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Tag Archives: Dziga Vertov

Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2015

My top 10 favorite new home video releases of 2015 (and 20 runners up):

10. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953, Warner Blu-ray)

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Warner Brothers has a track record of putting out impeccable high-def transfers of their catalogue titles on Blu-ray — when they can be bothered (their neglect of the considerable number of silent movies to which they own the rights is unfortunate) — and The Band Wagon is no exception. This is for my money Vincente Minnelli’s best film and the greatest of all Hollywood musicals. Fred Astaire, in a role that must’ve been uncomfortably close to his real-life situation, is a legendary but over-the-hill hoofer hoping to make a triumphant return on Broadway but who must first contend with a pretentious director (Jack Buchanan) and a saucy young co-star (Cyd Charisse). The Blu-ray of this love letter to the musical genre and the process of collaborative art-making is perfect. Among the extras, ported over from the DVD, is a nice audio commentary track by Liza Minnelli who vividly remembers visiting the set as a little girl. That’s entertainment indeed.

9. Variete (Dupont, 1925, Edel Germany GmbH Blu-ray)

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The new Blu-ray of the F.W. Murnau Foundation’s impeccable restoration of this classic German silent was mired in controversy due to the inclusion of a single musical-score option: a track by the British musical group The Tiger Lilies that features a prominent vocal throughout. Personally, I kind of like it but, even if I didn’t, this is still a must buy; it’s Variete, uncut and looking better than it probably has since the silent era. For those who’ve never seen it, the chief selling points are the heartbreaking and uncharacteristically subtle lead performance by Emil Jannings and the dazzlingly subjective cinematography, especially during the trapeze sequences, by the great Karl Freund (Metropolis). This reasonably priced German disc thankfully comes with optional English subtitles and is region free. There are no plans for a U.S. release. Full review here.

8. Love Unto Death / Life is a Bed of Roses (Resnais, 1983-1984, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

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I don’t think that either of these individual movies or their respective HD transfers are quite as impressive as, say, Criterion’s recent release of Hiroshima Mon Amour or Kino/Lorber’s Je t’aime, je t’aime disc. However, there is something to be said for an enterprising distributor like Cohen Media Group taking a chance on putting out the lesser-known work of a master filmmaker. And there is even more to be said for the incredible value of bundling two films together into one package (Cohen did something similar a few years back with their essential Claude Chabrol/Inspector Lavardin set). Not only was it a pleasure to revisit these underrated gems, I also greatly appreciated the casual audio commentary tracks by Francophile-critics Andy Klein and Wade Major. Further thoughts here.

7. Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1966, Mr. Bongo Blu-ray)

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The Criterion Collection is putting this out next year and there’s no doubt in my mind that their release — in terms of transfer quality and, especially, extras — will handily best Mr. Bongo’s disc. But I don’t regret scooping up this bare-bones release for one second. The first time I saw Chimes at Midnight was on a terrible-quality VHS tape that I rented from Facets Multimedia (the only way it could be seen in the U.S. at the time) and I recall putting my face only inches away from the screen so that I could absorb the sounds and images of Orson Welles’s masterpiece as thoroughly as possible. Jonathan Rosenbaum once noted that, in making this film, Welles essentially created a new Shakespeare play by mashing up the Falstaff cycle (the two Henry IV plays, Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor). The result is also, perhaps paradoxically, Welles at his most cinematic: the famous “Battle of Shrewsbury” sequence is an insanely great montage that stands as the most remarkable such battle scene in the history of movies. I still cannot believe that I am finally able to see this in an amazingly restored version (courtesy of Luciano Berriatúa of the Filmoteca in Madrid) in 1080p on my home television.

6. The Apu Trilogy (Ray, 1955-1959, Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

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Deciding which Criterion release will make my year-end best-of list (I limit myself to one title per distributor in the interest of diversity) is always a challenge. This year, the decision was made a lot easier by their amazing Blu-ray box set of Satyajit Ray’s legendary Apu trilogy. Not only are these among the finest films in the history of cinema — they capture the ebb and flow of life as it is simply lived with an uncommon clarity and power — Criterion also did heroic work in “rehydrating” and restoring the brittle, fire-damaged original negatives (for a thorough account of what this elaborate process entailed, read this illuminating interview with Lee Kline). What a joy it is then to revisit these humane masterworks, which follow the experiences of one individual from his early childhood in a poor and rural Bengali village into adulthood and professional literary success, in such exceptional quality.

