29 March 2012 | chaos-rampant
Musique concrète for the eye
At first glance, this seems like a typical example of Soviet montage. The plot for one, after the strike of German dock workers is broken by owners and police they decide to send a delegation to the Motherland to be taught about revolutionary practice. The camera physics, most pertinently and as striking as ever, the eye wrestling control of images from bourgeois reality to assemble a new world. But there is something else here, for the first time.
There is sound. The eye is no longer mute but singing.
Now when sound was finally introduced, it was enough that an extra texture gave depth to the illusion of moving images. The effort was and continues to be for realism. It was noted very early on, that good sound renders the whole thing uniquely alive and vibrant, which is a true and tested notion taught to aspiring filmmakers. We may not fully appreciate the effect but take away sound, and it all becomes strangely unreal - dreams are soundless.
Normally in films, sound is employed as a ballast, and good sound usually means a detailed background, a rich carpet to walk on. Not so for the Soviets.
The main experiment is controlled, agitated hearing. Pudovkin had theorized about it, in the same manner as film ought to work, film sound should facilitate rhythm, musicality. This means that it is no longer a natural extension that corresponds with a view, but is continuously relocated, realigned, repurposed, shifting often independent of images.
As workers tirelessly pound away at the steel hull of a ship, the blistering barrage of their thrusts is a little out-of-focus. Disembodied voices scream at a rally, as though collectively produced and facilitated by each furious cut. There are stretches of pure silence without any reassuring ambiance from surrounding sounds.
As with film syntax of these guys, the effort has been largely to read the radical experiment as avant-garde exercise, independent of ideological fervor, here presaging musique concrete. We can do better.
Musique concrete just so happens to have cinematic roots in Epstein. Epstein rested on the discovery of a modern world that was only possible because the eye could float in unique ways with the advent of the camera. Internal views were possible, granted by these hitherto unknown, uncanny flows. The Soviets were equally radical but committed soldiers.
Note what Kuleshov did in the famous effect named after him. He took for effect the most iconic face of pre-Revolutionary Russia and exhibited that it was, in fact, empty. Point being this; every notion is formed in the space leading up to the eye and by gaps in perception. You need not control the flow, merely the gaps. Montage was invented.
So when Pudovkin is showing a young communist girl intruding with syncopated yells in the policed harmony of bourgeois narrative, rendered with symphonic, soft music to accompany the orderly traffic of luxurious automobiles under the austere gaze of a traffic warden, and is finally arrested by police, thus silenced from the soundtrack, he is very cleverly pointing to the fact that conventional reality is a broadcast that you control. To usurp control away from the official channel means a struggle, a bloody fight. Pudovkin's musicality - on top of the visual eye - is hence atonal, dissonant, disharmonic, implying imperfect nature, unfinished process.
Oh, the montage is astonishing and on par with anything Eisenstein did. But I will cherish this as one of the most important films for sound alone, and I'm so stoked I will be surveying more of these early Soviet sound films.
And a parting irony, to further cement why these films ought not to be museum exhibits for comfortable appreciation. The film depicts German struggles in the early 30's, asserting as main enemies of the revolution the Social Democrats. This was the Party line from Moscow and continues to be in most cases. German elections of '32 gave the combined Left - communist and social-democrat - 222 seats, just 8 short of Hitler. His enemies divided, Hitler carried the election. Four years later he commissioned from Riefenstahl the broadcast of a new national identity.