Pete’s Peek | The early Soviet cinema pioneers who really made silence golden

Early Soviet cinema may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no doubting the impact it has had on the history of cinema – and the recent success of The Artist has proved that even in 2012 there’s still life yet in old silent movies.

Sergei Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin caused a sensation when it was released in 1925, is probably the best-known of the early Soviet cinema pioneers that include Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov, whose films gave birth to new cinematic techniques, and Alexander Dovzhenko, whose Ukraine trilogy (Zvenigora, Arsenal and Earth) continue to inspire filmmakers today.

Three other names that belong on that list are Boris Barnet, Alexander Medvedkin and Lev Kuleshov, whose individual cinematic styles have taken longer to be appreciated. The trio, as well as Eisenstein, now feature in six new DVDs about early Russian Cinema using the innovative Hyperkino format (in which notes and clips can be viewed on screen).

By the far the most accessible is Barnet’s 1936 feature By the Bluest of Seas, which gets a UK DVD premiere release. Opening with one of the most luminously-shot seascapes in cinema history, this drama about two sailors and their love for the same woman, is a sensuous, breathtaking adventure that highlights why Barnet is still one of the best-kept secrets in Russian cinema. (In Russian, with English subtitles).

Also getting a UK DVD premiere is Alexander Medvedkin’s Happiness (1934), a surreal silent comedy that’s worthy of Buñuel, about two peasants whose search for happiness takes them from pre-Revolutionary days to the time of Stalin and collectivisation. Famously, this film was suppressed on its original release for making fun of Stalin’s regime.

Two silent films by Lev Kuleshov are also available, including Engineer Prite’s Project (1918), which was shot while the director was still in his teens, and reveals his love of the American movies of the day; and The Great Consoler (1933). Regarded as his best work, this powerful comment on the role of the artist in society fictionalises the life of the US writer O Henry, who spent five years in an Ohio prison for embezzlement.

Turning back the clock is Eisenstein’s first full feature Strike (1924), in which he uses montage to trigger emotional response in a gripping tale about a group of factory workers staging a factory strike; and the renowned October (1927), which recreates the events leading up to the rise of the Bolsheviks.

Interested in discovering more about Soviet cinema? Then check out the very informative KinoGlazOnline website and the recent BFI DVD release The Soviet Influence.

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