Lev Kuleshov (Dir.), “Proekt Inzhenera Praita” (“Engineer Prite’s Project”); “Velikii uteshitel’ (O. Genri v tiur’me)” (“The Great Consoler (O’Henry in Prison”) (DVD Review)

Proekt Inzhenera Praita (Engineer Prite’s Project), Directed by Lev Kuleshov, 1918, 30 Minutes; Hyperkino commentary by Nikolai Izvolov and Natascha Drubek-Meyer. RUSCICO: Kino Academia 1 (2 DVDs);

Velikii uteshitel’ (O. Genri v tiur’me) (The Great Consoler (O Henry in Prison), Directed by Lev Kuleshov, 1933, 91 Minutes); Hyperkino commentary by Ekaterina Khokhlova. RUSCICO: Kino Academia 3 (2 DVDs

The life and career of Lev Kuleshov pose certain paradoxes. Kuleshov appears in every account of early Sovietcinema and is typically cited—along with Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov–as one of its true pioneers. Kuleshov, who was born in 1899, was also the youngest of the handful of great innovators who defined early Soviet cinema, yet he got his start earlier, directing his first feature at the age of 18. His career also ended before his more famous peers—while he was incredibly productive during the 1920s, Stalinist critics attacked Kuleshov’s techniques as formalist in the 1930s. He directed a couple of wartime films, but spent the bulk of his life after 1934 not directing anything. Instead, he worked at VGIK, the state film institute, from 1939 until his death in 1970. It was not until the late 1960s, just before his death, that Soviet directors and film critics had begun to recognize Kuleshov as the great artist that he once was, helped in part by Kuleshov’s publications on filmmaking.

At the same time, Kuleshov is the one great Soviet director from his era who continually gets short shrift. He has not generated the scholarly examinations that his contemporaries have. His own writings on cinema have been influential, but no single academic study of him or his works exists. A scant number of articles devoted to his films have been published. Compared to his contemporaries, Lev Kuleshov is strangely understudied. Most appallingly, his films—even the great Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Neobychainye prikliucheniia mistera Vesta v strane bol’shevikov, 1924)—have never been released on DVD.

The appearance of the Ruscico Academia DVD editions of his first film, Engineer Prite’s Project (Proekt Inzhenera Praita, 1918) and the film Kuleshov considered his best work, The Great Consoler (Velikii uteshitel’, 1933), is therefore something every film scholar should celebrate. The fact that they come out in the new Hyperkino format is cause for even more celebration. Lev Kuleshov’s films finally have a format that befits them–these editions begin to make up for the lack of scholarly coverage on his career.

The two films are well known to scholars of Soviet cinema. Seeing them restored on DVD, however, is a true treat. They allow viewers to understand Kuleshov’s fascination with American filmmaking and the evolving image of America in early Soviet culture. Kuleshov made the first, Engineer Prite’s Project, a 30-minute silent film, when he was a teenager. It reveals both his early innovative style and his embrace of American movies. He made the film after he had started to work for the new Bolshevik regime, first re-editing foreign films and then shooting newsreels. He had also established his Kuleshov Collective workshop that included Boris Barnet and Vsevolod Pudovkin.

Nikolai Izvolov, who developed the Hyperkino format along with Natascha Drubek-Meyer, has reconstructed the film from the shots that have survived and from Kuleshov’s libretto about the film. In it, a young, dynamic, American engineer, Mack Prite, has developed a plan to turn peat into usable energy. His project, which uses a cheap and readily available energy source to fuel a power plant, threatens the profits of a transnational oil trust headed by Orville Ross. Kuleshov’s film pits a young, educated person whose talents have helped him rise above humble origins against an old, entrenched capitalist aristocrat.

Kuleshov considered The Great Consoler to be his best film. It’s not hard to see why. A complicated story about the American short story writer O Henry, the film begins with Bill Porter’s imprisonment in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Porter was imprisoned in 1898 for embezzlement, though he denied the charges. In prison, he began to publish short stories using various pseudonyms, among them O Henry. Kuleshov’s film takes this real-life episode and includes an intertwined story, made as a silent film, based on one of O Henry’s stories. In the tale about Porter’s imprisonment, Kuleshov casts Porter as a nice but weak writer who refuses to describe the real world. Instead, he writes fantasy. A series of intertwined plots allows Kuleshov to use Porter’s life and writing as a means to comment on injustice in America.

