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September 11 – November 6, 2016

Behind Potemkin: Other Faces of Russian and Soviet Film

Two things made Prince Potemkin proverbially famous: the legendary fake village he is said to have devised in 1787 in order to make the Russian landscape look better than it was, and the famous film made in 1925 about the rebellious warship bearing his name. There are side effects to any fame, and as fate would have it, the unfading glory of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin played the same trick on many a filmgoer that Potemkin once had on the non-inquisitive Empress of Russia. Rapid cutting, heroic sailors, jumping lions, fat fabricants, fierce Cossacks, strikes and stormings: cinema with political fists, as Eisenstein defined it, came to stand for the whole landscape of silent filmmaking in Russia. It is this tourist-guide façade of Russian film history that our five-night retrospective intends to look behind. Our aim is to discover amplitudes behind apparent flatnesses; pensiveness behind heroic action; the everyday behind enthusiasm; smiling, not only righteous, faces. We begin with what, by wisdom of hindsight, has become known as Russian “pre-revolutionary” (1914-1917) cinema; leap past the first half of the 1920s—dominated by major figures like Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Pudovkin—and land in the period between 1927 and 1933, the years in which other names and faces—Abram Room, Boris Barnet, Oleksandr Dovzhenko—loomed large.

Aside from being more culturally diverse and richer in genres and themes than is usually admitted, the early history of Russian/Soviet cinema displays an amazing amplitude of styles. Slow or “contemplative” cinema is, nowadays, a pet term inside the festival circuit of art films. Its polar opposite—the super-fast editing style of modern Hollywood action movies—emerged, as is well known, from within the Soviet (“classic”) school of montage. Fast cutting was, indeed, de rigueur for Eisenstein and his circle. What is less known (and is worth exploring) is that Russian cinema was, once upon a time, the slowest and most contemplative cinema on Earth. Films by Evgenii Bauer and Yakov Protazanov (the ones we are showing are those made between 1914 and 1918) belong to slow cinema in the old sense. Their slowness draws upon the unhurried Russian prose and the thoughtful Russian stage; these films are slow because Bauer wants you to enjoy the environment in which his characters move (or not), or because Protazanov wants to revive the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ dignified kinetics. As film director/historian Kevin Brownlow once said, Russian pre-revolutionary cinema knew but two speeds: slow and stop. What else, if not an experience of slowness, could be a better way for us to re-experience the full-speed power of films like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin?

Civil war heroes return home to confront the misery of peaceful life; a quiet peasant girl is caught in the tram-crazed life of modern Moscow; how to retrofit the political today into the mythic past of rural Ukraine—such (and suchlike) were the problems Soviet filmmakers came to tackle around 1927, ten years after the ten days that shook the world in October 1917. It was owing to Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora that Soviet cinema acquired a new—off-metropolitan—ethnic and cultural dimension; Barnet added to it his signature mix of lyricism and humor in The House on Trubnaya Square and Outskirts; and it was Abram Room (Bed and Sofa) who had the nerve and talent to go against the grain of the then-powerful, avant-garde inspired current of thought that swept away anything having to do with rooms and kitchens, marriages and divorces, and other nuisances of everyday existence. You cannot think Soviet cinema without Battleship Potemkin; yet it is as wrong to set Potemkin apart from the rest of Soviet films.
Daria Khitrova, Assistant Professor, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Harvard


Live Musical Accompaniment by Yakov Gubanov
Sunday September 11 at 7pm

Child of the Big City
(Ditya bolshogo goroda)

Directed by Evgenii Bauer. With Elena P. Smirnova, Nina Kosljaninowa, Michael Salarow
Russia 1914, 35mm, b/w, silent, 45 min. Russian intertitles with English subtitles

“Lady-Killer Killed by a Killer-Lady” might serve as a headline for the plot of Child of the Big City. The he of the story, a rich and idle man named Victor, is satiated with his victories over the “cultured” women of his class. She, named Mania, is a poor orphan, a simple seamstress, fresh and easy prey. Or so he thinks—for it is she, not he, who turns out to be the predator. A wild child of the city (wait for a glimpse of Moscow in the window behind her), Mania is, as one intertitle describes her, an innate femme fatale. What makes this film a good example of Bauer’s staging is his inventive use of the foreground curtain to flank/unflank the space of action in the background, as in the scene in which Victor, a ruined man, arrives at her art nouveau mansion, interrupting the tango party within. Yes, the tango—1914 was the year of the tango craze in Russia. Mania and her lover/servant are played by the then-famous pair of tango dancers, Elena Smirnova and Leonid Iost, whose elaborate dance routine takes on a particular malevolence thanks to Bauer’s dramatic crosscutting.

