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Tag Archives: Sergei Eisenstein

2014 Chicago International Movies and Music Festival Preview

Now in its sixth year, the 2014 edition of the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival boasts a typically eclectic and intriguing lineup — including live musical performances by the likes of Booker T. Jones, Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin, Califone and Yo La Tengo. My preview below, however, focuses solely on the cinematic side of the festival equation. Here are my picks for four of CIMM’s best movie bets, including two new films and two revivals that I think are well worth your time.

This year’s fest kicks off on Thursday, May 1st and runs through Sunday, May 4th. You can view the entire festival line-up (as well as find venue and ticket info, and showtimes) at the official CIMM Fest website here: http://www.cimmfest.org/

Metalhead (Ragnar Bragason, Iceland, 2013)
Rating: 8.0

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I was predisposed to liking this, given my affinity for Icelandic culture, but writer/director Ragnar Bragason’s sharply observed drama is the kind of small gem that I imagine will impress film festival audiences wherever it plays. Thora Bjorg Helga, starring in only her second feature film to date, gives a quietly powerful performance as Hera, a teenage “metalhead” who lives with her parents on a farm in rural Iceland. Hera’s enthusiasm for heavy-metal music is spurred by the accidental death of her beloved older brother, who was also a fan of metal and whose identity she subsequently adopts. Hera rebels against her family, community and church by immersing herself into a subculture that doesn’t even exist in the small town where she lives — the dramatization of which stands as the most poignant exploration of grief I’ve seen in a movie in some time. But all of the film’s characters are impressively nuanced, including Hera’s parents (played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir and and the inevitable Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) and a sympathetic local priest, whose tender encounters with Hera reminded me of the relationship between the characters portrayed by Maureen O’Hara and Walter Pidgeon in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. I read that Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst wants to remake this; if there is a God, he will not allow it to happen.

The World of Goopi and Bagha (Ranade, India, 2013)
Rating: 7.9

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The CIMM Fest screening of The World of Goopi and Bagha marks the impressive U.S. premiere of a great new animated film from India. The title characters are a singer and a drummer who meet on the road after being banished from their home villages for playing lousy music. The fortunes of Goopi and Bagha soon turn around, however, after they encounter a “ghost king” who grants them the ability to enchant anyone who hears their music. These lovable scoundrels soon use their new-found powers to broker peace between two rival kingdoms in exchange for the hands of two beautiful princesses. Based on a story by Upendra Kishore Raychowdhuri, already immortalized by Satyajit Ray in a 1969 Bengali art film, this Hindi-language take is more like an animated version of a Bollywood musical: it boasts a richly designed world in which the colorful characters delightfully resemble nothing so much as marionettes (complete with hinge-like joints). But even more impressive is the original score — a succession of songs that are catchy as hell and feature lyrics that seem clever even when read as English subtitles. Fans of the animation and musical genres, whether children or adult, should make it a point to catch this.

Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Russia, 1925) with live musical accompaniment by “Mary Shelley”

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The film that launched a worldwide revolution . . . in terms of motion-picture editing! The most famous of all silent Russian movies is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece about a failed political revolution that took place twenty years earlier. The crew of the battleship Potemkin rebels against unfair living conditions (including being ordered 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. This screening will be accompanied by a live musical performance by an outfit calling itself “Mary Shelley” (featuring members of local bands The Smashing Pumpkins, Local H and Loom); I have no clue what it will sound like but silent movies are always better accompanied by live scores, and Eisenstein’s vigorous, pounding filmmaking cries out for a good one.

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Christensen, Denmark, 1922) with live musical accompaniment by “Wrekmeister Harmonies”

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Benjamin Christensen’s fascinating documentary/narrative hybrid begins by alternating static shots of paintings and drawings with intertitles that provide a historical overview of witchcraft and devil worship in medieval Europe. This is followed by a lengthy section dramatizing both the practice of witchcraft as well as the witch hunts it inspired. The final section cleverly denounces the witch hunts by comparing the behavior of “witches” in the Middle Ages with women suffering from “hysteria” and other mental illnesses in the present day of 1922. Essential viewing for anyone interested in horror and the occult. This screening will be accompanied by a live musical performance by Wrekmeister Harmonies, which the festival’s website describes as “the brainchild of sound artist and filmmaker J.R. Robinson . . . This experimental sound installation, with its beautiful and dusky visuals intermingled with ambient composition, is a fabricated experience that can only be described as beautiful and haunting.”

