Russian Guild of Film Critics 100 | 1930-1939

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 BurritoAndAMovie.com.

Films:
Road to Life (Путёвка в жизнь) 1931, dir. Nikolai Ekk (YouTube)
Outskirts (Окраина) 1933, dir. Boris Barnet (Kanopy)
Chapaev (Чапаев) 1934, dir. Sergei Vasliev, Georgi Vasiliev (YouTube)
A Severe Young Man (Строгий юноша) 1934, dir. Abram Room (Wikimedia)
Jolly Fellows (Весёлые ребята) 1934, dir. Grigori Aleksandrov (YouTube)
The Youth of Maxim (Юность Максима) 1935, dir. Grigori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg (YouTube)
Happiness (Счастье) 1935, dir. Aleksandr Medvedkin (Kanopy)
Alexander Nevsky (Александр Невский) 1938, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (YouTube)

Burrito (last one pre-isolation):
Steak Burrito Grande, Herrera’s, Boston, MA


The dream of workers’ democracy in the USSR died in the 1930s. Stalin tightened his grip on power until all opponents were silenced, exiled, or executed, sometimes all three, as part of his Great Purge. Nearly every single Old Bolshevik – a Party member from before the 1917 revolution – was killed within a four-year span, even those loyal to Stalin. The system of forced labor camps grew exponentially, encompassing everything from hardened vory to academic dissidents. Man-made famine swept the nation, caused by economic mismanagement and fueled by political repression and negligence. Millions were killed, particularly in Ukraine in what is known as the Holodomor.

During this period, greater restrictions were placed on all forms of art. The new official style was called “socialist realism,” and its guidelines were defined by Maxim Gorky at the 1934 Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers. All work was to be: proletarian (relevant to the lives of the proletariat), typical (depicting everyday life), realistic (in style), and partisan (supportive of the state and Party). Filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein, who had put Soviet cinema on the map with technical and theoretical breakthroughs, was condemned for excessive formalism; though he would eventually recover his career, many trailblazers would not, and were not able to seize the new possibilities of the sound era.

It is helpful to think of Soviet censorship on its own terms, as more than an equivalent to the Hays Code or MPAA ratings. Though the guidelines seem clear and there are iconic examples (on the RGFC list, Chapaev, The Youth of Maxim), it is largely ill defined what content is and is not permitted. It was enforced by a technocrat with no experience in film, Boris Shumyatsky, after whose sacking, Jay Leda wrote, “all of Moscow’s film makers gave parties.” It was unevenly applied, used to condemn films that by all rights should have been embraced (A Severe Young Man) while others flew in the face of what one might expect (Jolly Fellows). Officially sanctioned films often contain content that might be censored on television today: harsh language, violence, nudity, and sexuality do exist in these films, which can be jarring for Western viewers.

Socialist realism is sometimes cited as a reason to dismiss films from this period as artistically impure propaganda (a term that is used too broadly, allowing for no difference between glorification of authority and sincerely held political beliefs). While it is true that the 1930s did see the rise of Stalin’s Cult of Personality and its depiction on film, it is important to remember that humanity does not simply disappear in times like these. People still want to be moved, and filmmakers do their best to meet their audience’s demands. The decisions they make in these films tell us quite a bit about what was on people’s minds, what they found funny, what made them insecure, and what they wanted to see.

With all of this in mind, there is a defiant spirit to the RGFC’s choices for the best films from this decade.

Many of the titles are rebellious, optimistic, or were condemned at the time and reappraised decades later as masterpieces. It’s often said that people want escapism in times of hardship. That may be true, but I think the desire goes a little deeper than that. I think they want affirmation. They want to know that their values are worth fighting for, that humor and beauty can still exist, that everything they’re experiencing is not in isolation but is part of the bigger picture. They want to know that everything is under control. This is fertile ground for terrific drama, but presents an opportunity for dictators and conspiracy peddlers. That’s the paradox of Soviet films of the 1930s, and of making art in a totalitarian state that purports socialist values.


Road to Life (Путёвка в жизнь) 1931, dir. Nikolai Ekk (link)

Road to Life marks many firsts for Soviet film. It is the first sound film, the first to win an international award (1932 Venice International Film Festival), and the first feature film by Nikolai Ekk, who would later direct the first Soviet color film. Appropriately, it concerns the fates of the first generation of war orphans following Russia’s two revolutions and back-to-back wars – one with all of Europe, the other with itself.

