. I have mentioned the parallels with the editing of Lev Kuleshov and in industrial shots with Eisenstein’s films. In part four we see shots of a spinning machine which parallels Eisenstein’s shots of a cream separator in The General Line / Old and New (Generalnaya Linya / Staroye i Novoye, 1929). The frequent tram shots at one point reminded me of Boris Barnet’s fine The House on Trubnaya Square (Dom na Trubnoi, 1928).

Vertov31

The film, as was often the case with the films from the collective, provoked furious discussion. Vertov records screenings followed by discussions in the Ukraine. Tsivian in his volume provides the record of such a discussion as well as the varied responses to the film in print.

“[The Society of friends of Soviet Cinema] The discussion became extraordinarily sharp only around the middle of the evening. It was the film’s ideological aim that suffered the greatest bombardment.

“The authentic life of the country is not shown in the film,” said the Editor of the magazine Ekran. “This comes about because the predominant role in the film is played exclusively by the form, good stunts, excellent montage, and … nothing else.”

Comrade Berezovsky’s words were disputed by Comrade Gan, The film poses problems of the way of thinking man in society far more seriously than it is posed in all our feature films, with their deliberately emphatic interpretation of the world.” (Lines of Resistance).

Vertov’s films, like some of the other avant-garde art of the period, was found really challenging: now, when so many filmmakers, have followed his example, the work can be more accessible. However, the debate also reflected the contradictions of opposing political lines in Soviet art, a debate that reflected the more fundamental struggle between political lines in the party and leadership. Sadly, the radical elements lost out and were increasingly suppressed in the following decade. So that Vertov, though he made at least two more fine films, was not able to produce anything equally radical in the following years. It is worth noting that this was the final collaboration between Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman: the latter was less impressed with the overall structure and complexity of the final film,. He went on to direct documentary films himself.

If the form and style of the film is more appreciated in the contemporary world of cinema there is frequently a less intelligible response to the political and ideological line of the film. In 2013, under the title Ukraine: The Great Experiment, Il Giornate del Cinema Muto offered a programme of other radical films produced in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in the late 1920s. The Catalogue entry by Ivan Kzolenko made a reference to the work of the Kinocs in the Ukraine, commenting

“But not by chance was the totally apolitical Man with a Movie Camera different from Vertov’s other agit-films.”

I find this comment difficult to equate with the film that I have seen a number of times. As Tsivian argues in Lines of Resistance the film is the accumulation of a decade of experimentation by the Kinocs group. And it is an intensely political work, the treatment of the Bolshoi Theatre above is a single example. Tsivian also provides a longer discussion of how the film exemplifies the analysis of Karl Marx. One example is a series of shots of coal mines and aerial conductors:

“Vertov tried to connect inside the viewers’ mind, the production of coal – the economic cause – with the economic effect: the production of electricity”.

Tsivian also offers parallel examples from earlier films. He continues,

“What all three exemplify is that, early one, the ambition of Vertov’s cinema becomes not to show, but to think – that is, to disclose invisible connections between things.” (Both in Lines of Resistance).

Vertov23

So Man with a Movie Camera is not merely [as Comrade Berezovsky comments] an exhilarating bag of tricks and technical devices. As Comrade Gan argued it offers an ‘interpretation’ of the world. And the world in question is the world of Socialist Construction, still a relevant concept in 1929. The structure of the film offers the processes of labour and of the labourers. Included in this is the labour process of film itself. Annette Michelson points out how,

“Vertov seems to take or reinvent The German Ideology [which he would not have read] as his text, for he situated the production of film in direct and telling juxtaposition to that other particular sector, the textile industry, which has for Marx and Engels a status that is paradigmatic within the history of material production” (Introduction in Kino-Eye).

Man with a Movie Camera is a film about social relations, and that includes the underlying social relations that are not apparent to the superficial surface viewpoint [i.e. ideological]. Hence the film continuously cuts between the variety of social relations, productive, cultural and personal, in modern society. And in the final section the audience, that is the ‘workers and peasants’ of the Soviet Union, are integrated into that tapestry of relations. So the film is propaganda in the socialist sense, advanced ideas for advanced workers.

In pointing to this it must be noted that there is an unexplored space in the film: agriculture and the peasantry. This part of the socialist state had been explored in some of the earlier films of the Kinocs. But the focus in this film is entirely urban. Given that the 1929 is a key year in the introduction of collectivisation: Eisenstein’s compelling The General Line / Old and New treats the issue: this is an analysis that needed treatment, either in the film or separately.

The film does fall into the category of City Symphonies: and one comparison frequently drawn is with Ruttman’n’s Berlin: Symphony of a City(Berlin: Die Sinfonie einer Gross-stadt, 1927). However, these two films offer vastly different treatments and approaches, partly explained by Berlin being a centre of Capitalist relations whilst the Soviet cities were parts of an ongoing Socialist project. One key difference is the treatment of people. My memories of Berlin are of a series of abstract buildings and spaces: last time I viewed it I was surprised to see that there are quite a number of urban citizens in the film. Man with a Movie Camera is centrally about the people who inhabit these cities and their relations to each other and to the buildings and machinery that surround them.

