Kino: Russian Film Pioneers season at BFI Southbank, May 2011

Strike (1925)
Strike (1925)

The Russians are coming to the BFI Southbank. In the year that sees the release of the restored Soviet classic Battleship Potemkin, the BFI is exploring Russian cinema with a seven-month programme: two months will be spent travelling through Russian cinema history, followed by a season of science-fiction and space documentaries, and a final season devoted to the director Alexander Sokurov.

It’s the first month that mostly concerns us, and the BFI is showing 12 silent features, plus a programme of early shorts (all playing twice) and a couple of educational events. That’s alongside Potemkin’s extended run and two special screenings with live scores (Eisenstein’s The Old and the New and Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia). Plus, don’t forget that Eisenstein’s October is on in April. It could be a little daunting, so here’s the Silent London guide to what’s on when and what it’s all about.

Some of these films are very rarely seen, or at least very rarely seen on the big screen. That’s a polite way of saying that a couple of them are the kind of favourites that do come round fairly regularly. Which is not to say that you should give them a miss, but this is a good opportunity to see some Russian rarities, so pick your screenings wisely. Unless, of course, you plan to see everything, in which case I tip my (fur) hat to you.

Queen of Spades (1916)
Queen of Spades (1916)

Pre-Revolutionary Cinema

Three films here, all reminding us that early Russian film doesn’t necessarily mean Soviet Cinema. First there’s Vasili Goncharov’s patriotic and nostalgic A 16th Century Russian Wedding – this really is the roots of Russian cinema, as Goncharov would go on to direct the country’s first feature, a Crimean War film called In Defence of Sevastopol (1911). Next is Evgeny Bauer’s A Child of the Great City, a stylish film about greed and sexual decadence – a young girl from the country comes to the city and becomes a kept woman, for as long as her lover’s money lasts, at least. The final, longest film is Queen of Spades by Yakov Protazanov (who would go on to direct Aelita: Queen of Mars). This is a supernatural tale, adapted from Pushkin, about a young man who will go to any lengths to discover an elderly woman’s secret for winning at cards.

7 May 4pm/10 May 8.30pm

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924)

Yes, a lot of Soviet cinema is propaganda, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a sense of humour too. This film from montage maestro Lev Kuleshov is an out-and-out comedy about a naive American, Mr West, who visits the USSR with a whole lot of preconceptions about barbarous Bolsheviks, and a cowboy called Jeddie for protection. Sad to say, Mr West does fall into the hands of the very socialist thugs he fears, but they’re not really bolsheviks, just an aristo and a gang of thieves playing tricks on him. Will the good citizens come to his rescue? Will he ever get the chance to see the architectural wonders of Moscow for himself? What do you think? The film is largely made in an American style, particularly the broad comic performances – but the message is loud and clear.

8 May 3.30pm/11 May 8.30pm

Kino-Eye (1924) and Chess Fever (1925)

Kino-Eye is an early work by documentary-maker Dziga Vertov, in which he trains his supposedly impartial “machine-eye” on a group of wholesome Young Pioneers at a rural summer camp, and contrasts them with some less ideal scenes of urban degenerates. It’s definitely worth a watch if you plan to see Man With a Movie-Camera later in the season (here or at the Barbican, where it is also showing). If that sounds a little po-faced, though, the short film on this bill is a treat. Chess Fever was made by Vsevelod Pudovkin, while under the tutelage of Kuleshov, and it’s a delightful story of a city gripped by a mania for chess. In particular, one man is so obsessed with the game he fails to turn up to his own wedding. His stone-faced fiancée issues him an ultimatum, but can he kick the habit? Watch out for the footage of real chess masters, and heaps and heap of kittens.

8 May 6pm/18 May 6pm

The Strike (1925)

Eisenstein’s first feature film begins with a quote from Lenin and ends with a call to arms, but it’s far from a political lecture. Visual flourishes such as animated intertitles and a witty sequence that introduces a group of class-traitor spies by their nicknames (a beer-gulping monkey, a blinking owl, etc), give way to heavy violence as the strike and its consequences reach a brutal climax. This screening is classified 12A for a reason. If you’re planning to see the restored print of Apocalypse Now while it’s on an extended run at the BFI, look out for a scene towards the end of Strike that may well have “inspired” one of Coppola’s most famous sequences.

22 May 3.50pm/31 May 8.30pm

Mother (1926)
Mother (1926)

The Mother (1926)

In Pudovkin’s classic tragedy, based on a novel by Maxim Gorky, the political turmoil of the 1905 uprising (also the basis for Potemkin) plays itself across one family, as father and son take opposite sides during a strike and the mother is torn between them. You can see the influence of American films as well as Russian here. The famous ice-floe escape is thought to have been inspired by DW Griffith’s Way Down East and the sequence in which the mother passes a note to her son in prison is celebrated for its use of editing to create suspense. But don’t take my word for it; the screening on 19 May benefits from an extended introduction by Pudovkin expert Amy Sargeant, which is sure to be illuminating.

