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A Sound-Era Soviet Cinema Primer

This is meant as a companion piece to my silent Soviet cinema primer from last year. It covers Soviet films from the beginning of the sound era – which, even more so than in most European countries – began much later than in the U.S. – through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As with most of these primers, I am limiting myself here to only one film per director. I will soon have a separate primer for movies made in Eastern Bloc countries outside of the Soviet Union that cover the same time span.

Enthusiasm (Vertov, 1931)

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Dziga Vertov’s follow-up to the revolutionary Man with the Movie Camera was also his first sound film and, while less well-known than its predecessor, is in many ways just as astonishing. It begins with a memorable sequence in which a woman is listening to the radio on headphones; we hear a cacophony of music and sound effects that rhythmically interact with a series of documentary shots of urban Soviet life that feel almost as if they could be outtakes from Man with the Movie Camera (though the aggressively anti-Christian nature of some of the images mark it as a more explicitly propagandistic work). What eventually emerges is a celebratory portrait of Stalin’s first five-year plan, focusing specifically on coal miners and factory workers in the Donbass region (the film’s subtitle is literally translated as Symphony of Donbass). Vertov’s silent movies featured pounding editing rhythms but the addition of literal sound in Enthusiasm arguably leant his art a greater, more symphonic complexity. An essential work by one of cinema’s great avant-gardists.

Deserter (Pudovkin, 1933)

deserter

It seems somewhat curious that Vsevelod Pudovkin, a great director and film theorist, is less famous than Sergei Eisenstein (whose career spanned roughly the same time frame). In both the silent and early sound eras, Pudovkin showed just as much of a flair for associative montage as Eisenstein but, unlike his more theoretically-minded countryman, Pudovkin was more interested in wedding his radical editing techniques with traditional approaches to characterization and story construction. The story of Deserter, Pudovkin’s first sound movie, concerns Karl Renn, a German shipyard worker who “deserts” his striking co-workers and is consequently sent to the Soviet Union so that he can observe the virtues of proletarian solidarity firsthand. The use of sound is primitive (the film is often completely silent until an important sound effect or line of dialogue is required) but its implementation is still more creative than the strictly realistic use of sound being employed concurrently by Hollywood. Also notable for containing scenes that take place in Germany and feature German characters, unusual given the widespread anti-German sentiments in Russia at the time.

Outskirts (Barnet, 1933)

outskirts

Although active as a director until his death by suicide in 1965, Boris Barnet is probably best known for his silent film work (e.g., The Girl with the Hatbox and Miss Mend). Outskirts (AKA The Patriots) was Barnet’s first sound movie and remains an unjustly underseen masterpiece of its era. The film is a comedy/drama about the residents of an unnamed town in rural Russia in the days leading up to World War I. It starts off as a comedy that boasts a delightful and innovative use of sound (where animals and even inanimate objects are given voice) but becomes increasingly serious after the war breaks out. Most surprising of all is the tender love subplot that develops between a Russian peasant girl and a German POW. Hopefully, Outskirts will someday receive the loving home video release it deserves and become much better known among cinephiles.

Aerograd (Dovzhenko, 1935)

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The Ukrainian Aleksandr Dovzhenko was arguably the greatest narrative filmmaker working in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s and this early sound-era propaganda piece is one of his finest works. The plot is about the construction of an air field in remote far east Russia and, more specifically, the conflict it engenders between modern-day Bolsheviks and the rural and backwards “old believers” (read Orthodox Christians) who are being spurred on by Japanese saboteurs. But you don’t watch Dovzhenko for the plot, much less the propaganda. You watch him for his famed passages of incredible – and purely cinematic – lyricism: a briskly edited scene of a Russian sharpshooter chasing Japanese spies through a dense forest, beautiful nautical and aerial photography (including a thrilling climax involving paratroopers), and even quiet moments like the radiant smile on the face of a Chinese woman after she’s given birth to the son of her Russian-pilot husband. Operatic and sublime.

Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (Eisenstein, 1944-1958)

ivan

Sergei Eisenstein’s final movies were the first two parts of an unfinished trilogy about the life of the 17th-century military leader who crowned himself the first tsar of Russia. The films deal with Ivan’s attempts to unify his homeland while fending off both foreign invaders and would-be usurpers within his own inner circle. This has all of the virtues of Alexander Nevsky (spectacle, pageantry, a poetic view of history-as-myth, and a stirring Sergei Prokofiev score), minus the earlier movie’s more dubious pro-militaristic elements. Plus, in the second part (the release of which was delayed by a decade due to Stalin’s personal objections), there is a beautiful color sequence that resembles early two-strip Technicolor, and even a proto-campy musical number. This has my vote for being Eisenstein’s finest achievement.

The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov, 1957)

cranes

Veronica and Boris are young lovers in Moscow whose lives are interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He is drafted and sent to the front while she becomes a nurse and is pressured into an unhappy marriage with his cousin. This film, a kind of bleak Russian cousin to King Vidor’s The Big Parade, was groundbreaking in terms of form and content: the extensive use of handheld camera was revolutionary for a pre-Nouvelle Vague narrative feature, and it is not only remarkably propaganda-free but also taboo-busting as a social document of life during wartime in the Soviet Union. If one wants to understand Andre Bazin’s theory of the relationship between long-take, deep-focus images and “realism,” this masterpiece from the legendary Mikhail Kalatozov (Salt for Svanetia, I am Cuba) could handily serve as “Exhibit A.” The title refers to shots of birds in flight that bookend the film but it might equally refer to the epic crane shots that Kalatozov employs throughout, which give the film an awesome sense of fluidity.

Hamlet (Kozintsev, 1964)

hamlet

As much as I admire Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh’s versions (not to mention Michael Almereyda’s underrated postmodern take), Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 adaptation remains far and away my favorite film adaptation of Hamlet. It strikes me as being the most realistic as well as the most cinematic: the action is captured almost entirely in long and medium shots via beautiful black and white ‘Scope cinematography and, combined with the stunning locations (including a real beach and a massive castle set that took six months to construct), they conjure up a gloomy, atmospheric mood perfectly suited to the story. Interestingly, Kozintsev stages Hamlet’s soliloquies as internal monologues; the “To be or not to be” speech is presented as voice-over narration as Hamlet wanders alone along a barren, rocky shoreline. This is also in many ways a uniquely Russian production: the script is base on a lauded 1941 translation by Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago) and the great original score was composed by none other than Dmitri Shostokovich.

Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, 1966)

andreirublev

Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a mere boy overseeing the arduous process of the casting of a giant bell. The boy saves himself from government execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that feels like a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to create his greatest works.

The Color of Pomegranates (Parajanov, 1968)

color

Sergei Parajanov’s biopic of the 16th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova is probably the least conventional take on its subject one could imagine. This might be better referred to as a work of poetry in its own right rather than a film about poetry – a series of fragmented, lyrical, incredibly beautiful scenes from the life of the famed poet (played by actor Sofiko Chiaureli, who also plays four other roles) that employ a purposeful, symbolic use of color, and contain barely any dialogue. This was, unsurprisingly, heavily censored (and even retitled) by Soviet authorities upon its initial release. The homoeroticism, religious imagery and overall abstract nature apparently made them very nervous. But you can’t keep a good film down: the uncut version of The Color of Pomegranates was re-released to wide acclaim in the 1980s and is a frequent staple on the “best of” lists of many critics and cinephiles.

