Category Archives: USSR

Revenge (1989)

Director: Ermek Shinarbaev

Well, wasn’t THAT awesomely difficult to love. When you boil Revenge (also known as The Red Flute for no reason that I can discern, since I don’t recall any such object even appearing in the film, let alone being relevant to the story) down to its basic plot—a rural teacher kills one of his students in a rage, the child’s father gives birth to another son so that he can take revenge for him—you do it a genuine and amazing injustice. I mean, yeah, that is what happens, and yet there’s more to it… Revenge occupies an odd place both as a story and a production, appearing near the end of the Soviet Union when perestroika was inspiring a new wave of sorts in Kazakhstan, set mostly in Korea and starring Kazakh actors speaking Russian. Which I suppose is not really different from, say, Hollywood films set in foreign lands where everyone speaks English, but it was weirdly disconcerting here… plus, although the film is actually concretely set between 1915 and the mid/late 1940s, there’s a strange abstractness to the film’s apparent temporal setting; indeed, almost the only thing I can remember that really grounds it in the 20th century is a scene near the end with a truck. Otherwise I can’t recall any mention of either war that took place in that timeframe; you’d almost swear it was meant to be some piece of timeless folklore or something. Revenge is far from immediately ingratiating, being more inclined to a sort of poetic indirectness—had the director not specifically stated the film is at least in part about the forced repatriation of the Korean population of Sakhalin after WW2 I’m not sure I would’ve guessed that fact—and a few moments of animal cruelty are wince-inducing. It is, however, frequently stunning to actually look at—it has one of the most astounding crane shots I’ve seen, and really beautiful use of natural light. I liked the film more than otherwise, I think, but I’m going to need at least one more viewing to get more from it, cos I’m sure there’s more to get.

Viy (1967)

Directors: Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov

Now I first heard about this film when I encountered it in the 1001 Movies book. I knew there was Soviet SF and fantasy, but I’d never heard anything about Soviet horror before. Then a few months later I found it on DVD at Abbey’s (one of the first import discs I bought there). Then when I watched it… eh? Suffice to say that whatever I’d got was, well, not quite what I was expecting somehow. I think I was expecting a more conventional horror film than Viy really is. Still, a few other folks have watched it over on the ICM forum for this year’s horror challenge, so I thought I should give it another go and see if I’d missed something first time round. Lo, for I had, namely the voiceover introduction at the very start of the film, the words of the story’s original author Nikolai Gogol characterising it as “a colossal creation of the imagination of simple folk… a purely popular legend”. Now, Wiki queries just how much actual “popular” myth the story really contains, but I think that’s beside the point anyway; for me, at least, that introduction suddenly made me realise how I should view the thing. It’s not a horror film in the usual western sense, but more of a folkloric thing like Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors… obviously nothing like in the same style or anything, but perhaps in similar spirit, for want of a better word (and, also, with similar Ukrainian setting and elements). I probably wouldn’t have got that feeling had I not seen the Paradjanov film, obviously, but never mind: at least now I finally realised what I was dealing with and so had a better appreciation of what the film actually does (and of the special effects side of things too; comparatively primitive as they may look, they were obviously revolutionary within the Soviet industry). It was a lot more fun to watch second time round as a result, which I suppose goes to show some films really do require more than one viewing (and maybe a bit of additional filmic experience)…

Solaris (1968)

Director: Boris Nirenburg

I’m having one of my periodic reading jags at the moment; I’m in the mood for books rather than films. Got through eight books since the start of January, whereas the only thing I’ve watched since that review of Zelig was an afternoon TV screening of The Maltese Falcon on Saturday. Great film, of course, but no need for me to review it again.