14 May 6.30pm/19 May 6.20pm

The Overcoat (1926)

You might be more familiar with Grigori Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films of the 60s and 70s, but here he co-directs (with Leonid Trauberg) an expressionist-influenced adaptation of a Gogol story in which a lowly clerk drives himself to the point of insanity in his desire to replace his threadbare overcoat. In the film’s almost Dickensian world, the clerk is at the mercy of the murky St Petersburg bureacracy as much as the muggers that lurk in the deep, angular shadows.

14 May 4pm/29 May 6.10pm

The House on Trubnaya (1928)

Another comedy, this time directed by Boris Barnet (who played the cowboy in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West …), about a country girl who pitches up in the big city with her goose and is taken in (in both senses) by a petit bourgeois barber and his wife. Only a spot of consciousness-raising and the solidarity of her fellow workers can save her from this perilous predicament. The House on Trubnaya is often named as the funniest Soviet silent and I’m quite besotted with this clip showing the squalor of communal living – it starts off fairly innocuously but the humour sneaks up on you. Also, watch out for the cats, an unofficial running theme in so many of these Soviet films.

15 May 4pm/27 May 8.40pm

Bed and Sofa (1927)

It’s only natural to be intrigued by a film that was banned in Britain on its release and this kitchen-sink kammerspiel will definitely repay your curiosity. The menage a trois plot may have raised the censor’s eyebrows, but the film looks unflinchingly at poverty, abortion and women’s rights, so it’s serious stuff and hardly salacious – despite being billed as a satire. And for those who are interested in this sort of thing, the film was co-written by Viktor Shklovsky, the formalist known for his theory of defamiliarisation. Attend the 27 May screening to learn more from Soviet historian Emma Widdis, who will be introducing the film.

15 May 6.30pm/27 May 6.20pm

Arsenal (1928)
Arsenal (1928)

Arsenal (1929)

Arsenal is the second part of director Alexander Dovzhenko’s Ukraine trilogy (the third, Earth is showing at the BFI on 23 and 28 May) and concerns a soldier, Tymish, who returns to his home in Kiev and becomes involved in the Bolshevik uprising of 1918. Both Tymish and his homeland have been traumatised by the Great War: the film’s opening sequence is devastating, showing both the trenches and the grieving mothers back home. Subtitled as a Revolutionary Epic, Arsenal is best known for its symbolic, fragmented imagery, and an undercurrent of pacifism.

16 May 8.45pm/30 May 8.40pm

The New Babylon (1929)

Another film from Kozintsev and Trauberg, but an unusual film in this season simply because it is not set in Russia. Showing here on DVD, with the original Shostakovich score, the film is an experimental, tragic account of the Paris Commune‘s two-month rule of the city in 1871. This was the final silent film made by FEKS (the Factory of the Eccentric Actor), an avant-garde theatre troupe also responsible for The Overcoat. The screening on 25 May will be introduced by John Riley, author of a book on Shostakovich’s film scores.

21 May 3.50pm/25 May 8.45pm

The Man With a Movie-Camera (1929)

This is the only one of Dziga Vertov’s documentaries that he made independently, so we can consider it a manifesto for verité film-making, rather than politics. Vertov wanted to make a true documentary film, without theatrical techniques or based on a literary work – and the result is pure avant-garde cinema. With an average shot length of just 2.3 seconds and flourishes including double exposures, freeze-frames, split-screens, jump cuts, Dutch angles and stop-motion, it’s an engrossing, surreal work of art.

26 May 8.45pm/29 May 3pm

Earth (1930)
Earth (1930)

Earth (1930)

The final part of Dovzhenko’s Ukraine trilogy takes a rural setting, amid the country’s collective farms. Frequently found at the top of those “best films of all time” lists, Earth is a dream-like film-poem dealing with the cycle of life and death – exemplified by the opening sequence in which an old man drifts into death surrounded by babies and trees laden with fruit. Politics are mostly beside the point here, which is why the film found little favour with the Soviet authorities. Never mind, listen to the list-makers instead.

23 May 8.45pm/28 May 3pm

Enthusiasm (1931) and Salt for Svanetia (1929)

Enthusiasm, a mining documentary, was Vertov’s first experiment with sound. He used what we might call “found sounds”, snippets of audio, to create a symphony of noise to accompany his near-abstract imagery. It is partnered here with a 1929 silent ethnographic film about the people living in Svanetia, a remote part of Georgia that is about to be linked to rest of the Soviet world by a new road – a solution to the region’s salt shortage. Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov and edited by Viktor Shklovsky, the film skilfully transcends its propagandist message.

22 May 6pm/28 May 8.20pm

All screenings (except The New Babylon and Enthusiasm) will have live piano accompaniment. Tickets cost £9.50 or £6.75 for concessions, and less for BFI members. They will be available on 4 April for BFI members and from 11 April for everyone else. More details on the website here.

Educational events

There will be an Introduction to the Kino season on 6 May at 6.30pm in NFT3, in which film historian Ian Christie will provide a context for the films being shown, from pre-revolutionary Russia to the political realities of working as a film-maker in the USSR. Tickets for this event are £5.

You can also take a four-part course entitled Eisenstein, Audiovisual Pioneer, led by composer and film-maker Robert Robertson, which will explore the director’s theories about the combination of sound and image, and how Soviet Russia shaped his work. Course fees are £48 or £30 for concessions.

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