Bronenosets Patyomkin (1925)

I have loved silent film for nearly forty years, ever since I saw a series of Chaplin films on TV. But it was not until about half a year ago that I watched my first silent with live accompaniment – which is of course the way they were meant to be seen. The film was one of the greatest of all silent classics, Bronenosets Patyomkin (Броненосец Потёмкин), best known in English as Battleship Potemkin.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The scoring of silent films on the Internet Archive is rarely unproblematic. Even though the films themselves have often fallen into the public domain, and therefore can be freely uploaded to the archive, this is not necessarily the case with the music. For many commercially released silents, a new score has been composed; often the original music has been lost, if there even was an official score in the first place. And even when the music itself is free, the performance as such may be copyrighted. If these things bother you (I have no idea if the excellent score for this particular edition is copyrighted or not), then you are in luck, because the Internet Archive contains many examples of groups or individuals who make it their hobby to produce new free scores for old films. These are, of course, of wildly varying quality, but for this particular film, a pretty decent one exists, created by a group called Apskaft. Their version, unfortunately, suffers from inferior image quality, but you cannot have everything.

Battleship Potemkin tells the story of how the crew of a Russian battleship revolt against their cruel officers when several crew members are ordered shot after refusing to eat bad meat. The film was released the same year as director Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film, Strike, but already we see Eisenstein perfecting his craft, progressing into the halls of the greatest cinematic artists of all time. There is a reason why this film is often mentioned when the greatest films ever are discussed. Among many other things, Eisenstein shows excellent technique in composition and cutting, and there are also many facial close-ups, for great effect.

This film, of course, cannot be discussed without mentioning the Odessa stairs, one of the most famous scenes in all of cinematic history, and a favourite example for film theoreticians. It is a bit unfortunate that this scene has been so over-analyzed, because it really deserves to be seen with fresh eyes. I will therefore say nothing substantial about it, and if you happen to be among the lucky few who are unaware of what it is, then you will be able to enjoy it in full, without preconceived notions.

The ending of the film is typical of how propaganda film is tweaked in order to create a mood and serve a political lesson, rather than try to tell any kind of truth (Hollywood, by the way, does this all the time in order to make historical events fit better with what the producers and writers perceive the audience wants, and the messages they wish to convey). In the film, the battleship sets course straight for an armada of ships sent by the government to force the mutineers to surrender, but instead the Potemkin makes the entire armada change sides without firing a shot. In reality, only a single ship sided with the Potemkin, and both crews eventually had to give up.

This film is best enjoyed with live music, the way I had the fortune of watching it. But if you cannot get that, the music for this version, or for the other version mentioned above, will do very nicely. A good score definitely adds another dimension to silent film, and I actually prefer no sound at all to a poor score.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Bronenosets Patyomkin
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (928×738)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)

Rembrandt (1936)

Alexander Korda was a very solid British director, perhaps best known for participating in the 1940 remake of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924), which is considered to outshine even the spectacular silent original, and which was a major source of inspiration for Disney’s Aladdin (1992).

In the 1930s, Korda made three films that are so thematically similar that they must be considered as a trilogy. The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) have already been reviewed on this blog, and the turn has now come to the third film, Rembrandt.

Charles Laughton in Rembrandt (1936)

All three films are biographies of various European personalities in the 16th and 17th Centuries, two historical and one fictional. All three can be traced in various ways to the reformation and counter-reformation, although admittedly this is a theme that does not shine through in the films. All three films also deal with lost loves and with the agonies of growing old.

Rembrandt begins with the death of famous painter Rembrandt van Rijn’s wife Saskia. The film then follows Rembrandt’s remaining life with its numerous sorrows, but most of all it is a powerful portrait of a strong and gifted artist, who at all costs stayed true to his own vision and character. When his friends implore him to paint nobles (who can pay good money) in the traditional style, Rembrandt prefers to develop his own personal technique on motifs of his own choosing. For example, he picks a beggar off the street and dresses him as a biblical king.

This film is best enjoyed for Charles Laughton’s exquisite performance as the famous painter. The film is well made overall, but the story lacks that extra edge that would have secured its place as a great classic, partly because it is a bit shattered and out of focus. As it stands, Laughton makes it well worth the effort of watching, but you may want to go for The Private Life of Henry VIII first, also with Laughton in the lead. Comparing these two films with one another will give a good picture of Laughton’s great versatility as an actor.

Charles Laughton in Rembrandt (1936)

Rembrandt
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Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Director: Alexander Korda
Stars: Charles Laughton
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (666×509, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (814 M)

Der Golem – Wie er in die Welt kam (1920)

Paul Wegener made no less than three silent films about the Jewish legend of the golem, the monster created from clay and animated by magic. Opinions differ as to whether the films form a trilogy, or if they are different tellings of the same story. But it hardly matters much anymore, because two of the films are considered lost. The only surviving one, and probably the best, is Der Golem – Wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World).

