“Now in Russia, every television channel shows the old Soviet movies,” the filmmaker [Pyotr Lutsik] told a Western interviewer. “There was a time in my life when you could not see them at all. Today young people, old people, everybody wants to watch them because the emotion is so intense and much more interesting than the new Russian cinema.”
Below is a list of what strike me as being, on a given day, the 100 greatest films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe through 2007. This list is chronological; however, for those years where there is more than one entry, the films are arranged in order of preference.
Some of the films have appeared on previous lists. A cross-reference to those other lists is given in lieu of an entry. These other lists appear elsewhere on this site.
It is quite likely that black-and-white silent Soviet cinema of the 1920s and the early 1930s constitutes the single greatest chapter ever to appear in the book of world cinema.
1. THE DYING SWAN. Elegantly bourgeois, Yevgeni Bauer died months before Russia’s October Revolution. He had made more than twenty films, perhaps the loveliest of which is “Umirayushchii Lebed,” written by 20-year-old Zoya Barantsevich before she turned to silent film acting. Denouncing it as decadent, the Bolsheviks banned the film.
It’s a shame whenever live or recorded music is appended to outstanding silent films, a practice commercial pressure has been known to dictate. Silence is one of the most expressive elements in silent film and remains, even today, the grace of cinema. Musical attempts to heighten the emotional content of films strike me as barbaric and manipulative; as with other artistic elements, even in sound films the best music is analytical or distancing—not underlining, but aesthetically or thematically contributory.
Gizella (Vera Karalli, of the Bolshoi Ballet and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo) is a mute ballerina—and the silence of Bauer’s silent film expresses this muteness, as does the muteness of two dream passages that, together, compose the spiritual and emotional vortex of Bauer’s film: one is a waking dream—ours—in which Gizella performs (exquisitely) Anna Pavlova’s signature dance, “The Dying Swan”; the other is Gizella’s own sleeping dream, in which her fate is revealed to her should she continue sitting, in costume, for Glinskiy, the artist who, obsessed with the image of death that she projects in performance, is painting her. With its premonitions of the end of a class and a silken style in Russian cinema, Bauer’s film begs to be read in terms of unfolding Russian history. (The earlier end of Gizella’s romance with Viktor, whose unfaithfulness she discovers, creates a foundation for the principal theme.) Hauntingly “The Dying Swan” mourns the loss that it anticipates.
And in silence! To paraphrase Shakespeare: Muteness is all.
2. STRIKE. “The strength of the working class is organization . . . Organized, it is everything.” — Lenin
Feverishly inventive, almost peerlessly dynamic, Sergei M. Eisenstein’s second film, Stachka, testifies to a tidal wave of unity among nonunionized workers, at a locomotive factory in tsarist Russia in 1912, who strike once a fellow worker, accused by the foreman of the theft of a micrometer, commits suicide. Nothing good, though, comes of the strike, which triggers a brutal assault by authorities, a mass killing spree, in fact. Prior to this, we also witness the toll that the prolonged strike has on workers, depriving them of hand-to-mouth income, fraying tempers, causing marital discord. Management summons criminals, spies, soldiers—whatever it takes—to crush strikers and their families.
Of course, despair—here encapsulated by the suicide and the sympathy among workers it engenders—is a poor foundation for serious, committed action, almost guaranteeing a less than satisfactory result. True, it brings about worker unity, but rather more frenzied and self-indulgent than disciplined and organized. It is a fractious “unity.” Moreover, so long as tsarism rules, such worker outrage may constitute little more than a futile gesture. Everything is rigged against labor.
Behind capitalists stands the Tsar. Rather than the strike, it is the Bolshevik Revolution in the future—which is to say, in 1924, the recent past—that will redress/has redressed worker grievances. In Strike, Eisenstein has conjured a feast of black-and-white images, often rapidly cutting between motion-packed shots. A stunning example of Eisenstein’s visual artistry: outdoors, an angled overhead shot of a wasteland of depressed barrels, out of which human scum—“troglodyte lumpenproletarians,” critic Anna Chen calls them—emerge. Superimpositions, constructivist compositions, reverse motion, traveling shots with the camera strapped on this and that: 26-year-old Eisenstein, flexing his flair for cinema, shoots the works.
3. KINO-EYE. As Dziga Vertov, Polish-born Denis Abramovich Kaufman pioneered the newsreel in two series: Kino-Pravda (Cinema Truth, 1922-25); Novostni Dnia (New of the Day, 1944-54, the year of his death). Committed to a cinema of fact, Vertov—with the assistance of his brother, cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman, and his wife, cutter Elisaveta Svilova—created Kino-Eye. Vertov’s aim was to capture the myriad reality of the unfolding Soviet experience.
Largely following “Young Leninists,” an educational troupe of activist children, Kino-Eye cross-identifies, in terms of freshness, wholeness, health and freedom, the following: the Soviet Union; the idealism that guides this revolutionary nation; cinema—cinema, that is, once it is liberated from its theatrical and reactionary origins. Vertov’s work surely was far removed from the Russian heaviness that overtook Soviet cinema as the Soviet Union receded farther from claims to any sort of idealism. Kino-Eye in fact displays delightful camera tricks—for instance, passages of reverse motion that in the process of analyzing various activities and events suggest also sheer possibility and fresh beginnings, but with an ironic hint, too, of determinism. Indeed, no film in creation more seamlessly and unexpectedly darkens in complexion, shifting from being celebratory to exposing the threat to the collective welfare—a threat imaged in grotesque animated silhouette—posed by entrenched individual habits such as excessive drinking of alcohol and tobacco use! For Vertov, his new nation is not a done deal but remains vulnerable, and therefore he urges his audience to see analytically, to grasp causality and their joint responsibility in the Soviet adventure. Vertov wants to open eyes to everything good and everything bad that is happening, and he plans on keeping his own eyes open as well.
Discrediting plot-driven movies, Vertov also exhorted fellow filmmakers to show instead “the chaos of visual phenomena filling the universe.”
4. BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #2.
5. MOTHER. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #27.
6. THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #18.
7. OCTOBER. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #28.
8. THE FALL OF THE ROMANOV DYNASTY. The first part of a trilogy the other parts of which I haven’t seen, Esfir (Esther) Shub’s Padenie dinastii Romanovykh documents the inequities promulgated by Tsarist rule and the social unrest this fomented, which the First World War brought to a head. It consists of archival footage, some culled from hagiographic material that Tsar Nikolai II had ordered shot. Eisenstein’s mentor in techniques of editing and montage, Shub is often described as a compilationist. Stalin and his ruling establishment considered her a gifted editor, not an artist, failing to grasp the difference between editing for continuity and editing to generate ideas and the feelings that attach to them.
Consider the film’s opening. The Tsar’s Kremlin palace is represented by three spires, suggesting the Holy Trinity. The next shot is of a cannon, which is made all the more fearsome by its filling almost the entire frame. The juxtapositon declares, “Religion makes war(s).” The next shot is of a long procession of Orthodox priests. They are an army. These priests do not participate in combat, but the juxtaposition of images generates the idea that, in Tsarist Russia, the appetite for war is cultivated by the clergy and activated by the clergy’s influence on power. The two shots that now follow are of the military. The first leaves an impression of messiness: officers are shown milling around. The juxtaposition with the previous shot makes unmistakable that the military, for all its elitist, aristocratic authority, remains under the thumb of organized religion—the military’s tacit master. The next shot is of rank-and-file soldiers. Perfect. Interpreting the sequence, we realize that it is Shub’s opinion that organized religion determines Russian military prerogative and this in turn determines Russian military activity: the fate of real people.
Fall is art.
9. THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #6.
10. STORM OVER ASIA. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #30.
11. ZVENIGORA. Zvenigora launched Aleksandr Dovzhenko as cinema’s “poet of the Ukraine.”
During the Ukrainian Civil War, a man tells grandsons stories of far away, long ago, including one about buried treasure. One boy as a result ends up fighting for the revolutionary cause. The other, identifying only with narrow self-interest, becomes a seeker of fortune and a counter-revolutionary. The latter, who has attempted to make a profit by advertising his suicide in a theatrical venue, ends up, later, an actual suicide.