Daydreams (Grezy)

Directed by Evgenii Bauer. With Alexander Wyrubow, F. Werchowzewa, Viktor Arens
Russia 1915, 35mm, b/w, silent, 45 min. Russian intertitles with English subtitles

Daydreams is an uncanny story that is uncannily similar to Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo. Sergei, an inconsolable widower, runs into a young woman named Tina, a spitting image of his late wife—in every sense except for the latter’s purity and kindness. To perfect the likeness, Sergei makes Tina wear his wife’s clothes, none of which are to her liking. In the course of an ugly argument about Tina’s right to her own identity, Sergei strangles her with the most bizarre garrote ever used in the history of crime.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis
Sunday September 18 at 5pm

Queen of Spades (Pikovaya dama)

Directed by Yakov Protazanov. With Ivan Mosjoukine, Vera Orlova, and Tamara Duvan
Russia 1916, 35mm, b/w, silent, 63 min. Russian intertitles with English subtitles

Before Pyotr Tchaikovsky turned it into a famous opera in 1890, Queen of Spades was a no-less-famous story written by Aleksandr Pushkin in 1833. Protazanov’s film snubs the bombastic opera version and is demonstratively faithful to the subtleties of Pushkin’s prose. Hermann, a young military engineer, falls for a story about an old countess and three winning cards—a secret allegedly bestowed on her by occult wizard Count St. Germain in the time when, as a young lady, the countess used to gamble in Versailles. One night, under the cover of having a tryst with the old woman’s companion, Hermann gains access to the old countess’ house. His visit and the question he asks her lead Hermann down a macabre, labyrinthine path where the differences between truth and fiction, dream and reality, are murky and misleading. Ivan Mosjoukine, a major Russian (later French) film star, is a perfect match for Hermann: the immobile intensity of his fixed and steely stare combines calculation with obsession—exactly the mix to drive a person mad.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis
Sunday September 18 at 7pm

Father Sergius (Otets Sergiy)

Directed by Yakov Protazanov. With Ivan Mosjoukine, Olga Kondorova, V. Dzheneyeva
Russia 1918, 35mm, b/w, silent, 112 min. Russian intertitles with English subtitles

The same Ivan Mosjoukine—the actor we enjoyed watching in Protazanov’s 1916 Queen of Spades—with the same steely stare, plays the protagonist of another one of Protazanov’s “quality pictures” and adaptations of a classic piece of prose. “From dirt to Princes,” iz griazi v kniazi, is the Russian rhymed equivalent for the English rags-to-riches phrase. Leo Tolstoy’s idea of moral self-perfection sends the hero of his story in the opposite direction. Prince Kasatkii, a young, handsome army officer with a brilliant career ahead of him, learns of an unpleasant episode from the amorous past of his beloved fiancée. This is how his social downfall (read: his spiritual ascension) begins: from being the priest Father Sergius, to being a holy hermit, and, finally, to being an ambulant nobody, a righteous bum. The various ages and stages of life depicted herein make this part attractive for actors (more than one film version of Tolsloy’s story has been produced, including a relatively recent version by the Taviani brothers); in addition, much like Saint Antony, Father Sergius goes through a series of lustful temptations, one of which results in him “chopping off the wrong member,” as Vladimir Nabokov cynically remarked in his novel Ada or Ardor.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Bertrand and Susan Laurence
Sunday October 16 at 7pm

Bed and Sofa
(Tretya meshchanskaya)

Directed by Abram Room. With Nikolai Batalov, Lyudmila Semyonova, Vladmir Fogel
Soviet Union 1927, 35mm, b/w, silent, 95 min. Russian intertitles with English subtitles

