A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Old and the New (Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov, 1929)

Sergei Eisenstein's last silent film almost deserves the old joke that you can always tell a Soviet film because the hero is a tractor. The Old and the New (sometimes called Old and New; the Russian language has no definite or indefinite articles) does conclude with a kind of ballet of tractors, but its hero is human: Marfa Lapkina, an actual Russian peasant who essentially plays herself in a story about the efforts to organize a kolkhoz, a collective farm. We first see Marfa struggling to survive as a farmer who doesn't even have a horse. Reduced to begging, she goes to the fat, greasy kulaks in her neighborhood, who reject her pleas for help. But a revolutionary organizer arrives in the village to set up a collective and introduce the locals to farm machinery. The rest of the film depicts Marfa's rise to leadership of the collective, battling the resistance of stick-in-the-muds, kulaks who poison the collective's bull, and bureaucrats who drag their feet on providing the collective with a tractor. The film was begun in 1927 under the title The General Line, but Eisenstein's work on it was interrupted so he could finish October (Ten Days That Shook the World), a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Meanwhile, Leon Trotsky, whose ideas about collective agriculture were the original impetus for the film, fell from power -- a foreshadowing not only of the difficulties Eisenstein was to have dealing with Soviet ideology as Stalin consolidated his power, but also of the troubles ahead for Russian farmers in the 1930s. The film was taken out of Eisenstein's hands and re-edited, but the restored version we have today is visually fascinating: The opening scenes of suffering Russian peasants, strikingly filmed by Eduard Tisse, bring to mind the work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange in documenting American farmers in the South and the Dust Bowl during the Depression. There are several bravura montages, some of which are used for a comic effect we don't usually expect from Eisenstein, such as the "wedding scene" in which the bride turns out to be the collective's cow and the groom the bull, and the demonstration of a new milk separator that builds to an orgasmic release of cream from the machine's lovingly filmed spigots. But the propaganda is also thick and heavy in the depiction of kulaks and bureaucrats, and especially in the treatment of the Orthodox church in a scene in which an ecclesiastical procession goes out to pray for rain to end the drought. The images of the sweaty clergy and congregants carrying icons and prostrating themselves in supplication are intercut with images of bleating sheep. Eisenstein left the Soviet Union, accompanied by Tisse and his co-director Girgori Aleksandrov, in 1928; after a disastrous attempt to work in the United States and Mexico, he was persuaded to return to Russia in 1932 but didn't complete another film until Alexander Nevsky in 1938.

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