Film Scouts Diaries

1998 New York Film Festival Diaries
Films and Film History

by Karen Jaehne

The restrospective part of any film festival has a didactic function, and never more so than when a director's cut or reconstituted work is made available, so as to correct historical impressions. As we all know, it's much harder to correct history than to make it.

The 36th NY Film Festival has filled out its program with two films from the silent era, which could constitute a great double bill - either by showing the two silents together, or by mating them with this year's entries from Austria and Russia. The German film, "Die Freudlose Gasse" (The Joyless Street), is a 150 minute restoration of G.W. Pabst's 1925 work of "realism" and vision of a society collapsing into financial and moral ruin, while "Stachka" (Strike) is the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein's 1924 film debut - about a new social order on the march, rising and dragging Russia into the 20th Century. One is a requiem to an old world; the other is a trumpeting of the new world.

The Joyless Street has always been considered a masterpiece, even in its abbreviated 100 minute version. The Austrian director G.W. Pabst took the story from a popular novel that had been serialized in a Viennese newspaper. In contrast to the dominant style of the time - known today as German Expressionism - Pabst avoided the distorted esthetic in which bent frames and warped visions reflected the bent mindset of those perceiving the images. A bent doorframe boded ill for what lay beyond; exaggerated lighting bespoke exaggerated emotional states.

Suddenly, what Pabst brought onto the screen was untampered photographic realism, whether it was a field of flowers or a busy city street. Pabst was an exception among German directors of his time, in that he let the objects and the scenes he shot speak for themselves and counted on the editing to create meaning in the juxtaposition of images. Symbolism was admittedly still a strong element, and acting styles were exaggerated, so that the new emphasis in photography and editing may not strike us as that important at first glance.

In Berlin Pabst was alone in his pursuit of a new realism. However, due north in Moscow, Sergei Eisenstein had been rattling the cages of artists, crying out for an art form as dynamic as the new political form that was reshaping Russian society. The greatest potential of film, per Eisenstein, was located in the editing process - not, as the Germans at the UFA studios believed, in the cinematography. Meaning was born out of the juxtaposition of truthful photography.

Eisenstein's "Stachka" or "Strike" came in 1924, exposing the plight of the factory worker. The industrial revolution had benefitted the bosses and the bourgeoisie; Eisenstein now revealed the world from the laborer's point of view. When the Cossacks attack an otherwise peaceful demonstration of workers, Eisenstein takes film editing to a new artistic height, as the activities of the workers are intercut with the bloody violence inflicted on them.

His film spoke to the international cinema audience which was dominantly working-class, and in places where the police were a match for the Cossacks, Eisenstein was as appreciated as he was in Russia. Strike spoke for the masses, and a revolution in spirit was born of a revolutionary moment in cinema. Shown with musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra playing an original score, the NY Film Festival screening is meant to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Eisenstein. (As the world monitors the wavering capitalism of Russia, yet another revolution may be on the way...)

At a film festival of this type one wants to pose the question of successors: are today's Russian filmmakers worthy successors of Eisenstein? Does the Austrian film in the festival reflect the heritage of Pabst?

In the latter case, the work of Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky does seem to rest on a firm foundation of film history. "The Inheritors" ("Siebtelbauern" is a conceptual word invented for this situation that means "one-seventh farmer") is truly innovative in the way it mingles the language of Pabst (a photographic love affair with the countryside) and incisive editing that imparts to us the emotional states of the none-too-articulate peasant characters. The film also addresses the inequity of a culture where one class, the farmers, lords it over the peasants who work the farms. The French Enlightenment seems very remote. Still, instinctively, the peasants want to improve their lot, and a sense of fairness spurs them to fight the landlords - it's an old story, yet never told so well.

In Pabst's 1924 film, Greta Garbo stars as the winsome daughter of a middle-class merchant who, falling on hard times, puts his daughter in a dance hall to support the family. The corrupt and sexually perverse fat men who prey on the girl show up again in "The Inheritors," and seven decades haven't changed them. Sex is a tool in both films and effectively turned against the people who think they can buy love. Morally and esthetically, the simple folk are the good folk and deserve our loyalty. Similarly, in "Freudlose Gasse" the crowd scenes feel wrenched from real life, especially the long lines of people waiting for food. (For this reason, the film was cut - lest it demoralize English audiences.)

Melodrama leaps out at today's audiences, so we can't help but laugh at the deus ex machina effect of a lieutenant from the American Red Cross rescuing Greta Garbo at the end of "Freudlose Gasse." Yet we only smile at the "solution" of "The Inheritors" - they're on their way to America where there will be room for people like them.

Back in Moscow, we can also see an almost comic continuity in the feverish filmmaking of Alexei Guerman, whose "Khroustaliov, My Car!" takes politics to a zany if not revolutionary level in his spoof about the fall of Stalin. It's as mesmerizing as "Strike", and although it's too soon to categorize Guerman with Eisenstein in terms of invention, he is his equal in sheer bravery. In Moscow, that counts.

So the New York Film Festival has done right by film history this year. Thank you. Class dismissed.

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