Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929)

It is easy today to dismiss silent film as “sound film without sound”, but that is a mistake based on our preconceived notions. Silent film is, for a fact, a different medium, and when it works at its very best, that medium is not inferior to sound film. Just different.

In the late 1920s, just before the break-through of sound film, the silent film had its artistic peak. At that point, some directors were experimenting with silence as an added dimension to the film, putting the images and their inherent story-telling abilities more in focus. One of them was Russian Dziga Vertov with his Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera).

The cameraman in Chelovek s kino-apparatom, aka Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

It is relevant to ask whether Chelovek s kino-apparatom is documentary or propaganda. Well, in a sense it is neither. And both. Less and more. To the extent that the film has a story, it is the story of a man who goes around with a movie camera, filming whatever he chances to find. An onrushing train. People in a car. Even a woman giving birth (which is one of the film’s most powerful scenes, incidentally). But this thematic thread is so thin that we, the viewers, tend to forget all about it in the fascination over the fantastic imagery and visual playfulness that holds the film together. Since the film contains practically no title cards, the film’s messages are conveyed solely by means of the images.

To state that Chelovek s kino-apparatom should be watched without a soundtrack is, of course, to stretch things a bit too far. Vertov intended the film to be viewed with instrumental accompaniment. But at the same time it must be remembered that each of the many soundtracks that have been produced for this film gives it a different flavour, and in effect creates a different film. Therefore, in a sense, it may not be altogether a bad thing that the version available at the Internet Archive is without a soundtrack. It creates an incentive to watch the film bare-bones, and will perhaps allow the viewer to see the scenes from a fresh perspective. One that would not be possible with a recently written soundtrack, one which carries with it the composer’s interpretation of the images.

This film is best enjoyed if you want to explore some of silent cinema’s greatest moments.

A childbirth in Chelovek s kino-apparatom, aka Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Chelovek s kino-apparatom
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Year: 1929
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Directors: Dziga Vertov
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (620×418; not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

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Staroye i novoye (1929)

The ongoing Winter Olympics have put a bright spotlight on Russia, and the revealing light has not been kind to the hosting country. Much of the headlines, except for those that purely deal with the athletic events, have been about corruption and abuse of power.

This is not exactly something new in Russia and the Soviet Union, of course. Present-day leaders merely follow a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. Yet, in spite of oppression and flawed leadership, Soviet and Russian film has been among the best in the world for at least a hundred years.

Russian peasant in Sergei Eisenstein's Staroye i navoye, aka The General Line (1929)

One of the most important of the early Soviet directors was Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein made relatively few movies, but almost all of them are exceptional works of art. Many are available from the Internet Archive and a very good example of his production is Staroye i novoye (Старое и новое), usually titled The General Line in English. Though it is perhaps not his best effort, it is nevertheless well worth watching.

It is ironic, really, how Eisenstein’s films (those I have seen) are all very much about humans, yet the characters in them are often anonymous; they have few lines of dialogue; there is very little emphasis on relations with people around them; and they show little development. Yet we feel sympathetic or antipathetic towards them, and Eiesenstein pulls this off with his amazing way with images.

Eisenstein’s images are often brutally honest. He was a master of angles and a master of cutting. The tempo is slow, and he let every cut really sink into the viewer’s consciousness before cutting to the next one. He often used closeups to reinforce his messages, for instance the poverty of the under-educated masses before the blessings of communism had penetrated all layers of society. He also used visual metaphors in a way that few directors have the courage to do today.

Eisenstein’s plot is simple and, quite frankly, a bit naïve. The political propaganda is very obvious, but there are apparent humanistic values as well. Messages about the importance of sharing and cooperating are just as relevant today, whereas the suggestion that the forming of a cooperative to purchase a milk separator will erase poverty seems a bit simplistic, to say the least.

If you have never seen an Eisenstein film before, it is perhaps better to start with his most famous production, Bronenosets Potemkin (Броненосец Потёмкин, known in English as Battleship Potemkin). But if you have already seen that and are still curious for more, then Staroye i novoye is an excellent next film.

This film is best enjoyed for its fascinating images. Never mind the story, and never mind today’s or yesterday’s political realities. This is beautiful cinematic art at its best. As an added bonus, you will see state-of-the-art agricultural high-tech from the year 1929.

Cows on a kolkhoz in Sergei Eisenstein's Staroye i navoye, aka The General Line (1929)

Staroye i novoye
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Year: 1929
Running time: 2 h 1 min
Language: Russian (English and French subtitles)
Directors: Sergei Eisenstein, Grigori Aleksandrov
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (416×304)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; electronic music that neither adds nor detracts
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1,002 M)