Russian Guild of Film Critics 100 | 1917-1929

My entry into professional writing was reviewing the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list for DigBoston. Now I’m doing the same with the Russian Guild of Film Critics’ equivalent list found here. Rather than review each film, I’ll be recapping each decade.

I’ll also include the burrito I ate while collecting my thoughts. Welcome to

Father Sergius (Отец Сергий) 1917-1918, dir. Alexandre Volkoff, Yakov Protazanov (YouTube)
Strike (Стачка) 1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (Kanopy)
Battleship Potemkin (Броненосец Потёмкин) 1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (Kanopy)
By the Law (По закону) 1926, dir. Lev Kuleshov (Kanopy)
The Overcoat (Шинель) 1926, dir. Leonid Trauberg, Grigori Kozintsev (YouTube)
Bed and Sofa (Третья мещанская) 1927, dir. Abram Room (Kanopy)
The House on Trubnaya (Дом на Трубной) 1928, dir. Boris Barnet (Kanopy)
Storm Over Asia (Потомок Чингисхана) 1928, dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin (Kanopy)
Fragment of an Empire (Обломок империи) 1929, dir. Fridrikh Ermler (YouTube)

Carne Asada, Tenoch, Somerville, MA

Post-Revolutionary Russia in the 1920s was one hell of a time to be a filmmaker, filmgoer, film theorist, film critic, you name it. Artists, audiences, and politicians alike were eager to push the medium forward, to broaden the range of topics and emotions that could be expressed through technical and stylistic innovation. The new Bolshevik-led government embraced film and saw it as a crucial way of reaching the masses. Vladimir Lenin famously remarked to Anatoly Lunacharsky that “you must remember always that of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.” It was a revolutionary medium for a revolutionary age.

Even before the revolution, politically and artistically, Russia was primed and ready to audaciously experiment with its cinema. Russian audiences had been acquainted with both international and domestic films since Camille Cerf filmed the 1896 coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. Always eager for something new, they had embraced a wide variety of genres and tones from all over the world, so when the time came to build a new national mythology following two revolutions and a civil war, Soviet filmmakers rose to the occasion.

If you only know one thing about Russian and Soviet cinema, odds are it’s montage as seen in the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin. Montage is the theory that the assembly of images, not only the images themselves, gives film its force; one image only means so much when presented on its own, but if we see the two images in succession, we have the beginning of a story (the changing meaning depending on which images are juxtaposed is commonly referred to as the Kuleshov effect).

Sergei Eisenstein is often cited for his definition and categorization of the different types of montage, but it was utilized by many Soviet directors in their own unique ways. This is one of my favorite things about this period: the Odessa Steps sequence remains one of the greatest nearly a century later, but the fact that so many contemporaries employed the same technique to such drastically different effect is part of what’s so electrifying. This wasn’t just a useful invention like bullet time or Steadicam. This was changing the language of cinema forever.

As crucial as montage is, I’ve noticed on Letterboxd that there’s a particular type of person that logs and reviews silent Soviet films, usually with some version of “Interesting example of montage” or “Not that much montage.” Some comment on whether a film’s propaganda outweighs its artistic merit. By all means, enjoy and appraise films however you want, focus on whatever interests you most, but this strikes me as a particularly unrewarding viewing experience if that’s your only takeaway. If your appraisal doesn’t take into account the contemporary viewer’s experience, you’re only narrowing your own.

These filmmakers were expanding the boundaries of the art but they weren’t doing it so that academics a century later could play Film Theory Bingo. Films were meant to be understood by audiences first and foremost, to increase the scope of what could be conveyed uniquely through cinema. If a metric montage sequence is technically flawless but nobody understands what’s being said, what good is it? It’s easy to see why the Bolsheviks valued film so highly: its ability to popularize complex ideas was unparalleled.

As far as propaganda goes, we should really make a distinction between films that make political arguments for revolution and workers’ power, and those that function as ideological apologias of the Soviet state. Yes, any film made in this period is going to be pro-Soviet, or at least not anti-, but it helps no one to paint with a brush this broad. The political message of Battleship Potemkin isn’t that the USSR is great, it’s that people are right to rebel and organize in the face of oppression, and that solidarity is a necessary component of that process. Fridrikh Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire has a bit of that familiar fetishization of labor, the toiling of sweaty, sinewy workers, but it comes in the form of a touching story about how quickly times had changed. Ermler, a Russian Civil War veteran who was tortured by the White Army, evokes sympathy, not scorn or ridicule, for someone stuck in the old ways. And though Ermler would make outright Stalinist films later in life, Fragment‘s thoughtfulness shines through, unburdened by its political obligation.

