At this hour on this day, here in order of preference are my choices for the ten best films of the 1920s:
1. BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (Serge M. Eisenstein, U.S.S.R., 1925). One would never guess that Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein heralded from the stage. Thrilling and kinetic, his Battleship Potemkin is purely cinematic.
The film re-creates the Kronstadt naval mutiny that triggered the doomed 1905 Russian Revolution—an event preceding the Bolshevik Revolution. In graphic detail, the film shows the conditions onboard that led to the mutiny.
Perhaps cinema’s most celebrated passage is the Odessa Steps Massacre. In reality, this event never occurred, but, because of the power of Eisenstein’s images, it is widely believed to have occurred. Potemkin, then, reinvents history, translating documentary and fiction each into the other—what has remained cinema’s signature strategy for fathoming time and investigating social and political realities. It is important to note that Eisenstein’s fiction remains true to political circumstance in Russia. His fabricated event captures the cruelty and oppressiveness of tsarist rule, creating for these a stark, fiercely lit metaphor. (Eduard Tissé is Eisenstein’s essential black-and-white cinematographer.) In a rush of images, the masses, in enraged sympathy with the mutineers, are cut down by the police in the streets. Shot rapidly follows shot; but this ferocity gives way to another kind of passage later on—mysterious, meditative, lovely, one that is wrapped in silken darkness: dusk-cloaked sails on moonlit water—images that evoke the eternal note of sadness attending humanity’s struggle to assert fundamental rights in the face of oppression. Somewhere, always, the battle continues.
Eisenstein’s militant masterpiece is a national epic for his young nation, set a dozen years before its existence. It is a film full of anticipation—a look back for the courage to move ahead, united. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Today, Battleship Potemkin is cinema’s most poignant elegy, and its most powerful expression of a now largely dormant idea: the people.
2. THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (Dziga Vertov, U.S.S.R., 1928). Cinema began as a documentary enterprise, with the camera a purely objective recording device; but documentaries have also been subjective and personal.
Chelovek s kino-apparatom, by Dziga Vertov, born Denis Arkadievich Kaufman, employs a framing device: preparation for the screening, followed by the ceremonious screening, of the film itself. On the agile move, it follows the cameraman, the director’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman, from dawn to darkness, here, there and everywhere, including bustling city streets in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, as he tries taking in “life as it is being lived” from numerous perspectives while photographing the film we’re watching. Two audiences complete this self-reflexivity: those attending the screening in the film; Vertov’s audience—now, us. Both “half-create” what they see, as in life.
What’s on screen is life then? Not so fast! What appears is full of camera tricks. In Vertov’s earlier Kino-Eye (1924) the Chinese street magician’s magic seems the result of his own sleight of hand. Now, however, the magic of life and the magic of cinema so continuously translate into one another that we cannot be certain whose “tricks” we witness: the magician’s or Vertov’s. The “factuality” that Vertov is after, then, isn’t the sort that omits or discards the myriad ambiguities of human experience; his eclectic film displays various tones and moods, with beauteous lyrical inserts recalling poet William Wordsworth’s visionary “spots of time,” amidst highly descriptive passages, such as of people at work. The result places the adventure in the graciousness of eternity—although the film never quite loses hold of the here and now, even when, in a burst of ingenious animation, Kaufman’s camera, onstage, comes to robotic life to confront its audience: a sci-fi image predicting a delightful Soviet future that wasn’t to be.
3. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Carl Theodor Dreyer, France, 1928). Who was the chief architect of her martyrdom? The English invaders, who imprisoned her? The French clergy, who tried and condemned her? God? The girl herself? The people, who identified with her and gave her martyrdom political purpose?
Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer thus entered fifteenth-century France and collapsed the difference between present and distant past, not to construct an objective history, but to show opposing subjectivities at Jeanne d’Arc’s trial: her insistent faith; the heretic that her judges, at the behest of the English, felt compelled to subdue.
