Tag Archives: Soviet cinema

Kosmos – Aelita, Queen of Mars at BFI Southbank, July 2011

Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)
Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)

The BFI’s year-long celebration of Russian cinema is in full swing. It may be a matter of some sadness to us that the first section of the season, covering the silent years, is over, but we still have some treats to look forward to. There is still a chance that the throat-singing band Yat-Kha will overcome their visa problems and return to the BFI for a live performance of their Storm Over Asia score. Having heard the recording the other day, I’d definitely say that would be worth checking out.

More immediately the Russian space exploration strand of the Kino season kicks off with a hugely popular silent film, the delightfully potty Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924). This Soviet space fantasy features some genuinely hilarious moments and some mind-boggling costume designs – wild constructions of wire and plastic that have to be seen to be believed. Also playing with Aelita is Interplanetary Revolution (1924), a satirical cartoon in which, much like in the main feature, a group of Soviet citizens fly off on a consciousness-raising mission to Mars. It looks like the perfect accompaniment. Check it out:

Next up in the season is a science-fiction film from 1936 called Cosmic Voyage, all about the first journey to the moon, a dangerous mission aboard the USSR 1 – Josef Stalin. Accompanying that film will be a 1912 short by animator Ladislaw Starewicz, Voyage to the Moon. Starewicz is celebrated for his charming, early “insect films”, which use stop-motion animation and beetles with wires for legs. You may know, for example, The Cameraman’s Revenge, a whimsical tale of marital infidelity among insects.

Aelita, Queen of Mars with Interplanetary Revolution screens on Sunday 10 July at 6pm in NFT1 and Monday 25 July at 8.30pm in NFT 2. Both screenings will have live piano accompaniment.

Cosmic Voyage with The Moon (1965) and Voyage to the Moon (1912) screens on Sunday 24 July at 8.20pm in NFT3 and on Tuesday 26 July at 6pm in NFT3.

Tickets are on sale as of today to BFI members and soon for everyone else. Tickets cost £9.50 or £8 for members and you can buy them here, on the BFI website.

You may also be interested in the lecture that opens the Kosmos strand, which will be given by Soviet cinema scholar Sergei Kapterev on Friday 1 July at 6.20pm in NFT2. Tickets cost £5.

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Man With a Movie Camera at the Barbican, 29 May 2011

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

You can’t throw a plate in London this month without hitting a screening of a Russian silent film, what with Battleship Potemkin and the BFI’s Kino season, and the Barbican is getting involved too. The final episode in the cinema’s City Symphony strand is Dziga Vertov’s weird and wonderful Man with a Movie Camera. It’s a masterpiece of montage, with a whimsical sense of humour and a remarkable rhythm.


Dziga Vertov’s ‘city symphony’ creates a montage of daily life in Moscow (with some scenes shot in Odessa) and emerged as one of the most innovative and experimental films of the silent era. Stunning photography by Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman depicts the pulse and energy of the city in the late 1920s, the people at work and play, and the machines that make the city tick. A landmark in avant-garde cinema.

The film will be shown on 35mm film, and will be accompanied by a live score from In the Nursery, a synth-based band from Sheffield which has soundtracked several silents. Here’s a review of their Man with a Movie Camera score from a performance in 1999.

Comprised of relatively lush, ‘intelligent’ techno, the music adds a contemporary feel to a film whose joyous celebrations of modernity in all its forms still seems fresh… Seeing the film for the first time, I found it almost overwhelming. Although In the Nursery’s techno is less ‘industrial’ than it could have been, its unashamed populism does Dziga Vertov proud.

Man with a Movie Camera screens at 4pm on Sunday 29 May 2011 at the Barbican Arts Centre. Tickets cost £10.50 or £8.50 online or £6.50 for members. You can buy them here.

Battleship Potemkin: review

Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1925, 71 minutes, cert PG

As the Black Sea foams and crashes into the shore, an intertitle describes the waves of revolutionary feeling sweeping Russia in 1905, and the 55-piece orchestra swells into action. Sergei Eisenstein opens his classic film Battleship Potemkin (1925) with an adroit combination of image, word and music – which we can now experience here in Britain for the first time.

So much is fresh to UK audiences about this 86-year-old film resident on countless Greatest Ever lists and pored over by generations of film students. First, there’s the original orchestral score written by Edmund Meisel and a handful of reinstated shots, some of which were excised from the unforgettably tense Odessa Steps sequence. Not only this, but the film has been beautifully restored, and the title cards recreated according to the director’s wishes. The language is stronger and more socialist than before. It’s bolshier.

Eisenstein’s second feature film is all about solidarity, as it tells the story of a mutiny aboard the eponymous battleship. A group of sailors refuse to eat soup made with rotten meat, and face a firing squad of their peers, but the spirit of comradeship intervenes as the crew rise up against the senior officers – and proudly hoist a bold red flag as they sail into Odessa harbour. On shore, the locals also support the sailors, with terrible consequences. The question is, will the rest of the fleet welcome the revolutionaries home, or follow the command to fire?

Because Battleship Potemkin is an appeal to fellow-feeling and collective action, it is only right that the restoration work creates a more immersive film, one that places no barriers between a 21st-century audience and its monumentally powerful imagery.

