April 27, 2010

Earth (1930)

Soviet Union

Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko

75 min

Cinema was a vital tool for Communism and no-one understood this better than the ruling elite of the Soviet Union. The early Soviet films and film makers were artistically groundbreaking, demonstrating new, innovative cinematic techniques, but as far as the ruling elites were concerned, these films would act as propaganda to consolidate the revolution and further spread the word of its success. Eisenstein is justly celebrated as one of the great directors of world cinema (‘Strike’, ‘October’, ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ make up part of his early period). Dovzhenko is just as important in Soviet cinema, even if his name and reputation doesn’t resonate quite as much as that of his contemporary. Certainly, there’s a case to be made that ‘Earth’ is every bit the equal of ‘…Potemkin’ in the impact it had, not just socially but also in terms of the development of cinema.

Dovzhenko begins and ends with similar striking scenes. In the first, a man, Simon, peacefully dies in a fruit orchard. Dovzhenko uses a succession of close-ups of the faces of his family, whilst also cutting to shots of sweeping cornfields and the bountiful fruit harvests. This scene is near-reprised at the film’s conclusion. The wind sweeps the cornfields more aggressively, whilst heavy rain soaks the fruit orchard. Whether this ambiguous final scene bears any political message, it’s difficult to say. Certainly it would have to have been very oblique to have passed the censors. In between, Dovzhenko makes reference to the changing political and economic tide in Russia/Soviet Union within a Ukrainian rural environment. In the dying days of the Tsarist regime, an affluent class of peasants (kulaks) were liberated and rose in stature, taking over single, family owned farms. The younger generation encourage insurrection and use new technologies (tractors); the logical conclusion of which is Soviet style collectivisation of farms, as seems to be the trend by the film’s conclusion.

Dovzhenko’s film is a rejection of old values, including religion and class, whilst celebrating more affirmative action and the changes that Stalin, in particular, would introduce for good or ill. ‘Earth’ is a masterpiece of Soviet montage theory, fusing realism and symbolism and achieving a rich sense of visual poetry. It is a high point not just in Soviet cinema, but in silent cinema too.

‘Earth’ is released by Mr Bongo films on 17 May 2010.


June 11, 2009

Kieslowski’s Early Documentaries

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:36 pm
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The Imperial War Museum, London, is currently running a season titled “Sparks of Hope: Polish Paths to Freedom”, comprising a series of films about the Communist experience in Poland, from the start of June until early July. Details can be found here. The season includes films by Wajda and Holland amongst others, but the real coup might just be the series of documentaries made by Krzysztof Kieslowski between 1966-1981, before he made his name as an incredibly gifted feature film maker.

All documentaries are shown together, lasting approximately two and a quarter hours in total. It starts with the most recent, but also the longest, ‘A Short Working Day’ (1981). At 73 minutes, it’s more or less a main feature and combines documentary and dramatisation, rather than merely documenting live events as the remaining films do. Kieslowski points out that the film is based on a real incident, when workers protested in Radom in 1976, yet the characters involved are fictional. A precursor and inspiration to the Solidarity movement, Kieslowski’s film demonstrates that the Communist state could be challenged through the unity of the people. A politician who’s enjoyed a rapid ascent to power and is now First Secretary of the Voivodship struggles to deal with the 20000 or so striking workers when they protest outside his HQ, gaining no assistance from Warsaw and all chaos threatens to occur. Most interesting is how Kieslowski freezes upon various protestors, then cuts to their fate, as it were. You have a woman complaining about her salary; we cut to her being tried for vandalism. Another demonstrator goes onto work in underground propaganda against the state, whilst a young man is later beaten mercilessly by police for his role in the protests. Kieslowski ends on a fitting note; the agreement signed at the Gdansk shipyards as a symbol of hope and the first step towards the collapse of Communism.

‘The Office’ (1966) is a short film mocking state bureaucracy. A secret camera operates in the pensions department and observes the inflexible staff carrying out the strict rules to the letter, with no leniency. If forms are not completed correctly, one doesn’t get their pension. The final shots of literally a mountain of paperwork, files kept on everyone and everything shows the horrifying extent of the Polish level of bureaucracy.

‘The Factory’ (1970) films discussions and agreements made at the Ursus tractor factory. Kieslowski cuts between management discussing how to modernise the factory, improve technology and increase production and the workers themselves, trying to do as best they can in an underresourced factory. The appeals of management to the Minister to get anything done fall on flat ears. It’s a sober, realistic look at manufacturing, at the heart of the socialist economy.

‘Hospital’ (1976) is only 20 minutes in length, but documents a 31 hour shift for doctors in the emergency room of a Warsaw hospital. Electrical power cuts affect their work; drills stop working – after which more primitive methods of surgery have to take place. The doctors are constantly busy and overrun, but deliver the best care for their patients. Whilst they might be underresourced, there’s no doubt they’re the best advertisment for Polish healthcare.

‘Railway Station’ (1980) – the Central Station in Warsaw, recently renovated. CCTV cameras operate everywhere, observing their citizens with a close eye. Note the final shot of the camera operator with the all-seeing eye, playing God, in the closing shot. Trains are regularly cancelled, queues are commonplace. Despite the claims of improvements, the passengers don’t appear to benefit. Kieslowski’s emphasis is upon the social control demonstrated by constant surveillance.

There’s numerous other screenings taking place in this season, all of which are worth checking out.

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