So one thing I’ve been doing lately is haunting Amazon.com.au, the Australian branch of Amazon that only sells Kindle ebooks. I’ve kind of gone the e-book route for new purchases for an assortment of reasons, not the least important of which is the decreasing amount of space I have for actual hard copy books. Price is also a consideration, it should be said. There are certain publishers like Valancourt Books and Black Coat Press who have fascinating catalogues (the former specialises in original 1790s-1820s gothic novels, the latter in 19th century French SF) I’d like to explore but I don’t really have the space for all the books I want to read nor the money for them. Their electronic editions may be less, you know, nice than their print versions, but eh. I paid, for example, $6.25 for one of Black Coat’s ebooks that would’ve set me back nearly $21 if I bought the physical book. And that’s if I bought through Book Depository, who are themselves selling it cheaper than the RRP of $24.44. You see why I went electronic. (It’s also a damn sight easier to dispose of the book and get money back for it if I find I don’t like it…)

This is all by way of introduction to our subject proper: the 1968 Russian TV adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Bear with me.

So I was browsing for Penguin Classics. Saw they have an edition of Lem’s Cyberiad due later this year. That sent me in search of Lem’s other works. Unfortunately most of the electronic editions are in Spanish, but they do have a new translation of Solaris (the old one, translated from the French translation of Lem’s Polish original, was condemned by Lem himself and seems to be widely considered crap). I bought that, cos, you know, only a bit over five dollars. Then I went to Wikipedia, cos I didn’t actually know much about Lem beyond his reputation (I read a story by him in an anthology once)… and there I read this sentence: “He is known as the author of the 1961 novel Solaris, which has been made into a feature film three times.”

Hang on… THREE?

Tarkovsky, yes, Soderbergh, yes… who was the third one?

So I followed the appropriate links, and there I discovered the existence of the FIRST screen adaptation of Solaris, Boris Nirenburg’s production for Soviet state TV. Which the Wiki page told me was on DVD, but apparently only in Russia. Hmm, I wondered, could this thing possibly be on Youtube? A quick search revealed it not only could be, it WAS—subtitled in English, too, which I don’t suppose the Russian DVD would be. Admittedly, the subtitles did prove to be a bit wobbly, as I expected they might, but they weren’t an insurmountable obstacle.

Now, I’ve not actually read the book yet, but wanted to get into the TV version anyway; I gather that, despite Lem’s carping about how the film versions told his story (“to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space”), Nirenburg actually remains more faithful to it than either Messrs Tarkovsky or Soderbergh; no lengthy preludes on Earth or anything like that. That said, I don’t suppose Nirenburg’s budget would’ve actually extended to anything of that sort in any case; if I’d ever wondered what a 1960s episode of Doctor Who in Russian might look like, I suppose this could be it (I’m presuming, owing to a few tell-tale signs, that it was in fact shot probably in much the same way as 60s Who, i.e. on video in long takes with multiple cameras, and the source material for this release is a 16mm telerecording). It’s kind of rudimentary on the technological level, maybe even more so than I’d thought it might be; come to think of it, I’m not even sure if there’s a shot of the planet Solaris itself (there’s one bit in the first part that I think was meant to represent it, but I don’t know).

The pace is somewhat more grinding than even 60s Who could be, though, which is probably its major issue; at 142 minutes it’s not too far off the length of Tarkovsky’s version despite not containing any of the stuff he introduced. It is kind of wilting stuff. On the plus side, Nirenburg actually does achieve some not bad moments of semi-horror; there’s an atmosphere on the station that borders on the gothic at times. It’s not bad on the whole, but I suspect it’s mainly now of comparative interest; Tarkovsky’s film might be less faithful to Lem’s book but it works rather better as a production in its own right. Still, I’d rather watch this again than the Soderbergh version…

Salt for Svanetia (1930)

