Professor Philipp Philippovich Preobrazhensky feeding the dog Sharik

Two Controversial Russian Silent Films I recommend watching

Recently I watched two classic Russian silent films – both based on literary works, and both science fiction, but with wildly different story lines.

In this post I give the outline of the plot and touch on some of the themes so that you can decide if you want to watch them. These are both brilliant films in their own right. Both of these films present the viewer with a lot of philosophical questions and issues.

Aelita (Аэли́та, 1924) was based off a novel published in 1923 by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Алексе́й Никола́евич Толсто́й).

Heart of a Dog (Собачье сердце, 1988) was based on a novel by Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov (Михаил Афанасьевич Булгаков) and originally published in 1925.

On the left
Mikhail Bulgakov (Михаил Булгаков) and on the right Aleksey Tolstoy (Алексей Толстой)

Both authors were considered controversial at the time.

Bulgakov – who died at 45 years old – was censored by Joseph Stalin (Иосиф Сталин) himself. His works were censored and his apartment searched and raided.

Alexei Tolstoy was also controversial, being accused of creating state propaganda.

The authors were not equally loved or admired. Bulgakov is seen a a hero and one of the greatest Russian writers.

Ironically, even though Aelita was banned, it is about a worker who enlighten the slaves and workers on Mars about workers rights and they mount an overthrow of their current order to usher in a communist utopia.

Interestingly, both works experienced censorship.

Bulgakov had previously submitted his works to the Nedra journal, but they would not publish Heart of a Dog. According to Voci libere in URSS –

Lev Kamenev immediately blocked circulation of the novella and on 7th May 1926, the OGPU under Feliks Dzerzhinksii searched Bulgakov’s flat and confiscated the manuscript of Heart of a Dog with the writer’s diaries. 

Marco SabbatiniVoci libere in URSS

Heart of a Dog would not be published until 60 years later.

Aelita was initially produced in 1924, but only banned much later, by the U.S.S.R (C.C.C.P). It was banned for being “alien to the working class”.

The first soviet silent film I watched – Man With A Camera – was also banned in the C.C.C.P. as well as in Europe.

Aelita, 1924

Aelita was an early Soviet Russian Sci-Fi film based on the titular novel by Alexei Tolstoy. It was directed by Yakov Protazanov (Яков Александрович Протазанов) who was a pioneer of Russian cinema. The story is centered around three different love affairs.

I don’t watch a lot of silent films but I have seen several over the years – this was the longest that I have ever watched at almost two hours long.

The version I watched had no musical score, so I watched it while playing Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos softly in the background and Fauré’s – Les 13 Nocturnes and it worked well for me. (At times it felt like the music was written for the scenes I was watching picking up the tempo at just the right time and at others slowing down or ending a movement at just the right time.)

There were two main versions that I came across – one with one hour and twenty minutes of content and one with one hour and fifty of content. I chose the longer one. Some of the versions don’t have the Russian intertitle slides with handwriting, but the long version had them. The translation of the intertitles was not great but it was coherent or easy to infer what was happening. The version I watched was in a resolution of 360p.

I always enjoy picturing and contrasting how futuristic these works would have appeared to their audiences. Most people in the 1920s were farm workers, in both the east and the west. I like to imagine people in their context and what they were used to to – e.g. singing and dancing, hand painted adverts, and radio.

Just seeing motion pictures would have been a really big deal and a captivating experience and I can only image how incredible it must have been to see these films as they did for the first time. I think the scenes on Mars and the costumes would have been unlike anything they were used to.

It also inspired one of my favorite silent films Metropolis, 1927.

Aelita was from a studio I had never heard of Mezhrabpomfilm Межрабпомфильм – which though a series of company changes is now called Gorky Film Studio (Киностудия имени Горького).

Heart of a Dog, 1988

Heart of a Dog is a classic Soviet Russian film directed by Vladimir Bortko (Владимир Бортко), produced by Lenfilm, and was based upon the titular novel by Bulgakov.

Heart of a Dog combines Satire, Sci-Fi and political allegory.

My first taste of Bulgakov was his fantastical novel The Master and Margarita (Мастер и Маргарита) published in 1966-67. I read the book and have vivid memories of reading it, as was I was going through a difficult time in my life when I read it.

Heart of a Dog is a brilliant biting criticism of the attempts to shape human nature. It is complex and has a lot of humor and political and social criticisms.

Bulgakov’s works are not light despite their humor and fantastical nature. They are in the vein of Goethe’s Faust, perhaps. His works have a lot of political undertones as well as philosophical questions.

Stray dogs have been a problem in Russia since the early 19th century. I remember as a child (in the 90’s) seeing a feature on a news TV channel about the stray dogs that take trips in the Moscow Metro. Where I currently live in Mauritius there is also a serious problem with stray dogs, which is quite sad.

The version I watched was a fourteen-part series of about eight minute videos each. I watched with English subtitles which were not very good and got worse later on in the film, but I was grateful for this otherwise I would not have been able to get a general idea of what was happening. The resolution I watched it in was 240p.

Coincidentally, on the same day that I watched Heart of a Dog I also watched a Soviet Russian hand-drawn cartoon aimed at adults warning about the irreversible and harmful effects of alcohol on the body, titled, SOS. Мультфильм для взрослых (1973).

I am currently reading the original novel translated into English, the 1999 version from Raduga Publishers.

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