Film fans rejoice; a review of the obscure classics shown each week at Farnham University Film course by favourite lecturer: Andy.
This week: Soviet propaganda classics; what’s with the montage? Potemkin it isn’t. This week, the first film for our consideration was the 1930’s Soviet classic Earth by Aleksandr Dovzhenko. Designed to convince farmers to join the Soviet collective, and a dig at the kulaks on top of that, it was voted one of the ten greatest films of all time in 1956 by Film historians. Wowzer. Coming into the film, it is not exactly as one might expect; the audience is treated to serene, wonderful black and white shots of the grass blowing in the wind, close ups of flowers, apples on trees, etc. Sitting amidst all this, an old farm hand asks his older-still father if he is dying. “Yup, I guess so.” Is the reply, before we are treated to many more shots of grass blowing, apples bobbing, and children playing unheedingly around the soon-to-be-dead man. It is an opening that treads a fine line between absurd and peaceful, as the man expires, only to sit up again, take a bite of an apple, and then expire once more- this time for good. Brilliant doesn’t begin to describe it.
With an opening like that, a film can go two ways (well, for the sake of this article it can): sublime or boring. Earth, disappointingly, chose the latter. Well shot, and clearly with a vision, it is, nonetheless, horribly obvious propaganda. Of course it is! Being the likely response from all those in the know of early Russian cinema. Don’t judge it on that! But how can you not? When characterization you came to love in the first twenty minutes (the sullen father) is bowled over by the blindingly obvious message ‘Soviets good, Kulaks bad’, and you’re treated to ten minutes montage of grain machines whirling it’s a bit too bleeding obvious to be ignored. Which is a shame. Doyzhenko is obviously a talented film maker, but sadly caught in the middle of an image conscious propaganda machine desperate to control public thought, and artistic creativity. No wonder the Americans won the cold war.
The next film, ‘Mother’ (interestingly, not on IMDB), directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin, starts off with yet another fantastic opening, only too soon bogged down in montage and ‘workers unite!’ garbage. Her son on the side of the workers, her husband hired by tsarist strike breakers, ‘The Mother’ has all the hallmarks of classic epic drama; choice, war/revolution torn background, love, loyalty; think a black and white Gone With the Wind. In Russian. Unfortunately, what started off so promising soon descends into a who-cares? Montage of horses charging, people revolting, and tsarist oppression, tactfully done to remind workers why communism is brilliant. Thank you Uncle Joe (actually, I’m not sure of the year on this, so maybe this was pre-Joe years, if so, I apologise). This has to be the real failing of Russian cinema; Potemkin may have been able to do it well, being little more than an action movie, but when the same tactics are applied to what should be serene masterpieces and epic dramas, you get a lecture hall of sleeping students. It makes as much sense as doing the Godfather in the style of Leon, and all it does is remind us how controlling the Soviet state was to artists back in the day (just look at some paintings from the period- the shining worker hero, striving onwards). Advice; steer clear, unless you can stomach the propaganda you’ll be beaten round the head with until you cave.
Until next time, keep watching the screen.