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov

This box set ends, therefore, by taking us more or less to the beginning of the curious career of Mikhail Kalatozov, who we’ve seen a few times on this blog… I actually had no idea this kind of began life as a fiction film, and it’s an odd doco indeed that does so (though many unkind folks would probably say many Soviet documentaries were fictional), but so it evidently was; after his fiction feature The Blind Woman was banned, apparently he cannibalised parts of it and added some ethnographic footage he’d shot in Svanetia while making it (alas, the loss of the first film means we’ll likely never know exactly how the two related). The end result was… whatever the hell you call this; it’s even more transparently staged and re-enacted than most films of this sort so “documentary” is kind of stretching things… But whatever it is, it’s kind of amazing. I first saw it back in 2000 in David Stratton’s Continuing Education film history course; in hindsight a decidedly strange choice, but hurray for non-obvious selections. I’d seen Letter Never Sent by then, of course, so it was particularly fascinating to see that, long before he teamed up with Urusevsky, Kalatozov already had some solid ability as a cameraman himself and an eye for some startlingly angled compositions (though, certainly, it would’ve taken a special dickhead not to work wonders with that setting). However, although at least Salt got released, the authorities still weren’t pleased, apparently drawing the confused mixed reaction that it was overly harsh in depicting life in this isolated Georgian backwater (and that the local customs the film presented were actually faked) and that at the same time it wasn’t interested enough in the Soviet solution to making Svanetia emerge into the modern world. I don’t know about the ethnographic aspect—maybe it really is the Soviet answer to Nanook of the North?—but the latter point is easier to agree with… much as I felt Kalatozov’s heart in Nail in the Boot was more in the battle scenes than the Soviet trial at the end, so too Salt does rather give the impression that, whether honestly depicted or not, his interest was really in the Svan people and not their brave Communist liberators; somewhere under the officially sanctioned tut-tutting at this barbarism, there’s almost a sneaking admiration for the Svans’ survival in the face of undeniably staggering hardships.

Turksib (1929)

Director: Victor Turin

It was kind of amusing to see this again after Old and New last night; this film famously features that scene of nomadic herders riding their animals in pursuit of the locomotive engine, which made me laugh during last night’s film at the similar business of the collective farmers on horseback chasing the tractor… cute bit of parallelism. But Turksib differs significantly from Eisenstein’s film, of course, by having been a palpable hit, abroad and at home, and with both conservative and progressive critics. Everyone seems to have been taken by surprise by it; a film arguing for the need to build a railway between the Turkestan region in the south to Siberia in the north, produced with apparently as little cooperation from the railway people as they could give, produced by a studio and director hardly anyone knew (and, apparently, still don’t; IMDB credits him with only one more film and only approximate birth and death dates, while Jay Leyda’s Kino book indicates there were more films and that most of his career seems to have been in administration, but doesn’t say much more than that). What separated Turin from his Soviet cohorts, though, was that he’d actually worked in American film during the 1910s; and though only a blind person would confuse this with any sort of Hollywood film, Turin certainly set out to apply a certain vigour he felt the Soviet kulturfilm generally lacked. And that still comes across in the film now, you can feel the drive in it with that thematic clash between man and the world around him (there’s something kind of frightening still about the scene with the camel train caught in the simoon wind), culminating in the riders chasing after the train until the animals won’t go any further, whereupon one keeps running after it on foot. Kind of splendid in its small way.

Old and New (1929)

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Odd how I’d managed to see all of Eisenstein’s features (apart from whatever was made out of the footage of the Mexican debacle) by the end of the 90s except this one. Doesn’t seem to be terribly well-known or well-regarded for whatever reason. Certainly, and perhaps predictably, the Soviet establishment were not fans. I didn’t realise until recently this was actually meant to be his follow-up to Potemkin and he’d actually started it in 1926, before he was called away to make October instead… and just as that fell foul of government changes before release, so did this, details that Wiki explains better than I can here. So changes were ordered and the film quietly slipped out just before the collectivisation program began in earnest, and after Eisenstein had gone to Europe, whence they probably hoped he’d never come back.