Using composition, camera placement and camera movement to isolate Jeanne within the frame, and a dissonant editing style wherein consecutive shots sometimes appear deliberately mismatched, Dreyer lays bare the politics of official persecution. Moreover, he plumbs a solitary soul’s duress under this persecution and shows the transformation of the witnessing masses from an amorphous mob into a responsible voice—and fist—of moral protest. Transcending images of the exploitative circus that Jeanne’s execution attracts, Dreyer’s film achieves startling clarity.
Her unadorned face in varied closeup, at the center of the film is Maria Falconetti giving a tremendous performance—in fact, among the most celebrated ones in all of cinema. What became of her? One legend claims she so identified with her one film role that she ended up in an insane asylum, convinced she was Jeanne. Likely, the actress returned to the stage. Falconetti’s “madness” surely is an antifeminist lie taking aim at so powerful a female image.
Falconetti enrobes us in the silence of Jeanne’s destiny, much as Dreyer enrobes us in the silence of silent film, with which added scores or orchestral accompaniments uncomprehendingly tinker. Falconetti’s Jeanne helps make Dreyer’s Passion a mystery there is no coming out of.
4. THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG (Vsevolod I. Pudovkin, U.S.S.R., 1927). Commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Konyets Sankt-Peterburga begins with a trenchant portrait of rural poverty in 1914 tsarist Russia. After the birth of a sister, “another mouth to feed,” a boy leaves the farm and goes to the city to get a job. An uncle living there is a labor activist; his stingy wife (Vera Baranovskaya, superb) throws the boy out. When workers strike, the boy, hungry, becomes a scab. When he better appreciates matters, he assaults a boss, is thrown into prison and is sent to fight in the First World War. When he returns, he participates in the revolution that consecutively disposes of the tsar and Kerensky’s provisional government, by which time his aunt’s compassion and generosity have grown. St. Petersburg is now Leningrad.
Except for an overdone bout of crosscutting between suffering at the front and, back home, capitalists gleeful over war profits, V. I. Pudovkin and four assistant directors have wrought a perfect film. Along with Pudovkin’s Mother (see below), it remains cinema’s best study of radicalization. Its stark images stun—for instance, towards the camera in closeup, the scythe-like rotation of a windmill’s fan on the farm: persistent, sharp motions that unsettle the frames, within the implied symbolism of life’s tragic round. The image both conveys the harsh entrapment of poverty and signals the future growth of the peasant’s political consciousness. Greed-driven, power-fixated St. Petersburg contextualizes images that prepare the boy for political maturation: dense factory pollution, amidst which overworked, underpaid workers toil, in contrast to the artificial lot of clean suits and straw hats—stock exchange participants, whose rat-like scurrying, shot from overhead, would be comical were it not for the connection to the plight of workers that the juxtaposition draws.
5. THE GOLD RUSH (Charles Chaplin, U.S., 1925). Charles Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, about the 1898 Klondike gold rush, is humorous and serene—a wondrous light comedy in which Chaplin’s persistent Everyman, cinema’s signature icon, wins even at love.
But this is not to say that the film is free of anxiety. Amidst bewitching images of Charlie in the Alaskan wilderness, the American Dream gasps at a problematic final frontier. First cousin to Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Chaplin’s comedy eludes tragedy, it seems, by a single whisker. Snow burns intensely and, before he emerges from his ordeal triumphant, Charlie nearly starves, his imaginative and material resourcefulness, although great (consider the meal he concocts from boiled shoe and spaghetti-like shoelaces), a lame weapon against fierce Nature. A sublimely funny moment: Delusional from hunger, Big Jim, a fellow prospector and Charlie’s cabin-mate, imagines Charlie as a giant chicken and promptly chases him for a much-needed meal.
Nor is Nature all that threatens Charlie, for he is searching out beyond its 1925 borders an already dwindling America, as the grandeur of America’s terrain of hope yields to exploitation, population growth, and the cramping commotion of progress. Like many a comedy, then, this one teeters on the edge of disaster—like, unforgettably, Charlie’s uprooted cabin slip-sliding away.
Everything—home, prospects, life, America—is perishable.
But Charlie at the last gets the girl!