5. Dragon Inn (Hu, 1967, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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Chinese director King Hu is the most important director of the martial arts genre (his relationship to wuxia is similar to that of Hitchcock to the thriller or Ford to the western) and Dragon Inn is one of his most significant achievements. It was the first film he made after leaving Hong Kong (where he was a contract director for Shaw Brothers Studios) and establishing his own independent production company in Taiwan where he was able to exert more creative control over his work. The plot details the attempts of an evil eunuch to kill off the children of a rival politician in ancient China. Meanwhile, a brother/sister martial-artist duo also conspire to help the children, and all of these characters come together for a memorable showdown at the titular inn located in the desert. The fight choreography is killer but how that choreography is captured via Hu’s rigorous cinematography and editing schemes is what truly impresses. This new transfer looks amazing on Blu-ray, especially the deep-focus exterior shots of desert vistas, some of which seem to stretch into infinity. Thankfully, Eureka/Masters of Cinema has also announced a limited-edition release of A Touch of Zen, Hu’s greatest movie, on Blu-ray in January.

4. Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works (Vertov, 1929, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)

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Man with the Movie Camera, an experimental documentary that served as the apotheosis of the Soviet-montage era, is a film that continues to look better and more modern with each passing year. Director Dziga Vertov, along with his brother and cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman and wife and editor Elizaveta Svilova, created the definitive self-reflexive movie with this hyperkinetic portrait of a day in the life of a cameraman (which was actually filmed over five years in three different cities). Flicker Alley did the world a huge favor by putting out a Blu-ray of this deathless masterpiece based on a definitive new restoration (courtesy of the joint efforts of Lobster Films, Blackhawk Films Collection, EYE Film Institute, Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and the Centre National de la Cinématographie). Not only does Man with the Movie Camera now look better than ever, it also contains shots missing from all previous home video releases and runs at the correct speed for the first time. Best of all, it is married to the best soundtrack of the many that have been composed for it over the years: the Alloy Orchestra’s pounding 1995 score that itself was based on Vertov’s detailed instructions. Flicker Alley’s set is very nicely fleshed out by an additional three features: Kino Eye, Enthusiasm and Three Songs of Lenin.

3. Goodbye to Language 3D Godard, 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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In 2014, Jean-Luc Godard reinvented cinema yet again with Goodbye to Language, his fascinating first feature-length foray into the 3-D format. The use of stereoscopic cinematography was crucial to the overall meaning of the film — from the jokey use of floating intertitles to the innovative way he had a single 3-D image break apart into two overlapping two-dimensional images by panning the right-eye camera while keeping the left-eye camera stationary. More so than any other 3-D movie, there is no point in even attempting to watch this in 2-D. Knowing that to be the case, I purchased a 3-D television and a 3-D Blu-ray player pretty much for the sole purpose of being able to experience this masterpiece again and again at home. Kino/Lorber’s Blu-ray looks almost identical to the film’s theatrical presentation (with the only significant difference being the absence of the variation in color grading between the left and right-eye images that could be observed on the big screen). Among the fine extras are an interview with JLG conducted by the Canon camera company, who were clearly proud of the fact that this God-level director was using their equipment, and a booklet essay by David Bordwell.

2. Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection (Dreyer, 1925-1964, BFI Blu-ray)

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The British Film Institute really upped their Blu-ray game in 2015, releasing, among many worthy titles, two separate Roberto Rossellini box sets — one devoted to his celebrated War Trilogy and another devoted to the cycle of melodramas he made with paramour Ingrid Bergman. But the crown jewel of their release slate this year was the “Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection,” a limited-edition box that bundles together four features by the Danish master-filmmaker: the silent feminist-comedy Master of the House (1925), the medieval witch-hunt expose Day of Wrath (1943), the austere spiritual drama Ordet (1955) and his sublime final film Gertrud (1964), which examines the romantic life of a woman with impossibly high ideals. The BFI did Dreyer justice by putting out these transcendentally uplifting films in wonderful quality and also stacking the set with welcome extras, including seven(!) shorts by Dreyer as well as the informative feature-length doc Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier.

1. The Complete Works of Hayao Miyazaki (Miyazaki, 1972-2013, Disney Blu-ray)

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I’ve often said that animation has long been something of a blind spot for me, citing my preference for watching live-action movies as the result of my fondness for “looking at real people.” My interest in animation, however, has grown exponentially over the past few years due to the fact that it has been of so much interest to so many of my students. Besides, if one accepts that “mise-en-scene” can be defined as the director’s control over all of the elements within the frame, then the truest masters of mise-en-scene are arguably the world’s greatest animators; do they not, after all, have the tightest control over all of the details that appear in every shot of every film? This is certainly true of Japan’s beloved Hayao Miyazaki, who both wrote his own screenplays and painstakingly animated nearly all of his films by hand; and one must give credit to the Walt Disney Company (in spite of their dubious and occasionally evil business practices) for bringing the work of this great auteur to a wide American audience. The eleven feature films included in this box set are all presented complete and uncut and feature the option of the original Japanese language soundtracks (with faithful English subtitles) in addition to the option of the English-dubbed tracks. This is so much better than the raw deal that many foreign-language films — especially those from Asian countries — have gotten in the States over the years. Best of all, the films themselves are consistently terrific. From the relatively conventional but rip-roaring damsel-in-distress rescue yarn Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro to his perfect swan song, the aeronautical-engineer biopic The Wind Rises, Miyazaki obsessively revisited the same stylistic tropes and themes — feminist heroines, prescient anti-war and ecological themes, exhaustively detailed science-fiction landscapes, images of aircrafts in flight, and an admirable, near-total absence of villains. Prior to the release of Disney’s box set, I had only seen three of Miyazaki’s films. Purchasing his collected works gave me just the excuse I needed to finally watching them all and I’m so glad that I did; I may be late to the party but I now regard him as Japan’s finest living director. Here is my “report card” for each of the individual films within the set:

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro – B
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind – B+
Castle in the Sky – A-
My Neighbor Totoro – A+
Kiki’s Delivery Service – A
Porco Rosso – A
Princess Mononoke – A+
Spirited Away – A-
Howl’s Moving Castle – A
Ponyo – A-
The Wind Rises – A+

20 Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

3-D Rarities (Various, 1922-1962, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014, Paramount Blu-ray)
Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Chaplin, 2015, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Don’t Look Back (Pennebaker, 1967, Criterion Blu-ray)
Every Man for Himself (Godard, 1980, Criterion Blu-ray)
Faust (Murnau, 1926, Kino Blu-ray)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, 1959, Criterion Blu-ray)
The House of Mystery (Volkoff, 1921-1925, Flicker Alley DVD)
Inherent Vice (Anderson, 2014, Warner Blu-ray)
Je t’aime, Je t’aime (Resnais, 1968, Kino Blu-ray)
Kiss Me Kate (Sidney, 1954, Warner Blu-ray)
Life of Riley (Resnais, 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015, Warner Blu-ray)
Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001, Criterion Blu-ray)
Le Pont du Nord (Rivette, 1981, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Roberto Rossellini Ingrid Bergman Collection (Rossellini, 1950-1954, BFI Blu-ray)
Rossellini: The War Trilogy (Rossellini, 1945-1948, BFI Blu-ray)
Sherlock Holmes (Berthelet, 1916, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Speedy (Wilde, 1928, Criterion Blu-ray)
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau, 1931, Kino Blu-ray)
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1989, Criterion Blu-ray)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.


A Silent Soviet Cinema Primer

Today, the silent Soviet cinema is primarily thought of as either the birthplace of “montage editing” (the use of quick cutting to compress time, space or action in a collage-like fashion) or as an era in which the only films made were government-approved Socialist propaganda. The reality of course was far more complex than that. While all of the major Soviet directors of the day (Russians Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and the Ukrainian Aleksandr Dovzhenko) believed that editing should form the basis of how movies were made, they each had very different ideas about exactly how and why montage should be employed. Also, while a lot of the most famous Soviet silents (i.e., the ones everyone is forced to watch in film school) are unquestionably propagandistic, to explore them in depth is to realize that the era’s best work is impressively diverse, encompassing comedies, melodramas, adventure serials, science-fiction epics and more. Indeed I have no qualms about calling it one of the great periods in cinema history. The following list of a baker’s dozen titles, limited to one film per director, is consciously meant to underscore the era’s diversity.

The Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Kuleshov, 1924)

Lev Kuleshov is best known today as the namesake of the “Kuleshov effect,” the result of an influential editing experiment involving found footage that illustrated how editing can cause viewers to project their own emotions onto a film’s characters. But he was also a damn fine director in his own right as this wacky comedy proves; “Mr. West” is a rich American who travels to the Soviet Union with his faithful sidekick, a cowboy(!) named Jeddy, and discovers to his amazement that the Bolsheviks are not the evil barbarians that the American press had led him to believe. The evenhanded way Kuleshov satirizes both American and Russian stereotypes is impressive, as is the crack comic timing demonstrated by future director Boris Barnet who performs some Buster Keaton-esque slapstick stunts as Jeddy.

Aelita: Queen of Mars (Protazanov, 1924)

This fascinating, early science fiction film tells the story of Los, a Moscow-based scientist who travels to the capitalistic planet Mars, where he leads the enslaved working class in a popular uprising against their totalitarian leader. The Moscow scenes, which comprise most of the film’s running time, are not nearly as fun as the Mars sequences, which feature some charming German Expressionist-influenced sets and costumes. But this is unmissable for fans of the sci-fi genre as it is essentially the missing link between George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (whose depiction of robotic workers was clearly taken from here).