One of the film’s themes, then, is the power of art—for good or ill. The grandfather’s story-telling, richly mining Ukrainian folklore, inspires both boys, providing a repugnant example of greed for one and a seductive example of it for the other. One boy affirms life; the other courts death. The two boys in Dovzhenko’s Earth (see 1930), Vasili and the kulak’s son who kills him, will be, in effect, transmutations of the grandsons in Zvenigora. In addition, Zvenigora questions whether Soviet ideology speaks to what is innate in humans. Does Communism express or seek to correct what is naturally human?
Zvenigora plunges us into images that correspond to the grandfather’s stories rather than showing him reciting these stories. The first thing we see is a train of galloping cossacks in slow motion. Thus the film announced, for 1920s audiences, the remarkably original film they were about to view. Zvenigora is delirious with experimentation, including rapidly edited sequences and the fantastic use of double exposures.
But the film is also trenchant, as when a soldier directs his own execution, and real as well as fabulous, as in its industrial montage and in a majestic shot of men working in the fields, their unconsciously synchronized swings of the scythe creating an indelible image of the shared lot of laboring humanity.
12. ARSENAL. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #24.
13. THE OLD AND THE NEW (a.k.a. THE GENERAL LINE). Jean-Luc Godard has said that the best way to criticize someone else’s film is with a film of one’s own. Among the most beautiful movies ever made, Earth (see 1930) was Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s response to Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Staroye i novoye. But Eisenstein’s film is itself a magnificent achievement, despite the dismissive Soviet response it incurred in part because the two main characters were seen as being too highly individuated, and because Eisenstein’s “formalism” countered what Stalin (through a critic) cited as the public’s need for “simple, clear, realistic stories.” One wonders whether something else weighed in: with its bare-chested farm boys, Staroye i novoye would remain Eisenstein’s most aggressively homoerotic work.
The film’s most famous passage involves the maiden operation of a shiny new cream separator, on whose correct functioning the hopes of a struggling farm cooperative are pinned. The machine’s fecund overspill exudes a sense of the collective release of the cooperative’s members from both current want and past servitude—a discharge (with life-affirming erotic overtones) that symbolizes their (and others’) becoming newly whole by returning to their generous, spontaneous natures, from which tsarism, as a matter of course, had endeavored to separate them. Intellectual montage? In this case, try orgasmic montage.
This time, Eisenstein lights on a representative heroine rather than hero, whose rise within the commune he traces. Marfa is full of initiative, acuity, and hope for the future. Staroye i novoye thus strikes a stunning chord of gender equality while balancing the integrity of this individual against group effort and aspiration. The film implies the necessity for such equality if the nation is to fulfill its mission.
How Eisenstein’s films of the 1920s resonate with his faith in Soviet Communism as liberator of the human spirit.
14. TURKSIB. The 1920s saw emerge two outstanding silent films about railroad construction: John Ford’s fictional Iron Horse (1924); the pulsating Soviet documentary Turksib, by Viktor A. Turin. Ford, in the U.S., had embarked on a path to greatness. Only Turksib has rescued Turin from obscurity.
In many ways Turksib is the signature Soviet film. Documenting the construction of a railroad linking north and south, it is a celebration of the Soviet nation’s determination to overcome Nature, which is here portrayed as being harsh and brutal, in order to better the lives of its people(s) and to unify its vast territory. Informing Turin’s perspective is Karl Marx’s own attitude toward Nature, which is dismissive and contemptuous. In Grundisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (1857), Marx wrote: “Nature does not build machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs . . . They are products of the human industry.” On the other hand (or in the other Kino-eye), Turin’s portrayal of Nature in his film, by default of humanity’s romance with Nature to which Marx was peculiarly immune, is often bewitchingly beautiful. Probably unconsciously, Turksib bridges the exaltation of “human industry” and a recognition of Nature’s beauty, for all its perils, regional bleakness, and challenges to progress.
Like The Iron Horse, Turksib is an epic. Taken together, the film’s bounty of mostly brief shots composes a hymn to national purpose, the arduous piecemeal task of realizing a daunting enterprise and achieving a noble end. Metaphorically, the building of the Turkestan-Siberian Railroad everywhere suggests the realization of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics itself. Now that the nation in question has fallen and vanished, the film allows us, therefore, to glimpse afresh the hope and spirit that the idea of the Soviet Union once brought to the world. Turksib encapsulates the Soviet dream.
15. EARTH. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #4.
16. ¡QUÉ VIVA MÉXICO! See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #13.
17. DESERTER. Proletarian solidarity across borders: German shipyard workers delay striking in order to complete an order that will fortify Soviet defense needs. During the strike, a young dockworker, starving, disillusioned, strays from the cause, deserting the picket-line. Like the farmer in Pudovkin’s End of St. Petersburg (see 1927), Karl Renn’s class consciousness is embryonic. It develops in Moscow, where he is sent as delegate to an international conference and sees for himself a just society founded in worker solidarity. He returns to help seed such possibilities at home.
A young woman distributes leaflets about the strike on the street. Authorities descend, and she takes off. As she hurriedly walks, every now and then she looks over her shoulder. Intercutting her flight is a police officer’s apparent pursuit of her; but when the sequence is resolved, he is in fact walking towards her, not after her. In effect, the woman’s agitation and fear bring her into the arms of the law—the object of her fear. What seems at first clever becomes psychologically penetrating.
A rapidly edited montage of shipyard labor is strengthened by sound effects, Dezertir being Pudovkin’s first sound film. Sounds burst out of silence and frequently, accompanying one image, derive from action shown in the next image. Based on a theoretical manifesto that Pudovkin and Eisenstein had devised four years earlier, Pudovkin’s use of certain sound effects is based on models of dialecticism and point-counterpoint; asynchronous sound (con)tests rather than reinforces image, with the combination of the two, the tension between them, generating an idea wholly contained in neither the image nor the sound—rather than dialectical montage, dialectical sound-image within a shot. For instance, a striker’s whistling accompanies a shot of another striker’s eating a sandwich: a harbinger of the hunger ahead for the momentarily carefree whistler.
18. OKRAINA. In “the backwaters of tsarist Russia,” life exists at a sleepy remove: ducks feed in murkily reflective water; a man dozes in his spindly coach as his horse shakes its head, the epithet “Good God!” seemingly coming from it, but as likely coming from its come-to offscreen master; a smiling girl, alone on a bench, noting couples—and an alternate possibility of her future: an unhappy unattached woman. From the outdoor leisure of strolling couples, the camera cuts to a shoemaking workshop: an unseen woman’s foot is measured; the sounds and sights of speedy mass labor. Thus begins Boris Barnet’s inventive, comical Okraina (literally, Outskirts, a.k.a. Patriots), an early Soviet sound film, and a brilliant antiwar film.
Two things rouse the town: a factory strike, compelling the cobblers to stop cobbling and join their comrades in solidarity; German invasion and war. The latter is a touchstone of the plot regarding the girl on the bench and her father, one of whose tenants is a German friend with whom he plays checkers. War sets them to bickering, the tenant moves out and they are friends no longer. Later, the daughter becomes infatuated with a German prisoner-of-war, stealing him into the boarding house before, roused from sleep, her father tosses him out. The boy, the one shoemaker in town willing (and eager) to work, is beaten up by folk, as though the town were the front. Meanwhile, the scenes at the front are trenchant, disclosing the horror of war. An extreme long-shot of one surrenderer and a man from the other side coming peaceably together, each followed by a flurry of soldiers, is surpassingly moving, as is the weary march of prisoners-of-war into town. Gorgeous lyrical inserts of Nature mark the 1917 revolution. Tsarist Russia is no more.