Both films create an imaginary America that does not just function as the antithesis of all things Soviet. Kuleshov’s America is a stand-in for the Soviet Union. Prite not only seemingly springs from the pages of Horatio Alger; he also embodies the traits of hard work, intelligence, and selfless honesty of the New Soviet Man. Engineer Prite’s Project reflects both the early Bolshevik fascination with the newness of America and the Bolshevik idealism of creating something new out of a successful struggle against the old. As Nikolai Izvolov and Natascha Drubek-Meyer write in their Hyperkino commentary, “two eras had met: the old one with signs of pre-Revolutionary life, and the new one–the era of the engineer, electrification, and industrialization.” The electric factory could therefore have been in Petrograd or Pittsburgh; Kuleshov has broken down the binary between capitalist America and the new socialist Soviet Union.

The Great Consoler creates a different America to stand in for a changed Soviet Union. This is a place of weak-willed artists, wrongly imprisoned criminals, and unethical authorities. Kuleshov’s adaptation, as Jay Leyda claimed, “Became a comparison of the raw truth with the rosier, albeit sardonic treatment given to it by O Henry, drawing inescapable conclusions about artistic process—making it a unique film.”(Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 297.) The Great Consoler uses the American setting to tackle issues relevant to Soviet society in 1933–Porter essentially writes the sort of varnished stories that would later become the basis for socialist realist literature. Literature, Kuleshov suggests, can serve as a great consoler. Yet at the end of the film Porter decides he still cannot write about reality. The last scene has him in his cell declaring “Never can I write what I know, what I ought to. Maybe someday, others will come who will.” Watched together–you could also add Mr. West and his 1926 By The Law to this list (one can only hope they will get the Hyperkino treatment soon).

The restored films finally begin to restore Kuleshov to his rightful place in the pantheon of great Russian and Soviet directors (the other Hyperkino editions issued thus far include two films by Eisenstein and one by Aleksandr Medvedkin). Yet it is in the remarkable new format that Kuleshov also gets his long-overdue due. Izvolov and Drubek-Meyer have called for Hyperkino to set a standard for academic editions of films in several places.(See their “Critical Editions of Films in Digital Formats” in Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 2/2 (2008), pp. 205-216.) Their suggestion is to combine textual and hypermedia technologies in a critical DVD edition of a film. The two Kuleshov films reviewed here represent their attempt to make good on their proposal. Both films allow a viewer to choose several viewing options: you can watch the film with or without subtitles; you can read all the commentaries provided in any order, or you can watch the film and pause to read the numbered commentaries that appear onscreen if you select the “Hyperkino” format. Engineer Prite’s Proposal comes with a wealth of valuable commentary and hypermedia sources: Kuleshov’s original libretto for the film; announcements of the filming as they appeared in the 1918 press; stills that accompany Kuleshov’s writings on montage; and scholarly commentary, to choose some examples, provide rich context for understanding the film. The Hyperkino commentaries have also been published in Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema,(Nikolai Izvolov and Natascha Drubek-Meyer, “Annotations for the Hyperkino Edition of Lev Kuleshov’s Engineer Prite’s Project (1918), Academia Series, Ruscico, 2010″ in Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 4/1 (2010), p. 65-93.) but navigating through them as you watch the film or afterwards highlights the richness of this new format.

The materials for The Great Consoler provide equally rich context. In a scene where Valentine talks with his cellmates about the need for consolation, for example, you can click on the hyperlink number and read a section entitled “The Critique of Reality: Text and Subtext.” The Hyperkino commentary provides quotes from contemporary reviews that attempted to interpret the film’s multiple messages. In this section, the author of the commentaries, Ekaterina Khokhlova, makes note of Valentine’s response to a cellmate that he “has been rotting here for 16 years now.” The quote, as Khokhlova points out, does not appear in O Henry’s story—in it, Valentine had served ten months of a four-year sentence. Instead, Kuleshov has Valentine pause after uttering the words “16 years,” allowing the viewer to think about the significance of this time. Given that the film was made in 1933, 16 years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Khokhlova concludes that it “leaves no doubt as to the author’s idea regarding the time and place of the film’s action.” This one example—a link from an important scene that then provides contemporary reviews with insightful commentary—showcases the benefits of the Hyperkino format. It is but one example of Izvolov’s and Drubek-Meyer’s promise that the new format would “not offer random information” but would “have information that has been carefully selected by the editor and commentator” in order to ensure that the Hyperkino’s academic value.(Ibid., p. 216.)

Perhaps the greatest treat of all in these two DVD editions is the inclusion of Semen Raitburt’s 1969 55-minute documentary, The Kuleshov Effect, as part of the extras for Engineer Prite’s Project. In it, we get to see and hear the director talk about his films and his life. At the end, The First Congress Soviet Film Makers selected Kuleshov to deliver the opening speech. As Kuleshov stands before the podium, Viktor Shklovskii declares from across the hall, “at last I’m seeing Lev Kuleshov in his rightful place.” The same words apply to these new Hyperkino editions: they too have restored Lev Kuleshov to his rightful place.