Vertov24

The 2013 Giornate Catalogue makes one valid point:

“The fact that the film was made in Odessa and partly in Kyiv and Kharkiv is often mistakenly disregarded by researchers.”

In fact some publicity for the re-release [not the BFI’s] mistakenly referred to ‘filmed in Moscow’. Vertov and his fellow Kinocs had already filmed The Eleventh Year (Udynadsiatyi, 1928) for the All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Directorate. The films funded by Goskino in Moscow had increasingly been subjected to criticism, both for the working practices and the films’ treatments. As the 2013 programme demonstrated there was a radical space for film in the Ukraine at the end of the 1920s. So much of Kaufman’s work was filmed in the Ukrainian cities. However, following the continuing practice of using ‘found footage’ there is also Moscow footage, presumably from earlier films or film out-takes.

These circumstances remind us that the film was one of the great expressions of Socialist art in the 1920s: but a Socialist Art that was under attack from what is best described as reformist cultural values. Vertov was well aware that his film did not exactly fit the developing cinematic values in the Soviet Union.

“The film Man with a Movie Camera is an experimental film, and as such may not immediately be understood and may be destroyed in the days immediately following the completion of the auhtorial montage.” (Lines of Resistance).

As an experimental film it has exerted an immense influence, including on filmmakers who did not necessarily share the Kinocs’ socialist values. But those values are equally central to the quality of the film. Vertov writes, detailing material from the film, of this ‘visual symphony’,

All this … – all are victories, great and small, in the struggle of the new with the old, the struggle of revolution with counterrevolution, the struggle of the cooperative against the private entrepreneur, of the club against the beer hall, of the athletes against debauchery, dispensary against decease. All this is a position won in the struggle for the Land of the Soviets, the struggle against a lack of faith in socialist construction.

The camera is present at the great battle between two worlds:… (Kino-Eye).

Imagining Reality The Faber Book of Documentary, Edited by Kevin MacDonald and Mark Cousins, Faber and Faber, 1984

Kino-Eye The Writings of Dziga Vertov, Edited by Annette Michelson and Translated by Kevin O’Brien, Pluto Press 1984.

Lines of Resistance Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, Edited by Yuri Tsivian, Le Giornate Dell Cinema Muto, 2004.

Griffithiana was a Journal published jointly by a Cineteca del Friuli and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Stills courtesy of Il Giornate del Cinema Muto 2004.

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By the Law / Po zakonu / Dura Lex, USSR 1926

Posted by keith1942 on August 11, 2015

The prospectors

The prospectors

One critic described this film, from the Kuleshov Collective, as a ‘constructivist western’. It was adapted from a short story by Jack London by Viktor Shklovsky and Lev Kuleshov; the latter also directed the film. The plot of the film adheres fairly closely to London’s story, though there are three significant changes. The film follows from the admiration of many Soviet artists for the work of Jack London and also from a strong interest in US culture, including Hollywood film genres. These were seen as possessing a real dynamism and an embrace of many aspects of modernism.

The setting is the Yukon during the late C19th gold rush. There are only five characters, though the film adds a dog. Four men and a woman, all prospecting for gold. The original story also features Indians/Native Americans, though their role is subordinate. The film jettisons them completely. There was an opening shot of the execution of an Indian, which was left out. This is a desolate landscape for much of the time – from summer, through winter, to spring – frozen hard. The only additions to the harsh terrain are a cabin and the mine workings. For the film the exteriors were actually shot not far from Moscow.

It is very interesting to remember how the outdoor shooting in By the Law took place. We had to be in time to catch the ice flows thawing in the spring. We had a house built on the shore of the snowy river bank, and this house had to be flooded with water when the ice came into contact with it. …

First, it was necessary to work on the ice all the time. The actors’ hands and feet were scratched and bleeding. (Kuleshov).

In fact this was a low budget film, the only reason it was made. There was the small cast and few settings. Even then the production worked sparsely. The screenplay was written almost in one night.

The first major change in the film is the composition of the prospecting group. In the story we have four men, all of whom have contributed equally to the working capital. The leader is Hans Nelson, and the woman is his wife Edith, who for servicing the domestic needs of the group enjoys an equal partnership. In the film we have the Nelsons (Hans – Sergej Komarov, Edith – Aleksandra Khokhlova), the shareholders Dutchy (Fred Forell) and Harky (Porfiri Podobed); the fifth member Michael (Pyotr Galadzhev) is the group servant; Edith here works with the men on the mine. Michael will receive wages rather than a share of the finds. In the story these come from a steady flow of small amounts of gold, which amount in value to $18,000. In the film there is a sudden find of gold – by Michael! – whose value is not tabulated.

In the story violence erupts unexpectedly; this is the case in the film but it is also obvious that the inequalities between the partners and their servant are the motivation. Michael shoots Duchy and Harky. Following this he is bound by Hans and Edith. Whilst Hans wishes to carry out summary justice, Edith persuades him that they should follow ‘the law’. We observed the trio as Michael is imprisoned and watched over through the winter and then, with spring, how Edith and Hans proceed to trial, verdict and justice.