19. THREE SONGS OF LENIN. The tenth anniversary of Lenin’s death inspired Dziga Vertov to make the lyrical Tri pesni o Lenine celebrating the “friend and liberator of the oppressed”—a masterpiece somewhat disfigured by state-added rushes of propaganda at the opening and the close. (A 1938 makeover purged purged officials and edited in Stalin!) It proved to be Vertov’s final feature; for the next two decades, the Soviet film artist whose soul was most deeply wedded to the avant-garde was relegated to making cursory newsreels for the state. Vertov died before destalinization could liberate him.
The prologue is elegiac: shots of Lenin’s home; a gentle breeze animating surrounding trees, nearby river; a photograph of Lenin on his favorite bench; shots of the now vacated bench: all these accumulate into a portrait of Lenin’s spirit, the presence of his absence, his ongoing influence. Thereafter, the film is in three parts. Located in the Soviet East, “My Face Was in a Black Prison” is the first song, in which the heavy veil that women traditionally wore functions as a metaphor for oppression. One woman after another lifts her veil, revealing a smiling face and new opportunities: education; work. As part of his legacy, then, female empowerment reflects Lenin’s spirit. “We Loved Him,” the second song, is an epic disclosure of love, reverence and grief; Vertov expresses his personal feelings about Lenin through female faces—the most powerful, sensitive closeups since Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—and crowds gathered to bid Lenin farewell. Old photographs, newsreels translate the deceased Lenin into the living Lenin who helped forge the nation. Lenin’s bench, empty, now is covered with snow. The final song, “In the Great City of Stone,” continues to pay tribute. “Come look at Lenin, and your sorrows will disappear like water.”
20. AEROGRAD. A sequel to his astounding Earth (see 1930), Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Aerograd (Frontier) likewise assaults kulaks, Old Believers (Christians) whose selfish desire to maintain private ownership of land contests the right of the Soviet people, by virtue of the Bolshevik Revolution, to claim this land as their own. In Earth, land specifically refers to farmland, and the state’s structuring of shared ownership is collectivization. Aerograd instead refers to the nation’s eastward expansion, its (to use an American term) manifest destiny. The land in this instance is subject to conquest; the goal is to build a new city—the city of the future: Aerograd.
For once with Dovzhenko, none of the three main characters is Ukrainian. One, a young soldier who embodies the “air city” to be built in the Siberian East, is guardian of the Soviet future. The other two are old comrades now divided by the Communist state; one is a frontier guard protecting the land from the infiltration of spies and the machinations of traitors, while the other is a hunter who is both spy and traitor. The guard eventually dispatches his old friend. Dovzhenko’s feeling of betrayal by a revolution that produced a Russia-dominated nation, giving his beloved Ukraine short shrift, contributes a bleedingly personal chord in an otherwise largely impersonal film.
Two more elements are decisive in the film’s favor. One is its black-and-white description of the Siberian taiga, especially, shimmering forests below incandescent skies—images of unspoilt Nature that suggest the wholesome Soviet future to which the film looks ahead. Moreover, no other film has even remotely approached this one in the spectacular, stirring nature of its airborne scenes. Dovzhenko throughout, and especially at the close, creates visual symphonies of air flight that knock the legs out from under one and send the spirit soaring.
21. BEZHIN MEADOW. Based on the 1852 story by Ivan Turgenev, Sergei Eisenstein’s Bezhin lug, like his ¡Que viva México! (see 1931-32), can hardly be said to exist. Stalin’s story is that the film, production of which Stalin had stopped in 1937, was destroyed in a German bombing raid; others suspect that Stalin himself destroyed it earlier for his own reasons. The half-hour 1967 “reconstruction” by Eisenstein Museum curator Naum Kleiman and filmmaker Sergei Yutkevich was made from still images from the front and back of each shot that Eisenstein, according to his routine practice, had saved and his widow, Pera Attasheva, had kept. The original script and Eisenstein’s storyboards and notes were used as blueprint.
The updated story is a return to the conflict of Dovzhenko’s Earth (see 1930), another stab at the “the old and the new.” Its protagonist is 11-year-old Stepok, a “Young Pioneer” who supports the collectivism that his father, a farmer, detests. This kulak, who has beaten to death Stepok’s mother, is vicious. He is among those out to destroy the collective farm’s harvest by incinerating it. After leading a collective action to combat this sabotage, Stepok is murdered by this monster. Like Lenin lying in state, however, the dead child reflects Soviet Communism’s abiding spirit and radiant future.
A montage of flowering trees: Eisenstein links this glimpse of gorgeous Nature to Stepok’s mother, with whose burial the film opens. The face of her corpse is partially visible in the foreground; in the background, Stepok looks intently at it, bound in commitment to his mother’s memory. His opposition to his father will thus be natural and moral as well as social and political: an indication of the crystalline condensation of Eisenstein’s method.
Anyone who fails to embrace Eisenstein’s brilliance cannot persuasively profess a love of movies.
22. ALEXANDER NEVSKY. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this list, entry #39.
23. THE CHILDHOOD OF MAXIM GORKY. Detstvo Gorkogo, the first part of Mark Donskoi’s trilogy about friend Maxim Gorky, the founder of Socialist Realism in literature, recounts the boy’s hectic, impoverished childhood with maternal grandparents, in Nizhii Novgorod (later, Gorky), after his father’s death.
Aleksei Peshkov’s arrival by boat is preceded by two shots: an eternizing one of the Volga River, watched over by the sun in a white-clouded sky but for a single large storm cloud; another, of an irregularly shaped though orderly mass of men moving in something like unison on the shore, singing: Russian workers, the future author’s subject and point of identification. Aleksei’s grandmother, Akulina Ivanovna (Varvara Massalitinova, superb), is loving and nurturing; but Vasili Vasilyevich, his grandfather, is alternately cruel and tender. Grandma teaches Aleksei to stand up to injustice; Grandpa provides occasions for his doing so. Their harsh existence makes some people harsh, others compassionate.
Grigori has been Grandpa’s foreman in the dye works for 37 years. The daily combined assault of heat and chemicals has weakened Grigori’s sight. Eventually he goes blind. Despite Grandma’s pleas, Grandpa tosses out Grigori onto the street, consigning him to homelessness and street beggary. When the dye factory burns down, the Kashirins move and take in a lodger, a socialist whom a family member denounces, consigning him to a prison chain gang. Aleksei keeps observing. A same-named dying crippled boy deepens his love for society’s outcasts.
It is time for Aleksei to leave. (In reality, Grandpa threw him out.) The final image is a rearward long shot of the future Maxim Gorky on a winding road leading him to his destiny. The film ends with this Gorky quotation: “To live—to live—that there may be set free all that is good and human in our hearts and minds.”
24. AMONG PEOPLE. The second part of Mark Donskoi’s Gorky trilogy, V lyudyakh, finds Aleksei Peshkov—the future Maxim Gorky—out in the world. He tries his hand at a number of jobs, only to discover that some there will treat him as unfairly as had his grandfather, whom he now confronts, upon returning home for a visit, with a new, stronger voice. The form and texture of the film have changed. Whereas The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (see 1938) conveys life’s rough, irregular rhythms, the tailored episodes of the second part suggest instead carefully reflected-upon incidents that have challenged the boy to take charge of his life. It is ironic, given his socialist destiny, that Aleksei becomes proficient as an apprentice Orthodox Christian icon maker.
Yet the second part has a kind of roughness, too: the discontinuous form of the narrative, which seems to jump from place to place, job to job, persons to persons. Thus Donskoi brilliantly conveys Aleksei’s “shopping around” for a sense of his place in the world. Aleksei’s imagination, motives and impulses are social rather than egoistical, and therefore the film’s lack of attention to his individual psychology, or anyone else’s for that matter, is true to the spirit and orientation of its subject. Donskoi shaped his material, and gave it such features, so that others might better know his late friend.
Above all, he made a heart-stirring film—as when, at the close, Aleksei’s elderly peasant grandmother, watching the boy’s boat leave, addresses him out of earshot: “You won’t see me again. By the time you return, I will be dead. How wonderful the world is!” Fixed, the camera records what she sees: her grandson passing beyond her reach. Akulina Ivanovna’s life has been hard; Aleksei’s life may be better. How wonderful the world is!
