Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s a double feature, with #008 on the list, Dziga Vertov. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.
I noticed awhile back, and I’m sure regular readers did too, that I had fallen a bit behind on getting regular posts up in this series. The original plan was to watch and then write about one movie a week until I had them all covered, an effort which, assuming I held to it, would take just under five years. In actuality, however, it’s probably averaged out to more like three posts per month. (No I haven’t actually gone back and done the math, that’s just my gut assessment.)
So, in order to do a little bit of catching up, when I noticed these two Russian silents sitting so close to each other on the list, I announced a few weeks ago on the DMM facebook page that I would be doing them as a double feature.
Actually, that turned out to be a pretty good idea..
You see, the thing is that just about the only thing these two films have in common is the above-mentioned fact that they are both Russian silent films. Beyond that they really have very little in common at all. But that’s not a bad thing.
Let’s begin with Battleship Potemkin. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein and released in 1925, the film, according to Wikipedia “presents a dramatized version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers of the Tsarist regime. ”
The movie is divided into five acts, each one having its own title, and each telling its own part of the story. Created as a propaganda film, it tells the story of the 1905 mutiny of the crew of the titular battleship against first the tsarist officers of the ship, and then the soldiers of Odessa, where the ship has docked, when they come to retake possession of the ship.
The most famous section of the film, and rightfully so, is Act IV: The Odessa Steps. A true tour-de-force of film-making, it shows the tragedy that takes place when the people of Odessa, who have massed on the steps, get caught between the guns of the Tsarist soldiers, and the return volleys of the ship as it seeks to defend itself against the oncoming soldiers. It is a scene that is full of tragedy and melodrama, emphasizing the fact that often it’s not those who are actually actively engaged in combat, but those who are so often today dismissed with the euphemism “collateral damage” who suffer the most in a battle like this.
Interestingly, the sequence also depicts a scene which never actually happened. Yep, it’s true. While it’s true that the people of Odessa did support the mutineers and the revolution against the Tsar, there actually was no massacre on the staircase. However, the fact that so many people to this day believe that the massacre did occur is a testament both to Eisenstein’s skill as a film maker and to the true power of propaganda.
Here, instead of the usual trailer for the film, is Act IV in full so that you can see the skill that Eisenstein brings and judge it for yourself:
In sharp contrast to the narrative propaganda style of Potemkin stands Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man With a Movie Camera, and when I say “in sharp contrast”, I mean just that. Man is an extremely non-linear, non-narrative experimental film which serves as a showcase for the various tricks and techniques that Vertov wanted to explore and showcase.
Almost completely eschewing plot (unless one wants to fairly arbitrarily assign to the film a sort-of “day in the life of” plot that I really don’t think Vertov was aiming for), instead the film seems almost random both in sequence and in the effects employed within each sequence. I say that it “seems” random, because, while there may be no real direct connective tissue from scene to scene, and there really is no over-arching “getting from point a to b to c” structure to the film, there still is a sense of design not only within each shot but in its editing and placement within the film proper.
As far as being a showcase for experimental film-making of the time, there can truly be no doubt that Vertov succeeds in his mission. At various points he employs double exposures, stop motion animations, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, extreme close-ups, jump cuts, split screens, footage played backwards, Dutch angles, tracking shots, footage played backwards, and so many other techniques that it would be hard to list them all.
Obviously, this film is a case of Vertov seeking not only to excite his audience about the possibilities of film, but to push himself to not only employ many already-known techniques, but to create many new ones of his own.
Here’s a short clip which will give you a good impression of the style of – and the variety of styles employed within – the movie:
In the end, I have to say that whatever the circumstances that caused me to watch these two films side-by-side, I’m glad that I did, because I think they truly do serve to highlight not only the variety of film that was being made during the silent era in Russia, but also the diversity that is possible with film in general. Whether the purpose of a film is simple narrative, propaganda, or experimental, in the hands of a true virtuoso of the form and someone who is daring enough not only to see what they want to create but to use whatever they need to to achieve that effect, there are very few limits to what film, even in the early stages of it’s life when creators were still figuring out the possibilities and language of the medium can achieve.
- “Battleship Potemkin” (1925) (bjdeming.com)
- Man with a Movie Camera (1929) (canadiancinephile.com)
- Film Review No.216: Battleship Potemkin (filmdump.com)
- Seeing red (newstatesman.com)