Set in 1923, Road to Life tells the story of a program dedicated to combating recidivism of abandoned youth. Children that did have homes saw families torn apart by alcoholism and abuse. Those that did not were left to fend for themselves on the street, relying on gangs and a life of crime for stability. They were arrested, imprisoned, released or escape, then with nowhere else to go, return to the crimes that got them arrested in the first place.

Nikolai Sergeiev (Nikolai Batalov, charismatic as ever) proposes a commune: they can stay out of jail and off the streets if they take responsibility for its operation. That means working as carpenters, cooks, and shoemakers, maintaining order, looking out for one another, and contributing for the good of the group. The trust exercises begin small: Nikolai gives Mustafa (Yvan Kyrlya), a serial thief and proud escape artist, money to buy food for the train trip, and an itinerary for when the train leaves. There are no cops on his tail, he could pocket the money if he wants, but Mustafa catches the train at the last minute. From there, it’s a struggle for Nikolai to instill discipline without being just another cop, and for the children to shed their old survival instincts.

I know this is probably setting off people’s propaganda radar, but Road to Life is not an advertisement for communes. This is about the children first and foremost, and has more in common with Stand And Deliver or The Grapes of Wrath than it does with Bezhin Meadow. Ekk’s film is not about how everything became better once the youth embraced communism. It’s about trusting them to carry the torch of society, and not punishing them for our failures. It’s a lesson applicable to every society: if we create a flawed structure with a broken foundation, we can’t condemn them for falling through the cracks.

The metaphor of building a new society is established early, as the opening credits appear on an impressively constructivist spire. It’s a film perfectly suited to the new age of sound: dialogue is crucial to the interactions. In early scenes, while Nikolai makes his case to the children, they rally behind Mustafa, whose voice is essential to the tone of the film. Batalov, most noted for his no-nonsense face and characters (sometimes confident, sometimes foolhardy) in the silent era, makes the most of his new platform, conveying a man who believes what he says but whose face is always afraid the project might fail.


Outskirts (Окраина) 1933, dir. Boris Barnet

Boris Barnet is perhaps the most overlooked Soviet director on the world stage. Part Billy Wilder, part Clint Eastwood, part Coens, and very much a protege of Lev Kuleshov. I have yet to see a film from him that would be out of place on the RGFC’s list, but his condemnation of nationalism, Outskirts, is a perfect selection, highlighting the humor, sensitivity, knack for innovation, and muscular intellect of this boxer-turned-soldier-turned-actor-turned-director.

Outskirts takes place in a small Russian village at the beginning of World War I. Striking cobblers are encouraged to put their demonstration behind them and rally behind the war effort. German prisoners of war are housed in the village, and given the shortage of supplies and available labor, they are permitted to work during the day. One POW, Mueller (Hans Klering), makes shoes for Pyotr Kadkin, whose two sons Nikolai and Senkin (Nikolai Bogolyubov, Nikolai Kryuchkov) are in the trenches. Meanwhile, a previously cordial relationship between a Russian landlord and a German tenant is torn apart due to patriotic fervor, as anxieties in the town are taken out on Mueller.

The film is a thoughtful take on national division, making the case that average Germans and Russians have more in common with one another than they do with their bosses or political leaders. The epilogue is utterly fascinating, giving an accelerated overview of the period between the February and October Revolutions. The same leaders who told workers to support the war join the Provisional Government, and do not stop the war after gaining power, making common cause with war profiteers. Soldiers patiently wait for their orders to return home, hopeful that the Tsar’s overthrow will end the conflict, but they remain on the front lines.

Outskirts is an internationalist film made when Stalin was purging the internationalists from the Party, a condemnation of patriotism while the notion of a Soviet national identity was being built, and a pacifist parable in the time of military braggadocio. It has also been released under the name The Patriots, a name which reveals its intended message. The patriots are the ones that ordered workers to stop demanding their rights, to put progress aside, and to view the Germans as enemies. Patriotism caused unnecessary divisions that only benefited the ruthless. Those that succumbed to it did so out of desperation, and the gutter of negative emotions drained into a sewer of xenophobia.


Chapaev (Чапаев) 1934, dir. Sergei Vasliev, Georgi Vasiliev

Vasili Chapaev was a hero of the Russian Civil War, a peasant with no education who proved to be a brilliant tactician who died in battle. His legacy was strengthened in a 1923 novel by Dmitri Furmanov, who was a commissar stationed with Chapaev on the Eastern Front, then immortalized in Chapaev, directed by Sergei and Georgi Vasiliev (no relation, but they did call themselves the Vasiliev Brothers).