Not all Soviet-era art can be dismissed as “propaganda.” “Workers of the world, unite!” isn’t the same thing as “High five, Comrade Stalin, for personally punching Hitler to death.”

Father Sergius (Отец Сергий) 1917-1918, dir. Alexandre Volkoff, Yakov Protazanov

Our first film could not technically be called “Soviet” as it was produced between the February and October Revolutions of 1917 – the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II and the Bolsheviks coming to power – and ultimately released in May 1918. Under the Tsar, the depiction of priests in films was forbidden, and with newfound freedom came this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Father Sergius. The story follows Prince Kasatsky (Ivan Mosjoukine), who leaves the aristocracy for an ascetic life after discovering his fiancee’s affair with Tsar Nicholas I.

Directed by the prolific Yakov Protazanov and Alexandre Volkoff, Father Sergius is a thoroughly satisfying film with everything you’d want in a silent melodrama of the era. The high society galas are lavish, the depths of isolation are grim, the expressions are HUGE and the makeup is even MORE HUGE. It has the thrill of the forbidden, because the film itself would have been illegal just a year before. The lack of censorship is apparent in its unabashed treatment of royal scandal, sex, and cutting off one’s own thumb to resist temptation.

A hallmark of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Russian literature is that they didn’t dance around sin like bowdlerizing Evangelicals. If you want to find salvation, first you have to rub your nose in your own depravity and throw your entire being, body and mind, on God’s mercy, which means no euphemisms for your transgressions. So when that digit gets severed, it’s shockingly blunt.

Many people involved in the production, save for Protazanov, left for Western Europe after October, making this not only the first post-Tsarist film of note, but also one of the last of its kind before the revolutionaries reinvented Russian film from the ground up.

Strike (Стачка) 1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (Kanopy)
Battleship Potemkin (Броненосец Потёмкин) 1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (Kanopy)

(See Kanopy links above for fully restored editions)

Next on the list are two films by Sergei Eisenstein released in 1925, Strike (his first feature-length film) and Battleship Potemkin. The lasting impact that Eisenstein had on cinema at home and abroad can’t be overstated, and neither Strike nor Potemkin have lost an ounce of their original intensity. If you don’t know the first thing about Russian history, if you’ve never read a single book on film history or theory, you will still understand everything that happens in both films on a deep level, intellectually and emotionally. Though they are not the first films of the Soviet era, they were arguably the first to demonstrate what the newly formed USSR had to offer the world artistically, crackling with the energy of revolution and innovation, all with the discipline and skill of a master craftsman.

Potemkin recounts a famous moment in Russian revolutionary history, when sailors mutinied and seized control of their ship against the backdrop of the 1905 revolution. This event was widely regarded as a precursor to the events of 1917, and Eisenstein was commissioned to commemorate its twentieth anniversary. That film’s reverberations continue to this day. Even when viewed out of historical context, it captures the frenetic feeling of on-the-ground activism, the beauty of collective action, and the survival of hope after crushing defeat. My heart skipped a beat when the crowd confronts an anti-Semite who tries to hijack the debate.

Lesser known in the West is Strike, the story of a fictional 1903 strike that similarly focuses on collective action in response to injustice, and the subsequent reaction by preexisting systems of control. Here, a worker is accused of stealing a key piece of machinery, and is ordered to give up three weeks of pay to cover it. He hangs himself, sparking a rebellion. The cigar-smoking stockholders deploy a series of spies, each associated with a specific animal depending on their expertise: for example, the photographs from afar are taken by the owl.

Formalism is so named because it concerns the craftsmanship and artistic decisions as much as the narrative and dialogue. Eisenstein brought revolutionary techniques to a familiar story the way rebelling seamen brought revolutionary politics to preexisting discontentment. The raw material was already there in people’s minds, the film and its techniques simply gave it a shape. One can only imagine being part of the first audiences seeing Potemkin or Strike, and suddenly all of your previously held views on art change in one evening. You should definitely see both; Strike is audacious but less of a punch in your heart’s gut as its successor, but if Potemkin was the powder keg under the burgeoning Soviet film industry, Strike was the match.

By the Law (По закону) 1926, dir. Lev Kuleshov (Kanopy)

(See Kanopy link above for better quality version)

By the Law is Lev Kuleshov’s examination of isolation, justice, and revenge during the Klondike Gold Rush. Based on a story by Jack London, Kuleshov’s adaptation is a deliciously intense slow boil, a stark contrast from his more fast-paced fare, like The Death Ray and The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. (The latter of which I highly recommend.) When one member of a gold-hunting expedition is saddled with more work for less of a cut, resentment turns to murder. Instead of killing the perpetrator in retaliation, the two survivors keep him hostage for the winter, waiting for better weather to notify the proper authorities. They battle the elements, lack of food, and their own deteriorating mental state.

