Solemnity From The Russians Realism From Germany
From IRIS CONLAY, Catholic Herald Film Critic Russia, the biggest purveyor of epic stuff to the cinema world, has this week sent over another of its solemn, dark films of propaganda value to the Academy.
It goes without saying that the subject matter of We from Kronstadt is the Proletarian Revolution—I don't think that there has been a single film from Soviet studios that is not connected with this subject— but it is a pity that one gets so tangled up with its political message that one misses its pictorial qualities. For whatever area one's views on the justice or injustice of the peasant cause in Russia in 1919 or the mistaken methods employed in furthering it, the strong sincerity of the production is larger than its argument.
With the political hatchet buried, and propaganda overlooked, we can be friends with this Soviet production purely on its film worth. Technically, the publicity sheets tell me that it is brilliant. Here, I am less convinced. I find the photography dark, the screen' blotchy and the movement uneven, and even after the passage of years I do not see any signs of Russia's later work rivalling the early Thunder Over Mexico series for brilliance in production.
There are, however, other slighter, but more important signs of improvement—for instance, in the early days of Soviet studios the atmosphere must have been so tense that a faint smile was out of place among the serious things of State Entertainment Making. But even the solemnities of We from Kronstadt have been lightened by a genuine sense of humour, with the result that the grim realities of the picture stand out in a stronger contrast.
This sign of humanising humour I have also noticed in other modern Russian films. After not expecting even mild amusement from Leningrad and Moscow shows, I was really rib-tickled by a very new Leningrad production, Return of Maxim, which has interludes of broad farce over a billiards match. But this I saw actually in Russia, and I have a feeling that it will not be considered serious enough for export.
Apart from its technical achievement, which I still think is very questionable, the value of We from Kronstadt is its realistic treatment of modern Russian life. Nothing is idealised, nothing exaggerated. Squalor under the camera's eye may become a thing of picturesque beauty but it is very obviously squalor.
The revolution, as seen by the modern Russian, may have been a very glorious thing, but there were inglorious moments of horror and beastliness even in this incident of heroism on the part of the Kronstadt marines who saved Petrograd in the nick of time from the White Armies. And we are not spared the most violent aspects.
Eye for an Eye
It is made very clear by this film that modern Russia does not understand any theory of life that it not based upon the most violent and revengeful lusts. An eye for an eye—a tooth for a tooth is, very literally the idea of justice. In We from Kronstadt, we see the poignant and horrible death of captured Red sailors whom the White Army pushes coldhloodedly over a high cliff into a swirling sea, and as a glorious and triumphant close we see the victorious Red soldiers inflicting the same awful death upon whole regiments of conquered Tzarist troops.
The idea that this treatment would hardly please European audiences has evidently penetrated the Russian mind and there is much more of the horror and pathos in the death of the sailors in the Russian original, than has crossed the Baltic.
Nevertheless there is enough barbarity left to allow us to draw our inference.
In direct contrast and yet complement to the Russian We From Kronstadt is the German Der Herrscher. Both arc stories of patriots and both are written in glorification of their own political creeds, but one is unsubtle, hard and never lets its audience forget its propagandist moral, the other is not gaudy about its political colours, is reflective, is mature, is the product of a higher civilisation.
Der Herrscher, apart from its exposition of Germany's industrial policy, which can be easily put out of sight by those who don't want to bother with it, is Teutonic realism at its highest.
It opens into a funeral scene that is relentless in its honesty and balance. Dripping umbrellas, dripping unction from the parson's voice. dripping sentiment from those whom the deceased's death meant least, and then a procession of expressionless faces of those whose duty it is to stand round graves and watch ceremonies that mean nothing to them.
Contrasting with the sombre restraint of this scene are those that follow in crescendo between Emil Jannings (father and factory owner) and his melodramatic family who are all Goncril-Regal extravagences, and make frenzied scenes that should be strong notes in the film but only succeed in being weaknesses.
Men and Machines
The real climaxes of Der Herrscher are those two sequences among the machines of the Jennings' factory. As the master climbs among his iron creatures they perform their monotonous recurring dances
before him. But they seem not his creatures, but he theirs, he has set them in motion but they have grown more powerful than their creator. All this is magnificent.
Another interest of this film is the tiny little theatre—named the Berkeley—in which it is being shown. Apart from some news theatres this, 290-seater Mayfair special model, is the smallest in London. If Der Herrscher is typical of the fare to be sontinuously provided, Berkeley's reputeion should grow out of all proportion to Is cubic capacity.