Chapaev and The Youth of Maxim may be the most obvious applications of socialist realist on the list (notably, the staging places Party functionary Furmanov in a more dominant position than Chapaev), but it is also a perfect example of how a great work can turn limitations into advantages, and that good storytelling can exist in any time and place. Chapaev does not treat the character as a legend, or suggest that his gift made him superhuman. It celebrates that which made him like any person, including his his lack of refinement and his love of singing with his comrades in arms.

Two scenes in particular highlight the film’s approach to his character. One is him explaining military strategy to a seasoned apparatchik using potatoes, while later he confesses to having never heard of Alexander the Great. The second shows him attempting to describe his allegiances to a crowd, but unable to differentiate between the socialists and the communists, or the First and Second International.


A Severe Young Man (Строгий юноша) 1934, dir. Abram Room

Click here for a version with subtitles

The original release of A Severe Young Man was canceled by Ukrainfilm for deviations from socialist realism. The fact that it was not embraced by the authorities when it was released shows that the censors truly had no idea what they were doing. This is a film about finding morality in a new social order, about creating societal templates when the old ones were broken, and presents no criticisms of the Soviet system. A Severe Young Man should have been a classic among the first generation to come of age in the USSR, a Rebel With a Cause, if you will. Though it did later find an audience in the 1960s, A Severe Young Man is a terrific film, and its cancellation shows the absurd and arbitrary nature of Stalinist censorship.

The titular severe (meaning strict) young man is Grisha Fokin, a rising star in the Komsomol, the Young Communist League. Grisha is admired for his sober thinking and forthright communication style, all of which is thrown into disarray when a mutual attraction develops between him and the wife of a respected doctor. What is an upstanding, dedicated YCL member to do? Does he deny his feelings and betray his stated values, which include honesty and directness? Does he pursue them and risk upsetting the social order? Is he prioritizing his own feelings over the needs of the community? And even if he finds the correct path, will the example he sets be applicable to all young people of different temperaments and intellects?

Room’s other film on the RGFC list, Bed and Sofa, also concerned morality in the new social order, and though the two are very different, there is the same sensitivity and humanity at work. We’ve heard how the revolution was good for workers, about equality, but what about emotion? The film concludes with a particularly sentimental work from Karl Marx, who was utterly devoted to his wife and wrote lengthy poetry in her honor.

Like Bed and Sofa, the metaphors are layered but designed to be understood; many of the conversations happen in the changing area of an Olympic-style sporting facility, complete with statues, discus throwers, and muscular athletes in improbable poses with strategically placed towels, in an allusion to ancient philosophers. The production design and film quality maximize the beauty of its scant resources. The speech patters of the characters demonstrate their views: the intellectual doctor waxes poetic, the YCL members speak bluntly, and the scoundrel enforcer of the old order snivels with a forked tongue.

My personal favorite is the impulsive Liza (Valentina Serova), and her catchphrase “Неужели ты не понимаешь?” (“Don’t you understand?”)


Jolly Fellows (Весёлые ребята) 1934, dir. Grigori Aleksandrov

Jolly Fellows is undoubtedly one of the greatest movies ever made. Grigori Aleksandrov, a longtime collaborator of Sergei Eisenstein, made the first Soviet musical, and it is a fucking riot. It’s the biggest and silliest damn thing you’ll ever see and you’ll want to watch it again and again, with its elastic faces, animated interludes, and bombastic musical numbers. It is the least cynical movie ever made. It solidified the star of crooner and Soviet jazz pioneer Leonid Utyosov, and propelled Lyubov Orlova into superstardom.

Never has a plot mattered less, but here it is anyway: Kostya (Utyosov) is a shepherd who spends his days singing with his herd along the Odessa shores. Anyuta (Orlova) is the maid for an aristocratic family, who is secretly a phenomenal singer. The family mistakes Kostya for a famous composer, then the plot is basically farm animals running amok in high society. Anyuta and Kostya fall in love. Then Kostya is again mistaken for a famous composer in a Moscow concert hall, then the plot is an orchestra trying to keep up with his improvised movements, Merrie Melodies style. Then, as leader of a musical ensemble, they rush to the Bolshoi in the rain, hitching a ride on a horse-drawn hearse. They can’t use their waterlogged instruments, so they mimic instruments a capella, and are joined by Anyuta, and all is well.

