Film review #495
Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko
SYNOPSIS: In eastern Siberia, a remote village is under threat from Japanese invasion, as well as the Soviet army planning to build Aerograd, a city of the future in the area. Stepan Glushak, a resident of the village and renowned soldier, must embark on a mission to protect his village.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Aerograd (Also called Frontier) is a 1935 soviet film. The film centres around a remote village in Eastern Siberia, which is caught in between Japanese invaders, and the building of a new modern town called Aerograd under construction by the soviet army. Stepan Glushak, who was born in the village, returns to tell them of the new town, but is met with resistance by the superstitious locals, who fear change. The plot of the film is pretty threadbare: as with most soviet films from the time, this is nearly all just propaganda. There are numerous, extended speeches glorifying the red army, and songs singing its praises to the footage of fleet of soviet aircraft. Stepan tries to convince the residents of the village not to fear the soviet union, but they are sceptical, God-fearing people who fear change. It’s a simple premise, but one you can easily understand, and offers a solid base to sing the praises of the red army as they take out the invading Japanese forces.
The characters are fairly one-dimensional and uninspiring: Stepan embodies the soviet cause, and is the stoic, burly and heroic male lead. The residents of the village by contrast are portrayed as superstitious, irrational and old-fashioned in their fear of the red army. The Japanese, likewise, are overly-emotional and overacting to make them seen as different as possible. The Japanese soldiers are referred to as “Samurai,” even though they don’t have the traditional samurai armour or attire. I wonder if that’s a misconception that all Japanese soldiers are samurai that was held back then, but I can’t be sure. Either way, the purpose of the film definitely is not to accurately represent Japanese culture.
The cinematography of the film is perhaps it’s strongest point. There’s lots of expansive shots of the Siberian wilderness: a place that very few people would have seen on film or in person at that time. The cuts between cameras within scenes is also smooth and well done, particularly considering the scenes shot outdoors, and done when most scenes only consisted of a single camera. The footage also of fleet of airplanes, including being film from the planes themselves, is also quite well done. It’s difficult with these sorts of films to get to any kind of message the film has underneath all of it’s state-mandatory propaganda, and Aerograd is no exception. There’s some opinion that there’s some anti-Soviet sentiments that are hidden underneath the surface, but again, it is very difficult to make out. You could argue that the whole situation of Stepan abandoning his village for the glory of the Soviet Union paints him as a villain, and that certain moments of hesitancy regarding him killing his childhood friend open up a space within which things can be questioned by the viewer, but it is all very slight, and nothing concrete (but that would be by design, as any more obvious anti-Soviet sentiment would not have made it to film). It’s perhaps pretty easy to dismiss any Soviet Cinema as being simply propaganda, but there’s still plenty of decent films from the era that have a decent story etc., but I don’t think Aerograd is one of them.
The Lost City (1935)
Film review #375
Director: Harry Revier
SYNOPSIS: Extreme weather is causing mass destruction across the Earth, with seemingly no known explanation. Electrical engineer Bruce Gordon manages to use one of his machines to trace the source of these disturbances to an unexplored region of central Africa. He leads an expedition to the area to investigate and ends up discovering a lost city ruled by a madman who is intent on attaining absolute power from his machines. Bruce must join forces with the various people in the region, and stop the evil Zolok from using his machines before the world is destroyed…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Lost City is a 1935 science-fiction, twelve part film serial. in the opening, we see storms ravaging the cities of the world, causing mass destruction. The world is unable to find the cause of these freak weather events, until electrical engineer Bruce Gordon uses one of his inventions to locate the source in an unexplored region of central Africa. Bruce leads an expedition to the area withe his friend Jerry Delaney, and when he arrives at a trading post, a man named Butterfield stumbles in injured, telling of a lost city beneath Magnetic Mountain guarded by giants. Believing there is a connection between Magnetic Mountain and the storms, Bruce investigates and finds the lost city is real. There, a man named Zolok is forcing Manyus, a scientist, to construct inventions which he believes will help him rule the world. The opening chapter of the serial is typically full of exciting effects and setting the stage for a thrilling adventure. As I’ve mentioned before in other serial reviews, the opening chapter is often the most thrilling and interesting, as it is meant to entice viewers to return to the theatre every week to watch the subsequent parts. These serials can quite quickly run out of steam, as they are made on a low budget and there is a lot of re-used settings and back-and-forths between the heroes and villains that can get repetitive. With The Lost City though, this repetition is kept to a minimum as there’s a number of distinct locations, and a large cast that gets introduced as the story goes on, so these new elements continually change the dynamic of the plot. Of course, there’s also plenty of daring cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, with lion pens, giant spiders and all sorts of devious traps that will encourage viewers to return next week. The overall story is definitely stronger than many similar serials I have seen.
As I mentioned, the cast is fairly large, and are somewhat diverse. The “giants” are pretty cool, and have a menacing presence. The big problem here though, with the film being set in central Africa, is the film’s depiction of non-white races. The “native tribes” are portrayed as very typical, primitive people as very much stereotypes of what western countries at the time were taught Africa to be. The fact that the film does not further pinpoint the location other than “Africa” again shows how the entire continent is ill-defined by said countries. When the “Arabs” shows up around half-way through the serial, they again are portrayed in a stereotypical fashion. Both of these groups, when they are supposedly speaking in their own language, is clearly just gibberish being shouted by the actors, which again just reinforces the dismissive attitude to non-white cultures. i think the main villain is designed to be similar to an east Asian person as well, just to round off the serial’s inclusion of all races. The portrayal of the black giants is clearly meant to make them as menacing as possible too. On top of all this, there is a plot element that Manyus has invented a medicine that can turn black people white. While the film does not label this as a “cure” for being black, it does feel that way at points, and really just compounds the fact that this film is horrifically outdated, and racially dismissive/ignorant.
The Lost City really shines through in terms of its story, and it paces itself well throughout the twelve chapters by continually introducing new characters and dangers in order to keep things fresh. In this respect, it avoids one of the significant problems that plague the serial format. However, it’s depiction of non-white races is horrifically ignorant and outdated, and really is non-redeemable. Yes, it is a product of it’s time, but I do not feel that it is enough of an excuse to dismiss its harmful racial depictions.