The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (Zhelyabuzhsky, 1924)

A wealthy American businessman, a lowly but chivalrous office clerk, a lascivious film director and a lovestruck cameraman all find their lives intersecting with the title character, a beautiful street vendor played by the delightful Yuliya Solntseva (Aelita). The use of “web-of-life” plotting and a focus on the every day lives of Muscovites (which includes a mind-blowing self-reflexive strain in a subplot where the cameraman is commissioned to make a movie about “every day” Moscow) mark this unusually ambitious comedy as both a priceless document of its time as well as a film well ahead of its time. Think Robert Altman at his finest without the irony or condescension.

Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925)

The film that launched a worldwide revolution . . . in terms of editing! The most famous of all silent Russian movies is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece about a failed revolution that took place twenty years earlier. The crew of the battleship Potemkin rebels against unfair living conditions (including being told to eat maggot-infested meat), which causes them to mutiny and kill their commanding officers. When the ship docks in the port city of Odessa, the revolutionary fervor spreads to their comrades on land until the White Russian army is called in to crush the rebellion. The ensuing massacre is justifiably one of the most famous scenes in film history, a frenetic, rapidly edited montage that purposefully breaks the rules of classical editing in order to convey an overwhelming impression of violence and chaos. Whenever you see a shot of a baby carriage rolling down a flight of stairs in a T.V. show or movie, this is what’s being referenced.

Mother (Pudovkin, 1926)

Like Battleship Potemkin, this documents a failed revolution circa 1905. But, unlike Eisenstein, who presented the Russian people en masse as a kind of collective hero, director Vsevolod Pudovkin chooses to focus his narrative more intimately on a few well-drawn characters in an attempt to put a more human face on the working class struggle. The plot focuses on a conflict between a father and son who find themselves on opposite ends of a factory strike and the mother who is forced to choose sides between them. She eventually picks up the banner of revolution in a memorable ice-floe climax that tips its hat to D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East.

Bed and Sofa (Room, 1927)

Abram Room’s astonishing comic melodrama, about a menage-a-trois between a factory worker, his wife and the friend who comes to stay on their couch, is one of the most ahead-of-its-time films of the entire silent era and a kind of prototype version of Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. After the wife (powerfully played by Lyudmila Semyonova) turns from one man to the other and back again, all three characters eventually settle into a “progressive” living arrangement. Shockingly frank in its depiction of sexuality, abortion and female independence, this is the first movie to which I would steer anyone who believes that Soviet films of the 1920s were merely propaganda.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Shub, 1927)

Esther Shub was the most prominent Soviet female director of the silent era and The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is her masterpiece, a documentary that uses found footage to tell the story of the root causes and after effects of the Bolshevik revolution. Shub was a colleague and friend of Dziga Vertov but eschewed his modernist, self-reflexive style in favor of what she termed “editorialized newsreels,” which saw her cut together historical footage (much of it shot prior to 1917 by other hands) with title cards that offer a Marxist interpretation of Russian history from 1913 to 1927. Brilliantly edited, informative and accessible, this is one of the best places to start understanding both the silent Soviet cinema and early 20th century Russian history.

The Girl with the Hatbox (Barnet, 1927)

Directed by the unjustly unknown Boris Barnet, this awesome Hollywood-style romantic comedy tells the story of Natasha, a comely young woman who makes hats for a living and commutes from her rural village to Moscow in order to sell them. She agrees to an altruistic marriage of convenience in order to provide boarding to a homeless college student; ironically, when Natasha comes into possession of a winning lottery ticket worth 25,000 roubles, her “husband” is the one man in her life who is not interested in her fortune. Energetic, witty and fast-paced, this builds to a memorable climax under Barnet’s sure hand.

Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929)

Dziga Vertov’s radical experimental/documentary hybrid shows “a day in the life” of Moscow circa 1929 although the film had been shot over a period of several years in multiple cities including Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. The strobe-effect editing is mind-blowing even by today’s standards (the average shot length is less than three seconds) and the film is so densely packed with ideas that even after dozens of viewings, I find that it still has secrets to reveal. But this is more than a “city symphony” film; it’s also one of the greatest movies ever made about the act of filmmaking, showcasing the talents of not only Vertov but his brother Mikhail Kaufman (the cinematographer who also frequently appears on screen as the title character), and his wife Yveta Svilova (the editor and the film’s true hero). The result is a film that playfully calls attention to the filmmaking process and its almost magical ability to record and transform reality.

Turksib (Turin, 1929)

One of the best and least propagandistic documentaries of the silent Soviet cinema is this straightforward account of the building of a railroad across central Asia – stretching all the way from Siberia to Turkestan. The filmmakers show how the railroad is necessary for the transportation of cotton and grain and its construction is presented as a triumphant example of both engineering and the can-do Soviet spirit. This is full of stirring, poetic imagery of nameless figures toiling in a rugged landscape and exerted a massive influence on British documentaries of the early sound era (e.g. Night Mail).

