Tuesday, 2 September 2014

1920s Russian documentary at the seventyseven film club.

I've just spent a lovely evening at the Arts House in Stokes Croft watching 1920s Russian sort-of-documentaries (if you like your documentaries with lashings of Soviet propaganda).

First up: Salt for Svanetia (1930) a visually astonishing piece of early ethnography which in its tone strongly reminded me of some aspects of Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli. Funny to think that this mountain scenery was shot the same year as Die Weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü. Fanck's mountain footage is better, but the camera work in Salt for Svanetia is much more interesting, as indeed one can see for oneself thanks to the miracle of Youtube:

The second film was Turksib (1929) an account of the building of the Turkestan-Siberian railway which was hugely influential among British documentary filmmakers of the 1930s, and is frequently mentioned in Paul Rotha's The Film Till Now.

The above version is a very odd-looking one which seems to be an amalgam of a German version, complete with localised maps with German script, and a version with English titles in a very generic 'silent film' font. The version which we saw this evening, is the version released by the BFI, done by John Grierson in 1930, which is neither of these; it's very cleverly and emotively titled. We are told by Rotha that:
An appreciation of the titling of Victor Turin's Turksib appeared in the Sunday Observer, for 23 March 1930, and is worth citing: '...I have been waiting a great many years to see a film in which the titles would play a definite part in the visual and emotional progress of ideas...In Turksib the titling is inseparable from the sweep of the film...I cannot describe the curious assault on the senses of those moving arrangements of letters, the cumulative effect of the final titles with their massive cadences. The words of Turksib are images; integral, triumphant, menacing. They are symbols of disaster and determination, fear and terrific jubilation. They have no longer sound or aural meaning--they are eye-images, mute, rapid and wrought from the emotional fibre of the film itself.' This criticism is all the more interesting in that it comes from the pen of an advocate of the dialogue film.'


It was interesting to see the two films back-to-back, because the titles in Salt for Svanetia were in Russian, with English subtitles (from a German DVD). It's a very different experience as a translation, because you're seeing the two texts constantly juxtaposed (not quite as in the video above; I remember, from the viewing, lots of play with size of text, which isn't there in these titles (and may, indeed, be a figment of my imagination).

[trundles happily off to think some more about the translation of the titles of silent film]

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