In this print, the maggots in the sailors’ dinner squirm in all their greasy glory and the splatters of blood on the Odessa Steps glisten, wetter than before and more gruesome. But it’s not all about horror. The sunlight glints sharply off the calm waters, or is diffused gently through the early morning mists. The scenes of small boats with white sails bringing supplies to the Potemkin are particularly gorgeous. That red flag is vividly, almost luridly hand-tinted red – as aggressively bright as the senior officers’ white trousers, in cruel contrast to the lower orders’ dingy uniforms.

The gloomy scenes below deck are free of murk, too, and we can pick out individuals in the massive crowd scenes. It’s perfect for tracing each extra’s individual path down those infamous steps, some trampling on bodies, and some stumbling over them as they fall.

Then there’s the score. Motoring through the film’s brisk 71-minute running time with a booming bass drum, the music is at its best mostly when it is bombastic. I liked the sustained woodwind sound before that first, fatal thrown plate, and the crashing percussion that announced the arrival of the cossacks. I wasn’t so convinced by the cracking sounds that synchronised with the gunshots, but soon these musical sound effects won me over. Occasionally the score tends towards jaunty, when perhaps it could have been tense, such as when the sailors dive off the Potemkin in an attempt to rescue a fallen comrade. But my qualms were swept away by the film’s final sequence: the music pulses faster and faster as the ship gains speed and prepares for battle, ratcheting up the tension superbly.

Battleship Potemkin, restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek, is on theatrical release from 29 April, screening in London at the BFI Southbank and the Curzon Renoir among other venues.

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.

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

The Old and the New and Storm Over Asia with live scores at BFI Southbank, 5 & 20 May 2011

This May, the BFI is offering a fantastic programme of silent film screenings. There’s the theatrical release of The Great White Silence and Battleship Potemkin, three German gems in a short season devoted to cinematic style and the first tranche in a monumental celebration of Russian cinema entitled Kino: Russian Film Pioneers. And this last strand announces itself with not one but two special screenings of Soviet classics with live scores.

First up on 5 May is Sergei Eisenstein’s The Old and the New, also known as The General Line (1929). This was Eisenstein’s attempt to celebrate the Soviet system of collective farming, but he broke off halfway through to make October, and the final film is more like an essay on the mechanisation of agriculture. Eisenstein’s montage editing, and somewhat suggestive imagery, elevate the film to something more exciting though. The film’s most celebrated sequence involves a cream separator – you can watch it at the top of this post. Really, there are no words. But you can see from that clip that the editing is rhythmic, almost musical.

No score was ever written for the film, but Eisenstein did write some notes, which have been lingering in the BFI archives all these years. Musicians Max De Wardener, Ed Finnis and the Elysian Quartet have constructed a score from these notes especially for this screening. This world premiere promises to be something very special – both of historical interest, and a thrilling combination of film and music too.

 

Storm Over Asia (1928)
Storm Over Asia (1928)

The second special event is on 20 May and has been curated by “live cinema” specialist Marek Pytel. It’s a screening of Vsevelod Pudovkin’s epic Storm Over Asia (1929) accompanied by Yat-Kha, a throatsinging rock band from Tuva, which is in the south of Siberia and borders Mongolia. The film, sometimes known as The Heir to Genghis Khan, tells the story of a Mongolian herdsman, Bair, who fights with the Soviets against the occupying British army. Bair is captured by the imperialists, who come to believe that is descended from Khan and try to use him for their foolish ends.

Storm Over Asia has been restored to its full length from the original negatives, and Yat-Kha’s music, described as “brooding, growling and earthy” should provide a contemporary but wholly sympathetic soundtrack.

The Old and the New accompanied by Max De Wardener, Ed Finnis and the Elysian Quartet screens at NFT1 on Thursday 5 May at 7.15pm.

Storm Over Asia accompanied by Yat-Kha screens at NFT1 on Friday 20 May at 7.15pm.

Tickets cost £13, or £9.75 for concessions, and £1.50 less for members. They will be available at the BFI website here.

October at the BFI, 8 April 2011

October (1927)
October (1927)

Sergei Eisenstein’s dramatic reconstruction of 1917’s October revolution is more than Soviet propaganda – it’s a ferociously exciting film, too. Rightly hailed as a classic, October‘s audaciously rapid montage editing is as violent and incendiary as its subject matter  The bridge sequence in this film bears comparison with the Odessa Steps scene in Eisenstein’s more famous film Battleship Potemkin, but it’s a tough watch for horse lovers.

October (1927) will screen at the BFI on 8 April as the first half of a double-bill to accompany Phil Collins’s Marxism Today project, on display in the Gallery, which compares life in Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Collins has chosen and will introduce the two films in the double-bill: first, October and then Lunch Break, a 2008 documentary film made by American photographer and film-maker Sharon Lockhart. Lunch Break consists of a single tracking shot down a corridor in an iron works in Maine. The shot has been slowed down to a snail’s pace, making the film last for 80 minutes, becoming an anthropological study of the workers and their environment. The BFI brochure says: “Its intimate, meditative tone offers an empathetic consideration of the workforce in our contemporary post-industrial condition.”

Continue reading October at the BFI, 8 April 2011