Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Free festival… Storm Over Asia (1928), Silent Film Days Bonn, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne

Valéry Inkijinoff

With the exception of Bristol’s Slapstick Festival, so glorious and so long ago, this year is likely to be festival-free for me thanks to our global pandemic and quarantine strictures. The 36th Silent Film Days in Bonn is one of the first to run in Europe and the organisers having decided to stream some of the films along with the live accompaniment mean that for a few days, those of us who couldn’t make it, can experience something of the immediacy and ambience of the festival.


So it was that I huddled my laptop, in Berlinale t-shirt with Pordenone mug topped up, to watch this crystal clear restoration of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia (1928) and listen to the visceral interplay between accompanists Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne on headphones… and it was almost like being there; the most exciting stream I’ve watched in lockdown.


This is the first time I’ve seen this third part of Pudovkin’s so-called revolutionary trilogy – after Mother (1925) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927) – and it has the same paced intensity as those films but, moved to the steppes of Mongolia, is a simpler and lighter film that ultimately carries as much emotional force. It’s an almost symphonic film with the restored version including even more shots of the sunning countryside which punctuates the human interactions and the remarkable story arc of Bair, the Mongol (Valéry Inkijinoff). It’s easy to imagine sense being lost in these endless deserts and Blair’s journey is bewildering, comic and ultimately ferocious.


These 143 minutes of shifting moods and fortunes could ask for no finer accompaniment than that provided by Baldry and Horne. Stephen and Elizabeth-Jane first collaborated on a score for Stella Dallas which was as the former says on an interview on the Festival site, not “through composed” but a mixture of composition and improvisation. Since that first collaboration they have mostly worked with “a plan” which allows them both space to improvise and to join together on some pre-medicated sections whilst they know each other so well they also play on spec, and sometimes sight unseen. The beauty of their method is that most of us can’t spot the join and I’d be hard-pressed to guess how much of what they played for Storm was composed beforehand.


Pudovkin’s film is full of shocks and sudden turns as well as lengthy sections of pastoral outlooks and monastic calm and between piano, flute, accordion, harp, bells and wooden percussion, the two musicians had everything covered in a seamless flow of invention, uncanny interplay and some delicious melodies. Their choice of notes followed the lines of narrative but also the most pleasing of musical decisions, themes that chimed exactly with the watcher’s emotional response as well as the characters. They make it sound so easy but even as a man sitting on the end of the row in a virtual seat, I felt the live audience’s reaction to the mix of sound and sight.

Valéry Inkijinoff with silver fox fur

The film was shot in the Buriat-Mongolian republic, in and around the capital, today called Ulan-Ude, in south-central Siberia, just north of Mongolia. The restoration shows how fine the cinematography of Anatoly Golovnia is and there look to be far more location shots than in the older copy I was watching at the same time for the English translation – two laptops, one notepad, and a pint of something brown.


The story begins in these wastelands as a dying man (star Inkijinoff ‘s actual father) sends his son off to market in order to bring back food. He gives his son, Bair (Valéry Inkijinoff) a silver fox pelt which will buy them security and food, but a visiting priest wants to take the fur as the family’s contribution to the upkeep of the temple. Bair and the priest tussle and as the former prevails, the priest’s amulet falls to the ground and, as he leaves, Bair’s mother picks it up, later to gift it to her son.

Inkijinoff gives an extraordinarily powerful performance and was a graduate of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s “biomechanical” theatre – as was Sergei Eisenstein – which aimed to allow a greater range of emotional expression than the naturalistic approach of the time. According to Professor John Mackay of Yale University, Pudovkin asked Inkizhinov to produce “a deliberately narrowed range of movement to indicate emotion, and explosions of accumulated energy in sudden fury…” and edited the film around his actor’s remarkably controlled physical expression. Such control and release is, of course, a rhythmic gift to the accompanists and the interplay between actor and editor, piano and harp was more exhilarating than any Sunday afternoon solo silent film stream had any right to be!

Viktor Tsoppi is the face of imperialist exploitation

Bair heads off across the steppes to market where we find lots of fascinating faces – the film is full of them, all used by Pudovkin in the manner of Eisenstein to create a physiological discourse on their own. Among this local colour the western features of unscrupulous fur-trader, Henry Hughes (Viktor Tsoppi) stands out like a bad pelt. He tries to under pay for Bair’s silver fox fur leading to a riot. The troops are called in and Bair ends up in the mountains where he gets caught up helping a group of partisans in fighting the British!?!


It’s interesting now to consider Great Britain’s place in the World in 1928, a time when, incredibly as it might seem, we were even more unpopular than we are now… The British were never a colonial power in Mongolia although at the time the film is set, 1920, we were certainly supporting the White Russians in the civil war against the new Bolshevik regime. It seems that the British, being the imperial power, bar none, were the perfect casting for the film’s bad guys; unlike his previous two films, Storm was not based on domestic events and was more of a revolutionary fable; none the less powerful as propaganda and, in some ways, more enduringly affecting… I was certainly ready to run out and take on the powers that be in Hertfordshire by the end.


Fantasy it may be, but Storm is meticulous in the details it presents of Mongolian life and none more so than in capturing the Buddhist ritual Feast of Tzai near the residence of the lama. There’s a lovely sequence when preparations for the feast are juxtaposed against the preparations of the British Commandant (I. Dedintsev) and his wife (L. Belinskaya) as their extensive collection of toiletries and state paraphernalia contrast with the holy symbolism of the ritual dress and circumstance. There is a distinctly un-revolutionary preference for the traditional rituals but they represent the independent culture of the un-conquered souls of the native population.


The Feast of Tzai

Away from the temple, the business of imperial rule must continue as British soldiers attempt to take two hundred cattle from the locals by force only to be met with resistance from the partisans and Bair. In the skirmish Bair is captured and sentenced to execution by a decent-looking soldier who reluctantly marches him off to a lonely ridge to do the deed. Bair has no idea of what his fate is to be but as he slumps off to his doom the British notice his amulet and open it to find an ancient script confirming that he – or rather the priest – is the descendent of Genghis Khan.


This makes Bair ideal for a puppet leader and the Brits scramble to counterman their orders only to find that he has been shot, twice, and fallen over a deep sand bank. He is carried back and there are bloody scenes of surgery as he’s brought back to life almost like a Golem and finally stuffed into evening clothes and given respectability and new rank. It is here that Inkijinoff’s physicality is at its most powerful; he doesn’t smile or react, he just is… an unyielding, taught body, refusing to connect or even drink, eyeing up the goldfish captured for display just as surely he has been.


Now, just when you’ve almost forgotten, that silver fox fur returns to the story as a gift from Henry Hughes for the Commandant’s daughter (Anel Sudakevich) and it proves to be the catalyst for Bair’s re-awakening. Events begin to speed up towards a breath-taking finale that literally sees the Mongol whip up a storm that blows away not just the British but all possessions and the shackles of empire. Stephen and Elizabeth-Jane joined in the revolutions, bringing the noise in a perfectly paced crescendos of chaotic chords and tumultuous tones; you have to wonder how long piano and harp would take to re-tune but it was worth it!


So, a taste of the unique atmosphere of the Bonn Silent Film Festival and a combination I look forward to being replicated in the UK whenever possible.


The film is no longer streaming on the Bonn site but there’s an interview with Stephen and Elizabeth-Jane. There’s also a link to donate to the Festival as this helps provide the support to keep it going in these impossible times. You must keep believing though, what would Bair do? 

Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne


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