So this film has probably suffered ever since, which is a shame cos I wound up liking it. It’s obviously recognisably his work, though there are a few features that mark it out; it was his only film set in the present, and his first one with a single “hero” (and a female one at that, though Marfa is nothing like Nevsky or Ivan in the later films). But there’s also a general good humour to it that I don’t think I’ve ever really felt in Eisenstein’s films before… and, admittedly, I suppose that upbeat feeling is a function of the film’s propagandistic side, but even amidst the overt selling, you get these little kind of rapturous moments of pleasure. (The business with the cream separator borders on the pornographic, indeed; Robert Israel’s score hilariously goes into Wagner’s “Liebestod” at which point. I applauded.) Indeed, in some respects, Old and New didn’t feel (at least to me) too far removed from an American western about farmers taming the land… you know, similar hardships, similar bureaucratic bullshit, similar people trying to hold the pioneers back, similar epic vistas of wide open spaces, that sort of thing. So there you go; it only took 23 years for me to see my last Eisenstein feature after seeing my first. Worth the wait, happily.

The House on Trubnaya (1928)

Director: Boris Barnet

We actually last saw Boris Barnet just a few days ago in Kuleshov’s Mr West, in which he played Jeddy; however, he parted acrimoniously from little Lev after nearly getting killed on that film doing a dangerous stunt Kuleshov insisted he do. Kuleshov’s loss was Soviet comedy’s gain, though… This was Barnet’s fourth film, and a damned fine little bit of work it is, too, combining some pretty remarkable technique—Barnet being evidently au fait with the trickery of the European avant-garde of the period, using what almost looks like Norman McLaren-style pixillation at times, plus camera movement and crane work I’m not sure I’ve seen in Soviet silent cinema otherwise—plus an essentially sweet story of a young girl from the sticks sent to visit her uncle in Moscow; unfortunately that plan is buggered up by him returning to the village on the train arriving at the village station just as hers departs. So she finds residence in the house of the title, a rather rundown tenement, and works as a maid for the hairdresser who also lives there. Needless to say, when the latter’s wife refuses to let him hire union labour, you can tell this job’s going to end in trouble… As this piece notes, the hairdresser (played by Vladimir Fogel, who obviously did very serviceable villains; alas, he committed suicide the year after this) is the key figure in the film in a lot of ways. Vera Maretskaya as the country girl is rather marvellous, too, it should be said, she gives the film a lot of its considerable charm, but Fogel gives us the film’s parting shot; after he’s been shopped to the trade union and told he’ll do jail time for his misbehaviour, he initially looks stunned, then shrugs, and there the film ends. It’s a slightly dark note for the film to end on, suggesting that even Soviet law couldn’t make people actually repent about their misdeeds if they didn’t want to, and they’d do them again given the chance. You get the feeling Paranya won’t be the last servant he mistreats.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927)

Director: Esther Shub

Back in the day, this was apparently greeted as the “right” way of doing documentary montage compared with Vertov’s films, or at least so says the booklet accompanying the DVD. In truth, Shub’s films and Vertov’s are starting from such different premises I’m not sure you can really draw a proper comparison anyway; for one thing, Shub was the editor of pre-existing footage, not the creator of new footage. The propagandist aspect is still there, obviously, but in a different fashion, cos all of Shub’s footage is pre-revolutionary (from the tercentenary of the Romanovs in 1913 to the 1917 revolutions); Vertov’s film that we just saw was about the glories of the new order, Shub’s is about the horror of the old regime.

One area where the Flicker Alley set does perhaps fall down a bit is that the films come without commentaries, which is where the older Eureka edition does have one advantage, i.e. the introduction and commentary by Oleg Donskikh. He is quick to remind us (which he does often) that Shub’s film is propaganda designed to bolster what he calls “the Bolshevik myth”, that Russia before the revolution was kind of shit and only the Bolsheviks were capable of bringing it into the modern age and all that. Donskikh reckons that the conservatism of the old regime has been overstated and some of the earlier Romanov tsars were relatively progressive in effecting substantial cultural change, and that Shub basically used these images to tell a story that was, frankly, historically wrong. Which I suppose is fair enough; the film makes few bones about being anything other than a character assassination of the Tsarist period. But surely the images she was working with weren’t necessarily innocent… wouldn’t most of them (particularly the 300th anniversary footage) have been intended as some kind of propaganda themselves originally? i don’t know, it just seems a bit disingenuous or something to pontificate about the message Shub’s film was pushing and ignore the idea that the newsreel and documentary footage she was using wasn’t intended by its makers to push a message as well… From this vantage point, of course, the important thing about Shub’s film (and indeed the others she made on the same lines) is that at least we have that historic footage to debate; when so much historic film of this sort has vanished into the ether with time—indeed, so much of it had already been lost when Shub made her compilations—it’s nice to still have this stuff, irrespective of the reasons for its preservation…

