Monday, 22 October 2018

Revolution in the head… Fragment of an Empire (1929), Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, BFI London Film Festival 2018

This highly-skilled late Soviet silent, has been described as one of the most important restorations of recent years and has already been screened in San Francisco, Bonn and Munich before tonight’s UK premier. Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius have played for a number of those screenings and their familiarity with this singular film was in evidence throughout.

Directed by Fridrikh Ermler, one of the lesser-known lights of this period in Russia, this film might well help elevate his reputation as it combines a lightness of touch with a strong narrative idea and unexpected moments of humour and horror to remind all of the seriousness of the soviet enterprise in the middle of the first Five Year Plan.

The film was restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and Eye, from elements held by Eye in Holland together with Russian and Swiss prints all of which combined to give the complete film with an extant original score confirming the length. Bryony Dixon introduced with her opposite number at Eye, Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, detailing the restoration and the fact that the film is more accurately translated as Remnant of Empire which, viewing the film’s conclusion, makes all the more sense of the denouement… but I’ll say no more other than that to say that the film is very much on message and imperial ideas can only get in the way of progress.

Fyodor Nikitin and Yakov Gudkin
The main protagonist, Filimonov (Fyodor Nikitin) is, of course, a remnant of the old era having lost his memory prior to the successful completion of the Revolution and remembering only the agonies of the war that proceeded it. The film opens in a snowy night-time with rows and rows of soldiers’ bodies and the observation of one character that there are “so many boots...” Amongst the useless bodies and recyclable footwear there is a wounded soldier who is hefted into a barn by a kindly comrade - Filimonov. The soldier is thirsty and in desperation he suckles a dog, pushing her pups out of the way… he’s discovered by the enemy and an officer who shoots the dog dead: if that’s how they treat animals, imagine how they treat humans?

Throughout Ermler uses darkness and light in startling ways and the restoration naturally shows this so clearly: a beam of light shoots out across a darkened field and moves slowly revealing a lone soldier who gradually lifts himself and moves out of danger. It is all about the individual in a world of mass slaughter and mass movements; there’s a place we must find to survive both.

Fyodor Nikitin
Over a decade later Filimonov has amnesia and has no idea, as he works in a remote railway station. A train pulls in and he recognises a well-dressed woman (Lyudmila Semyonova) who throws out a used cigarette pack… it is familiar. He begins to have dreams and fragmentary recollections of this woman and makes his way back to St Petersburg in search of his past. Of course, the old city is no more and is now Leningrad and as he walks among statues of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin, he realises that the country he knew has changed beyond recognition with high-rise modern buildings replacing the old streets and a more modern economy in place.

It’s not all to his liking though and you could be forgiven for thinking that Ermler was sneaking in a critique of the regime but no, like all good propagandists, he doesn’t insult his audience’s intelligence and shows the bad as well as the good: the new world is not perfect and there is, as one character says, much work to be done.

Such daring use of light
Filimonov gradually starts to remember things and this examination of an individual’s sense of self is as important as the fact of his coming to terms with the communist agenda. In this way the ten years of amnesia is a device to show how far the Soviet Union has come and how Filimonov accepts and embraces this in a very personal way. If you’re a soviet worker then you will take great heart from the outcomes…

He starts to find purpose as he gets a job in a factory and, another co-incidence, meets up with the soldier he saved at the start of the film (Yakov Gudkin): one good turn deserves another and he is embraced by new eager friends and colleagues.

Finally remembering more he seeks out his wife, and whilst he still loves her, she is married to another man (Valeri Solovtsov) – a bespectacled “manager”. Their relationship is in the balance and there’s a clear suggestion that the new purpose of Soviet society might compensate for need for such a traditional concept as a marriage… time to look forward and not back!

"Where is Petersburg?"
Filimonov made many more films within soviet society and was active until the sixties. This film is a very elegant one and manages to intertwine the revolution of the heart and mind with the external attributes of change which are often the things we react against. Don’t think of the Soviet Union as evil or an experiment doomed to fail - Stalin was already making the Boslehvik agenda all his own – think of the hope ordinary people had. OK, you could say the same about Germany, but this was a political philosophy not based in of itself on hate and films like this show more the feeling of Russia’s applied Marxism – it does more to answer the question of why? Historians want context and to examine primary sources to understand situations and Fragment of an Empire is one of the most important pieces of evidence I’ve seen from Soviet cinema.

Comrades Horne and Bockius worked like Alexsei Stakhanov in digging deep into the narrative and crafting a multi-faceted contribution of their own. They are two generous players who understand each other’s sensibilities as well as their role in supporting this striking story: a creative collective in sync and in sympathy.  

Personally, I’m waiting for a British film in which an everyman (played by me) has amnesia for a decade (or maybe longer) and wakes up to find everything sorted out… actually make that 50 years and get the cryogenic chamber ready…

The personal and the political: Fyodor Nikitin and Lyudmila Semyonova
New purpose!

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