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Landmarks of Early Soviet Film

Flicker Alley // PG-13 // September 20, 2011
List Price: $69.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted August 9, 2013 | E-mail the Author
The Movies:
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 America, he ends up with more adventure than he was hoping for.  To be safe he decides to bring along a body guard (decked out in chaps with a pair of six-shooters on his waist) but that doesn't stop him from having his briefcase stolen.  When the thief realizes he's taken something from an American, the one-time nobleman (he lost his position during the revolution, of course) shows his true colors and decides to swindle 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 have a 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 sequences, but while the technique was bold and innovative back then, you have to be 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 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 America.
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 Trubnaya Square (1928, 84 min.):  Though I'm a big fan of Russian cinema I have to admit that Soviet comedies aren't really funny.  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 apartment building in the city where she's overworked and underpaid.  That all 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. I 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 short 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 do with him?  They've just struck gold and they fear they'll loose their claim if they take him back to civilization to face justice, but winter is coming and they can't afford to feed and house someone 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 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 Russia's entry into WWI and the fall of Czar Nicholas II:  she uses vintage newsreel footage masterfully edited together to form a narrative.  Since none of the scenes were filmed for the movie, they were all culled from archives of newsreels and home movies of the Czar and his family, the movie's power comes from the editing and assembly of the pieces and Shub did a wonderful job creating something new and exciting.  If I didn't know in advance that the film was created from ‘found' footage, I wouldn't have realized it.
 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 rail is 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 (The 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 changed from the middle ages.  The hardy people are rescued from the rough existence by the state that arrives to upgrade the area by building roads and infrastructure… at the expense of the native's way of life.  A visually engaging film that is beautiful to watch.
The DVDs:

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.
Final Thoughts:
This is a wonderful set of rarely seen films that deserves a place on the shelves of all fans of early cinema.  Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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