6. ARSENAL (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, U.S.S.R., 1929). On the heels of his Zvenigora (1928) arrived one of the great films about war: Dovzhenko’s Arsenal. It is set during the 1918 Russian Civil War, between the Reds and the Whites, communists and nationalists.
Some of the Ukrainian artist’s images are indelible: amid combat, a soldier, eyes bulging amidst artillery fumes, his face a contorted mask; the mutineers’ derailed train, from which drops an accordian, which collapses into motionlessness; an officer mechanically performing executions in rapid succession—arm up, fire, arm down, arm up, fire, arm down. In war’s crucible, naturalism yields to expressionism. Dovzhenko convinces that his impossible vision of war suits war’s reality.
Yet this isn’t the sum of Arsenal’s achievement, for Dovzhenko probes the politics and various casualties of war, from the competing civilian sides to the Social Democrats, to the soldiers in the field, to the starving peasants back home. (A farm horse drops to the ground in slow motion: starvation? or has it been shot, to appease human hunger?) War is shown, then, as an intricate mechanism in which everyone is impressed. There is, for instance, the agitated response of the bourgeoisie to a workers’ strike in the munitions factory; and the coming to a halt of the arsenal, besides providing a brilliant image of revolt, weighs in with the dire consequences of nonproduction for the soldiers waging war and the war effort being waged by a fractured nation. The arsenal’s stoppage would inform the heart-stopping stopping of the mill at the close of Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931), much as the collapsed accordian would reappear in René Clément’s Battle of the Rails (1945). Arsenal is an influential film, then, as well as a mind-boggling masterpiece—a part of our collective consciousness even if we have never seen it.
7. THE GENERAL (Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, U.S., 1926). The American Civil War remains an emotional powder-keg, at least in the white South, which continues spiritually, and sometimes politically, to resist the idea of Confederate defeat. This may be why the one indisputable masterpiece about that war, Keaton and Bruckman’s The General, is a comedy.
Buster Keaton has transformed an actual incident involving a Confederate engine driver, whose heroism helped score a victory against the Union army, into his signature theme of a boy trying hard to prove himself, in this case to the girl he loves, who rejects him as a suitor when she mistakes him for a coward. Johnnie Gray’s attempts to enlist in the army are rejected because he can better serve the cause in his job as train engineer. But doesn’t Johnnie pose a threat to the family inwardness that the girl’s father and brother hope to remove by disparaging him, to keep him from making further romantic inroads while they are away at war, and doesn’t this paranoia cast a sardonic light on the South’s regional secession motivated by their desire to retain at all costs their “way of life”?
The girl tells Johnnie she won’t accept him into her heart again until she sees him in uniform—translation: until he is more like Father and Brother. This grotesque failure of hers to fathom the horrible nature of war spins ironically throughout the film; and when, finally, Johnnie is indeed in uniform, it is left to us to grasp Keaton’s closing irony, Johnnie’s likely fate in a war that has only just begun. It is unlikely that Johnnie will come marching home again—and if he does, he will be transformed by the experiences of killing and defeat: the loss of everything that his beloved represents.
8. REGEN (Joris Ivens, Mannus Frånken, Netherlands, 1929). It is only minutes long, but Rain—now restored to completeness—is one of a kind. The year before, Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens launched his prolific, globe-trotting 60-year career with The Bridge (1928); but, fine as it is, that film cannot predict the astonishing lyricism of Rain. Besides co-directing the film with Mannus Frånken, Ivens co-cinematographed it with Chang Fai and edited it.
Vertov and Kaufman shot material for their Soviet The Man with a Movie Camera (1928) over four years; another black-and-white silent, Ivens and Frånken’s film also took time to compose. Several rainshowers in Amsterdam over many months were meshed into a single event encompassing darkened sky, splattered pavement below and, in between, radiant humanity busily in motion. The result is a luminous meditation on human transience amidst Nature’s volatility—if you will, permanent impermanence.
Time’s rush, the passage of life—everything in the film contributes to the development of this theme, including overhead shots of barges pushing through the frames, and scores of people in the street hurrying away from the camera (to which they are oblivious) to get out of the rain.