25. MY UNIVERSITIES. Whatever its goals, Maxim Gorky felt that the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution would bring only heartache to Russia. He wrote: “Lenin and Trotsky have no idea about freedom or human rights. They are already corrupted by the poison of power.” Gorky’s death in 1936, officially from tuberculosis, motivated friend Mark Donskoi to make the Gorky trilogy and hid, many felt, Stalin’s assassination of Gorky.
In the third part, Moi universitety, Aleksei Peshkov, now in his mid-teens, lives in a Kazan slum, hoping to enter university. A camera surveys open courtyard windows before lighting on his: a woman empties a wash basin; a woman howls as she is beaten; a hopeful singer practices. Aleksei, chastised for his awkward writing, curses the “oppressiveness” of grammar!
Tsarist police are making arrests. Aleksei joins an army of impoverished Volga dockers in rescuing cargo from a sinking barge: a joyous passage of humanity pulling together at hard labor. But the next job the boy finds is in a sweatshop bakery (the model for the work house in Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist). Aleksei shows compassion for fellow workers and stands up to their uncaring boss. “I feed forty people!” the latter boasts. Aleksei counters, “They feed you.” Aleksei helps foment rebellion among co-workers, who realize dignity and strength in taking a united stand against the boss, who has endeavored to increase their work load beyond endurance: an extended dynamic passage.
Aleksei’s suicide attempt, following the arrest of an underground journalist friend and the capitulation to their boss of the bakery workers, is an embarrassing hump for the film to get over. (“Hopeless dreams,” diagnoses the doctor as he stands over the recovering patient at hospital!)
As ocean waves crash nearby, Aleksei helps a stranger give birth, restoring him to the path of his radiant destiny.
26. IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART ONE. Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan Groznyy I, about the sixteenth-century Russian Tsar, owes some of its grand style to Josef von Sternberg’s Scarlet Empress (1934), about Catherine II. Yet a far more instructive influence comes from Eisenstein’s favorite American film, John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), in which the future president, becoming infatuated with the crowd’s infatuation with him, dons his hat inside a court room—a slip into arrogance and populist demagoguery. When in Eisenstein’s film Moscow’s archduke declares himself Tsar of all Russia, the camera behind him records this ascension in a Fordian gesture: Ivan’s lowering the ceremonial cap onto his own head. Assumption of power; the presumption of power.
The palace, populated by plotting nobles (Boyars), is full of cavernous dark hollows and looming human shadows by torchlight; during Ivan’s self-anointment, a shaft of light could be coming from the present, suggesting a unification of times as well as of Russian lands. The battle against the Tartars in Kazan (for access to the Azov Sea) suggests Stalin’s war against the Nazis. A heart-piercing passage: the long procession of Ivan’s warriors as they go off to fight, each in turn dropping a coin into a plate. Ivan explains that the coins remaining unclaimed following the campaign will provide the number of their fallen. The heap of coins symbolizes the high price that wars exact.
Enlivened by sometimes thunderous movement through the frames, the static compositions make thrilling each rare camera movement. Editing, particularly the inserted, often angled closeups, expressionistically destabilize the static compositions and the cumulative impression they convey. The poisoning of Tsarina Anastasia, Ivan’s own near-fatal illness and recovery, his self-exile and triumphant return on the wings of public adoration: all this underscores the fairy-tale nature of the first part of Eisenstein’s planned trilogy.
27. BERLIN. Yuli Raizman’s celebrated World War II documentary is about the capture and defeat of Berlin by the Red Army after British and U.S. aerial bombardment had reduced the city to rubble. Most U.S. highschoolers apparently believe that their nation fought the Soviet Union in the Second World War. There may be some poetic justice here, if one recalls the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler in the 1930s. But how about schools at least showing these kids Berlin?
This would also teach these students something about cinema. In one scene in the film, as the sound of bombing proceeds on the soundtrack, a Soviet soldier helps an infirm German across the street. Well, perhaps; for a trick of editing may have combined bombing from another time with the no-less-kind act. Sterling fellow that soldier, but not necessarily heroic.
The most oft-quoted documentary of all time contains bits and passages that are still being recycled, such as an aerial traveling shot of the ruined city. (The VHS box: “Over 40 Byelorussian and Ukrainian 1st Army cameramen contributed footage.”) But perhaps what is most remarkable is Raizman’s (and co-editor Yelizaveta Svilova’s) correlation of Berlin-present and Berlin-past. Germany’s official unconditional surrender is prefigured by a shot of white flags outside city window after city window. The next shot is a flashback showing the swastika-adorned flags that the white ones have replaced.
Some details are grisly—such as the scene of the charred corpse of Goebbels, the Third Reich’s Minister of Propaganda, after his suicide. Yet this is followed by an incredible visual idea: the radio tower that no longer is broadcasting his propaganda. It is an “Ozymandius”-touch, but within a scheme of collapsed rather than extensive time, an ironical reflection on the sudden bankruptcy of German aspiration and phallic dreams of domination.
28. IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART TWO (THE BOYARS’ PLOT). Ivan Groznyy II: Boyarsky zagovor finds Ivan, back in Moscow, under “the burden of power.” His increased paranoia is not without reason; in his absence the Boyars replaced him, and now their efforts to replace him permanently double. Cinema’s greatest flashback shows that Ivan the boy’s mother, like Ivan the man’s wife, was poisoned by the Boyars, orphaning him. (“I am alone,” he now says, meaning, “I am alone again.”) The Boyars had meant to replace his most trusted advisor with themselves. But even as a child Ivan opposed their schemes to sell Russian lands to foreigners; one day he will reclaim all Russia and unify it. This pact with himself shows his integrity of spirit. However, a brilliant shot underscores the limit that childhood imposes on his will: Archduke Ivan’s feet do not reach their ceremonial cushion. Trust Eisenstein to show politics and sexuality converging.
The immense shadow on the wall, in the first part, of Ivan’s bearded head projected the essence of Tsar Ivan’s power, along with its burden of responsibility and loneliness—humanity beyond humanity. Ivan’s boyhood past dictates his present for the sake of Russian history.
Lonely Ivan befriends a priest, conceding to him a measure of political power. Moreover, his behavior becomes increasingly erratic as the Boyars’ plot expressionistically closes in on him—by a stroke of irony, a plot to replace him with a young idiot, a perpetual child whom the Boyars hope to manipulate as they once tried doing with him. Eisenstein’s one passage in color reflects an insulated waking phantasmagoria.
Stalin, who felt reassured in his own power grab by the first part, now suppressed the second and terminated filming of the third. Eisenstein’s unaccepted pleas contributed to his fatal heart attack at fifty.
29. BORDER STREET. Aleksander Ford’s Ulica Graniczna is about resistance and German reprisal in the Warsaw Ghetto. Its opens with a montage of silent establishing shots of Warsaw. Often it is indeed a silent film with sound, giving it a poetic sadness. Transported back in time, we feel we may witness history taking a different course than it did. Only, it won’t.
Beginning in 1939, Ford depicts the German invasion and occupation. There is a quadruple focus on neighborhood children, an impoverished Jewish family, and two Aryan families. When it is exposed that an Aryan family head, a doctor, is in fact Jewish, his daughter, Jadzia, is rebuffed by her Aryan boyfriend, whose father, a Polish military officer, on the run from Germans, escapes only because the elderly Jewish tailor, despite torture, refuses to denounce him—a fact that the fugitive, heretofore anti-Semitic, relays to his son. The weary, hopeless march into the Ghetto, despite (because of?) a certain impossible grandeur, is among the most trenchant passages in postwar cinema. After arranging for his daughter’s safety, the doctor joins other Jews in the Ghetto; but Jadzia returns once she learns her father’s fate. Partisans are rounded up and mass executed. David, a Jewish boy, and Jadzia attempt to flee through a Warsaw sewer. Witnessing resistance fighters heading toward the Ghetto, however, David heads back himself, to rejoin uncle and grandfather, pausing to wave goodbye forever to Jadzia (and us).