Earth (Dovzhenko, 1930)

My favorite Soviet film of the silent era is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth, whose slender narrative about the virtues of collective farming in the Ukraine is merely an excuse for the director to present a succession of rapturously beautiful painterly images: wheat fields waving in the wind, rain falling on fruit, a young woman standing next to a giant sunflower, and a series of unforgettable faces, often framed in low-angle close-ups, that resemble paintings of religious icons. Dovzhenko got his start as a painter and cartoonist and his purely visual approach to storytelling would serve as a model for future Soviet directing greats Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov.

Salt for Svanetia (Kalatozov, 1930)

Mikhail Kalatozov is best known for his 1964 Russian/Cuban co-production I am Cuba, one of the most amazingly photographed movies ever made. But this early ethnographic documentary, made over thirty years previously, shows that he was always a restless experimenter in search of extraordinary images. The subject of the film is a remote Georgian village whose population is suffering due to a lack of salt. The exciting climax shows how the building of a new road ultimately connects this village to the rest of Soviet civilization, which promises to bring both health benefits as well as intellectual enlightenment (Kalatozov presents the Svan people’s Christianity as Exhibit A that they are a primitive, backwards people.) Like Nanook of the North this may have been mostly “staged” but that does not detract one iota from the film’s beauty and power.

Happiness (Medvedkin, 1935)

A ridiculously funny slapstick comedy about the life of a lazy farmer both before and after the Bolshevik revolution. The farmer (named, appropriately, “Loser”) and his wife, like many Soviet movie characters of the era, are only able to find true happiness in collective farming. Director Aleksandr Medvedkin, who was the subject of Chris Marker’s superb documentary The Last Bolshevik, claimed late in life that the film’s satire was subversively directed at the Bolsheviks and their futile dreams of happiness. Whether that is true or wishful thinking in hindsight, one thing is for sure: Happiness is full of unforgettable comic images – from a spotted horse to nuns wearing see-through habits – and if that can’t demolish Western stereotypes about “Soviet austerity,” nothing can.


Dziga Vertov: Wild Man of Soviet Montage

Dziga Vertov is currently the subject of an extensive retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. This includes a symposium on the great Russian director’s work, featuring scholars, artists and filmmakers like William Kentridge, Peter Kubelka, Guy Maddin and Michael Nyman. It also boasts the U.S. premiere of a new, supposedly definitive restoration of Vertov’s revolutionary Man with the Movie Camera from 1929, which has long been my favorite Soviet film of its era; it is the movie I show most frequently in classes to illustrate the principles of montage editing and one can only hope this version will turn up in Chicago theaters soon.

The Soviet Montage movement, which produced some of the most groundbreaking and influential films of all time, began in Russia in the early 1920s and lasted for roughly a decade before government pressure brought an unfortunately abrupt end to a cycle of movies known for their adventurous formal and intellectual qualities. Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, originally released in 1929, provides both a shining example of Montage filmmaking and a good reason why the movement had to come to a premature end.

Vertov’s contemporary Sergei Eisenstein offered a widely accepted definition of montage when he wrote that “montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots.” In other words, the true meaning of a film sequence should lie in the way that it is edited, arising not just from what happens within individual shots but from the juxtaposition of these images against one another. The major Soviet directors of this era (Eisenstein, Vertov, Vsevelod Pudovkin and the Ukrainian Alexander Dovzhenko) might have had different ideas about how montage should be employed but they all agreed on its central importance as the basis for creating and understanding movies.

“Dziga Vertov,” a Russian phrase that literally translates as “spinning top,” was the pseudonym of director David Kaufman, a fitting name for the wild man of the Soviet Montage movement. Man with the Movie Camera is Vertov’s best known work and it is typical of his artistry in that it is difficult to classify; it is part documentary and part experimental movie – with a few elements of narrative continuity filmmaking sprinkled in for good measure. Before the film proper begins, a title informs us that we are about to witness “an experiment in the language of pure cinema.” As this would indicate, Vertov was obsessed with the mechanics of filmmaking, especially cinematography and editing, to the point where they ultimately became the subject of his work. It’s as if he wanted to use the film medium to explicitly call attention to the tools of his trade by inviting viewers to share in his wonder and amazement at how those tools could record and transform reality.

Vertov was in particular fascinated by the camera lens, which he repeatedly and cleverly compared to a “cinema eye” recording daily life. His philosophy can be summed up in his 1923 manifesto Kinoks: A Revolution: “I am kino-eye. I am builder. I have placed you, whom I’ve created today, in an extraordinary room which did not exist until just now when I also created it. In this room there are twelve walls shot by me in various parts of the world. In bringing together shots of walls and details, I’ve managed to arrange them in an order that is pleasing and to construct with intervals, correctly, a film-phrase which is the room.”