Much of the plot shows us the harshness of the artic winter. Hans’s struggles to dig graves for the two corpses in the frozen ground. He and Edith struggle to drag the bodies to the graves and inter them as a winter storm increases in violence. Then, later, as winter recedes, the land is flooded and Hans and Edith, with Michael, struggle against the waters that surround and flood the cabin.

In the story the omniscient narrator explains the character of the three main protagonists. In the film, much of this is conveyed in the mise en scène. Thus Edith is frequently seen with a small prayer book; seen in the first shot of her. She insists on reading some burial prayers over the graves as the storm howls around her and Hans. She constantly uses or refers to the same book in the cabin.

In the case of Michael we first see him with his dog and a wooden flute. We learn something from a flashback. He hails from Ireland and we see him in an earlier time with his aged mother, promising to return with money to support her. London explains this to the readers in his narrative voice.

The film uses very sharp and sometimes elliptical editing and favours angular shots. However, the chronology is straightforward and linear with the flashback fairly clearly signalled. In common with the 1920s Soviet cinema there is s strong tendency for the use of symbolism. Apart from her prayer book Edith also puts up a picture of Queen Victoria, who represents both Britain and British Law. In a title card, which may be ironic, Michael is informed that as he is Irish he is subject to British Law!

Much of the drama of the film is communicated by the acting. Michael early on, as he performs his menial tasks, suggests the class envy that motivates him. Hans also suggest an instinctive urge to violence and retribution. The standout character is Edith. Khokhlova is a very distinctive actress and this is one of her most powerful performances. The drama around the question of ‘the law’ derives much of it potency from her characterisation.

By the law dog

Then there is the dog. Unfortunately here the Soviet film mirrors that of Hollywood. The dog appears in the early scenes setting up the drama. However after the murders he more or less disappears from the plot. Then suddenly he re-appears for a scene in the sodden cabin. This is a festive dinner as spring arrives, also added for the film and reminiscent of a scene in Dostoevsky. The dog is seen licking Michael’s hand: adding to the change of mood as the imprisoned trio relax to celebrate the festivities. This is the point that we see the flashback. Then the dog disappears once more for good.

Kuleshov was the pioneer in Soviet montage and he had his own particular take on this. Rather than the discontinuities found in the films of Eisenstein, Kuleshov, with his cinematographer Konstantin Kuznecov, tends to rapid and short takes. However, like Eisenstein objects and parts of characters appear in close-up working as signifiers. Continuity flows from the plot and the title cards. Cuts between shots rarely provide a sense of the space between. The cutting is often abrupt and effectively some of the cuts work as jump cuts. Space in his films tends to collapse so that it is the changes in shot sequence that provides meaning rather than the suggested sense of the setting or landscape. Lighting is extremely important in his work. One technique he favours:

…the most advantageous lighting for the cinema is backlighting, so-called contre-jour. This light provides the opportunity to see, precisely and clearly, the silhouette of the object, provides an effect of stereoscopy and depth.

The approach is most dramatic in the climatic execution scene. The sequence has an abstracted and symbolic feel, as the characters and setting are seen more in outline: contrasting powerfully with the more realistic shots earlier in the film. The setting is dominated by a solitary tree, a tree that first appeared in the second shot of the film.

The execution.

The execution.

Kuleshov also has a distinctive approach to acting. This is most notably with his star Khoklova. This approach in some ways parallels the work of the German expressionists, in that acting seems to be an extension of the settings and objects in the film. However, Kuleshov makes very different use of light and camera. Soviet theatre had developed a dynamic approach to performance. Kuleshov develops this to create movement that is economical but authentic for the character. He describes Khokhlova in an earlier training in ‘educational etudes’ – rehearsal playlets that included the proposed montage of a finished film version.

A doctor receives a female patient. The doctor’s wife (Khokhlova) is extremely jealous. She confronts the doctor in a hysterical fit, and this fit goes on for about 150 meters, worked out in the most complex, semi-acrobatic series of movements.

This highly developed and precisely worked out acting style recurs in the most dramatic sequences inside the cabin. It reaches a crescendo in the execution scene where Khokhlova’s almost mechanical movements and stances parallel the stark outline of the set, dominated by the ‘hanging tree’.

The film follows this climax with another change to the London story. This is one that sets up both an ambiguity and a psychological frame for the characters’ actions and motivations. And it also brings back the economic to the fore of the story.

The film was popular in the USSR and well received critically abroad. Some critics in the Soviet Union thought that the film needed a stronger political slant. In fact, Kuleshov and his colleagues had sharpened the class angles of the original story: a recurring problem in London’s writings. Generally regarded as the best of Kuleshov’s surviving features, the film is powerful and involving. And it is another fine example of 1920s Soviet cinema.

Quotations from Kuleshov on Film Writings of Lev Kuleshov, translated and edited by Ronald Levaco, University of California Press, 1974.

The film was screened from 35mm prints at the 2005 and 2008 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

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