A Cinephile in the Land of the Bolsheviks: The Death Ray (Lev Kuleshov, 1925)
Lev Kuleshov’s Luch smerti (The Death Ray, 1925) is wedged between the acknowledged masterpiece of early Soviet montage experimentation, Neobychainye prikliucheniia mistera Vesta v strane bolshevikov (The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, 1924), and an equally masterful psychological chamber piece, Po zakonu (By the Law, 1926). While sharing the same actors and crew from “the Kuleshov collective”, these two classics shared little else in terms of plot, genre, their filming manner, or even their editing. The Death Ray was a further, and, in general consensus, unnecessary, step along the “line” of Mr. West, taking its inventiveness and dynamism into zany incoherency.
The plot of the film revolves around a working-class leader (played by Sergei Komarov) in an unnamed Western country, who barely avoids being arrested and is pursued, on the one hand, by a sinister fascist group and, on the other, by a mysterious circus woman (played by Aleksandra Khokhlova). This motley crew ends up in Soviet Russia, where an engineer has developed a “death ray” laser machine. The villains steal the machine in order to provoke a riot at the factory and kill the workers en masse, and the whole group, in the same fairytale fashion, makes the trip back by various means of modern transportation. The film’s ending, which does not survive, showed the death rays redirected instead (by the circus woman, presumably) at the fascist planes.
A little cultural context can go a long way in clarifying at least the intentions behind the film, if not all of the quirks of its storyline. The Death Ray was a response to the recent call from one of the Party leaders, Nikolai Bukharin, for the creation of “communist Pinkertons” or “red Pinkertons” – that is, adventure stories based on material from the Revolution and the Civil War. In the cinema, this led to a number of films with the word “red” in their titles (from Krasnye diavoliata [The Red Imps, 1923] to Krasnyi Arsenal [The Red Arsenal, 1926]) and with sci-fi inventions in the manner of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells in their plots.
The 1924 script for The Death Ray, written by a prominent member of the Kuleshov collective, Vsevolod Pudovkin, was initially titled The Master of Iron (Povelitel zheleza). Earlier that year, a young Moscow journalist and future popular novelist and screenwriter Valentin Kataev published an adventure novel with the same title. Its action took place for the most part in India, where a crazy Russian pacifist professor threatened the fighting workers and capitalists with the “reverse current machine”, which could magnetise all iron from a distance. His “death rays” stopped airplane engines, glued guns together, and cut off telephone communication until a Hindu-speaking Moscow journalist helped everyone realise that revolution was, in fact, the only way to world peace.
In addition to the move from India to Western Europe, the plot of Kuleshov’s film predictably contained less science and more cinema. Kuleshov begins the chapter in his memoir on The Death Ray with an evocation of the place where his collective, alongside other young filmmakers of the time, learned their craft – by watching others’ films. It was the film theatre on Malaya Dmitrovka street in the center of Moscow, whose director, Mikhail Boitler, should be credited with bringing about the golden age of Soviet cinema. Boitler provided the cinema-going public with the newest films from the Soviet republics, Europe, and the United States, as well as with curated programs, and, most importantly, gave free access to young cinephiles. Kuleshov remembered: “Here, we ‘cultivated’ our artistic tastes on extraordinary fast manhunts, on car and motorbike races, on mysterious masks and half-masks, on explosions, shoot-outs, […] ‘black marks’, waterfall foam, and floating ice: on all the attributes of the adventure genre.”1
Thus, one of the secondary characters in Kataev’s novel, a hired French executioner, Monsieur Charles Rivo (Riveaux), “a butcher by profession and a duke by appearance”, became Pater Revo and significantly gained in importance in The Death Ray. He was played by the screenwriter himself in a line of protean cinematic villains whose brief appearance in Soviet cinema was largely indebted to Fantômas and Doctor Mabuse. This line was soon continued by Sergei Komarov (as credibly as he played the positive hero in The Death Ray) in Miss Mend (1926), the pinnacle of the “red Pinkertons” genre, co-directed by another former member of the collective, Boris Barnet.
