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)

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)

Battle Beyond the Sun (1963)

In the 1950s and 60s, the Cold War was in full swing, and it was reflected in the film productions of both the US and the Soviet Union. In particular, science fiction movies were often used to carry more or less covert political messages. The American tradition was to use lots of space monsters and robots to represent the terrible Reds. There were several exceptions, of course, but to a large extent the fear of communism fuelled the popularity of science fiction, just as it also fuelled the ongoing space race.

The Soviet films had their own share of political messages, yet they were very different from their American counterparts. While you might find the odd monster or robot in a Soviet film, focus was on a more philosophical aspect of science fiction. This made the films very much slower in terms of plotting and cutting, and the propaganda was often more direct.

Many of these films found their ways (whether legally or not, I do not know) into the hands of American distributors such as Roger Corman. But to distribute a Soviet film as it was would not do, both because of the tempo and the political implications. So they were dubbed and significantly altered. In many cases, entire scenes, plotlines and even endings were removed, added or replaced. Additional material was often shot in the US, with American actors.

Astronauts in Battle Beyond the Sun (1963)

One of the best films to meet this destiny was Mikhail Karyukov’s 1959 Небо зовёт (“The Heavens Beckon”). In America, it was released as Battle Beyond the Sun, and just like several others, it was cut to pieces and made into something else than the original.

In the film, astronauts from the South Hemisphere (Americans in the original) intend to make the first manned journey to Mars, but their more heroic colleagues from the North Hemisphere (originally Soviet cosmonauts) decide to take up the challenge, forcing the South Hemi ship to make a risky start ahead of schedule. When their ship is thrown off course without enough fuel to make it home, the North Hemi crew has to decide whether to save them, at great risk of their own lives, or to push on towards a successfully completed mission.

Although there is a lot of propagandistic content (switched around for the American version, of course) director Karyukov wanted to make a film about peace and friendship across ideological borders. Most of all, though, the film is worth seeing for Karyukov’s groundbreaking use of special effects. In many ways, he was years ahead of contemporary American sci-fi producers. Some scenes are reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, made almost a decade later.

Another reason for watching it is that the US version was directed by none other than Francis Ford Coppola. His most famous addition to the film is in the shape of two monsters battling, a scene which adds absolutely nothing to the story, but needed to be there for the monster-hungry American audience. It is said that Coppola’s monsters were designed to look like a penis and a vagina, and to some extent they do. I leave it to the reader to consider the metaphorical and freudian implications of this.

This film is best enjoyed if you realize that American version was heavily altered, and none for the better. This version is worth watching, but the original is much superior in every way.

One of Francis Ford Coppola's monsters in Battle Beyond the Sun (1963)

Battle Beyond the Sun
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Year: 1963
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Director: Mikhail Karyukov, Aleksandr Kozyr, Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Aleksandr Shvorin, Ivan Pereverzev, Larisa Borisenko
Image quality: Acceptable (American material) to poor (Soviet material)
Resolution: Medium (720×528)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (690 M)