Shakhmatnaya Goryachka (1925)

It is very common in a movie to see a chess board, or two people playing a game of chess, and sometimes, such as in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) or the Bond film From Russia with Love (1963), there will be an entire sequence of chess with some importance to the plot. But it is very much less common to find an entire film, even a short film, entirely devoted to the theme of chess. It is therefore all the more fortunate that one of those few chess themed films, Shakhmatnaya Goryachka (Шахматная горячка; Chess Fever in English) is simply excellent. And who would have guessed that Soviet film could actually be funny?

Vladimir Fogel and Anna Zemtsova in Shakhmatnaya Goryachka / Шахматная горячка / Chess Fever (1925)

The film is about a man who is fanatically devoted to chess, and although he is deeply in love with his fiancée, his chess obsession constantly comes in the way of their love. The film was shot during a historically important chess tournament that was held in Moscow in 1925, and scenes from the actual tournament are incorporated into the film.

If you love chess, there is one more reason to watch the film, except the general chess theme. In the last three minutes, the contemporary chess World Champion and legendary chess grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca shows up in a minor but important role, playing himself. This alone makes the film worth watching, in addition to all its other qualities.

According to IMDb and Wikipedia, running time is 28 minutes, but the version at the Internet Archive (as well as two versions on YouTube) is only 19 minutes. I do hope the complete original is to be found somewhere.

If you enjoy chess, another short with that theme available at the Internet Archive is the nice Betty Boop cartoon Chess Nuts (1932).

Unfortunately, the copy of Shakhmatnaya Goryachka at the Internet Archive is in very poor condition and low resolution. In spite of that, I warmly recommend this splendid comedy. The film’s many positive aspects easily outshine the problems with image quality.

This film is best enjoyed by the chess enthusiast, but anyone should enjoy this light and original comedy. Even if you neither love nor hate chess, it works well as a metaphor for any other obsession in life.

José Raúl Capablanca  and Anna Zemtsova in Shakhmatnaya Goryachka / Шахматная горячка / Chess Fever (1925)

Shakhmatnaya Goryachka
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Year: 1925
Running time: 19 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Directors: Vsevolod Pudovkin, Nikolai Shpikovsky
Stars: Vladimir Fogel, José Raúl Capablanca
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Low (396×303, not counting black border)
Soundtrack: Good
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Ogg Video (86 M)

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The Battle of Russia (1943)

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the October revolution in Russia, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and 70 years of communist domination in Eastern Europe. During most of 2017, I will commemorate this by writing about several films with a Soviet connection. I started two weeks ago with Eisenstein’s Strike (1925). This week, I present to you The Battle of Russia, the fifth part of Frank Capra’s World War II series of propaganda documentaries Why We Fight.

A Soviet army marching in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

Last week, I wrote about The Battle of Britain, and I have also written previously about The Nazis Strike. These, along with the rest of the films in the series, are both very similar and very different from one another. Walter Huston’s excellent narration help to make them similar, as does the style of cutting and the similar looking animated maps and other graphics. Yet, each is uniquely woven around its fact content. In the case of The Battle of Russia, that fact content tells the dramatic, and often tragic, story of Hitler’s idiotic attack on the Soviet Union.

One reason why The Battle of Russia is interesting is that it was seemingly made with respect for the Russian nation and its people. Anatole Litvak, who was the main director (together with series director Frank Capra) was himself Russian. Thus, while the film is certainly propaganda to a large extent, it also shows a deep understanding of Russia and its struggle. It is probably significant that the title contains the word “Russia” rather than “Soviet”. I know next to nothing about Litvak’s background, but I am guessing, based on the film’s contents, that he was not a communist nor, for that matter, a believer in the idea of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Soviet is only mentioned in passing in the film and communism not at all. Mostly, it talks about Russia and the Russians.

Like other parts in the series, The Battle of Russia is propaganda, and it must be used with caution for historical facts. I am guessing that most facts presented in the film are basically true, but on the other hand many things are left out.

This film is best enjoyed for its excellent use of a variety of film material. Everything from old Russian silent historical dramas to captured Nazi propaganda films are used to produce a living picture of how the Soviet Union and the United States became allies in World War II. This is doubly interesting when you consider the bitter enmity that was to replace this alliance only a few years later with the coming of the Cold War.

Soviet soldier with machine gun in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

The Battle of Russia
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)

Aelita (1924)

This week, I conclude my little “trilogy” of Mars-related films with the earliest of the lot, namely Russian Aelita (Аэлита), sometimes called Aelita – Queen of Mars. Even though it was made as early as 1924, it was not the first feature-length Mars film. That honour goes to the Danish film Himmelskibet (1918), but in many ways, the Russian film feels much more modern. For example, the Mars voyage is made with a rocket instead of a large bi-plane!

Yuliya Solntseva showcasing Martian fashion in Aelita - Queen of Mars (1924)

Aelita was loosely based on a book by Aleksei Tolstoy. This may seem surprising to those who do not perceive Tolstoy as a science fiction writer, but that is because there were actually two writers by the same name (and also the even more well-known Leo Tolstoy). At any rate, though science fiction is somewhat thematically important to the plot, it is actually more about domestic life in the Soviet Union than about space travel and Mars. It holds many allegorical and propagandistic messages, and one of them seems to be that one should strive for the good of society, rather than useless stuff like space travel. The film has been accused both of being pro-revolutionary and anti-revolutionary. At any rate, it is not quite as simple in this regard as it may at first seem.

For the modern viewer who expects a science fiction masterpiece (which it is, to some extent), the ending must be admitted to be somewhat anti-climactic and dissatisfying. Said ending does have several other qualities, however, and should not be entirely dismissed in terms of character development and bringing closure to some aspects of the story. I will not reveal the details in advance, but expect some abruptness in the final twists.

This film is best enjoyed for its groundbreaking and fantastic use of sets and costume. It has been strongly influential, directly and indirectly, on a large number of Western sci-fi films, including Flight to Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Konstantin Eggert and Yuri Zavadsky in Aelita - Queen of Mars (1924)

Aelita
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Yakov Protazanov
Stars: Yuliya Solntseva, Igor Ilyinsky
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (712×520)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (988 M)