Thursday, October 09, 2014

Potomok Chingis-khana / Storm Over Asia

Ö s t e r r e i c h i s c h e s   F i l m m u s e u m   5 0

Потомок Чингис-хана / Myrsky yli Aasian / POTOMOK CHINGIS-KHANA (Tempeste sull’Asia / Storm over Asia) [Il discendente di Gengis Khan / The Heir to Genghis Khan] (Mezhrabpomfilm – USSR 1928) D: Vsevolod Pudovkin; SC: Osip Brik, based on a novel by Ivan Novokshonov; DP: Anatoli Golovnya, Konstantin Vents; AD: Sergei Kozlovsky, Moisei Aronson; ass D: Aleksandr Ledashchev, L. Bronstein; C: Valery Inkizhinov (Bair), Ivan Inkizhinov (father of Bair), Aleksandr Chistyakov (Russian guerrilla commander), Lev Dedintsev (British Colonel), L. Belinskaia (the Colonel’s wife), Anel Sudakevich (the Colonel’s daughter), Vladimir Tsoppi (fur trader), Boris Barnet (British soldier); 35 mm, 2593 m, 125' (18 fps), titles: RUS; print source: Österreichisches Filmmuseum, Wien.
    With e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Eunice Martins, percussions: Frank Bockius, at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto) (Canon Revisited) (Österreichisches Filmmuseum 50), Pordenone, 9 Oct 2014

Sergei Kapterev (GCM Catalogue and website): "The film which premiered in the Soviet Union on 10 November 1928, under the title The Heir to Genghis Khan, and was later released in other countries as Storm over Asia – possibly in reference to the German explorer Wilhelm Filchner’s 1924 book Sturm über Asien – became the final installment in Vsevolod Pudovkin’s trilogy about the social revolution’s influence on the growth of individual conscience."

"The first two parts of the trilogy, Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927), dealt with Russian topics; Storm over Asia embraced a more exotic setting, placing the problems of radical revolutionary change into the feudal context of early-1920s Mongolia. This unusual, mysterious environment helped Pudovkin convey even more expressively than before what Gilles Deleuze defined as the filmmaker’s profound ability to disclose “the set of a situation through the consciousness which a character gains of it” and to prolong it “to the point where consciousness can expand and act”."

"The screenplay for Storm over Asia was written by Osip Brik, a prominent figure in early Soviet literary and cinematic circles and the head of the screenplay department at Mezhrabpomfilm, a studio which, among other things, specialized in films about international solidarity – a notion which became one of Storm’s key political motifs. It was inspired by a novel penned by the Siberian writer and former guerrilla commander Ivan Novokshonov, whose death in Stalinist purges postponed its publication until the 1960s (as The Heir to Genghis Khan). Brik pared down Novokshonov’s work, eliminating the love story and several other plot-lines and enhancing the metaphorical charge."

"The narrative of Storm over Asia unfolds in a Mongolia occupied by British troops. Ignoring historical facts – the British never entered the Mongolian steppes – the story of the occupiers’ ploy to consolidate control over the Mongolian people embodied a political fantasy inspired by the Western powers’ colonialist activities in neighboring China, as well as the 1927 severance of Soviet-British diplomatic relations, which temporarily turned Britain into the primary outside enemy of the Soviet state."

"Besides being the conclusion to an ambitious cinematic project showcasing the triumph of Communist ideology, Storm over Asia became the peak of Pudovkin’s search for a synthesis of diverse cinematic means. Eclectically but convincingly, the film combined topical political themes, fascinating ethnographic studies (conducted in an expedition to the USSR’s Buryat-Mongolian autonomous republic, which bordered on Mongolia and shared many of its cultural traits), conventions of genre cinema (primarily, those of the adventure film and the melodrama), romantic tonality, pamphlet-like rhetoric, montage experiments, intellectual metaphors, and allegories."

"Eventually, all elements in the eclectic directorial style of Storm over Asia were subordinated to the construction of a streamlined narrative comparable to the story-oriented style of American cinema; quite pertinently, Brik’s colleague Sergei Yermolinskii noted in 1928 that the film’s main protagonist Bair “crushed the enemies and their lair with the ease of a Russian heroic poem or … the hero of an American detective film”."

"One of Storm’s most remarkable features was the cinematography by Anatoly Golovnya, a major contributor to the evolvement of Pudovkin’s directorial style. In Golovnya’s words, his goal was “to render the spirit of Mongolia through its landscapes; and the character of its people, through the close-ups of their faces”. The film’s textured Mongol faces – most prominently the face of Bair, played by Valery Inkizhinov, a Buryat (northern Mongol) disciple of Vsevolod Meyerhold and Lev Kuleshov and a sophisticated proponent of the theory of “biomechanics”; and the face of Bair’s father, played by the actor’s real-life father Ivan – are as striking as Mongolia’s primordial scenery and ancient religious rituals."

"In his blending of an ethnographic documentary style and visual metaphors, Golovnya demonstrated a pictorial gamut which went beyond the images of Mongolia or the Revolution: the shot of the silver fox fur might allude to 17th-century Dutch still lifes; and the shot of a bandaged Bair, to the foreshortened composition of Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ. In both cases, Golovnya was evidently assisted by the expertise of Sergei Kozlovsky, the art director of all three films in Pudovkin’s trilogy."

"A classic Mezhrabpom mix of politics and entertainment, and a pinnacle of the “heroic” stage in the development of Soviet cinema, Storm over Asia presents powerful images of revolutionary transformation, as well as a compelling condensation of unfamiliar and challenging material into a multifaceted picture of a little-known society at the juncture of dramatically different historical periods. The film is also a virtuoso narrative and stylistic piece, executed by Pudovkin and his colleagues with gusto and the full command of their own and other filmmakers’ achievements. As such, it remains one of the most enduring contributions to the concluding stage of cinema’s silent era." Sergei Kapterev

AA: The version of Storm Over Asia I'm familiar with is the 1949 sonorized re-release version with a score by Nikolai Kryukov. That version is the only one we have in Helsinki. I have nothing against the music of the talented Kryukov but otherwise that version is a crude Stalin-era job.

Thus it is a beautiful revelation for me to see the original silent version of Storm Over Asia, a masterpiece from the heroic age of Soviet cinema. Memorable images include: - the fur bazaar - the sacred amulet - the chase in the snow - the ultra long shots of the taiga and the mountains - the war of the partisans in the mountains - the breastfeeding partisan woman - the majestic rivers - the Buddhist monastery - the giant horns - the rapturous sacred dances - the slow parallel montage of Bair taken to be executed in the mountains / and the ancient text being deciphered, "revealing" Bair to be the heir to Chingiz Khan - the surgical emergency procedure to revive Bair - the mighty ceremony to crown Bair as the puppet ruler of the country - Bait taking to the sword - the climactic epic montage of the storm over Asia, the rebel cavalry charging like an irresistible wind, blowing down the old world of imperialism.

We know the irony of history. The socialist liberation led to another form of imperialism. The satire is at times heavy, the caricature obvious in a tired way. Yet this is a grand poetic vision of a hope for the future, the people of Mongolia breaking their chains, no longer being fooled and exploited.

The visual quality is often brilliant, but at times not perfect, for instance in the beginning. But it is easy to deduce how great the entire film must have looked.
Collection Austrian Film Museum
L. Belinskaya (the Commandant's wife) and Valeri Inkizhinov (Bair). Collection Austrian Film Museum

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