Some insist that everyone is smiling in the film. I do not see this. It doesn’t matter. Regardless, the film is not a lament. The metaphor for humanity’s fleeting role in Nature is executed without selfconsciousness. Ivens and Frånken transcend the mortal condition they suggest—and we feel this transcendence. On one level, then, Rain is a film about the power of art.
Among its accomplishments, Rain remains exemplary for its fluent use of hand-held camera, which, on this occasion, seamlessly disappears into the viewer’s captivated eye—a poor indicator of the technique’s eventual agitato trademark.
Rain is the little film that could. It still does.
9. MOTHER (Vsevolod I. Pudovkin, U.S.S.R., 1926). Once a staple on lists of the ten best films, Mother is now neglected. Its centerpiece is Vera Baranovskaya’s deeply moving performance as Pelageya Vlasova.
An exemplar of Stanislavski’s acting “method” devised for the Russian stage (where Stanislavski in fact directed her), Baranovskaya acted to the bone. Rather than playing scenes from whose sum an audience might induce her character, Baranovskaya acted fresh, holistically—out of a wholeness of characterization that she conceived and imaginatively drew into herself prior to performance. Moreover, she detailed the sort of archetypal role representation that populated the Russian stage by drawing on her own emotional history and life experience. (The misapplication of Stanislavski’s method to naturalistic roles, coached by Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg and others, helps explain its artistic shortcomings in the U.S.) Thus in Mother was Baranovskaya able to play to the full both the Mother archetype and a highly specific individual.
Pelageya Vlasova is a tremendous instance of the Russian soul—a peasant who, trusting tsarist assurances, turns her son in for political pamphleteering but, when double-crossed by authorities by her son’s kangaroo trial and imprisonment (“Is this justice?” she asks), becomes a revolutionary herself. Somber and militant, the film is loosely taken from Maxim Gorky.
Mother’s major motif consists of inserts showing the springtime breakup of river ice: a stunning metaphor for revolution’s liberating sunlight following a long winter of tsarist oppression and constabulary cruelty. Pudovkin, a former physics and chemistry student, acknowledged his source; but, whereas the heroine’s escape on ice floes in D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) is just a sensational bit of plot meant to agitate and titillate, Pudovkin’s motif is expressive and poetic—the visual rendering of one of Mother’s principal themes.
Such is the difference between art and entertainment.
10. OCTOBER (Sergei M. Eisenstein, U.S.S.R., 1927). Commemorating the 1917 revolution, Oktyabr’ is a “people’s film.” For the famous passage depicting the storming of Tsar Nikolai’s Winter Palace, Eisenstein employed veterans of the actual event and borrowed details from the pantomimes of the seige that were annually staged by the people of Leningrad. These and other factors tend to collapse the difference between on-the-spot documentary and reenactment. The result is akin to faux-documentary.
Eisenstein pushed cinema beyond linear narrative, creating trains of images that figure forth ideas rather than “tell a story.” One example: the officially ordered raising of the bridges, which unloads upon the water below—to which are added, for drowning, copies of the revolutionary newspaper Pravda (Truth)—a horse’s heft and a girl’s fresh, still sensuous corpse. In cinematic language, here is the tsarist establishment’s attempt to break the spine of human ties to life, beauty, Nature and truth—truth, the passage implies, that is undrownable, so wedded to it are the hearts of the masses. The outrage that the tsarist act inspired, the passage suggests, called forth revolution.
When viewing it, one must constantly interpret October; it doesn’t encourage, much less exploit, viewer passivity. Eisenstein had tremendous faith in the power of images—and in Soviet communism as liberator of the human spirit. But just his being Jewish drew Stalin’s suspiciousness, and October became the first of his films to provoke official disfavor for its formalist tendencies—translation: too great an interest in art as something other than a tool of the state. Thereafter, Eisenstein’s projects were monitored daily to hold these “tendencies” in check. At the last moment, moreover, October had to be hastily re-edited to delete from its cast of characters Leon Trotsky and others who openly opposed Stalin as betrayer of the Revolution.
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