Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Montage and Memory

Soviet cinema in its 'heroic' 1920s is, as its historians always rather irritatedly note, usually reduced in the West to a few montage auteurs - Vertov, Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin, and if you're lucky maybe Lev Kuleshov and Esther Shub get thrown in too. Because of current work on comedy - which I'm so far managing to make even less funny than Freud's book on jokes, with less gags than Bergson and as little jollity as Zupancic's work on humour - I've been trying to delve into some of the lesser known films of the period, the comedies and melodramas that Soviet audiences apparently preferred to the rigours of Intellectual Cinema. So far, this hasn't met with much success (suffice to say, if someone out there has copies of The Return of Nathan Becker, Miss Mend, Men and Jobs or The Kiss of Mary Pickford, or the film work of Mikhail Tsekhanovsky, Lily Brik or Erwin Piscator that they'd like to lend me, my email address is on the right and I would be extremely grateful) except brief acquaintance with such joys as Anna Sten's starring role in Boris Barnet's joyous The Girl With The Hatbox. Despite its apparent comprehensiveness, there's none of this stuff on the internet - with one, rather surprising exception - Fredrikh Ermler's 1929 film Fragment of Empire.

'Fredrikh Ermler' was the Chekist pseudonym of Vladimir Markovich Breslav, perhaps the only major director of the time who was actually of proletarian extraction. His reputation for being somewhat fearsome is supported by stories of using a mauser as a directorial aid when making the stunning Fragment of Empire. In short, this is a sort of Bolshevik Rip van Winkle tale, in which a railway attendant's amnesia - caused by shellshock in the Russian Civil War - suddenly lifts, leading him to see the Soviet Union in 1928 with the eyes of a 'fragment of the empire', walking with his cross and his muzhik beard through a totally alien world. The film is an unusual, and utterly extraordinary fusion of psychological realism and the most extreme montage experiments. Ermler was an enthusiast for Freud in the late '20s, and his use of objects as triggers of memory results in some wrenching sequences, where fast-cut intellectual montage is used to depict the dredging up of painful recollection, as where a cigarette box and a sowing machine spark of a succession of sudden, bitter memories to flood into the amnesiac's mind. As a portrayal of psychoanalytic theories of memory and association, it's certainly a tad more sophisticated than Spellbound (the chain of images is certainly more surreal than Dali's sequences from that film).

Although some of the plot details will be lost in these untranslated clips, the story is easy enough to follow. At the end of the clip at the top, architecture is used as a record of the sheer, jarring speed of change. Walking out of the railway station on his return to St Petersburg, the amnesiac sees a workers' club, some new blocks of flats, and most of all a vast complex of towers and skyways, and asks, shocked 'where is Petersburg? Who is in charge here?' This is, as a contemporary audience might have spotted, rather a cheat - the skyway complex was in fact in the centre of Kharkov. Nonetheless, the use of buildings here is similar to the use of montage - as a process and indicator of a destructive, but possibly utopian (aha) acceleration. The speed of change is such that in ten years, most of the city becomes unrecognisable. Now, the obvious thing for Ermler to have done here would have been to create a back-slapping propaganda film where the new world assimilates this fragment of empire into an immeasurably better society. Instead, a darker, more ambiguous film emerges from the propagandistic premise.

There are, he is told, no more bosses, and the Petersburgers mock him for his servility and manners - but gradually, he acclimatises himself. He gets a job in a model factory, via his now impoverished, A-I-Z reading former boss, he cuts his beard, and very Vertov-esque montage sequences show the dizzying tempo and sublime scale of industrialisation - but something is still not right. Workers in the shiny new factory swig vodka on the sly, and persistently, when talking to the new bureaucrats, the amnesiac's broken memory associates them with the tyrants of the ancien regime; and when he finally finds his wife, memories of whom sparked off the chain of events in the first place, she is the drudge of a singularly unpleasant party bureaucrat. Like so many other films of the period, the attack on the new state power is couched in acceptable terms - for a time even the Stalinists posed as the opponents of bureaucracy - but the point is taken into disturbing, haunting places. By bringing some of what was expunged from the Eisensteinian montage cinema - memory, personal affection, the shocking, mentally destructive effects of war - Ermler created an affecting, but ambiguous, intellectual/realist synthesis. Now if only someone would properly release some of this stuff...


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10:33 am  
Blogger snegourotchka said...

I found "Fragment of an Empire" on YouTube and watched it; wonderful. And the slight factual error in his winding up in eastern Ukraine when stepping off a Petersburg tram has all the more connotations to the model reality constructivist architecture represented.

6:14 pm  
Blogger Seb said...

What unbelievably crap music they slapped onto the film; gives it the feel of some first-year media studies project. Can't even watch it half-seriously unless it's on mute.

4:07 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

It's amazing how crap and inappropriate most new silent film scores are - the hack who scored the version I've seen of Kuleshov's Adventures of Mr West in the land of the Bolsheviks (which is basically a Red Keystone Kops) seemed to think the film called for some Harold Budd piano-plinking. It didn't. Neil Brand's music for early Hitchcock and Harold Lloyd is excellent, but very, very atypical.

(there are moments in that soundtrack to Fragment of Empire that are not so bad though - a couple of bits that sound oddly like Mouse on Mars to my ears...)

5:21 pm  
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7:43 pm  
Anonymous Gui said...

The film is interesting. Apart from the amazing montage sequences you describe I really enjoyed the main actor. The soundtrack is very odd but I enjoyed it for the weirdness of it.

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