41. Spione

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March 22, 1928
UFA
Directed by Fritz Lang

Spione is effectively a Mabuse reboot for 1928. Germany has a level of social and economic stability that 1922 Germany did not. The world has gotten better in the intervening years. The currency is stable again. And so instead of a mysterious all-powerful magician who wants to rule the world simply to play with his victims out of cruelty, Spione’s mastermind is attempting to manipulate the international political situation and threat of Soviet Russia to acquire more money.

It’s a more realistic image of a supervillain that reflects that in 1928, instead of abject terror and chaos, there was a political situation where people knew what to be afraid of. While Stalin’s “communism in one country” already acknowledged that the World Revolution was not going to happen, there were still many in Europe and America who hoped or feared that it could. Germany had beaten Russia ten years ago, and now that the Reds had won their civil war and were rapidly modernizing, they might be harboring some thoughts of revenge.

Lang’s filmmaking has grown more sophisticated, but this movie is missing something crucial that Mabuse had. Maybe it’s that after seeing Murnau’s astonishing growth in the last six years, from Nosferatu to Letzte Mann to Faust to Sunrise, a Mabuse reboot that does little more than clean up the details and slightly update the story isn’t enough. It could also be that Mabuse’s power was mysterious and supernatural, as if the world was so confusing and inexplicable that it must be controlled by a superhuman magician. Haghi is a mundane villain – he’s merely rich and has a capable staff.

You didn’t need to be a magician to see that the Silent Age was coming to an end. Metropolis had almost bankrupted UFA and so Lang was not able to develop on that movie’s wonders. If it had been a success, he may have been able to make another masterpiece of that scale. But there’s little in this movie that hadn’t been done already by Lang or someone else. Spione is a tactical retreat into safe territory.

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40. Oktyabr

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March 14, 1928
Sovkino
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein & Grigori Aleksandrov

As a socialist who loves silent movies, I really want to like this movie more. After all, this is the one where we win. What happened in October 1917 was the unthinkable – a rupture in history that the ruling class never got over. Even after 1990, it’s still embarrassing for them to acknowledge.

Yet I find this one the most difficult to sit through of the first three Eisenstein features. Strike is a story of workers banding together. Potemkin is a story of men recognizing each other as brothers. October is the story of the founding myth of the young nation, but this historical event is too complex to be portrayed in a way that could satisfy all of the demands made on this movie at this time.

It was commissioned to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the great feat, but it’s too didactic to be entertaining and too avant garde to stir the hearts of the proletarians and peasants. His style is too abstract to feel a melodramatic rush of victory at the end, while the climactic scene of Potemkin, where the sailors recognize each other as brothers, is a wonder.

The most striking moment is the scene of the July Days. The protest is suppressed and the people defeated, and a dead horse is caught on the drawbridge as it raises, cutting off the center of Petrograd and temporarily extinguishing the hopes for revolution. It’s easier for Eisenstein to move me with tragedy than with triumph.

And there was little for international communists in 1928 to feel triumph about. People were losing hope of a permanent revolution that would spread eastward to the major economies of Europe. Leon Trotsky was removed from the government and the party in 1927 and in January 1928 was exiled to the Kazakh Republic. Agriculture production had recovered from the civil war, but growth had now stalled. The New Economic Policy, which had been passed as a truce with the rural peasants, was ended. Congress now implemented extraordinary measures to seize grain from the countryside.

Joseph Stalin introduced his five-year plan to rapidly collectivize and industrialize. Stalinism was now in full effect. Eisenstein would soon find himself in self-exile, to wander the world in search of a new direction for his art.

29. Bronenosets Potyomkin

Battleship Potemkin

January 18, 1926
Goskino
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Stachka demonstrated the power of revolutionary cinema by showing the effect workers can have when they organize. Yes, the strike itself ended in annihilation, but it was punctuated by a final command, addressed directly to the audience: Remember, proletarians!

Sergei Eisenstein and his comrades gave them little time to forget. Within a year’s time Bronenosets Potyomkin brought the cinema into its next dialectical stage, demonstrating what can happen when proletarian power is joined by military power. We saw in the German Revolution how the military, which normally operates as the repressive apparatus of state power, has within its organization its own version of proletarian industrial workers, namely sailors. In 1905, when the Russians were being obliterated by the Japanese, a non-Western industrial upstart, the sailors of the ship Potemkin decided to join the revolution their were hearing rumors about and stage a mutiny. The events of this mutiny, largely fictionalized to suit the needs of cinematic narrative, were depicted here as part of a 20-year celebration of the Revolution of 1905.

