What would it look like if Ken Russell had been a Soviet filmmaker? One clue can be found in the spy flick The Billion Dollar Brain, starring Michael Caine. The cheeky English auteur succeeded in making an espionage caper in which the Russians are the heroes and the Americans the villains, and indulged his love of Eisenstein with a version of the battle on the ice from Alexander Nevsky.
Another clue can be found in Pervorossiyanye (a.k.a. Russian Pioneers, 1968) by Aleksandr Ivanov and Yevgeni Shiffers. The Great Leap Forward here is the blending of dialectical montage with a pop art influence derived from Antonioni. The filmmakers even paint their landscapes, and actors, for maximum graphic effect. The anamorphic lens has a tendency to warp and abstract backgrounds in close shots, creating smeared and elongated blurs of light out of everything. Here this is taken to the next logical step, with some portrait shots filmed in the studio against blank backdrops of pure color, cut into location scenes without regard for continuity. In fact, continuity is as much this film's enemy as cossacks are.
You can see the most outrageous use of this technique in the opening sequence/ceremony, which also borrows a leaf from the expressionists' book: why have one set, one bunch of props and costumes, when in fact each camera angle has its own requirements? So objects and people and their garb change from black to white to red to illuminated from within.
I love the color in sixties Russian movies, but don't usually love the dramaturgy, which has to toe the party line and tends towards the simplistic. "One-dimensional" would be a flattering description of characters here, and the filmmakers attempt to make them even more flat by plastering them in pallid makeup in order to color-co-ordinate them with the settings. Th s one movie must have used up the entire Soviet block's pan stick supply for the year, perhaps explaining why they couldn't make their Olympic shot-putters look prettier.
The story, which didn't matter to me much at all, concerns a group of settlers in early post-revolutionary Russia, heading off into the wilds to set up a community under the rule of agrarian collectivism in a part of the Evil Empire where Lenin has barely been heard of and the cossacks rule completely. Potentially an exciting thriller, a kind of eastern western, and it certainly serves up spectacular visuals, but they overpower every other value.
The acting seems at first even weaker than the story sense, but one adjusts to its highly stylised qualities, which at times are more like opera than conventional film performance, timed to the score, the camera movements and a rigid rhythmic editing pattern. The mass choreography of extras obeys the principles of dance more than that of drama.
To this is added all the stylistic hoopla of the sixties, filtered through a Russian sensibility and made palatable for the state censor by monologues and poetry about the inevitable triumph of communism. The soundtrack is ruthlessly unreal, preferring to contrast violently with the images rather than merely echo them. When a mob of farmers comes fleeing over the horizon, at first visible only by their forest of upraised scythes, the only thing we hear is their massed, panicked breathing, a chorale of huffing. Sculpted views of rocky vistas are accompanied by a gentle splashing of water, which continues, softly, as we cut to a torrential river in full cascade.
Caution: the following sequence will knock your eastern block off.
Ivanov was seventy when he made this. He'd certainly been paying attention. But he never made another film. And it's Shiffers' only film. Too radical? Surely not.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.