Although Man with the Movie Camera does not feature a narrative in any conventional sense, it can be said that there are two “stars” in the movie. One is the Russian people en masse. This is the respect in which the film fits into the “city symphony” mold – a genre encompassing abstract studies of major cities around the world that attempt to show off the uniqueness of each city’s architecture and people through musical editing rhythms. (A Propos de Nice, Manhatta and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City are all notable examples.) One of the central ideas behind the city symphony films is that the people who live in each particular city form a kind of collective hero for the movie. Interestingly, Man with the Movie Camera was mostly shot in Moscow but, in an analog to Vertov’s “room with twelve walls,” it is ultimately a composite city that also contains footage of Odessa and Kiev.

The other “star” of the movie is what really sets Man with the Movie Camera apart from the other city symphony films: Mikhail Kaufman, the film’s cinematographer as well as its title character. Throughout the film we see Kaufman at work, filming with his camera and, in a meta-device decades ahead of its time, we also see the footage that he’s shooting elsewhere in the movie! For Kaufman and Vertov, brothers in real life, the act of filmmaking was clearly a joyous, adventurous, athletic activity. Watching the two of them prove that a camera can be positioned virtually anywhere, from the depths of a coal mine to the handlebars of a speeding motorcycle, is an exhilarating, head-spinning experience. (The shots of Kaufman at work were taken by a second cinematographer, Gleb Troyanski.) But the production of Man with the Movie Camera was a family affair in more ways than one: Vertov’s wife Yelizaveta Svilova was the film’s editor. Characteristically, Vertov included shots of her editing the movie within the movie – a fitting tribute to a woman with a Herculean task to perform.

Incredibly, Man with the Movie Camera has an average shot length of less than 2 and a half seconds, an astonishingly fast pace for a film from the silent era. (The pacing is comparable to contemporary Hollywood action films such as the Bourne franchise.) And yet whenever I show the film in class, I’ve noticed some students invariably grow restless and bored. I think this is because, although some of them find it gratifying purely as a piece of kaleidoscopic eye candy, the absence of a traditional narrative to pull the audience through the experience means that viewers must be unusually active in parsing Vertov’s montage sequences in order to make sense of his underlying ideas. And because of the rapid pace, which allows Vertov to throw out more ideas per minute than you can shake a stick at, each viewer is likely to come away with his or her own interpretation of “what it all means.”

For me personally, the film resonates as a humane portrait of a teeming metropolis, the diversity of which is signaled by a series of contrasting images: rich and poor, work and play, marriage and divorce, life and death. These images don’t conflict with each other as they do in the more propagandistic films of Eisenstein. Rather, through their synthesis, they reveal something profoundly true about the lives of ordinary men and women who live in the city; the Russian people captured by the brothers Kaufman and their movie camera over eighty years ago are not so different than the Chicagoans I see and interact with every day. This radical brand of self-reflexive humanism may not be for all tastes but that was the case even in 1929. Vertov’s film, made during the regime of Joseph Stalin, was accused of being formalist and esoteric, leading to a government mandated policy that Soviet films should adhere to the principles of “social realism” and be simple enough to be understood by all audiences. Yet Man with the Movie Camera is still able to speak across nations and time to people of different political persuasion today. I suspect it will continue to do so for as long as movies are shown.

There are several versions of Man with the Movie Camera available on DVD. My favorite is the one released by Image Entertainment featuring a score by the Alloy Orchestra based on musical instructions written by Dziga Vertov himself.


Top 25 Films of the 1920s

25. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Russia, 1925)

The film that launched a worldwide revolution . . . in terms of editing! The most famous of all silent Russian movies is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece about a failed revolution that took place twenty years earlier. The crew of the battleship Potemkin rebels against unfair living conditions (including being told to eat maggot-infested meat), which causes them to mutiny and kill their commanding officers. When the ship docks in the port city of Odessa, the revolutionary fervor spreads to their comrades on land until the White Russian army is called in to crush the rebellion. The ensuing massacre is justifiably one of the most famous scenes in film history, a frenetic, rapidly edited montage that purposefully breaks the rules of classical editing in order to convey an overwhelming impression of violence and chaos. Whenever you see a shot of a baby carriage rolling down a flight of stairs in a T.V. show or movie, this is what’s being referenced.

24. Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, USA, 1923)

As far as silent comedians go, Harold Lloyd was second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of popularity. Safety Last! is his most famous film and one that anyone who cares about comedy movies should see. Lloyd plays his famous, can-do “Glasses Character” as a country bumpkin who arrives in the big city and gets a job in a department store. He concocts a publicity stunt to bring in more customers, which involves him scaling the exterior of the high-rise building where he works. This leads to a jaw-droppingly funny and amazingly acrobatic climax featuring one of the most iconic images in all of cinema: Lloyd suspended from the hands of a giant clock face near the top of the building.

