Soviet Montage Films (1924 - 1933)

Man with a Movie Camera (credit: sovkino)

Man with a Movie Camera (credit: sovkino)

Because Soviet Montage is so entwined with the history of the U.S.S.R. and the Russian Revolution, reading up on the early beginnings of the movement can feel more like a history in politics and propaganda than the history of making films, but this is bound to happen when a state attempts to seize complete control of a nation's entire film industry's production, distribution and exhibition. The ways in which communism shaped the use of montage theory is inseparable to the movement as a whole, and without the historical context it would be hard to differentiate the desires of the Soviet Union and the experimental intrigue from filmmakers residing within it. While France and Germany embraced avant garde cinematic techniques immediately after WWI, the political turmoil of the U.S.S.R. meant that Russia would not have a coherent, sustainable movement until the 1920s.

After the Bolshevik revolution, Narkompros (the People' Commissariat of Education) was established until the new government could take complete control the film industry. The Soviet Union was still in a state of civil war at this point, and the industry continued to struggle. Lenin would finally nationalize the film industry entirely in 1919, causing production companies to be dissolved. This meant, however, that an entire generation of filmmakers would disappear. With this in mind, the nation's State Film School was founded in the same year, and director Lev Kuleshov, who had previously made an impression with his film Engineer Prite's Project, was invited to create his own workshop within the institute. His task was to train those who the Soviets deemed more important to the film industry, including filmmakers and actors alike.

Under the New Economic Policy, a limited amount of privately owned production companies were allowed to create films. By this time, the government had placed film as a priority, with Lenin famously saying "Of all the arts, for us the cinema is most important."

Kino-Eye (1924)

Director: Dziga Vertov

The film centers on a joyful Soviet village and its community of young Pioneers. The production is also the origin for the term, Kino-Eye, which became a popular technique throughout the movement.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) Neobychainye priklyucheniya mistera Vesta v strane bolshevikov

Director: Lev Kuleshov

Following the hilarious exploits of an American outsider, Mr. West visits the land of the Bolsheviks. The film explores the common misconceptions perceived by Americans, and how seeing the reality of Soviet people could build a better relationship between the two nations.

The film is the first feature film to come from Kuleshov's workshop at the State Film School.

Battleship Potemkin (1925) Bronenosets Potemkin

Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein (as S.M. Eisenstein)

During the Russian Revolution of 1905, a battleship's crew commit mutany against their tyrannical officer. Meanwhile, a street protest causes the death of numerous police officers.

During the same year, Sovkino, a new government-owned distribution monopoly, was formed.

Battleship Potemkin (credit: mosfilm)

Battleship Potemkin (credit: mosfilm)

The Death Ray (1925) Luch smerti

Director: Lev Kuleshov

A Soviet engineer invents a death ray, allowing him to explode fuel mixtures. An intelligence agent steals the invention and uses it to suppress the many labor strikes across the country. Workers then seek to reclaim the device and use it to reclaim their safety.

Strike (1925) Stachka

Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein

Set before the Russian Revolution began, the film centers on oppressed workers organizing a strike due to their dire conditions.

Mother (1926) Mat

Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin

Based on The Mother by Maxim Gorky, Mother tells the story of the 1905 Russian Revolution. The film is the first instalment in Pudovkin's 'Revolutionary Trilogy', which also includes The End of St. Petersburg and Storm Over Asia.

The Devil's Wheel (1926) Chyortovo koleso

Director: Grigori Kozinstev, Leonid Trauberg

While walking through the garden of the People's House, a sailor misses his scheduled time to onboard his ship. The next morning he must embark on a foreign trek, as his lapse in concentration turns into desertion.

The Overcoat (1926) Shinel

Director: Grigori Kozinstev, Leonid Trauberg

Also known as The Cloak, the film centers on a devious landowner who attempts to settle a dispute with his neighbor by any means necessary. It is loosely based on Nikolai Gogol's Nevsky Prospekt and The Overcoat.

