The Star Destroyer Potjomkin (2005)

For the second time in the life of this blog, it is time for Short Film Month. The reason why I want to devote an entire month’s output only to short film is that I normally only write about feature-length films, or those that are slightly shorter, and yet there is so much short film on the Internet Archive that deserves to be highlighted. This time, I will begin with the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin.

Lego in the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin / The Star Destroyer Potemkin (2005)

Brick film is a genre which I must admit I know very little about. Yet, on a blog about the Internet Archive it deserves to be mentioned, because there is an entire collection of hundreds of these films. The basic idea is that you use Lego bricks for your sets, props and characters. Then you animate the film, one frame at a time. Most are made by dedicated amateurs, and most are short, typically from just a minute or two up to a quarter of an hour. The occasional exception, such as The Han Solo Affair, is completely professionally made, and more in the nature of a Lego commercial.

The Star Destroyer Potjomkin is almost exactly an hour shorter than the version of Battleship Potemkin that I reviewed last week. The title, along with the tag-line “Star Wars meets Eisenstein meets Lego”, more or less says it all. The plot is condensed, but more or less intact. The film often balances on a fine edge between parody and homage.

If, like me, you think that The Star Destroyer Potjomkin is a good film and you want more of same, be aware that not all brick films are as good as this one. There are some shining examples of how this medium can be used to make good film, and then there are some really bad pieces, and most fall somewhere in between. I suggest you browse the above-mentioned collection and look carefully at the reviews. They will usually give you a pretty good idea of what you will experience, even though Internet Archive reviews in general tend to be a bit overrating.

This film is best enjoyed after you have already seen the original Battleship Potemkin, and the sooner after the better. The film’s greatest strength is its many elegant references to the original, especially in angles and image composition.

Lego in the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin / The Star Destroyer Potemkin (2005)

The Star Destroyer Potjomkin
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Year: 2005
Running time: 11 min
Director: Karsten Köhler
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Quicktime (165 M)

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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)

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)

Que viva Mexico! (1979)

Que viva Mexico! is one of those films which is interesting even before you have started watching it, because it is a fascinating history.

Sergei Eisenstein's Que viva Mexico (1979)

The brilliant Soviet film maker Sergei Eisenstein went to Mexico in the early 1930s, to make a film there. He immediately started shooting, and the ideas for the script grew as he worked with the material.

But Eisenstein was never to complete his film. After having shot a good deal of film, he ran out of money and, unable to enter the United States, where he had planned to complete the film, eventually had to go back to the Soviet Union without being able to bring the film with him. The film material instead ended up in the US, where it was used to make several other films.

In the end, the complete, unedited material was sent to Soviet in a trade, but by then Eisenstein was long since dead. Instead, his assistant Grigori Alexandrov, who had been with him in Mexico, set out to make a film as true to Eisenstein’s vision as possible. This is the film that can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. It was not released until 1979, almost 50 years after the project had commenced.

The Internet Archive version is dubbed in Italian. Provided that you either understand Italian or have a good set of subtitles, that is not really a problem; only some brief parts in the beginning and end require lip synchronisation. I distinctly remember having seen this version some years ago with subtitles, so I assume that I found and downloaded them from some other Internet site. Try Google, and they should hopefully not be too hard to find.

This film is best enjoyed if you know a bit about the background, which is why I have focused on the film’s history above. However, it is in many ways a beautiful and powerful film, and gives us a brief glimpse of life in Mexico in the 1930s.

Sergein Eisenstein's Que viva Mexico (1979)

Que viva Mexico!
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Year: 1979
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Language: Italian (no subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein, Grigori Alexandrov
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (576×456)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (667 M)

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)