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 and tracking down some amazing films. Every time they announce a title my interest is piqued, which is why I'm a bit surprised that I missed 2011's set of important silent movies Landmarks of 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 foreign 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), and Mikhail 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 are:
The Extraordinary 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
Director Lev Kuleshov was criticized in
The main character slightly resembles Harold Lloyd, and the guard does some impressive stunts (though not nearly as sophisticated or nerve-wracking as Lloyd's). It's easy to see the influence from western films in this movie that tries to make fun of
Old and New (1929, 120 min.): Sergei Eisenstein's last silent film, this may be a propaganda movie but it's also lyrical yet powerful piece. It tells the story of a strong-willed woman who organizes her neighbors (in the pre-Stalin days) into 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 working for themselves they're able to save enough money to buy a bull to breed with their 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 the depiction of the peasants living condition is very striking.
The House on
By the Law (1926, 80 min.): This tense, claustrophobic, and chilling drama directed by Lev Kuleshov this film is based upon a short story by Jack London. It tells of a group of five miners working in
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 exceedingly well.
Stride, Soviet! (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 the Council has made while they were in office. Contrasting the advances that had been made with the wretched state of things in the past, Vertov uses striking graphics and intertitles to make its 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 of
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
Salt for Svanetia (1930, 52 min.): This final piece of propaganda was directed by Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying) and it's an amazing window onto a lifestyle that no longer exists. Kalaozov looks at a remote area of
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 hear on 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 look 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 very 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 Recommended.