Ford sometimes applies an overly refined aesthetic, and some of the plot is melodramatic. In the main, though, he captures reality’s rough textures, and his portrait of oppressed Ghetto life is vivid and terrifying. This haunting film, rich in symbolism, accumulates a spiritual air. Wladyslaw Godik is unforgettable as David’s devout grandfather—a man deep in prayer as Germans burn him alive.
30. MAN ON THE TRACKS. Facilitated by the loosened Soviet grip on the Polish film industry resulting from Josef Stalin’s death, Andrzej Munk’s Czlowiek na torze is about Polish laborers. It begins with a man’s death. A former railway conductor, Orzechowski (Kazimierz Opalinski, superb) haunts the local station post. He is run down on the tracks by the very train he used to engineer. How did this happen? Only one of two green lights showed, indicating—wrongly—safe passage for the train. Did Orzechowski remove one of the lights himself? If so, what was his motive? Was it political, because he was a member of the old guard? Was he nursing a grudge for having been discharged after decades of service? Did he die attempting sabotage or committing suicide? A board of inquiry will determine the truth.
In 1950, a new program of railway efficiency has train engineers and crews competing to use as little coal as possible. However, older workers who resist the redefinition of their homeland as communistic must function under the deepest cloud of suspicion. Orzechowski, defiant, keeps burning coal generously. Younger workers have political memories that go no farther back than the German occupation; Orzechowski recalls another Poland. “Times have changed,” stationmaster Tuszka tells him, trying to provoke Orzechowski’s retirement. But Tuszka is also nursing a grudge. Years ago, Orzechowski reprimanded Tuszka for shoddy work.
The pitch darkness in which the black-and-white film begins, as the train inexorably proceeds until brakes are applied, is correlative to the mystery surrounding Orzechowski and his motives; the voluminous smoke anticipates the self-serving, murky testimony that those conducting the inquiry must navigate to arrive at the truth. Orzechowski, they find, sacrificed himself to protect fellow Poles. Boss, assistant; non-Communist, Communist; old, young: Munk instead stresses Polish identity under the political skin.
31. EROICA. Written by Jerzy Stefan Stawiński, directed by Andrzej Munk, Heroism consists of two parts. This external form—the yoking together of two World War II “short stories”—is correlative to the film’s “split” attitude, its ambiguity and skepticism. Ultimately, Stawinski and Munk prick the concept of wartime heroism in order to deflate the whole idea of war.
The first part suggests Falstaff’s “better part of valour.” Gorkiewicz skips training for the Warsaw Uprising, the Polish resistance. But when a Hungarian officer engages him in wartime opportunism by employing him as a black marketeer selling armaments to Poles, Gorkiewicz becomes embroiled in the war, shaking off his indifference to his nation’s fate. A comical figure, Gorkiewicz is Everyman. Ordered to carry an elderly woman’s sack of belongings during the evacuation, he stumbles and falls under its weight. (Later he stumbles drunk fleeing a German assault and peeing—the stream of urine is a visual parody of the shooting and bombing!—behind a tree.) Gorkiewicz now engages the struggle, now tries escaping it. The “hero” is a coward is a hero, shirking responsibility yet affirming life amidst war’s death and insanity. In a stunning shot, Gorkiewicz, barefooted by a stream, polishes off a bottle as a German tank slowly comes up behind him. The upshot, hilarious, leaves Gorkiewicz shaking but intact.
The second part, grimmer, more sardonic, details life in a German P.O.W. camp. It might have been subtitled “Hell Is Other Polish Officers,” as the close confinement takes its toll, redefining freedom and impelling one prisoner, Lieutenant Zawistowski, to escape. Or did he? Those left behind are united by his inspiring example. Reality or legend? Eventually we learn the truth, that the one good thing about the war experience shared by these comrades is a lie.
And so it goes.
32. ASHES AND DIAMONDS. What critics anointed as such, he has said, Andrzej Wajda never intended: the “war trilogy.” Indeed, Wajda’s next film after completing the trio of films—A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954), Kanal (1957), Popiól i diament—returned to the topic of World War II, albeit in color rather than black and white. This was Lotna (1959), whose hallucinatory atmosphere generates a sense of defeat and despair, over Poland’s military backwardness, encroaching upon tenuous hope. Lotna’s centerpiece is a brilliant tracking shot that presents an almost surreal panorama of war’s carnage and horror: the survey of a battlefield on which killed horses and killed cavalrymen lie bloodily equal. The inexorably slow pace of the camera evokes a seemingly endless stretch of slaughter. Nonetheless, Popiól i diament is the prize of the quartet.
Written by Jerzy Andrzejewski and Wajda from the former’s novel, this film catches Poland at the very moment that fate cancels reprieve. On the day that war with Germany ends, two partisans, underground assassins, target the Communist district secretary, who represents the nation’s new order of political woes. Prior to executing their mission, Maciek, the younger assassin, endures a long, dark night of the soul, during which, for once a bit lost, he questions the whole idea of Pole killing Pole. He also experiences fleeting romance. Soon after the assassination the next day, the boy himself is shot and dies an agonizing animal death amidst war’s rubble.
The film’s centerpiece is the tremendous acting by Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek Chelmicki, which ensures the film’s heart-piercing humanity. Adam Pawlikowski is likewise brilliant as Maciek’s seasoned companion. Romantic, passionate, and grounded in Cybulski’s legendary performance behind dark eyeglasses, Ashes and Diamonds is also famous for its stormy imagery and compelling symbolism—for instance, the upside-down Christ in a bombed-out church.
33. BAD LUCK. Andrzej Munk’s comedy Zezowate szczęście—in English, sometimes called Cockeyed Happiness—takes in a brace of Polish history, covering a quarter-century beginning around 1930. It follows Janek Piszczyk (Bogumił Kobiela, brilliant), a bumbling Everyman who tries fitting in. Jerzy Stefan Stawiński wrote the script from his own story.
In an extended flashback, Jan recollects a lifetime of “bad luck.” He is a schoolboy in Warsaw tormented by peers, but his musical gift wins official favor—until a jealous schoolmate sabotages his band performance, causing him to be demoted back to an object of public derision. In college, when he attempts sitting in the part of the lecture hall reserved for Aryans—the front of the bus, as it were—he is beaten up by officials, who apologize once Jan produces identification certifying he is not Jewish despite his big nose. (Kobiela was himself Jewish; Munk, of Jewish heritage.) Lesson learned: “[H]ow important appearances are.” Meanwhile, trapped inside narrow self-interest, Jan is oblivious to the worse luck befalling others.
Jan weathers German invasion, a German work camp, and a position in Poland’s postwar Communist bureaucracy, all the while running on expedience and opportunism rather than conviction. Voltaire’s eighteenth-century Candide informs Stawiński/Munk’s satire of Polish temperament and politics; through his misadventures Jan might have learned that it’s not the case that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” but his self-centeredness precludes his taking responsibility for the consequences of his actions or his arriving at any philosophical generalization about the state of things. The plot’s coincidences are correlative to Jan’s sense that his life is out of his control, as are Munk’s delightful bag of tricks: speeded-up motion, reverse motion, jump cuts, percussive sounds replacing voices, etc.
Was/Is God the progenitor of the nouvelle vague?
34. THE LAMP. Lampa is a student film that Roman Polanski has somewhat disowned on grounds he hasn’t chosen to reveal. It is nonetheless one of his most haunting works—and a clear influence on Steven Soderbergh’s best film, Bubble (2006).
The title refers to the kerosene lamp by which a toymaker meticulously works in his shop, which is populated by dolls and doll parts, one with a conspicuously broken face, and punctuated by the sound of a cuckoo clock. There’s no dialogue; Polanski draws us into a silent world where the toymaker, or Polanski, or we could be dreaming. It is somebody’s chilling nightmare—likely, friend Mindy Aloff suggests, a metaphor for Polanski’s wartime experiences.