Much like Boris Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya Square, Room’s Bed and Sofa is a film about the here and now. Its original Russian title, The Third Meshchanskaia, is the name of a real, perfectly unremarkable street in Moscow upon which the miserable apartment—where all of the film’s action takes place—lies. Volodia, a young, solitary printer, lands a job in Moscow and is looking for a place to stay. Finding no vacancies in hotels, he looks up construction worker Kolia, his Civil War comrade from eight years before. Even though Kolia lives in a small one-room apartment, he offers his former trench buddy a sofa—the bed being occupied by Kolia himself and his wife Liuda. Set up as a farce (hence its salty American distribution title), Bed and Sofa soon turns into a drama of divided loyalties and ends as a movie about a woman’s freedom to choose. The great formalist Viktor Shklovsky, who wrote the script, seems to ask what family life should look like in the supposedly post-bourgeois communal society of Soviet Russia. As you will see in the end, he, like many others, struggles with the answer.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin
Sunday October 23 at 5pm

The House on Trubnaya Square (Dom na Trubnoy)

Directed by Boris Barnet. With Vera Maretskaya, Anel Sudakevitch, Ada Vojtsik
Soviet Union 1928, 35mm, b/w, silent, 64 min. Russian intertitles with English subtitles

While Barnet’s film is a successful comedy, it is also an experiment in genre crossbreeding. The film begins as a sentimental tale about a naïve peasant girl named Parasha coming to town hoping to find a job. In the typical Russian melodrama, this would be the beginning of a downfall, more often than not, into prostitution. But this is not your typical Russia anymore. On the one hand, Parasha is trapped in the worst possible employment arrangement: the hairdresser who hires her turns out to be an unscrupulous exploiter. On the other hand, this is Soviet Moscow, and this is 1928, and this is early Soviet avant-garde comedy. Thus, Parasha watches and then participates in a theater show about the great French Revolution, and her political consciousness ferments like yeast, transforming the film into political agitprop rallying for unionization.

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Sunday October 23 at 7pm

Outskirts (Okraina)

Directed by Boris Barnet. With Aleksandr Chistyakov, Sergey Komarov, Yelena Kuzmina
Soviet Union 1933, 35mm, b/w, 98 min. Russian and German with English subtitles

In the summer of 1914, a sleepy town in the province of Russia is woken up by news about WWI. Suddenly, your longtime neighbor and preferred checkers partner Robert turns out to be a “German” with whom you are no longer on speaking terms. Your daughter Man’ka was seen sitting on a street bench with Mueller, a German cobbler, now a POW, and it’s a scandal. A solitary proletarian internationalist shouts at the top of his voice, “Stop it! He is not a German, he is a cobbler!” to no avail. Ironically, this pacifist/internationalist—and, above all, irresistible—film was made in 1933, at the dawn of the Nazi rule in Germany and the high noon of Italian fascism, and was awarded a prize at the 1934 Venice Film Festival. Another irony, internal to film history, is that Outskirts is one of the first Soviet talkies heralding, unwittingly, the end of the silent era, the time when films easily communicated to people’s (and peoples’) hearts regardless of whether you spoke English, German or Russian.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Bertrand and Susan Laurence
Sunday November 6 at 7pm

Zvenigora

Directed by Oleksandr Dovzhenko. With Semyon Svashenko, Nikolai Nademsky, Vladimir Uralsky
Soviet Union 1928, 35mm, b/w, silent, 91 min. Russian intertitles with English subtitles

Jingle Hill? Knelling Mount? Ringing vault? The title of Dovzhenko’s film is as intriguing and hard to crack as the story it tells and the images it shows. If you are determined to follow the plotline, keep in mind that the story unfolds upon three planes at once: political, historical and mythological. One is a familial—and familiar—1918 Civil War allegory: a grandpa has two grandsons, one siding with the Reds, the other with those who fight for Ukraine becoming an independent state. Who will the grandpa support? A harder question than it might at first appear, for the grandpa is thousands of years old and has seen many friends and foes from many epochs of Ukraine’s long history. On the mythological plane, the grandpa has his own magic agenda: he knows that the woody hill Zvenigora is not a hill, but a vault full of Scythian treasures that he wants to unearth before the mystic monk who guards them. Go figure. It’s worth it.

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