The End of st. petersberg (credit: sovkino)

The End of st. petersberg (credit: sovkino)

The End of St. Petersburg (1927) Konets Sankt-Peterburga

Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin, Mikhail Doller 

A peasant travels to St. Petersburg in search of a new life. Unbeknownst to him, he aids the arrest of an old friend, who now also works in the city. The man is enlisted to fight in WWI, and ultimately returns to Russia in time to join the revolution.

The End of St. Petersberg is the second instalment in Pudovkin's 'Revolutionary Trilogy'.

The House on Trubnoya (1927)

Director: Boris Barnet

Set in Moscow, Barnet's comedy centers on the bourgeois public and their petty gossiping within a house on the Trubnaya Street.

Your Acquaintance (1927) Vasha znakomaya

Director: Lev Kuleshov

Also set in Moscow during the years of the New Economic Policy, Your Acquaintance shows a journalist falling in love with the officer of an industrial plant. Her infatuation has catastrophic results, as the true nature of the officer is revealed. Meanwhile, she has no idea that a modest editor, working for the 'working inventions' department, has been in love with her for a very long time.

Moscow in October (1927) Moskva v oktyabre

Director: Boris Barnet

Barnet's Moscow in October was released in time to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, telling the historical events from 1917 until the creation of the Council of People's Commissars. However, the film was notably unpopular upon release.

The Diplomatic Pouch (1927) Sumka dipkuryera

Director: Alexander Dovzhenko

A Soviet diplomat's pouch is stolen by British spies, before being taken by sailors and returned in Leningrad. Meanwhile, the spies continue to retrieve the pouch.

The Diplomatic Pouch is based on the murder of a Soviet diplomatic courier, Theodor Nette.

Zvenigora (1927)

Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko

An old man tells the story of buried treasure to his grandson. 

Zvenigora is the first instalment of Dovzhenko's Ukraine Trilogy, which also includes Arsenal and Earth. It is regarded as a Soviet epic, and explores, among other things, the human connection to nature.

The Club of the Big Deed (1927) S.V.D. - Soyuz velikogo dela

Director: Grigori Kozinstev, Leonid Trauberg

Also known as The Union of a Great Cause, the film focuses on Imperialist Russia and the Decembrist Revolt in 1825.

Storm over Asia (1928) Potomok Chingiskhana

Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin

Set in 1918, a Mongolian herdsmans starts a fight after being cheated by a western tradesman. He flees to the hills and, two years later, fight for the Soviets against the occupying army. The film then follows his struggles when he is captured, ultimately revealing that he may be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. For their own gain, this revelation causes the army to try and make him the head of a Mongolian regime.

October: Ten Days That Shook the World (credit: sovkino)

October: Ten Days That Shook the World (credit: sovkino)

October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928) Oktyabr': Desyat' dney kotorye potryasli mir

Director: Grigoriy Aleksandrov (as G. Aleksandrov), Sergei M. Eisenstein (as S. M. Eisenstein)

In documentary style, events in Petrograd are re-enacted from the end of the monarchy in February of 1917 to the end of the provisional government and the decrees of peace and of land in November of that year. Lenin returns in April. In July, counter-revolutionaries put down a spontaneous revolt, and Lenin's arrest is ordered. By late October, the Bolsheviks are ready to strike: ten days will shake the world. While the Mensheviks vacillate, an advance guard infiltrates the palace. Anatov-Oveyenko leads the attack and signs the proclamation dissolving the provisional government.

In 1929, Sergei Eisenstein would travel abroad and would not return to the U.S.S.R. until 1932.

Lace (1928) Kruzheva

Director: Sergei Yutkevich

Based on Mark Kolosov's Stengaz, the film centers on Komsomol members in a lace factory that collectively decide to start a newspaper. Meanwhile, an activist tries to persuade a gang leader to change his ways.

The New Babylon (1929) Novyy Vavilon

Director: Grigori Kozinstev, Leonid Trauberg

Leading up to the events of 1871's Paris Commune, where a radical socialist government ruled Paris for two months, two lovers are separated by the Commune's barricades.

My Grandmother (Credit: Sovkino)

My Grandmother (Credit: Sovkino)

My Grandmother (1929) Chemi bebia

Director: Kote Mikaberidze

When a sluggish pen-pusher loses his job, his only way to get work is by obtaining a letter of recommendation from a 'grandmother'.

