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
Download link
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)

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
Download link
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)

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
Download link
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)

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
Download link
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)

Horror Express (1972)

Once a year, about this time, the Swedish railway companies yet again are taken by surprise by the first major snowfall. This year, hundreds of departures were cancelled in southern Sweden because of anticipated wind and snow. Fortunately for me, I live farther north and had no problems this time. Critics say that the trains purchased in recent years are of insufficient quality and poorly adapted to the Swedish climate. Electric switches that freeze tend to be another source of problems.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to go back to steam engines and manual switches. At least on film, there never seem to be any problems with old trains running through winter lanscapes, such as the one we find in the old horror film Horror Express. This is one film at the Internet Archive I might have overlooked entirely if it was not for the nice Spanish blog Corriente textual, a good source of IA recommendations in case you run out of suggestions here.

Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Alice Reinheart in Horror Express (1972)

Horror Express was made in Spain with a Spanish director, but with an English-speaking cast. In spite of its origin, it has the look and feel of an old Hammer film from the 1960s (Hammer Film Productions is famous for its many horror films, not least with Christopher Lee as Dracula). This likeness was probably conscious on the part of producer and director. The pacing, dialogue and music all remind of Hammer’s style.

The choice of actors also suggest a deliberate nod to Hammer. Christopher Lee here plays a slightly mad scientist who has found an ancient ape-like corpse in China and wants to secretly transport it on train through Russia. (But is it really dead?) Peter Cushing, another actor who did many roles for Hammer, plays a doctor who tries to save the situation as it goes increasingly out of hand. Another interesting actor, although he has no connection with Hammer as far as I know, is Telly Savalas who plays a Russian cossack.

As a horror film, Horror Express feels aged today. The monster make-up is good enough, but the special effects are far from spectacular, and the pseudo-science in the dialogue makes me cringe. Fortunately, the suspense is good and the acting is decent overall; especially Lee and Cushing are good. And the interiors of the old railway cars are just beautiful.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a Hammer fan and want to experience something similar.

Telly Savalas in Horror Express (1972)

Horror Express
Download link
Year: 1972
Running time: 1 h 28 min
Director: Eugenio Martín
Stars: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Telly Savalas
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (712×439; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.1 G)