Stride, Soviet! (1926)

Director: Dziga Vertov

The erstwhile Denis Kaufman and I don’t have a spectacular track record, so this was the film in the Soviet cinema box I was least looking forward to checking out. And for the most part, the film kind of lived up to my apprehensions… Vertov was hired by the Moscow Soviet to make this as a kind of promotional piece in the run up to the 1926 local election, basically to say “hey, wartime was shit and the NEP period wasn’t much better, but look how good we’re doing now”. In other words, the propagandistic imperative was blunt (although apparently the Moscow Soviet weren’t thrilled by the way the end result actually barely mentions them) and the film itself kind of dry and flavourless. I don’t know, maybe it’s just that me and Vertov don’t really get on much, and yet I can’t help but feel there must be something that still makes people think he’s important. I don’t know, maybe the film was full of innovations at the time and I just didn’t pick up on them now or something; certainly at the time it seems to have been well received and considered major enough to spark fairly heated theoretical arguments about montage in documentary (Lev Kuleshov was a particularly vocal Vertov antagonist; I don’t suppose Vertov’s pathological hatred of fiction films endeared him to their makers either). Me, I didn’t get it.

For the most part, that is. Near the end of the film there’s a brief bit where Vertov gives us scenes of our happy Muscovites socialising after a hard day rebuilding the nation. It’s as if he momentarily forgets he’s making a propaganda film; the tone suddenly switches from strident and hectoring to relaxed, the mood shifts and for those brief shining moments of people just being themselves Stride, Soviet actually almost becomes fun. It doesn’t last, perhaps needless to say—I did sigh rather deeply when the film picked its megaphone back up—but it’s quite pleasant when it does happen… maybe not quite enough to make the rest of the film tolerable, but it was something.

By the Law (1926)

Director: Lev Kuleshov

By 1926, Kuleshov’s filmmaking career was already being outstripped by those of his former associates (Vsevolod Pudovkin and Boris Barnet, both of whom acted in Mr West now had directorial careers); the Goskino studio were unhappy with Kuleshov’s work, and he and what was left of his old group were on their last legs. So he proposed this as a low-budget (supposedly the cheapest Soviet feature ever) project, which would involve three main actors and only have one actual set. By the Law was adapted from a short story by Jack London (whose work the Kuleshov workshop had tackled in their “films without film” theoretical period), and though the studio wasn’t exactly thrilled by the material (if Mr West had merely been kind of an “American”-styled tale, this was obviously far more so) nor Kuleshov’s propensity for casting his wife Alexandra Khokhlova in his films, I presume the low budget deal won them over. It’s as bleak as hell, and apparently even critics at the time were struck by the lack of a real hero or villain and indeed of any overt motive for the story’s key event… setting is the Yukon in gold rush days, a quintet of people are prospecting, mostly without luck; things start looking up for them but one of the team finds himself excluded by the others, until finally one day he snaps and kills two of them. The leader of the expedition wants to kill him in return, but his wife insists upon the law taking care of him. But they’re a long way from any representatives of the law and the winter weather isn’t helping… cue increasing cabin fever, madness, and a bit of a “hang on, what the fuck was that?” type ending. Really good (though as this review rightly observes, Khokhlova’s semi-Expressionist acting style walks a fine line at times), made in a way that kind of belies the stupidly low budget, and something of a surprise hit in Europe, but it’s basically free of Soviet propaganda and so Kuleshov wasn’t exactly feted at home. Must say, though, that ending’s left me more genuinely rattled than most actual horror movies I’ve seen. Quite something.