The film wasn’t a big hit in the Soviet Union, but news spread, and it scared the shit out of foreign governments. Industrial nations were experiencing worker unrest of their own, and it was a very real possibility that they would see their own Bolshevik moment in the months ahead. To those in power, this movie was a manual of how to stage a real revolution. Britain and France banned all public showings. The German censorship office made substantial cuts, including the entirety of the most-famous pram sequence, but ultimately approved the censored version (military personnel were still prohibited from seeing it).

The movie premiered in Berlin two days before Mayday and was an overwhelming critical success. Douglas Fairbanks declared it “the most powerful and the most profound emotional experience in my life.” Bertolt Brecht composed a poem about it. Potyomkin was a bold display of the power of revolutionary political art and an example of the potential for superior cinema in a socialist economy.

The power of a movie that presented all filmmaking under the capitalist mode of production with an artistic challenge presents modern viewers with a different challenge. Potyomkin is almost exclusively watched as a technical exercise. The emotional centerpiece, the famous Odessa Steps sequence, which exploded onto the Berlin screen as a consummate vision of war-as-chaos, has been so institutionalized and academized by countless shot by shot analyses that it can be hard to feel anything when watching it. John Waters, that master of screen chaos, recalls a screening of the Odessa Steps as the moment he decided film school was unnecessary bullshit.

Is it possible to see in this movie with its original revolutionary thrill? Possible for it to excite us with its picture of a new way to live, showing us what is greatest and most important in life, and filling us with solidarity and the courage to defend our brothers and sisters against the dread force of Capital?

Sound may be the key that unlocks this silent film.

Eisenstein himself saw his masterpiece as a sound film. All of his montage tricks, gross or subtle, were to be matched in unison or counterpoint by similar moves in the soundtrack. But the versions I’ve seen on video use those standard orchestra or piano scores that tend to make silent movies a dull, academic experience. A Film 101 class to fall asleep in. A great silent movie is timeless, but the soundtrack is usually not. Many composers and ensembles have re-scored Potemkin, and you should never pass up the opportunity to see it this way. For those playing the home game, I can personally recommend the Pet Shop Boys version, which as of this writing is available here in what is apparently a fan edit. Chris and Neil’s synthesizer melodies soar in solidarity as the skiffs meeting the battleship and sing an understated dirge during the great Steps scene. As the tension of the final showdown mounts, they go into full Hi-NRG. We are your brothers! As we move into our own version of 1926, prospects for World Revolution are once again starting to look up.

22. The Navigator

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October 13, 1924
Metro-Goldwyn
Directed by Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp

Having proved himself in the mountains, against the waterfall, as well as in the relations of society, and even within his own psyche, the Navigator strands Keaton in the sea. That immortal adversary of man. But now he is set with a woman, who this time plays an actual partner. In Sherlock, Jr., the woman may have solved the mystery and closed the narrative, but in this movie she is right there at his side in the struggle, as the Kid was for Chaplin. And it’s a perfect parody of the explicitly socialist Kid, because this time it’s two rich individuals, male and female, who find themselves with a ship equipped with provisions meant to provide for the many. In a reverse fish-and-loaves scenario, the two individuals must somehow find a way to make use of the the food and shelter of the masses. How will they do it? Turns out it’s comically easy. When you’re rich, things fall into place for you. The deus ex machina is your lived experience.

The ship itself, the USAT Buford, has an interesting history. It was used for transport during the Spanish-American War and the Great War, and then after that it was used during the Red Scare to deport anarchists, communists, and other subversives. Among these esteemed passengers was American citizen Emma Goldman, who was handed over to the Soviet Union in 1920. She immediately began agitating there, fleeing west after the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921, publishing her story under the title “My Disillusionment in Russia.” Fred Gabourie, Keaton’s technical director, meaning he helped cinematically realize Keaton’s gags and stunts, was offered the ship for $2500, a deal he immediately took, and the entire movie was then built around this singular prop.

It’s not as immediately hilarious as the previous two features, but the gags are still fantastic, and one deserves special attention. The first night after our hero and the woman have boarded the ship and found themselves alone with each other, drifting aimless and clueless through the sea, they set off to their cabins for the night. After donning sailor uniforms as pajamas, the woman discovers that she shares her cabin with a frightening portrait of the captain that interferes with her ability to sleep. The only thing to do is throw it overboard, where it gets caught and dangles in front of Buster’s porthole. The portrait swings into and out of view and casts a menacing aspect through the dark at Keaton. The captain in the portrait is none other than Donald Crisp, who played Battlin’ Burrows in Broken Blossoms and is co-director of this film. It’s a marvelous moment of enunciation, where the co-director literally invades the space between Keaton and the woman he desires, frightens both of them, and provokes them into a higher pitch of comic tension.