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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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)

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)

Tsvet granata (1967)

One film can often have many different titles, and it is not always easy to know which one to use. For Tsvet granata (Цвет граната), for example, I have used the Russian title, since that is the one used on the Internet Archive copy to which I link. But in the west it is better known as The Color of Pomegranates (which I believe is just a translation of that Russian title), sometimes with different spelling variations. Occasionally, however, the Armenian title Nran Gujn (Նռան գույնը) is used, and sometimes the name of the film’s protagonist is the title, Sayat Nova.

The Color of Pomegranates / Nran Gujn / Sayat Nova / Цвет граната / Tsvet granata (1967)

Whatever we choose to call it, the film itself is pure visual poetry. On the surface, it is a biography about the Armenian 18th century poet and musician Sayat Nova. Before watching the film, I had never heard about him, but he is apparently a very important character in the cultural history and literature of his own country.

Interestingly, however, though the film is based on events in Sayat Nova’s life, and though it follows an apparently chronological structure, from childhood to death, it is not in any way a traditional biographical film; or, for that matter, a traditional film of any kind. Each scene is like a piece of art in itself. It is mostly shot with a stationary camera at long to medium distance, and in every scene actors perform various acts. Not like actors act in a traditional sense, trying to give the impression of mirroring reality, but instead they interact with the scenery and sounds around them as if posing for a portrait, or executing slow and elaborate dance moves.

The scenes often appear static, but this is part of director Sergei Parajanov’s extremely powerful visual language. A language of contrast, colour (not least the red of the title’s pomegranate), sound and metaphor. As I watch, I feel that there is a massive amount of culturally significant metaphor swooshing incomprehensibly past my mind, because I lack the cultural background knowledge. Yet, I do not perceive this as a problem. The dephts to which I cannot reach become a strength, a tantalising promise that there is more to discover.

Unfortunately, the version I link to is a Soviet cut that was censored by several minutes due to religious content. A complete version with the original Armenian title cards (rather than Russian) exists at the Internet Archive, but it is of inferior image quality.

This film is best enjoyed if you can focus fully on the experience, but on the other hand it is not necessary to view it all in one sitting. Since there is no plot, each scene can be enjoyed as an isolated piece of art. This is not to say that you should not watch the entire movie. In spite of the lack of story, this is definitely a whole movie, with many themes and threads running through the length of the picture.

The Color of Pomegranates / Nran Gujn / Sayat Nova / Цвет граната / Tsvet granata (1967)

Tsvet granata (The Color of Pomegranates)
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Year: 1967
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 12 min
Director: Sergei Parajanov
Stars: Sofiko Chiaureli
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (684 M)

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)

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)