By the Law is very much a Jack London story, where the laws of man are powerless against the will of nature. The rising river is indifferent to what humans consider just, and the cabin built for protection from the elements may be their coffin. It’s like if Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Hateful Eight, and Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush were the same movie. Wonderful stuff.

By the Law stands apart from Kuleshov’s other films in so many areas: pace, subject matter, and tone. The main similarities I noticed were his regular cast and his namesake effect. His projects are normally so tightly constructed, whereas By the Law feels like it might rip itself apart at any moment through sheer angst, and this departure is evidently what drew him to make it. Its politics relate to the folly of people attempting to dominate their external and internal nature, and the breakdown of all social order when hunger is involved. By the Law is a terrific genre film and an unexpected but very worthwhile experiment by Kuleshov.

The Overcoat (Шинель) 1926, dir. Leonid Trauberg, Grigori Kozintsev (YouTube)

(The music for this one is a little strange but you get used to it)

The Overcoat is an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s famous short story. It’s definitely a strange one, and might be the most difficult on this list for the uninitiated. The film combines two Gogol stories: “The Overcoat” and “Nevsky Prospekt.” Charlie Chaplin was offered the lead, but was threatened with permanent exile from the United States if he accepted. Part of me wishes he had, but then we wouldn’t have had the wonderful, weasely face of Andrei Kostrichkin in the role of Akaky Akakievich.

Gogol’s stories achieved their satirical tone through grotesque exaggeration, which is maintained here. The biggest appeal of this film is the cast, the makeup, the many forced perspectives, the fixation on faces and shadows, and the hyena-like laughter of its antagonists. The Overcoat looks amazing and shares more with a film you might expect to see from 1920s Germany, not Russia.

I wrote several analytical essays on “The Overcoat” in college (at least one every year, it seemed), but I’m not sure that the film contributes much to the meaning of the story. Both are effective meditations on how little holds a person’s sanity together while imagining the kind of person who thrives in the dehumanization of bureaucracy. I think I just prefer Gogol’s bleak pessimism over Trauberg and Kozintsev’s German Expressionism.

Bed and Sofa (Третья мещанская) 1927, dir. Abram Room (Kanopy)

(See Kanopy link above for better quality version)

My personal favorite film on this list is Bed and Sofa. It’s not the only must-see here, but it’s the most deserving of a profile boost. It’s the story of a love triangle between a man, his wife, and his friend, but it’s also so much more. It’s a personal story when most films were about the collective. It’s certainly political, even revolutionary, in its view of gender norms and domestic arrangements, but nothing to do with the state or party politics. It rests heavily on symbolism but is unambiguous in its view of sex.

Kolia (Nikolai Batalov) is married to Liuda (Lyudmila Semyonova), and though he’s reliable and steadily employed, he’s kind of a bore and piggish when it comes to domestic work. Enter Volodia (Vladimir Fogel), Kolia’s friend from the Civil War, who sleeps on their sofa while looking for work in Moscow. When Kolia is called away on business, Volodia and Liuda begin sleeping together. Kolia comes home, leaves when he discovers the truth, only to come crawling back to sleep on the sofa while Volodia plays husband. Liuda, meanwhile, eventually grows tired of both men, a matter which is complicated by her sudden pregnancy.

Normally I wouldn’t care about revealing the ending of a movie that’s nearly a century old, but I will leave out key details. What happens next is best experienced without knowing in advance. Suffice to say it’s an even stronger message of liberation than you might expect. There is no shame attached to the sex itself, with director Abram Room focusing on the complications that arise when people’s true desires and ambition, romantic or otherwise, don’t fit neatly with the roles they are expected to fill. The symbols are potent but practical, explicit but not graphic. Deep into their flirtation, Liuda reads Volodia’s fortune, ending with her laying his representation directly on top of hers, and the next shot is the two getting out of bed. Kolia’s projection of his own masculinity (and obliviousness) is depicted (and ridiculed) when he stands atop the Bolshoi Theatre, proud of all he has accomplished in life while standing directly under a statue’s penis.

It all somehow feels even racier than something you might find on cable today, and twice as socially progressive. Sex, pregnancy, and even abortion are dealt with far more bluntly and maturely than they are today. Contemporary audiences were scandalized by the very strong allusions to the saga of poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s time living with married writers Lilya and Osip Brik, but even if you have no idea who they are, if those names look like too many consonants spread across not enough vowels, you’ll still love Bed and Sofa.

