Flicker Alley is one of those companies, like Criterion, who
excel at releasing high quality films.
They have an amazing track record of putting out a great product
tracking down some amazing films. Every
time they announce a title my interest is piqued, which is why I'm a
surprised that I missed 2011's set of important silent movies Landmarks
Early Soviet Cinema. It's a pity too,
because this set of four films from behind the Iron Curtain are fun,
interesting and well worth watching.
It's a set that fans of early cinema and movie buffs that enjoy
films need to track down.
The set consists of eight movies, four fiction and four
documentaries from the very best Soviet filmmakers.
Such luminaries as Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship
Potemkin), Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera),
Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying)
are included, a virtual Who's Who of the Russian film world from the
1920's. The titles included in the set
Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924, 74
min.): This early Russian comedy is cute
and has a
very interesting view on Americans (naturally).
When Mr. West, the head of the YMCA in America, he ends up with
adventure than he was hoping for. To be
safe he decides to bring along a body guard (decked out in chaps with a
six-shooters on his waist) but that doesn't stop him from having his
stolen. When the thief realizes he's
taken something from an American, the one-time nobleman (he lost his
during the revolution, of course) shows his true colors and decides to
the man out of everything he has.
Director Lev Kuleshov was criticized in Russia when
this film was released because the film was too experimental and didn't
proper ideological foundation based on Marxism.
Viewed today, it's a bit surprising on both counts he makes the
Americans look shallow and slow while the main crooks are the old
royalty. The film is filled with montage
but while the technique was bold and innovative back then, you have to
concentrating to even notice them today, they're so ubiquitous.
The main character slightly resembles Harold Lloyd, and the
guard does some impressive stunts (though not nearly as sophisticated
as Lloyd's). It's easy to see the
influence from western films in this movie that tries to make fun of America.
Old and New
(1929, 120 min.): Sergei Eisenstein's
last silent film, this may be a propaganda movie but it's also lyrical
piece. It tells the story of a
strong-willed woman who organizes her neighbors (in the pre-Stalin
throwing off the shackles of the local lord who keeps them poor. Together they organize a collective where the
tools are owned by everyone and they work towards a common goal. By
themselves they're able to save enough money to buy a bull to breed
cows, and everyone's life is better.
This is a very good film and it's easy to see Eisenstein's
touch on it. There are some great
montage sequences (the scene of the bull mating was very memorable) and
depiction of the peasants living condition is very striking.
The House on Trubnaya
(1928, 84 min.): Though I'm a big fan of
Russian cinema I have to admit that Soviet comedies aren't really
They may be amusing or delightful, but I never find myself actually
laughing. That's not the case with this comedy set in Moscow. It is
hysterical. A young woman
from the country comes to Moscow
in search of her uncle (who, it turns out, had headed back to the
country). She gets a job as a maid in possibly the worst
building in the city where she's overworked and underpaid. That
changes, however, when she's elected to the Moscow City
council: Then the people in the building
can't do enough for her. Not only was this outrageously funny,
but it was
a showcase for the catalog of Russian film techniques from the period.
obtained this set after seeing this film at the 2013 San Francisco
Silent Film Festival
and it alone is worth the price of admission.
By the Law (1926,
80 min.): This tense, claustrophobic,
and chilling drama directed by Lev Kuleshov this film is based upon a
story by Jack London. It tells of a
group of five miners working in Alaska. Just
when they strike it big, one of them
snaps and kills two of their party. The
surviving pair, a husband and wife, subdues the killer but what do they
him? They've just struck gold and they
fear they'll loose their claim if they take him back to civilization to
justice, but winter is coming and they can't afford to feed and house
who is a threat.
This gripping story is a far cry from The Extraordinary
Adventures of Mr.
West in the Land of the Bolsheviks which Kuleshov also directed. It's a tight, suspenseful drama that works
(1926, 69 min.): The second half of the
set contains four documentaries. The
first one is an interesting effort by Dziga Vertov.
While not as experimental as his most famous
work, Man with a Movie Camera, this
is a solid piece of propaganda that's pretty effective.
Released just before the Moscow Municipal
Council elections of 1926, this film tells of the great advances that
Council has made while they were in office.
Contrasting the advances that had been made with the wretched
things in the past, Vertov uses striking graphics and intertitles to
point. Well worth watching.
The Fall of the
Romanov Dynasty (1927, 87 min.):
Another interesting documentary.
Director Esfir Shub came up with a unique way to tell the story
into WWI and the fall of Czar Nicholas II:
she uses vintage newsreel footage masterfully edited together to
narrative. Since none of the scenes were
filmed for the movie, they were all culled from archives of newsreels
movies of the Czar and his family, the movie's power comes from the
assembly of the pieces and Shub did a wonderful job creating something
exciting. If I didn't know in advance
that the film was created from ‘found' footage, I wouldn't have
Turksib (1930, 57 min.):
Another propaganda piece, this film is more personal than The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Viktor
Turin's film makes the case that a
railroad should be built between Siberia and Turkistan
to transport raw materials to the place where they're needed. To make his point, he focuses on the people
in the two areas, and how all of their lives will be improved when the
finished. This influential film was an
international hit with both critics and the public when it was released.
Salt for Svanetia (1930, 52 min.):
This final piece of propaganda was directed by Mikhail Kalatozov
Cranes are Flying) and it's an
amazing window onto a lifestyle that no longer exists.
Kalaozov looks at a remote area of Georgia where
the people scratch out a living using very primitive methods, little
from the middle ages. The hardy people
are rescued from the rough existence by the state that arrives to
area by building roads and infrastructure… at the expense of the
of life. A visually engaging film that
is beautiful to watch.
These eight films arrive on four DVDs (two movies per disc)
housed in a quartet of thinpak cases.
These in turn are stored in a slipcase.
All of the films have musical accompaniment from talented
silent film musicians such as Robert Israel (a talent that I'd like to
more silent film releases) and Eric Beheim.
The scores all sound fine with a nice amount of dynamic range.
The video quality varies on these, but overall they look
superb, especially for films that are so old and so obscure. It's a wonder that we have these survive at
all, much less having them on DVD. The
Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West and The House on Trubnaya both
amazing, while The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is showing its age a bit and
could use a
full restoration (something that I doubt will happen any time soon). Cineastes will be very happy though with the
quality in general.
There are not on-disc extras, but Flicker Alley does include
a wonderful 28-page booklet discussing each film in detail and giving a
good overview of Soviet montage. It's an
excellent addition and well worth reading.
This is a wonderful set of rarely seen films that deserves a
place on the shelves of all fans of early cinema. Highly