Arsenal (1929)

Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko

After WWI, a soldier survives a train crash and returns home to Kiev. He arrives just in time to celebrate Ukraine's freedom, but the festivities don't last long.

China Express (1929) Goluboy ekspress

Director: Llya Trauberg

The film is known as The Blue Express or simply Blue Express. It is the second film from director Llya Trauberg.

Old and New (1929) Staroye i novoye

Directors: Grigoriy Aleksandrov, Sergei M. Eisenstein

The film is also known as The General Line.

With over 100,000,000 peasants living in poverty, a woman decides to make a decisive change. By applying the ideologies of the Soviet state's agricultural progress, she turns things around and improves the lives of her fellow villagers.

Man With a Movie Camera (Credit: Sovkino)

Man With a Movie Camera (Credit: Sovkino)

Man With a Movie Camera (1929) Chelovek s kinoapparatom

Director: Dziga Vertov

Following the activities of a city throughout the day, a man with a movie camera captures the daily grind like never before. The hugely innovative film challenges the frameworks of documentary filmmaking and shows new methods of storytelling.

Earth (1930) Zemlya

Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko

Amidst the idyllic countryside, the wealthy kulaks are confronted over collective farming.

Earth is the final instalment of Dovzhenko's Ukraine Trilogy. In the same year, Soyuzkino was formed, a company that once again put all productions, distribution and exhibition under governmental control.

Alone (1931) Odna

Director: Grigori Kozintsev

A school teacher dreams of teaching the perfect students within the city, praised for their obedience and punctuality. However, the grim reality is that she has been assigned a post in the Siberian mountains.

The film was originally going to be produced as a silent feature, but eventually included sound effects and dialogue to suit the emerging popularity of sound cinema. The film strongly promotes the importance of education and the elimination of the kulaks.

Golden Mountains (1931) Zlatye gory

Director: Sergei Yutkevich

After a large military order, St. Petersburg metallurgical plant 'Krutilov and Son' suddenly attracts new workers, but a protest will soon follow due to the influence of the Baku oil workers.

A re-edited sound version of the film as released in 1936.

A Simple Case (1932) Prostoy sluchay

Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin, Mikhail Doller

After huge success with Storm over Asia, Pudovkin planned to make A Simple Case his most ambitious film to date, and was even meant to be his first feature using sound. However, technical difficulties forced the production into being a silent film, and a change in the Soviet Union's ideologies meant that the film was also criticized for its messages that supposedly appealed to bourgeois taste.

Deserter (1933)

Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin

Focusing on a shipyard worker belonging to the German Communist Party, Deserter tells the story of a man encouraged by the U.S.S.R. to demand more from his employers. This leads to an enduring worker's strike and brawls with the police. Although the shipyard worker proves to be cowardly, he ultimately joins the cause with fierce determination.

Deserter was Pudovkin's first sound picture.

The Five-Year Plan and the End of Soviet Montage Cinema

Throughout the movement, several domestic titles had become popular outside of the Soviet Union. Although the number of films produced was increasing, criticism from government officials was also mounting. Industry officials would often call these films with 'formalism', accusing them of being incomprehensible to the masses - and therefore far less useful for the Soviet Union's purposes. In particular, Sovkino and Lunacharsky came under fire for making films that would appeal to foreigners more than their comrades. It also frustrated officials that film theory was presumably more important to montage filmmakers than their government's ideological messages. In this way, it was ironically the international success of these films that ultimately led to governmental criticism and the end of the movement.

Kuleshov was among the first to be accused of formalist values, followed by Vertov, prior to making Man with a Movie Camera. Eisenstein's prestigious reputation as the director of Battleship Potemkin protected him for a time, but he also joined the accused with later releases. Then, the Soviet Union introduced the Five Year-Plan, which hoped to expand the industry's international success and eventually put a stop to the exhibition of all imported titles.

The Soviet Union's goal was to use film to appeal to the masses, and in the early 1930s their official policy shifted all domestic production towards Socialist Realism. Filmmakers had no choice but to adopt commercial frameworks for their productions, which would dominate Russian cinema between 1933 and 1945.