We peer into the empty head of one of the dolls, into which the toymaker deposits something with tweezers. When he restores the doll’s hair, we are surprised to discover that the doll is a girl-doll. The camera’s eerie perusal of the dolls helps draw us into a sense of their being alive. This becomes especially true after the toymaker departs and shutters the shop. No longer does his presence compete for our attention. We are riveted to the dolls, perhaps ferreting out any sign of life.
Fire breaks out. We recall a cigarette with which the toymaker may have been careless. But what we see makes the origin of the fire impossible to determine. It seems to just happen. The incineration of the dolls is a horrible thing to contemplate.
Just as the camera had entered through sidewalk and road traffic at the beginning, it now withdraws without showing the ultimate horror. Therefore, we must contemplate the outcome. Although we glimpse consuming fire through slats, the people walking in either direction notice nothing. They don’t look. Perhaps they dare not look.
35. THE LADY WITH THE LITTLE DOG. Based on Anton Chekhov’s 1899 story (as in part is Nikita Mikhalkov’s lumbering, inflated Dark Eyes, 1987), Dama s sobachkoy, by Iosif Kheifits, is an exquisitely wrought gem. With ravishingly lovely black-and-white cinematography (by Andrei Moskvin and Dmitri Meskhiyev), especially at Yalta, this film traces the meeting and the beginning, and possibly the end, of a love affair between two individuals, on holiday away from spouses, at a seaside resort and back home. Dmitri’s marriage was arranged; Anna’s, to a government official, is likewise conventional. Even their adultery is oddly straightjacketed by society’s strictures, affording them little pleasure, only an anticipation of pleasure.
Kheifits has beautifully paced the film to express its Chekhovian stillness, its vertical sense of time. (I kept thinking of Emily Dickinson’s marvelous line, “It will be summer—eventually.”) Slow, gracious walks, with a pause to note the strange light on the water, contribute to an elongated poise. Each unfolding moment is crystallized by the downward pressure upon it of eternity.
The whole atmosphere, then, suggests that happiness is not in the cards for these two. On the other hand, there is nothing defeatist in their seizure of romantic opportunity, their making out of life’s small opportunities whatever they can. They are the light upon the water.
There is one problematic detail: the dog—a nasty little thing. Its pampering, of course, reveals Anna’s emptiness and loneliness. But providing an even greater index of her emotional predicament is that Anna holds on for some sort of balance to even so unpleasant a creature. The animal perhaps is a projection of how unworthy of love she feels herself to be because of the small amount of happiness with which she is supposed to make herself content.
Aleksei Batalov is piercing as Dmitri.
36. NINE DAYS OF ONE YEAR. “Now [war] supports science, because war needs science.”
Bookending the collapse of the Soviet Union are two events that undercut people’s faith in Soviet Communism: the Party’s 20th Congress in 1956, where Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin, whom the nation’s propaganda machine had long elevated to the status of a Lincoln (an event that “happened twice,” since the full text of the denouncement wasn’t made public until 1989); the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, in 1986. Mikhail Romm’s 9 dney odnogo goda relates stunningly to both events. It could not have been made during Stalin’s more repressive era, and (however obliquely) it prophesies Chernobyl by focusing on the dangers of nuclear radiation. Its protagonist, Grusev, is a scientific researcher, a nuclear physicist whose exposure to radiation is slowly killing him, unraveling his marriage as well as his life, and testing his resolve to press on for the greater good of humankind—the contribution his experiments are making to Soviet military strength. In one poignant interlude, Grusev visits his father’s farm; this dying man’s trip to his past is also a collective journey to the agricultural roots of Soviet Communism, suggesting the rift between its idealism and current reality, in however large measure the latter is the result of the Cold War that the U.S. impressed upon the Soviet Union and the rest of the world following World War II.
Starkly composed shots and editing, the film’s dark grayness (punctuated by white lab coats), and one other recurrent technique contribute to the film’s pervasive fatalism. Low, upwardly angled cameras in Soviet films once showed human forms and faces against the eternal sky, implying a lyrical, progressive Soviet destiny. What irony! Romm uses this camera position and tilt in claustrophobic indoor shots.
A lean, analytical film, this.
37. KNIFE IN THE WATER. Roman Polanski’s Nóz w wodzie opens with an unhappy couple on the road, like Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1953). These two, however, are at home, although they are headed for a weekend’s yachting, and no landlubbers are ever “at home” on the water. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker, a college student, and invite him along after nearly running him down. The nasty, professorial man, who hardly talked at all to his wife, jabbers away with the kid, playing a “game” of domination with his mind. Onboard the boat, rigging ropes cut across a three-shot of the couple and their guest. Once they set sail, the camera slips into erotic attention, noting the woman’s breasts, the boy’s buttocks, and the bare feet of both. The husband looms as an overseer, an orchestrator of we-don’t-quite-know-what. We know this, though: Nothing good is going to come out of this threesome.
Polanski scripted his masterpiece with Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg, but it is the visual realization that sparkles, marshaling a kaleidoscope of camera angles and distances, and punctuating the elemental, acrimonious drama with symbols, such as the knife in the water—a dropped penis; a lost male advantage. The boy is no innocent, but when compared with his jaded elder and adversary he is precious for his youth and we root for him painfully, terribly. We become the surrogate parent that the man in the film ought to have been.
Polanski’s visual invention onboard the boat, recalling Alfred Hitchcock’s in Lifeboat (1944), accumulates into a metaphor for quietly desperately wrought possibilities within a restrictive framework that suggests Communist Poland itself. The Party’s leader in Poland announced this: Polanski’s film displays “the kind of thinking for which there is no place anywhere in the Communist world.”
38. PASSENGER. Andrzej Munk was not quite forty when he died in a car crash in 1961. At the time, he was filming Pasazerka, which his friend Witold Lesiewicz completed, using stills and voiceover. The narrator tries to fathom the stills that piece together the drama aboard a cruise-liner. In effect, the narration hopes to recover Munk’s original intent. This comports with Munk’s own theme: the recovery of historical truth from memory’s distortions and denials. Rather than intruding on Munk’s vision, this approach deepens the work’s haunting quality and chill beauty.
The script is by Munk and Zofia Posmysz-Piasecka, from the latter’s novel. Aboard an ocean liner a German passenger sees another woman passenger whom she thinks she recognizes: a prisoner at Auschwitz, where she was an SS guard. The sight of this possible face from her past prompts the German to disclose to her spouse, for the first time, her role at the death camp. But are her memories accurate? The film pursues discrepancies between past events at Auschwitz and the former guard’s guilty reimaginings of them. One flashback shows the guard protecting the prisoner; a subsequent flashback exposes the “protector” as tormentor. Anyhow, is the glimpsed passenger the same person from Auschwitz? Is this even possible?
Munk employs a camera of unsurpassed sensitivity; it seems as light as air—in 1961, it wasn’t—and quick as light, correlative to the hard to catch-at nature of truth. Moreover, this lightness and speed are attuned to each fluctuation of feeling, and each real or perceived reversal of power between guard and prisoner. The women’s relationship is complex and volatile, and the film explores with fascinating results the guard’s structure of rationalizations designed to keep her from identifying with monstrous evil.
Such mental adjustments we make for the harm that we do.
39. DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #68.
40. FATHER OF A SOLDIER. Sergo Zaqariadze gives a titanic performance as Georgy Makharashvili, an aging Georgian farmer who ventures beyond his rural village in search of his son, Goderdzi, a tankman and army lieutenant who has been wounded. (“Do not come back without our son!” Goderdzi’s mother tells her husband right before his departure.) Along the way, Georgy dons a soldier’s uniform and suffers the loss of comrades, including a boy who might have been his son. In Berlin, at its fall, he reunites with Goderdzi. Briefly. Freshly wounded, Goderdzi dies with his father beside him.
