Where the Past Meets the Future

By Lee Hill

young-lady-and-the-hooligan-evgeny-slavinsky.jpgThe Young Lady and the Hooligan, 1918

Academic and film historian, Ian Christie, told an audience at the beginning of screenings for Academia Rossica’s Early Russian cinema series, that there was more to the country’s silent cinema than Sergei Eisenstein. Given the problematic nature of preserving silent movies, the fact that approximately 50 films, many of them from the pre-revolutionary period of Russian Cinema from 1910 to 1916, have been salvaged in recent years is something to be celebrated. A small sliver of those riches forms part of the series, recently screened at the Mayfair Curzon. Despite the relative brevity of the series, one can see the national cinema of a country going through cataclysmic change – a revolution and a world war – moving from something crude and provisional to something that even the statism of Hollywood couldn’t ignore for long reflected in a handful of fascinating films.

At 10 minutes, Stenka Razin (1908), directed by Viktor Romashokov, provides a fragment of history dealing with the Cossack leader who led a major revolt against the Tsar and his bureaucracy in the 1600s. Played out as a manic series of tableaux on canoes and then on a shoreline, the film, as it now exists, is an enigmatic chip of a larger feature. We see actors in period costume performing with almost wild and undisciplined abandon. The result is more puzzling than tantalising, but it does underscore the importance of historical subjects in Russian cinema.

stenka-razin-viktor-romashkov.jpgStenka Razin, 1908

Vladimir Mayakovsky, the James Dean-like anti-hero of the Russian revolution, managed to pack a ton of creativity – plays, poems, literary tours abroad, epic romances, trying to merge art with propaganda, et al – into his 36 plus years before committing suicide in 1930. Like many artists who gave their all for the Revolution, the potential of film was yet another form of challenge and attraction for Mayakovsky.

In The Young Lady and the Hooligan (1918), which Mayakovsky co-directed with Evgeny Slavinsky, he stars as a surly young layabout in a small village, who is infatuated with a pretty, but puritanical young teacher. The overtures of Mayakovsky’s character are both romantic and brutal (in one scene, he all but appears to rape the teacher in her classroom in front of other students, while in another he presents her with a gift like a shy lover). The imagery is influenced by Mayakovsky’s own poetry, but there is also a touch of surrealism, especially in the repressed dream life of the teacher. As a visual record of Mayakovsky’s charisma alone, the film would be significant, but it also demonstrates how personal subjects, that didn’t quite fit into utopian schemes, have always played a role in Russian cinema.

after-death-evgeni-bauer.jpgAfter Death, 1915

The power of dreams comes to the fore in After Death (1915), directed somewhat stagily by Evgeny Bauer. Despite a certain halting quality and the overwrought acting by the two leads, including ballerina Vera Karalli, the film acutely explores the morbidity of romantic obsession cut short by death. An aristocratic photographer, waited on by his doting aunt, falls in love with Karalli’s actress one night only to rebuff her attentions during a brief meeting in a park the next day. She poisons herself and then begins to haunt the photographer’s days and nights until a strange kind of catharsis is achieved. Watching the film, I thought that Guy Maddin must have seen this film at least once or if he hasn’t, he should have. Despite the frayed quality of the restoration, the film has a steady cumulative power that transcends its literary origins and theatrical mise-en-scène.

The last four films in the Academia Rossica program are formally and thematically light years ahead of the films discussed above. In Chess Fever (1925), Vsevolod Pudovkin manages to condense look a chess addict's obsession with the game and how it blocks out any broader engagement with life into a sublime 20 minutes... Chessboard imagery is found throughout the film on napkins, floors, clothes and, ultimately, the city itself, as the main protagonist is consumed to the point of rapture and oblivion by his obsessions. Pudovkin’s ability to blend drama with documentary techniques is displayed as brilliantly here as it would be in his social realist epic, Earth. An seven shorter, but no less powerful film, Wladyslaw Starewicz’s Cameraman's Revenge (1912, 13 minutes), is about infidelity among the insects, a topic which I dare say has never before or after been attempted on film. It displays a deft handling of animation, nature film and sheer quirkiness to underscore once again the sheer diversity of talent in the silent era of Russian cinema.

cameramans-revenge-wladyslaw-starewicz.jpgThe Cameraman's Revenge

Alas the more eccentric the talent, the more difficult it became to balance expressionism with the need to raise the consciousness of a war weary and hungry young state. In Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924), director Yakov Protozanov, explores the ambiguous role of the artist or scientist trying to accommodate personal dreams with the obligations and duties of pushing a social revolution further through an inspired allegory about a trip to Mars. Set in a Moscow bustling with collective activity, the romantic complications of a scientist and his wife are contrasted with the attempts by former aristocrats to abuse and undermine the new social system through black marketing and counter insurgency. Into this already heady conflict, the bulk of the film is then taken up with an “imagined” voyage to Mars, whose technologically advanced society mirrors the same tensions of the provisional Russian government.

Bold production design, brisk editing and imaginative special effects combined with a blend of irony and tension between the idealistic characters and the more craven ones makes Aelita a delight to watch. It is a proto science fiction film which can easily hold its own with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and its narrative complexity in many respect surpasses the familiarity of the former.

strike-sergei-eisenstein.jpgStrike, 1925

Last, but not least (and doubtlessly to Ian Christie’s chagrin), it is impossible not to crown Sergei Eisenstein’s debut film, Strike (1924), as the best film in the Academia Rossica series. Eisenstein is so firmly associated with the more dour aspects of social realism that it is easy to forget how fast paced and eternally fresh his films are. From its deep focus photography, which makes the staterooms of industrialists out to quell a worker’s strike to the squalor of peasant’s homes, there is a bold, almost heady vividness to Strike, which makes its tale of labour struggle take on the dimensions of a thriller. Anyone who has doubted why Eisenstein continues to influence the likes of Brian De Palma or Terry Gilliam, need only to watch a few minutes of Strike to marvel at the film’s sheer brashness. To take one example, the sight of strikers being attacked with water cannons is edited with a visceral intensity that takes the breath away 80 years later. Strike is the kind of film that demonstrates why Hollywood wanted to tap into Eisenstein’s storytelling genius, but it also shows why its sheer visionary quality could never be harnessed to something as mundane as genre.

All of the films in the Academia Rossica series, despite the technical or formal limitations of the very early ones, remind one of how rich Russian cinema was and remains. Despite the seemingly endless political and economic shifts between one form of dysfunctional ideology after another, the country’s cinema has managed to sustain and renew itself. In the early Russian cinema series, we see the same obsessions that continue to reverberate in the Putin era, reaffirming once again that the past is always with us and the future is never as undetermined as we like to think it is.

Lee Hill is a writer. He lives in London.