23. The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, USA, 1924)

The greatest of the 1920s swashbucklers, Raoul Walsh’s adventure epic stars Douglas Fairbanks as a thief who falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad. In order to win her hand, the thief endeavors to best her other suitors by bringing back the rarest treasure before “the seventh moon.” This allows Walsh, one of the most astute directors of action ever, to execute the narrative as a series of exciting, self-contained set pieces, the elaborate special effects of which still impress and charm today.

22. Variety (Dupont, Germany, 1925)

One of the major masterpieces of the entire silent era that, for reasons unknown to me, has only ever been released on VHS in the United States. This tragic, darkly ironic crime tale concerns a love triangle between trapeze artists that ends in betrayal and murder. Emil Jannings is at his best as the cuckolded husband but it’s Karl Freund’s brilliant cinematography that really makes Variety fly.

21. The House of Mystery (Volkoff, France, 1923)

House

20. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)

Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good representation of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story of subjectivity set within an insane asylum. Silent Japanese films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-commercial work of cinematic poetry like this all the more valuable.

19. 3 Bad Men (Ford, USA, 1926)

John Ford’s first masterpiece is an epic western about a cowgirl (the splendid Olive Borden) who recruits the title trio to help her avenge the death of her father as well as find her a suitable husband. These twin plots unfurl, as happens so often in Ford, against the backdrop of a real life historical event – in this case the Dakota Land Rush of the 1870s. The climactic land rush sequence is presented as an exhilarating, fast-paced montage that rivals the best montage scenes coming out of the Soviet Union during the same period.

18. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920)

This is the definitive German Expressionist film, in which all of the elements of director Robert Wiene’s mise-en-scene (lighting, set design, costume design, the movement of figures within the frame) have been deliberately distorted and exaggerated for expressive purposes. The end result, a view of the world through the eyes of a madman, single-handedly inaugurated the Expressionist movement, which dominated German cinema screens for most of the rest of the decade.

17. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, USA, 1921)

In 1968′s The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris listed director Rex Ingram as a “subject for further research” based solely on this masterpiece – an epic World War I/family drama that builds on the innovations of Griffith in its incredible painterly images and dynamic cutting, but which adds a more naturalistic acting style to the mix. Rudolph Valentino, in his first starring role, plays a rich ne’er-do-well who enlists in the French Army to impress the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But, once on the battlefield, he finds himself face to face with his German cousin . . . Sadly, Ingram is still a subject for further research; his movies, including this one, remain virtually impossible to see. Needless to say, this should be viewed at all costs whenever the opportunity arises.

16. The Unknown (Browning, USA, 1927)

Tod Browning is best known today for early sound-era horror classics like Dracula and Freaks but I think this dark and sinister tale of a love triangle set in a traveling circus represents the high point of his entire career; Joan Crawford (young and dishy) is the daughter of a circus owner who is torn between the affections of an armless(!) knife thrower (Lon Chaney) and the circus strongman (Norman Kerry). This singularly grotesque wonder unfolds with the terrible illogic of a nightmare and remains for my money the best of all silent American horror films.

15. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France, 1928)

14. Hindle Wakes (Elvey, UK, 1927)

hindle

My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (This is perhaps best exemplified by a sublime ending suggesting that the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.

13. Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith, USA, 1924)

Polish refugees struggle to survive in post-World War I Berlin in D.W. Griffith’s final masterpiece, a deeply moving family drama shot almost entirely on location in Germany. Among the narrative strands is an exeedingly poignant subplot involving the courtship between Paul (Neil Hamilton), a war veteran whose lungs have been damaged by mustard gas and Inga, an orphan played by Carol Dempster (Griffith’s real-life love interest). A prototype of Neorealism, it is frankly astonishing that Griffith could extend such sympathy to the plight of a people who had been a much vilified enemy of the United States only a few years previously.

12. Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 1928)

Paul Fejos’ unjustly under-seen classic is a kind of smaller-scale version of The Crowd – though arguably an even better film. It begins by intercutting between the workday of a man who operates a punch press (Glenn Tryon) and a woman who works as a switchboard operator (Barbara Kent) in New York City. The two narrative strands become intertwined when these lonely people meet by chance at Coney Island and share a night of magic and romance. Tragically, they find themselves separated and realize that, since they never even learned one another’s names, they may never meet again. The plot is simple but the execution is passionate, capturing some universal and timeless truths about urban living.

11. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Lang, Germany, 1922)

The first in a cycle of Fritz Lang films about a diabolical criminal mastermind and master of disguise who crashes the stock market and swindles countless innocents out of their money seemingly for no reason other than the sheer fun of it. Indebted to the mystery serials of Louis Feuillade, this four-hour movie (split into two parts of equal length) remains a fast-paced, rip-roaring entertainment from start to finish.

10. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929)

My personal favorite Frank Borzage film is this late silent masterpiece about a love triangle between farm girl Janet Gaynor and two World War I veterans – the duplicitous Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and nice guy Charles Farrell (whose war wounds have confined him to a wheelchair). Gaynor and Farrell made many films together and more often than not her fabulous acting is the point of interest. Here, Farrell is a revelation as a good-hearted man whose attempts to come to terms with his disability are heartbreaking. But, this being a Borzage film, the rural farmhouse setting is turned into a mystical, impressionist dream place where miracles can happen – and you’ll be very glad that they do. Originally released in a part talkie/part silent version, the lone print that survives today is completely silent and probably all the better for it.

9. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg, USA, 1928)

Arguably Josef von Sternberg’s greatest film, this ravishingly photographed tone poem tells the story of a virile stoker (George Bancroft) who is tempted to give up his love ‘em and leave ‘em ways after saving the life of a suicidal prostitute (the revelatory Betty Compson). This sublime romantic melodrama is perfectly complimented by von Sternberg’s amazingly atmospheric mise-en-scene, which captures New York City’s dock-front milieu with an exquisite interplay of light, shadow and fog.

8. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)

My favorite Swedish movie ever is this silent classic by Victor Sjostrom that masterfully combines melodrama with gothic horror overtones and proved a major influence on both Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick (the latter of whom clearly took his climax for The Shining from here). The irresistible premise is that the last sinner to die on New Year’s Eve must drive the “phantom carriage” that collects the souls of the dead for the next calendar year. A masterpiece of moody atmospherics with special effects that still impress today. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, featuring an intense experimental score by the band KTL, is a wonder.

7. The Crowd (Vidor, USA, 1928)

King Vidor was the king of Hollywood following the boffo box office of The Big Parade and he admirably used that clout to realize this downbeat story of the dark side of the American dream: John Sims (James Murray) was born on the fourth of July in the year 1900 and dreamed of becoming President of the United States. Instead he ends up an anonymous office drone in a very impersonal New York City, which Vidor relates in a series of stunning (and hugely influential) tableau images. “The crowd laughs with you always but it will cry with you for only a day.”

6. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, Germany, 1929)

A lot of German stars have tried their luck in Hollywood. In the late 1920s American actress Louise Brooks did the opposite, moving to Germany and teaming up with director G.W. Pabst for a trio of memorable films. Pandora’s Box is their masterpiece, a realistically told, naturalistically acted story of a woman forced into prostitution who meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Although her career went into decline immediately after she returned to Hollywood, Brooks was rediscovered in the 1950s and today has become one of the most iconic visages (and bobbed haircuts) of the silent cinema.

5. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Russia, 1929)

Dziga Vertov’s radical experimental/documentary hybrid shows “a day in the life” of Moscow circa 1929 although the film had been shot over a period of several years in multiple cities including Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. The strobe-effect editing is mind-blowing even by today’s standards (the average shot length is less than three seconds) and the film is so densely packed with ideas that even after dozens of viewings, it still has secrets to reveal. But this is more than a “city symphony” film; it’s also one of the greatest movies ever made about the act of filmmaking, showcasing the talents of not only Vertov but his brother Mikhail Kaufman (the cinematographer who also frequently appears on screen as the title character), and his wife Yveta Svilova (the editor and the film’s true hero). The result is a film that playfully calls attention to the filmmaking process and its almost magical ability to record and transform reality.

4. Our Hospitality (Keaton/Blystone, USA, 1923)

Buster Keaton hit his stride as writer/director/star with his second feature, a riotously funny version of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. Not as well known today as The General, this is for my money Keaton’s funniest film and the one with the most impressive physical stunts (the climactic waterfall rescue has never been equalled). Our Hospitality remains the most modern of all silent comedies due in part to Keaton’s hilariously blank facial expressions as actor as well as his beautifully engineered physical gags as director, which he always profitably captures in immaculately composed long shots. One of the best places to start exploring silent movies period.

3. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, USA, 1927)

William Fox brought German Expressionist master F.W. Murnau to Hollywood in 1926 and gave him carte blanche to create this masterpiece, one of the most artistically ambitious silent films. The story is a simple “folk tale” about redemption concerning a farmer who very nearly murders his wife after being seduced by a wicked city girl. The low-key lighting and elaborate tracking shots changed the way films in Hollywood were made overnight (neither Frank Borzage nor John Ford would ever be the same again). One of the most influential films of all time and a kind of Citizen Kane for the silent era.

2. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, France, 1923)

1. Greed (Von Stroheim, USA, 1924)

Erich von Stroheim’s nine hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ classic American novel McTeague was brutally cut down to its present two hour and twenty minute running time by MGM executives, who also unconscionably destroyed all of the excised footage. Remarkably, the remaining shadow of Stroheim’s original vision (an excoriating indictment of the destructive power of money about a dentist, his wife and best friend who find their lives torn apart by greed) is still a deathless masterpiece. The powerhouse performances and shot-on-location Death Valley climax are unforgettable.


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