This humanistic tragicomedy—its Georgian title is Djariskatsis mama; Russian, Otyets soldata—was written by Suliko Zhgenti and directed by Rezo Chkheidze. His trek across Soviet land identifies Georgy with this land; he is Soviet—but not Russian. Even his name reminds us he is Georgian, as do his interactions with Russians throughout. Politically, Russia dominates and controls the nation; ethnic republics have the paradoxical status of being quasi-satellites within national borders. Yet it is Georgy Makharashvili who, by film’s end, has accumulated the iconographic texture of Soviet spirit. Deepening this irony, Georgy vaguely resembles another man from Georgia: the Soviet Union’s leader at the time the film is set.
The black-and-white film’s visual style derives from Soviet silents. For instance, low, upwardly tilted closeups of this Father of a Soldier show humanity mediating between Earth and the eternity of sky, between Soviet reality and (poetically) Soviet destiny. In context, such shots become sorely, and subversively, ironic; for, by taking us back to an earlier Soviet Union, these familiar shots now imply the national destiny that the Soviet Union has since failed to achieve.
Another passage likewise draws upon the fierce immensity of silent Soviet filmmaking: at night, a train of tanks looming phantasmagorically.
41. THE ROUND-UP. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this list, #69.
42. ANDREI RUBLEV. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this list, #72.
43. WINGS. Larisa Shepitko had been mentored by fellow Ukrainian Aleksandr Dovzhenko. Her first feature, Krylya, is one of the three or four most brilliant Soviet films of the 1960s. Shepitko was 28 and would die in a road accident at 41, widowing Elem Klimov.
The protagonist is Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova, superb), a former Great Patriotic War pilot who is now headmistress at a provincial school, where her pedestrian duties make her feel as though her wings have been clipped. Middle-aging, Nadya finds other things feeding her mid-life crisis: her daughter has moved out and married; she herself is only mechanically attached to her gentleman friend. Nadya is lonely. However, it is her soaring memories of having been a State-valued fighter pilot that express the core of her dissatisfaction with life. Yet, also, a part of her life ended with her wartime lover, also a pilot, whose death on a mission she witnessed while likewise airborne. Perhaps Tanya, whom Nadya adopted, was meant to be the child that she might have had with the boy she loved with all her heart.
Nadya imagines airplanes and the experience of flight. The first image Shepitko gives us of a “steel bird” is momentarily ambiguous; Nadya could be dreaming, but it turns out that the plane is real. Thereafter, Nadya imagines herself flying, and the film ends with her up in the clouds in a cockpit—a long-shot and an objective one; but by this point these visual indicators of reality might not apply. (Signaling the closing ambiguity is Nadya’s having quit her job offscreen.)
Nadya had headed the school in a somewhat capricious, borderline authoritarian manner; she had found the adolescent pupils unruly. One particular boy, who righteously opposes her, gets suspended “for nothing,” as another pupil puts it.
44. DAISIES. The most beauteous flower of the Czech New Wave, Sedmikrasky is a fresh, anarchic romp combining elements of French New Wave, social satire, slapstick comedy, science fiction, Alice in Wonderland.
Gal pals Marie I and Marie II decide to be bad—spoiled, mischievous, heedless—because this is how they find the world. Since it is beyond their means to set the world right, they will go along with the world as it is. Thus the teenagers spring into a hedonistic world of their own unfettered imagination, where they dance, vamp, manipulate men, and (beginning with an apple from a tree in the Garden of Eden) mercilessly devour food and drink. Věra Chytilová and Ester Krumbachová wrote the script, creating, among other things, a feminist fable of liberation. In this, the film follows a negative procedure; while we watch the two Maries do lots of things they ought not to do, Daisies argues that they ought to be sufficiently free in society to choose on their own not to do such things. These rebels might restrain themselves were they not under social constraint. Society should not limit female autonomy and freedom. Doing so helps make the world bad, pushing the girls to misbehave.
Chytilová imbues her film with the liberated air of Buster Keaton’s wondrous Sherlock Jr. (1924). Indeed, she adopts one of that silent film’s techniques: discontinuous cuts that plunge a character into a new scene from one instant to the next. Here, too, an impression is given of unbridled cinematic possibilities.
The girls burn their apartment, wage a food fight, trample a formal festive spread. But the film is bookended by documentary footage of war, reminding us of the worse things that happen in the male-directed world. The Czech government, feeling its ox gored, promptly banned the film.
45. A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND THE GUESTS. Written by himself and then-wife Ester Krumbachová, the latter of whom originated the story idea, Jan Němec’s O slavnosti a hostech—literally, The Festivities and the Guests—is a cunning, quirkily funny, cumulatively chilling satire showing the atmosphere of persecution with which citizens who live in a totalitarian state must contend. It joins sharply observant behavioral comedy to darker currents. Czech authorities banned the film “forever.”
The plot revolves around the classical motif of the failed feast. A casual, carefree picnic is interrupted by a cruel, sadistic, charismatic stranger and his impressed followers. The picnickers are invited to a more formal event, an outdoor banquet. Their various rationalizations, delusions, ambitions facilitate both their passage from one “feast” to the next and their adjustment. There, they evidence the conformism that the original followers demonstrated; when one of the guests takes off on his own, they, the remaining guests, disrupt the second “feast” to hunt him down. At the end, the screen goes black, accompanied by the sounds of vicious dogs. While this finish predicts the price that individualism costs in the kind of society that is being depicted, it is also a summary metaphor for what the entire film has shown: the devolution of humanity into a regimented mob that keeps itself from being tagged as the prey by doing the state’s bidding. What Czech audiences cannot see at the conclusion becomes a kind of dark mirror in which they were invited to confront the nothing that they were under communist rule and to hear what constant fear could make them become. One failed feast leading to another, the narrative progression encompasses a bankruptcy of hope and of people pulling together toward positive social developments.
The U.S. title yields an apt, ascerbic pun.
46. THE RED AND THE WHITE. Apparently The Round-up’s being set in the past sufficiently masked its contemporary relevance that the Soviet Union helped finance Csillagosok, katonák—and subsequently banned the result! Csillagosok, katonák is the middle part of Miklós Jancsó’s black-and-white trilogy that The Round-up opens (see 1965) and Silence and Cry concludes (1967, below).
Set around the Volga River in 1919, in the second year of the Russian Civil War (between Soviets and Tsarist counter-revolutionaries), Jancsó’s film follows in part a Hungarian regiment in support of Bolsheviks and envisions war as a continuous wheel of fortune, where, first, one side holds sway over the other and then, with a reversal a moment later, the other side does, and so on, back and forth. (Fittingly, an abandoned monastery takes turns being either side’s headquarters and hospital.) Sometimes, someone turns against someone else on the same side; thus, each side’s spinning wheel of reversals is contained within the larger wheel of opposing sides. His lenses and cameras attuned to each of these shifts, Jancsó achieves a paradoxical (and brilliant) result. On the one hand, his long shots, especially, capture war’s dehumanizing aspect. On the other, a sameness is enforced on both sides, divesting the conflict of opposite causes, and thus underscoring, without sentimentality, the human dimension and the human cost of war, especially as one participant after another falls. Eschewing flatfooted realism, Hungary’s master formalist has thereby found a way to show war’s mercilessness, analyze the mechanism of war, and take aim at the very idea of war.
One interlude encapsulates war’s absurdity: a White military band playing a waltz in the woods for which nurses have been dressed up and impressed—a respite that reflects on war’s war against the loveliness of life that humanity’s soul finds necessary for existence.
47. (I EVEN MET) HAPPY GYPSIES. One of the founders of Novi Film, the Yugoslav New Wave, Aleksandar Petrović made a tragicomedy about the Roma—“Gypsies”: Skupljači perja (literally, Feather Buyer). Bora trades in goose feathers in northern Serbia, as does Mirta, whose stepdaughter, Tisa, Bora is after despite being married. Mirta also desires Tisa and eventually tries to rape her. Bora and Tisa, who has fled Mirta, marry. Mirta goes to Belgrade at the suggestion of her husband’s other wife, discovering there that her people are consigned by bigotry and poverty to slums. Hitchhiking home, she is beaten nearly to death by a driver whose advances she rejected and, when found, is returned to Mirta. Bora confronts and kills his rival in order to reclaim Tisa, and the two disappear. United, the Roma tell outside authorities nothing about the couple’s whereabouts.