The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ryazanov, 1975)

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A lot of the films on this list are dark, heavy, serious and slow-paced dramas (especially those immediately preceding and following this entry). This is partly a reflection of my personal taste and partly due to the way Russian and Ukrainian art films have always tended to receive wider distribution internationally than the movies that have been more popular domestically. I am, however, delighted to include at least one crowd-pleasing comedy on this list, Eldar Ryazanov’s legendary The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!. This feel-good, sentimental rom-com is paradoxically both Russian-to-the-bone and universal in its broad appeal: the screwball premise is that Zhenya, a shy doctor, is about to be engaged. After binge-drinking with friends on New Year’s Eve he ends up passing out in an apartment in Leningrad that he mistakenly believes is his own Moscow apartment (it looks the same and even has the same street name and number). Hijinks ensue when the apartment’s true tenant, Nadya, comes home and discovers this strange man in his underwear in her bed. The confusion engendered by this “compromising position” causes problems for not only Zhenya and his fiancee but Nadya and her fiancee as well. What starts off quite farcical (who knew that the uniformity of Brezhnev-era architecture could yield such comic gold?) slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into a moving romantic drama. I’m told that this still plays on television in Russia every New Year’s Eve, holding the same beloved place in their culture that It’s a Wonderful Life does in America.

The Ascent (Shepitko, 1977)

ascent

Larisa Shepitko was a director of enormous intelligence and integrity who tragically died in a car accident at the young age of 40 (with many more great movies undoubtedly ahead of her). The final film she completed before her death is this harrowing, indelible masterwork about the persecution of partisans in Nazi-occupied Belarus during World War II, which some feel is the finest Soviet film of the 1970s. In adapting a novel by Vasili Bykov – about the two Soviet soldiers and their futile mission to find supplies in a bleak, snowy landscape populated by Nazi collaborators – Shepitko has crafted an experience so austere, and infused it with so much Christian symbolism, that she makes Tarkovsky look both secular and populist. The drastically different way that her two protagonists meet their fates allows for Shepitko to engage the viewer in a dialogue of uncommon moral complexity. For sheer intensity, this wartime drama is topped only by her husband Elem Klimov’s Come and See from eight years later (see below).

Come and See (Klimov, 1985)

comeandsee

Veteran director Elem Klimov’s final testament, Come and See, is the single most disturbing, and therefore effective, war movie I have ever seen. This tackles somewhat similar terrain as The Ascent, the final film of Larisa Shepitko (Klimov’s late wife) in that it concerns the conflict between Belarussian partisans and their Nazi occupiers during the height of World War II. What makes this film so unsettling and unforgettable is that all of the events are seen through the eyes of a little boy, a Belarussian peasant who joins the partisans and thus witnesses horrors that no one should ever have to face, least of all a child. Before the horrors begin however, there is a mesmerizing, almost unimaginably lovely sequence in which Florya, the protagonist, witnesses a young girl dancing on a tree stump in the rain, as well as a surreal coda in which images of Hitler’s life are shown in reverse order from adulthood all the way back to when he was himself a child. Without these bookending sequences, the film’s depiction of unending suffering might well be unwatchable. Klimov said he lost interest in making films after Come and See, stating, “Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.” He’s not exaggerating.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

10 responses to “A Sound-Era Soviet Cinema Primer

  • david

    I own three versions of Hamlet, prefer the Branagh to the Olivier, haven’t seen the Soviet one yet, it looks like I really need to!

    I couldn’t understand the symbolism in The Color of Pomegranates. Could hardly continue after 5 minutes.

    Look forward to the Russian premier and Chinese mainland edition!

    • michaelgloversmith

      If you like Hamlet, then checking out the Russian version is a must. The Color of Pomegranates is very abstract and definitely not for all tastes. I’m working on my Chinese primer now but I need to see a lot more movies first!

  • Mitchell

    Thanks for this overview. I am currently working up a piece on Paradjanov, so stay tuned. I am pleased to see you included Ivan The Terrible here. While I was watching both The Legend of Surami Fortress and Sayat Nova I was struck by how indebted Paradjanov was to the strange, tableau-driven, other-worldy scenes from Ivan, Of course, they are used to a much different affect in the Paradjanov films but it is nice to know that nothing, even something as weird as a Parajanov film, occurs in a vacuum!

    • michaelgloversmith

      I know exactly what you mean about the IVAN/Paradjanov connection. I also see a certain kinship beween IVAN and some of the queer/experimental American filmmakers of the 1960s (e.g., Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith). I suppose that’s what I had in mind when I used the word “proto-campy!”

      I look forward to your Paradjanov piece.

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