A fast and furious chase, full of physical gags and gangsters, with jokes at the expense of American imperialism. A hallucinatory horror, where ordinary objects take on a life of their own, scripted by a literary theorist. A bed-hopping love triangle, simmering in a cramped flat. A big-budget science fiction spectacular, full of futuristic sets and bizarre, revealing costumes. A workers' strike, depicted via special effects and pratfalls. A film about film-making itself, with no plot, no words, no narrative, which is somehow the most thrilling film you'll ever see. A film about collective farming with full-frontal nudity and inscrutable, poetic metaphors. A film about mutinous sailors that manages to accidentally invent the action film as we know it.
This is Soviet cinema in the 1920s. An almost entirely state-run cinema, devoted to propagating communist doctrine by the most nakedly propagandistic means, and subject to heavy intervention from the Soviet bureaucracy. One might suspect a Soviet, socialist cinema to be a grimly bureaucratic thing itself, a jargon-laden matter of boy meets tractor, devoid of excitement or drama, with everything subordinated to the political message. Or you might expect a school of film that repudiates the commercial, blockbuster cinema in favour of didactic accounts of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Yet although numerous directors talked of the "dialectical film", it was never any such thing. You might expect something humourless and leaden, only to find films which resemble Buster Keaton far more than they anticipate Jean-Luc Godard. Soviet film in its first decade and a half managed to set the pace for world cinema, and its formal innovations are still being digested 80 years later.
The Russian Film Pioneers section of the British Film Institute's Kino season, running until 30 June, is a rare chance to explore this seemingly paradoxical world, where a series of still extraordinarily watchable popular films were made wholly without the intervention of the market. What is especially striking about them is how little the Soviet films of the 1920s resemble the common models of left-wing, activist (or any kind of "art-house") cinema. There's not the slightest hint of the worthy, socially engaged realism of Ken Loach and those he has inspired – the characters in these films are cartoons, and the scenarios are often fantastical, joyously so. And although Godard invoked the Soviet heritage when he started making collective films in response to May 1968 as the Dziga Vertov Group, there's nothing further from his brackish, deliberately stilted and oppressive approach to political cinema than the fast-paced, panoramic, sweeping, playful Bolshevik documentaries of Dziga Vertov himself. For films that are so influential on filmic technique, especially in their development of fast-cut montage, they have had surprisingly few direct successors. ...