Feathers, a lyrical motif, encapsulate the heartaching beauty and transience of Romany existence. Both Bora and Mirta are associated with feathers, and therefore their less than admirable traits are counterbalanced by this association and its implication that the two men’s volatile, violent and selfish natures are to some extent the result of the mistreatment and marginalization of the Roma, whose males cling desperately to a kind of machismo as a bulwark against the sense of inferiority that the larger society imposes on them. After scoring a bounty of feathers, against his own economic interest Bora slits open one sack after another to watch the wind turn feathers into “birds”—facsimiles of the Roma. Bora and Mirta have their decisive combat in the latter’s storeroom of feathers, disappearing into its depths before only one of them emerges to wipe the blood off his knife. It happens to be Bora. It could as easily have been Mirta. Hence, the title’s ambiguity.
48. SILENCE AND CRY. Hungary, 1919. The First World War has ended, as has the Communist rule that briefly followed. Patrols of the nationalist Royal Gendarme are hunting down soldiers of the Red Army, one of whom, István Cserzi, hides in a farmhouse on the plains.
In Miklós Jancsó’s black-and-white Csend és kiáltás, the young revolutionary continually has to weigh competing values: historical imperatives versus humane alternatives; his own survival against the survival of others. What does he do, now that he knows that those who are protecting him are also poisoning the farm’s legal owners? War had kept him warm, obliterating the need to make moral choices. In hiding, though, he is back to being human. Or is he? István’s exhaustion overwhelms not only his moral judgments but even his notable attempt to leave the area. Escape may be impossible.
Visually, Jancsó draws from Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), setting his human figures in vast, bleak landscapes and moving his camera from inside to outside the farmhouse, enlarging by perspective the expanse of land, but, ironically, only to reflect on István’s limited, perhaps exhausted, possibilities. As in The Round-up (see 1965) and everything else, Jancsó employs long takes in which characters walk and walk, this way and that, their movement vis-à-vis the movement of others as sensitively, precisely choreographed as are the camera movements. Often, the net result is that open space is divided, narrowed, restricted—correlative to the crucible in which István finds himself. As startling as in films by Robert Bresson, sounds also weigh in: footsteps; the clatter of carriage wheels; howling winds—history’s circling, echoing winds.
That Communists are being ferreted out and executed adds another wrinkle of irony, for surely Jancsó’s target is in the present: Hungary’s Communist rule circa 1967.
49. INNOCENCE UNPROTECTED. Dušan Makavejev’s Nevinost bez zaštite draws upon fictional and documentary materials, either contemporary or from a quarter-century earlier, during the Nazi occupation of Belgrade. One of these, cut, rearranged, noncontinuously presented, is a whole other film: Nevinost bez zaštite—the same-titled film by and starring Dragoljub Aleksic, a Serbian athlete and celebrity. At his postwar trial Aleksic insisted he had made the film without German knowledge, much less support, and indeed the Germans had banned the film as deleterious. Aleksic was exonerated. His film is trite and melodramatic, and clumsily framed and shot; but Makavejev provides a last word, subtitling his film A New Version of a Very Good Old Film. Although Serbian himself, Makavejev isn’t functioning as a nationalistic archivist. His own film contextualizes Aleksic’s.
Makavejev, whose film is in color, applies color tinting to some frames of the old black-and-white film, at one point creating the effect of a flashing traffic light by alternating between the tinted and original Aleksic material. Other materials Makavejev employs include ones contemporaneous with the Aleksic film: newsreel snippets; German propaganda film snippets; newspaper headlines. Disparate elements either fuse or collide with one another, establishing coordinates of implied unity and explicit disunity, the latter correlative to military bombardment. Aleksic’s film is escapist, apolitical, while Makavejev pursues the political context (including Nazi atrocities) that Aleksic ignored or avoided.
Makavejev’s collage transforms everything in it into documentary materials, including pieces from two fictional films, Grigori Aleksandrov’s Stalinist Circus (1936) and Aleksic’s. Within an analytical context, then, anything can become “documentary.” All Makavejev’s distancing techniques—among them, shifts among different kinds of material and the disparate length of elements (some, quick inserts—like bullets ripping continuity)—direct us to analyze the whole, making Makavejev’s film a veritable “textbook” on how to “read” a film.
50. SAYAT-NOVA. “My songs alone will not desert me.”
Harutyun Sayatyan is the seventeenth-century Armenian poet who was known as Sayat-Nova, “King of Songs.” He, his life and the culture to which he contributed inspired Armenian filmmaker (of Georgian ancestry) Sergei Parajanov’s Sayat-Nova, a.k.a. (in re-edited versions) Red Pomegranate, The Color of Pomegranates: a Soviet attempt to short-circuit any stirrings of independence among its ethnic republics. Parajanov was himself imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp five years hence for his sexual orientation.
Grouped into chapters corresponding to different stages of Sayat-Nova’s life, Parajanov’s series of tableaux resonates with cultural symbolism, Armenian Orthodox Christian rituals, Armenian costumes and artifacts. An introductory shot consists of a trinity of pomegranates which, although apparently intact, “bleed” their ruby-colored juice on the sheet of parchment underneath them. Pomegranate red punctuates many of the film’s gorgeous images.
Numerous images are exquisite and exotic, exerting for us foreigners a heady fascination. Others, seemingly impossible, startle. One powerful shot shows the love of reading—“Without the written word, ignorance would rule the world”—that Sayat-Nova has been introduced to in childhood. A high camera looks down high outer walls of a structure into a courtyard below, where the boy thumbs through the pages of a book. The ground around him is covered with books, their pages flipped through by the wind. The walls are inundated with windows, but in place of each window is a book, its pages flipped through by the wind. In a single image, therefore, we see at once the young reader and the lifetime of reading (and, implicitly, writing) in store for him.
Increasingly, intimations of mortality seep into the frames, deepening their mystery, referring to an afterlife. Posterity provides a temporal mask for eternity: the poet’s sacred words and the undying myth of the poet.
51. THE CREMATOR. Juraj Herz’s Spalovač mrtvol, from Ladislav Fuks, is a very dark Czech comedy about Nazism, occupation and the Holocaust. Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský, superb) is in charge of daily operations at a Prague crematorium. He is obsessed with the rapidity with which corpses can be turned into dust. A Jewish neighbor, Dr. Bettelheim, assures Karl that ashes, whatever a human’s ethnicity, are identical. When Prague is occupied by Germans, a Nazi friend informs Karl that his wife Lakmé’s mother was Jewish, making Karl’s son and daughter quarter-Jewish, and that terrible suffering is in store for Jews. After denouncing the crematorium director, Karl ascends to his post and oversees Lakmé’s cremation, having tricked his wife into hanging herself. He bludgeons their “effeminate” boy and stuffs his body in with someone headed for cremation. Daughter will be next. Meanwhile, Karl is invited to apply his skills to a secret program of Jewish extermination. Karl’s mind collapses into the insanity that such mass murder will liberate Jews from death’s alternative in their case: insupportable suffering.
Kopfrkingl appears in every scene and nearly every shot; this helps Herz draw us into the film’s revelation of an increasingly unhinged mind. But Kopfrkingl was strange to begin with. The spotless bathroom is his favorite room in his house. We know that he is planning to kill his bespectacled son when he applies a comb briefly to the boy’s scalp and then, just as quickly, to his own—his habit with laid-out corpses. His talk is endlessly about the wonderful state of death.
Herz’s Kafkaesque black-and-white film is loaded with paranoid closeups, especially eyes, including the eyes of “mute” animals at the zoo. Dvorák, who prepares the bodies until Karl denounces him and he hangs himself, works to the largo of Dvorák’s New World Symphony.
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