Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Oblomok imperii / A Fragment of an Empire

Oblomok imperii / A Fragment of and Empire poster by the Stenberg brothers.

Обломок империи (Gospodin Fabkom) [Un frammento d’impero / Mr. Factory Committee]. (Sovkino, Leningrad, SU 1929)
    D: Friedrich Ermler; SC: Katerina Vinogradskaia, Friedrich Ermler; DP: Yevgeni Shneider, Gleb Bushtuev; AD: Yevgeni Yenei; ass. D: Robert Maiman, Viktor Portnov;
    cast: Fedor Nikitin (NCO Filimonov), Liudmila Semyonova (Filimonov’s ex-wife), Valerii Solovtsov (her husband), Iakov Gudkin (the wounded soldier), Viacheslav Viskovskii (former factory owner);
    35 mm, 2055 m, 100’ (18 fps); from: Österreichisches Filmmuseum / Austrian Film Museum, Wien. Russian intertitles.
   Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: John Sweeney, 4 Oct 2011.

Sergei Kapterev (GCM Catalogue): "Friedrich Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire is often cited in Russian film histories as a film which represents the transitional moment in the history of cinema: as a controversial mix of the “montage” and “typage” cinema developed by radical Soviet filmmakers during the silent period; and the predominantly dialogue- and character-based cinema of the early sound era."

"By 1929, Ermler directed five films (including two co-directed with Eduard Ioganson) and became a key representative of the Leningrad filmmaking community, which tended to emphasize more personal aspects of social existence in comparison with their Moscow colleagues. Earlier, Ermler participated in the Russian Civil War (an experience reflected in Fragment’s opening episodes), joined the Bolshevik Party and studied at a film school. He displayed keen interest in anything potentially usable for the advancement of cinema – for example in Freudian theory, which was still acceptable in the Soviet Union of the late 1920s."

"Fragment of an Empire tells the story of a Russian Rip Van Winkle, a non-commissioned officer of the Russian imperial army who, having lost his memory at a battlefield of the Great War, a decade later undergoes epiphanic (and Freudian) recovery and finds himself in a totally unfamiliar environment created by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917."

"The role of the shell-shocked hero was played in the film by Fedor Nikitin, an actor who had been trained at the Moscow Art Theatre and who had already appeared in the leading roles in three of Ermler’s films, imbuing his performances with Stanislavsky’s methodology and his own, very special sensitivity. In Ermler’s words, Nikitin’s eyes “shouted” and “talked” more strongly and more convincingly than any words. In Fragment, the filmmaker asked the actor to emulate “the eyes of Christ.” And Nikitin’s eyes became the emotional focus of the film, a force holding together the diversity of its components. Helped by ex-members of the Experimental Film Workshop (Kinoeksperimental’naia masterskaia, KEM), a group co-founded by Ermler in 1924 with the vaguely formulated aim of creating a proletarian alternative to bourgeois art (which included the theater of Stanislavsky), as well as by Liudmila Semyonova, the idiosyncratic star of Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (1927), Fedor Nikitin embodied in his personage the theme of personal regeneration which was central to Ermler’s films of the silent era."

"Contemporary responses to Fragment of an Empire were as mixed as the techniques employed by Ermler. Critics hailed it as an achievement of psychological, emotional cinema – or denounced its formalist, naturalist, and sociologistic blunders."

"Accusations of formalism mostly referred to Ermler’s use of editing. In many instances, Fragment of an Empire clearly bears the influence of Sergei Eisenstein, whom Ermler regarded as his “godfather in the realm of art” and whose criticism forced him to reshoot the first three reels of the film. Eisenstein’s concept of associative, “intellectual” montage, which can establish new meanings through juxtaposition of images, was implemented in the episode of the hero’s reawakening, where strikingly heterogeneous images and passionate montage phrases unite into what Ermler characterized as “clinically precise reconstruction of a psychic process.” This statement was supported by Eisenstein, who praised the “clinical and documentary” authenticity of the episode in his lectures on the art of the mise-en-scène."

"The “power of the primitive-sensorial inspiration,” observed in Fragment of an Empire by Rudolf Arnheim, primarily concerns the film’s literally and metaphorically dark beginning. It is full of images of chaos and war, inspired by the work of Käthe Kollwitz and George Grosz, constructed by Yevgeni Yenei, the quintessential art designer of “the Leningrad School,” and expressionistically shot by Yevgeni Shneider with the assistance of Ermler’s long-time collaborator Gleb Bushtuev. These images provide a structural contrast to the partly observational, partly idealistic images of new peaceful life, new architecture, and new industry in the second, “Soviet” part of the film. Fragment of an Empire reveals Friedrich Ermler’s talent of putting psychological nuances at the service of ideological goals. However, the film’s artistic qualities and formal complexities bring it beyond the confines of Marxist ideology – or, for that matter, Freudian beliefs – and make it an excellent object for fruitful revision of the cinematic canons." – Sergei Kapterev

AA: Revisited Friedrich Ermler's film, still fascinating because of the attempt to visualize the functioning of the shell-shocked mind, the struggle to get a grasp on things again. Parallels include Rip Van Winkle, Une aussi longue absence, Sleeper, Demolition Man, Koirankynnen leikkaaja, and Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life. Visually rich, with powerful montages. There are interesting glimpses of 1920s Soviet life, moments of satire, and naive, idealizing propaganda ("where is the master?" - "we are the masters now"). The finale: "The end?" - "Comrades, we still have a lot of work to do!" The print is ok, in the beginning the contrast is low.

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