The House on Trubnaya (Дом на Трубной) 1928, dir. Boris Barnet (Kanopy)

(See Kanopy link above for full version)

After Bed and Sofa, getting to know the great Boris Barnet might be the greatest reward of this project so far. I first saw him in Kuleshov’s Mr. West playing Jeddy the Cowboy, where he’s as agile as a stunt comic, wearing an absurdly tall hat and aimlessly firing an impossible number of bullets from a six shooter in the streets of Moscow. That Barnet directed some of the most celebrated films in Soviet history, and that as a director he appeals to my specific sense of humor and political views, was a pretty big discovery. We’ll get to Outskirts in the next installment, but The House on Trubnaya is one hell of an entry point to Barnet, as well as some of the early Soviet film industry’s finest performers.

Originally conceived by screenwriter Bella Zorich as a Leninist take on Cinderella, The House on Trubnaya follows Paranya (Vera Maretskaya), a young woman from the countryside who arrives in Moscow with nowhere to stay. Unaware of the rapid political transformations taking place, she agrees to a non-union housekeeping job for a formerly wealthy hairdresser Mr. Golikov (Vladimir Fogel), who is all too willing to exploit her work ethic. His flat is in the titular house on Trubnaya, which is is in total disarray, emblematic of the recently deposed petite bourgeois; everybody is a gossip, and nobody is capable of doing their own labor. The maid’s union, after many attempts to recruit Paranya, elect her as a deputy to the Moscow Soviet, and the once exploitative residents of the house are even more petty in their appeals to her new station.

The House on Trubnaya is energetic, hilarious, and works exceptionally well even if you know nothing about its politics. The film was produced and released in 1928 near the end of the New Economic Policy, a series of reforms that allowed limited market reforms to rebuild the Soviet economy following the Civil War. The NEP lasted from 1921 to 1928, when Stalin instituted the first Five-Year Plan. This makes Barnet’s film feel like a time capsule in the way it depicts characters like Golikov and the other petite bourgeois tenants. They’re not scheming and parasitic as much as they are simply pathetic, still guided by individual self-interest.

(The absolute funniest moment that illustrates this is when it shows Golikov doing his own chores. While washing the dishes, instead of drying them and putting them in the rack, he simply throws them in the direction of the cabinet behind him, breaking every single one.)

Storm Over Asia (Потомок Чингисхана) 1928, dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin (Kanopy)

(See Kanopy link above for better quality version)

Storm Over Asia is how you’ll find our next film, though its Russian title captures much more of its essence: Потомок Чингисхана, or The Heir to Genghis Khan. Set in 1918, in the midst of the Civil War, Storm Over Asia follows Bair (Valéry Inkijinoff), a Mongolian trapper. Bair joins the Bolshevik partisans following a battle with foreign capitalists who offer far too little for a valuable pelt. He is injured in battle and taken prisoner by the British army, when they discover he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Eager to rally support for an anti-Bolshevik government in Mongolia, they exploit his incapacitated state and prop him up as the new head of Mongolia. All of this comes tumbling down when Bair fights back in what might be one of the most spectacular action sequences of the 1920s, Soviet or otherwise.

Storm Over Asia is remarkable for many reasons, chiefly in that it is surprisingly non-ideological. It is certainly political and pro-Bolshevik, but Bair is not specifically a communist. He joined the movement that fought foreign exploitation and valued the national rights of Mongolians. Neophytes are frequently the subject of 1920s Soviet films, but he’s never directly converted to a particular cause except for Mongolian self-determination.

Director Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of the great cinematic innovators of the decade. Unlike Eisenstein, he remains steadfastly focused on the individual within their surroundings. Lingering shots of Bair feel almost documentary in nature, though he’s never under a microscope. Socializing in the partisan camp, an extended close-up of Bair somehow grounds him without glamorizing him.

Fragment of an Empire (Обломок империи) 1929, dir. Fridrikh Ermler

(Tough to see for a bit but it gets better)

Closing out the decade is Fragment of an Empire, arguably the most propagandistic film in this batch but never at the expense of its humor and humanity. Fyodor Nikitin plays Filimonov, a traumatized soldier who loses his memory during the Civil War. Ten years later, in 1928, his memories come rushing back, but all of them took place in a country that no longer exists. St. Petersburg is now Leningrad, the city has been industrialized, and the entire social order has changed. He goes to his old boss for help but finds him dispossessed; the boss cries and has Filimonov’s sympathy, until he sees the freedom that comes from worker’s power.

It’s a very simple story, but its beating heart wins out over its reductionist politics. Nikitin has the most incredible face, even behind Filimonov’s beard, full of confusion and the desire to do what’s right in an unfamiliar world. Ermler also directs the story without bellicose triumphalism; though the Red Army won, the war was a tragedy that permanently damaged the psyche of a generation, communicated by one of the most haunting images I think I’ve ever seen:


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