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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.

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Top 25 Films of the 1930s

25. Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938)

24. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, UK, 1938)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 Blu-ray.

23. Freaks (Browning, USA, 1932)

22. The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Yasujiro Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

21. Outskirts (Barnet, Russia, 1933)

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.

20. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, USA, 1939)

19. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

18. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer, Germany, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

17. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

16. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

15. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany, 1932)

14. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is also his first masterpiece, a hilarious Surrealist account of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famous Surrealist images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

13. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

12. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)

11. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)

German emigre director Ernst Lubitsch inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

10. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

9. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)

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8. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

7. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 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 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.

6. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

5. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

4. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

3. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. One of cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and lovers getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

1. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.


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