Probably the most amazing thing about it, other than literally everything about it, is Aleksandrov’s origins. He acted in Battleship Potemkin, co-directed October: Ten Days that Shook the World, then set about making documentaries and the occasional propaganda film. He joined Eisenstein’s disastrous trip to Hollywood and Mexico, and returned with the germ of a Hollywood musical done to Russian sensibilities. Its influence can be found all throughout the 1960s and ’70s, when virtually every comedy had songs, whether they were musicals or not.

Trust me, just watch it. You’ll feel better. Just don’t watched the colorized version. As a matter of fact, don’t watch the colorized version of anything.

Fun fact: If you saw Cold War, the 2018 Polish submission for the Academy Awards, you’ll likely recognize one of the signature songs from the audition scene.


The Youth of Maxim (Юность Максима) 1935, dir. Grigori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg

The Youth of Maxim is the first installment of a trilogy about a factory worker and Bolshevik and his journey through several key chapters in revolutionary history. As mentioned in the review for Chapaev above, it is perhaps the most typically socialist realist film selected by the RGFC, but its focus is on the values of the struggle and not the primacy of the Party.

The film is set in 1910. Maxim and his friends, all young factory workers, are secretly passing out anti-tsarist material. Several of his friends and comrades are killed in a strike, compelling Maxim to join the underground Bolshevik movement. Later installments – The Return of Maxim and The Vyborg Side – depict the competition between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the Tsarist Duma, and the building of the Soviet state post-1917.

It’s a very simple film, and does a great deal to humanize everyone involved without making the villains cartoonishly wicked and the heroes absurdly valiant. Credit for this goes to the performance by Boris Chirkov and the direction from Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, seen previously in this series for their work on The Overcoat.

There’s not much more to say about this film, but if you are interested in how the USSR mythologized its origins before the Cult of Personality fully took over, this is a good place to start.


Happines (Счастье) 1935, dir. Aleksandr Medvedkin

Here’s a wild one. Almost everything about Aleksandr Medvedkin’s Happiness is unlikely: a silent film years in 1935 after sound began to dominate, an absurdist fable in the age of socialist realism, and a satirical take on life in the kolkhoz (collective farms). The film wasn’t suppressed, and it went largely unnoticed for decades, when this oddity was rediscovered and embraced by critics.

If a person were shown Happiness with no context, they would be forgiven for thinking it had been made ten years earlier in the age of formalism. It is a film version of a lubok, a predecessor to the modern comic strip typically used to tell religious or folk tales. Our hero, Khmyr, a typical muzhik, on a series of misadventures involving clergy, thieves, his spotted horse, and the authorities who execute him for attempting suicide without permission (from which he recovers).

Much of the humor might be too specific for audiences not familiar with Russian archetypes or Soviet terminology, but whether you understand it or not, it’s a delightful romp through the shortsighted logic of bureaucracy.


Alexander Nevsky (Александр Невский) 1938, dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein returned from the West without a Hollywood-backed project and unable to edit the footage he shot in Mexico. His next project, Bezhin Meadow, was halted and largely destroyed (fragments can be viewed on Criterion). He had retreated into teaching and theoretical writing, convinced he would never be able to direct again, until he warmed himself to the authorities and took on a great patriotic epic, Alexander Nevsky.

There is much about the film that is the result of political triangulation: Nevsky had defended Novgorod from invasion against the Teutonic Knights and the Holy Roman Empire. His co-director Dmitri Vasiliev and co-writer Pyotr Pavlenko were assigned to the film to ensure Eisenstein did not descend into “formalism.” The depiction of a great Russian hero defeating Germanic invaders in 1938 instilled confidence of a Soviet victory over the Nazis.

That is the backdrop, and the result is phenomenal. A tale of heroism, of bravery in the face of a wise and unrelenting foe, and the many victories and losses in battle. The contrast with Eisenstein’s earlier work proves his versatility and brilliance. His silent films are experimental and immersive, while the obviously constructed mattes and sets allow him to heighten the tension. Vast fields feel claustrophobic, as though danger might explode out of the horizon. Our heroes are brave but not infallible. The extended battle sequences, combined with the legendary score by Dmitri Shostakovich, elevate this to one of the greatest war movies set before the invention of guns. It is perhaps not one of his most personal works, but he brings everything he has to the project, and it shows.

It was also pretty great to hear my wife say “He’s cute” about a character, and realize it’s because he looks like me.


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 BurritoAndAMovie.com.

Films:
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)

Burrito:
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 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 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 job 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 to find 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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