Paul Wegener's Der Golem - Wie er in die Welt kam / The Golem - How He Came into the World (1920)

The film begins with a great scene where a man is observing the night sky in order to tell the future. The man is Rabbi Loew, apparently a historical person, and he senses danger for his people. When the Holy Roman Emperor orders that all Jews must leave Prague, Loew is already working on a bold plan to awaken the Golem, the monster made of clay. The plot becomes more complicated as the emperor’s messenger falls in love with Loew’s daughter.

Much of the film’s imagery seems to draw from Mediaeval sources, although technically speaking The Holy Roman Empire had entered the Renaissance by Rabbi Loew’s time. Ah, but who cares? This is hardly a historical costume drama anyway. It is more in the domain of fantasy and legend.

Mainly linked to from this post is an 85-minute version with fairly good image quality and an excellent score. Unfortunately (for some) it only has German title cards. Available at the Internet Archive is also a 101 minute version with English title cards, a different score, no tinting and not as good image quality. Pick the one you prefer.

This film is best enjoyed for the fantastic sets and costumes. It was released in the same year as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, and it shows in the expressionistic, sometimes surrealistic, images. The story and script of Der Golem are not as tight as those of the other film, but it compensates by good actors and by many novel ideas.

Paul Wegener's Der Golem - Wie er in die Welt kam / The Golem - How He Came into the World (1920)

Der Golem – Wie er in die Welt kam
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 25 min
Language: German (no subtitles)
Director: Carl Boese, Paul Wegener
Stars: Paul Wegener
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (785×578)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.9 G)

Three Songs About Lenin (1934)

Vladimir Lenin was the leader of the Soviet Union for only six years before he died. Ten years after his death, the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov made a spectacular propaganda film, celebrating the great leader: Three Songs About Lenin (Три песни о Ленине or Tri pesni o Lenine in Russian).

Three Songs 
About Lenin / Three Songs of Lenin / Tri pesni o Lenine / Три песни о Ленине (1934)

As the title implies, the film is based upon three songs. Those songs were, so we are told, written and sung by anonymous Russians in their great love for their lost leader. I have no idea if this is true, but considering the naivete of the lyrics, it just may be. Unfortunately, we hear very little (perhaps nothing) of the original music of those lyrics. The lyrics themselves are presented as intertitles, to the background of a musical score that mostly consists of classical music by Russian composers. In my mind, this produces a somewhat jarring discord. I would much rather have listened to a score based on Russian folk music, which would have made the images come to life in a much more powerful way.

Each song expresses its own theme and its own message about Lenin, but today those messages are subservient to the means of expression. Vertov skillfully achieves a mixture of sentimentality and pride by interweaving images of nature, cities, factories, Lenin himself (from archive footage) and not least fascinating images of people.

This is the second film I have seen by Dziga Vertov, after (Man with a Movie Camera (1929)), and I guess comparison is inevitable. The older film is a playful avant-garde experiment, full of surprises and amusing banalities. Three Songs About Lenin, in contrast, attempts to be much more serious, but because of the heavy propaganda, it has aged much more rapidly, even though it was made five years later. Also, even though it was made well into the sound era, Vertov seems unable to let go of the silent era conventions. He does include a handful of monologues, but instead of using voice-over narration, he sticks to intertitles, which break the flow of the narrative.

The film was apparently re-edited in the 1960s. I suspect that the version available at the Internet Archive is that edited version.

Three Songs About Lenin certainly has its share of weaknesses. If you want to start exploring Soviet cinema, there are better places to go. But it has strengths, too.

This film is best enjoyed for its cleverly woven tapestry, partly made of archive footage, partly of scenes shot especially for this film. The propagandistic themes and symbolism are effective and powerful, and I am sure one could spend a lot of time exploring the depths of Vertov’s artistry in its better moments.

Vladimir Lenin double exposure in Three Songs 
About Lenin / Three Songs of Lenin / Tri pesni o Lenine / Три песни о Ленине (1934)

Three Songs About Lenin
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Year: 1934
Running time: 58 min
Language: English/Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Dziga Vertov
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (549×412)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)

Strike (1925)

Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature-length film, Strike (known as Stachka or Стачка in Russian), showed that the legendary director had already at that time formed most of those ideals that were to follow him through much of his career. And while it may not be as refined as some of his later works, it is just as powerful, poetic and artistic. Strike deserves to be seen for reasons beyond historical curiosity.

Workers in Strike / Stachka / Стачка (1925)

Strike tells the story of a pre-revolution strike at a factory (apparently based on true events) and its voilent resolution. We get to follow the workers as their dissatisfaction with the poor and greedy management explodes into action, when one worker hangs himself because he has been falsely accused of theft. The workers unite in their demands for better conditions, but the managers plot to either force them back to work, or get rid of them once and for all.