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A Very Curious Sentence in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard

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So I recently finished reading The Leopard (or Il Gattpardo as it’s known in Italian), the great but sadly one-and-only novel written by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. The book was originally published in 1958, exactly one year after the author’s death, and it is well-known today primarily for serving as the basis for Luchino Visconti’s opulent, Burt Lancaster-starring film version from 1963. To anyone with an interest in the movie — and you should be interested in it (although if you’ve not yet seen it you may want to bone up on reading about Garibaldi, the Risorgimento and 19th century Italian history in general over at Wikipedia first) — I would also recommend checking out the source novel: it will help you to understand the soul of the Sicilian people. Catholic hypocrisy, class differences, aging machismo, an elegy for the dying aristocracy, etc. All of that and more comes to life in Lampedusa’s beautiful and vivid prose.

I must admit, however, that one very curious sentence in the book caught me completely off-guard — a startling cinematic reference that the author casually drops into the middle of a scene taking place in 1860 when most of the novel’s action is set. Lampedusa describes the elation of Angelica (the character played by Claudia Cardinale in the movie) upon being asked to marry Tancredi (the character played by Alain Delon) by his uncle, the Prince of Salina (Lancaster’s character):

After this Angelica blushed, took half a step back: ‘I’m so happy . . .,’ then came close again, stood on tiptoe, and murmured into his ear, ‘Uncle mine!’; a highly successful line, comparable in its perfect timing almost to Eisenstein’s baby carriage, and which, explicit and secret as it was, set the Prince’s simple heart aflutter and yoked him to the lovely girl forever.

While one might expect this kind of surprising anachronistic metaphor from, say, Thomas Pynchon (who deliberately and hilariously peppers his “period” novels with this sort of thing), it is the only such 20th century reference that I’m aware of in Lampedusa’s entire novel — at least until the brief epilogue, which flashes-forward to 1910 (and that’s still 15 years before Eisenstein’s movie was made). As incongruous as it may seem, however, I think Lampedusa does have a point: Sergei Eisenstein’s baby carriage shots are perfectly placed within the Odessa steps massacre montage towards the end of Battleship Potemkin. One might even say that they serve as the climax of the film’s climax. The great Russian director, who edited his movies with almost mathematical precision, certainly knew a thing or two about timing — as did Lampedusa and, for that matter, Visconti.

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Both Battleship Potemkin and The Leopard are available in high-quality restored editions on Blu-ray and DVD, the former via Kino and the latter via Criterion (the Blu-ray of which is the greatest shit evah). My copy of The Leopard, the novel, was published by Pantheon Books in 2007 and translated by one Archibald Colquhoun.


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.


Top 25 Films of the 1940s

25. The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, Japan, 1941)

Hiroshi Shimizu’s film about a disparate group of vacationers staying at a hot springs resort for the summer starts off as a comedy and then wondrously, imperceptibly morphs into a poignant drama. The great Chishu Ryu (best known for his work with Ozu) plays a soldier who badly injures his foot when he steps on a hairpin in the communal bath. He later discovers that it was left behind by a beautiful young woman played by Kinuya Tanaka (best known for her work with Mizoguchi). When she returns to the resort to apologize, all of the guests speculate that love must be in the cards. But Shimizu, a master of subtlety, decides to steer the material in a more interesting direction. Released less than four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, The Ornamental Hairpin contains fleeting references to to the war and the fact that Tanaka’s character is a geisha, lending touches of gravitas to another deceptively light Shimizu masterwork.

24. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, USA, 1944)

23. Going My Way (McCarey, USA, 1944)

bing crosby, gene lockhart & barry fitzgerald - going my way 1944

22. Colorado Territory (Walsh, USA, 1949)

21. Laura (Preminger, USA, 1944)

20. Notorious (Hitchcock, USA, 1946)

19. Children of Paradise (Carne, France, 1945)

The best collaboration of director Marcel Carne and writer Jacques Prevert is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.

18. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

17. Brief Encounter (Lean, UK, 1945)

David Lean will probably always be best remembered for lavish, 70mm-photographed Oscar-friendly pictures like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but I think his relatively early Brief Encounter remains the high point of his career. It’s a minimalist story of adulterous love as “brief” and compressed as the later films are expansive and epic, and arguably all the more effective for it. The performances of Trevor Howard and doe-eyed Celia Johnson as the star-crossed lovers and the script by Noel Coward are all world class. In a memorable line of dialogue Celia’s Laura says “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” If “violence” can be considered purely emotional then this is one of the most violent movies ever made.

16. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, USA, 1943)

15. The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949)

In Carol Reed’s classic British noir Joseph Cotton stars Holly Martins, a dime store novelist who travels to Vienna to visit childhood pal Harry Lime only to find that his friend has died in a mysterious accident. Martins’ belief that Lime was murdered inspires a personal investigation that leads him deep into the morally dubious heart of the postwar European black market as well as into a love affair with Lime’s beautiful girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Among the film’s unforgettable ingredients are the catchy zither score by Anton Karas, the legendary extended cameo by Orson Welles and the cinematography of Robert Krasker, whose use of dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting make the rubble-strewn Viennese streets look positively lunar.

14. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1948)

13. Late Spring (Ozu, Japan, 1949)

Yasujiro Ozu kickstarted his great late period with this terrific drama about a young woman named Noriko (Setsuko Hara, playing the first of three Norikos for Ozu) who lives with her widower father (Chishu Ryu) and is reluctant to get married for fear of leaving him alone. Not only is this the first of the loose “Noriko trilogy” (even though Hara’s characters are different in each film), it also laid down the template that all of Ozu’s subsequent films would follow until his death in 1963: the themes of intergenerational conflict, familial love, loss and regret, wedded to a precise visual style favoring static, low angle compositions and long takes. The depth of feeling that arises from this marriage of form and content is simply unparalleled in cinema.

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

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11. Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945)

10. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

9. Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)

The first sound film that Carl Dreyer made in his native Denmark is this great work of art about religious intolerance, hypocrisy and persecution in the 17th century. While “witches” are being burned at the stake, a beautiful young woman marries an elderly pastor and then embarks on an affair with his son, leading to tragedy for everyone. This is no stolid “period drama” but rather a vital piece of filmmaking with incredibly atmospheric cinematography, restrained but razor sharp performances and a story that brims with obvious parallels to the question-and-torture methods of the Nazis. One of the essential films of its era.

8. Spring in a Small Town (Fei, China, 1948)

7. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946)

William Wyler’s hard-hitting film about returning war veterans readjusting to civilian life holds up extremely well today as an absorbing drama as well as a fascinating window into the myriad social issues facing ordinary, small town Americans in the mid-1940s. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography and the large ensemble cast, including Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and non-actor Harold Russell, are world-class.

6. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948)

As “The Archers,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collectively wrote and directed the most extraordinary movies of the golden age of British cinema and The Red Shoes is their masterpiece. Taking its inspiration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, this beautiful, visually baroque Technicolor extravaganza tells the story of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) who is torn between the desires of her heart and the quest for perfection in her craft. The highlight is the title ballet sequence, a fifteen minute scene employing dozens of dancers and over a hundred painted backdrops, shot and cut together as a thrilling spectacle of pure cinema. One of the great films about obsession. One of the great films about the artistic process. One of the great films period.

5. Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942)

A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, Casablanca irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Bogie and Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood’s old studio system.

4. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, Italy, 1948)

The definitive Italian Neorealist film remains a deceptively simple, emotionally overwhelming experience that must be seen by anyone who loves movies. Writer Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica crafted the ultimately politically engaged drama with this tale of Antonio Ricci, an unemployed factory worker (non-actor Lamberto Maggiorani) who finds a job putting up posters around Rome that requires the use of a bicycle. After selling his bedsheets to get his bike out of hock, Antonio finds that his bicycle is tragically stolen, a turn of events that causes him to spend the day looking for the thief with the aid of his young son Bruno (Enzo Staioloa). A humanistic portrait of despair that has never been bettered.

2. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941)

The failure of the Academy to award Best Picture of 1941 to Citizen Kane is often cited as definitive “proof” that the Oscars have always been out of touch – the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. However, as innovative and influential and great as Kane is, John Ford’s deeply moving portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh mining community is nearly as cinematically expressive and, for my money, the more emotionally affecting work. Ironically, How Green Was My Valley is very similar to Kane in its treatment of the theme of subjectivity; what we see is not after all objective reality but the romanticized memories of Irving Pichel’s offscreen narrator.

1. Letter From an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 1948)

Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece tells the incredible story of the title letter-writer (Joan Fontaine) and her three brief but fateful encounters with a ne’er-do-well pianist (Louis Jourdan) over the course of several decades. His inability to recognize her on the latter two occasions elevates the simple plot, which is recounted via flashback, to the level of high tragedy. Fontaine is heart-breaking in the lead role but the real star is German-born, French-bred director Max Ophuls, whose relentless use of tracking shots has made him virtually synonymous with that type of camera movement and has been a major influence on subsequent directors from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson.


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.


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)

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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)

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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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