One of the things that is typical about Strike, and that sets it appart from the Hollywood norm of story-telling that we are used to, is that there is no main character. Focus is always on the group, and even when individuals do emerge out of the formless mass of strikers (constantly running around from one place to another), they are not proactive in the way that you would expect your standard Hollywood protagonist to be. Rather, they react to things that happen around them, and they act together with the group. You could perhaps call them catalysts, sparking the fire in others to act in concert. This theme of cooperation permeates the film to the extent that one could probably write a book about it.

Another of Eisenstein’s identifying traits is the way he uses metaphor in his images. Some would perhaps say that he is too obvious when he interfoliates cuts with animals and with humans, thereby giving the humans animal characteristics. But to me, this is enormously powerful. Even more so, since this technique is practically never used in Western film, neither contemporary nor modern.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and emotional ending. As the military move in on horseback and massacre the strikers, Eisenstein interleaves cuts of cattle being slaughtered, and of laughing capitalists, fat and lazy. Regardless of whether you agree with the underlying ideology, this is truly effective and artistic film.

Revolutionary leader in Strike / Stachka / Стачка (1925)

Strike
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 34 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music and some sound effects
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (685 M)

Scrooge (1935)

One year ago, almost exactly, I wrote about Scrooge (1951), one of the many cinematic interpretations of Charles Dickens’ famous story A Christmas Carol. That version is only one of several available at the Internet Archive. Today, the turn has come to the very first sound version of the story, also titled Scrooge.

Oscar Asche and Seymour Hicks in Scrooge (1935)

A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been filmed again and again. And quite often, the resulting product has been really nice. Hence, there are a good many actors that have made classic Scrooge interpretations. Alastair Sim in the 1951 version is certainly one, and Seymour Hicks in 1935 is another. Hicks is excellent as the miserly old money-lender, and he is among the very best in his terror of the ghost of Jacob Marley, as well as of the three spirits of Christmas. Like many other Scrooge actors, he lets himself be carried away, and is a bit too manic as the reformed kindly old man. But this is a minor problem and goes with the genre.

I find it difficult to choose between the 1935 and the 1951 versions. Both have good scripts and excellent actors. The former is a bit less advanced in terms of special effects (ghostly apparitions, and that sort of stuff), but since it cleverly avoids many of the technical difficulties, using instead simple means like shadows and good acting, this is not really a problem. The 1951 version is perhaps a trifle stronger in the camerawork, whereas the 1935 movie has many little humourous details. In the end, it may come down to technical aspects, and in that respect the 1951 version is blessed with a better copy at the Internet Archive. However, both are well worth watching.

The 1935 copy mainly linked to from this post is the one at the Internet Archive with the best image quality, but the download file is well over 3 GB in size. Fortunately, there is another version, made from the same source. Image quality is almost as good, and file size is much smaller. This is a good option if your bandwidth is limited.

This film is best enjoyed when you need a bit of feel-good in your life, or when you just want to experience a good old classic British costume film.

Donald Calthrop, Barbara Everest and Philip Frost in Scrooge (1935)

Scrooge
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Year: 1935
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Henry Edwards
Stars: Seymour Hicks
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.7 G)

Hell’s Angels (1930)

Today, many people argue that the best thing about Hell’s Angels is the dramatic and well produced flight sequences. That may be true, but even though the film would have been pretty much forgotten without the airial stunts, the plot and character portraits hold enough interest to make the film worthwhile. One section of the film, as well as one special effect, are in colour. This was not unique for the time, but due to the high costs it was only seen in high-budget films, so this is another reason why the film remains special.

James Hall, Jean Harlow and Ben Lyon in Hell's Angels (1930)

In Hell’s Angels, we follow the destinies of two brothers, Roy and Monte, during the course of World War I. Their personalities are extremely different, so there is plenty of room for conflict, and especially so when they start to compete for the same girl. Or perhaps it should rather be said that she makes them compete, for reasons known only to herself.

Hell’s Angels is an early sound film, and much of the silent aesthetics remain, for good and bad. Indeed, the film was first intended as a silent, and much material had to be reshot (with the female lead replaced) when the decision was made to produce a talkie. There are even some title cards left for translating the German airmen’s conversation, where subtitles would be the norm today. On the plus side, it is certainly refreshing to hear German spoken in the first place. Most Hollywood war films in the following seventy-plus years were to use English in place of foreign language dialogue.

If you are used to Hollywood film from the 1940s and 1950s, you will find that Hell’s Angels is surprisingly overt in terms of sexuality and strong language. This is because it was made in the period before Hollywood’s self-imposed production code was created. Indeed, the decades following the early 1930s were to become much more bland and boring in some ways.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of aviation or war movies. The aerial battles are truly spectacular, and there is plenty of the drama that only the backdrop of war can create. Hell’s Angels is a classic in its genre that is not to be missed.

Ben Lyon in Hell's Angels (1930)

Hell’s Angels
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Year: 1930
Running time: 2 h 11 min
Directors: Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding, Fred Fleck
Stars: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.8 G)