In general, even more than Mr. West had done, The Death Ray was to showcase all the possibilities of the collective in the manner of popular American and French serials, like Pearl White’s The Exploits of Elaine (1914) and Ruth Rolland’s The Tiger’s Trail (1919) and The Timber Queen (1922) and Pudovkin’s script was to serve as the vehicle for this catalogue of tricks, which, as the general consensus goes, it spectacularly (in every sense of the word) failed to do.
It was a modernist spectacle, an urban spectacle, and a mass spectacle. The Death Ray was produced simultaneously with Eisenstein’s Stachka (Strike, 1925), with the two directors practicing devising detailed filming and editing plans for their mass scenes, using D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance as inspiration.2 Unlike Eisenstein, however, Kuleshov at the time did not quite believe in the suitability of Russian landscapes and figures for the quintessential urban art of cinema – hence the predominance of “foreign” locations in the film. They were still very obviously filmed around Moscow, where “it was incredibly difficult to find even a big enough asphalted square. Streets were covered in cobblestones, houses were in a typical Moscow style, with crumbling whitewash, and pavements had typical Moscow gas lamps and advertising pillars.3
Another feature of this urban spectacle (and part of Kuleshov’s idea of the “American” style of filmmaking) was dynamism, not only in editing but, as importantly, in on-screen movement. One contemporary critic went as far as to complain that The Death Ray was nothing but chaotic running:
The revolt of the workers, the arrest of the committee, the invention of the machine, the struggle against fascism: all this boils down to the endless and tedious running. The revolutionaries are running, the fascists are running, the office girls are running, the workers are running, and, as an apotheosis and a core of the whole play, hundreds of flickering legs are furiously running in the diaphragm.4
Contemporary reviews make it abundantly clear that the disjointedness is not the effect of the passing time, of the distance between the film and today’s viewers. It was felt, and quite violently, at the time of the film’s release. One disgruntled critic even joked that the film should have been advertised with the phrase “those who manage to guess the meaning of this film will get free tickets”, because only other film directors could be expected to make heads or tails of it.5
And perhaps, not even them. A novice filmmaker (and an active critic), Nikolai Shpikovskiy, who was soon to partner with Pudovkin on the delightful little comedy Shakhmatnaia goriachka (Chess Fever, 1925) wrote at the time:
The film as a whole does not exist: there are individual fragments, sometimes masterfully made, but they are presented in such a clumsy montage, in such a tenuous connection to the plot, in such a blatant pseudo-American tempo that one cannot help but wonder: What if, perhaps, the director has decided to make fun of us? What if they suddenly start projecting the film in some different way, and “the mirage” will end and everything will fall into place? What if a damaged garment can be fixed?6
So how is one to view The Death Ray now? How can one, perhaps, attempt to “project” it differently? This year, in particular, provides a possible answer. Watching The Death Ray in 2017, one is suddenly struck by its similarity to another production cannibalising popular American serials and turning them upside down. In the afterglow of Twin Peaks: The Return, the Soviet auteur’s bizarre spectacle can perhaps be appreciated for what it is, rather than what it failed it be. Just like in the latest season of David Lynch’s TV-show, The Death Ray abounds in plot-redundant car rides and lengthy fights, red herrings and guns waved around. New characters continue to be added well past the mid-point, and there is even a (potentially sinister) doppelgänger: Kuleshov’s wife and muse, Aleksandra Khokhlova, posing as her character’s spinster sister.
We can, perhaps, experiment with using Badalamenti’s original score, or the new eclectic Twin Peaks soundtrack, to stitch the universe of Kuleshov’s film together – or, rather, teach the viewer a new mode of watching it, making it comprehensible in its ultimate incomprehensibility. Seen this way, The Death Ray suddenly reveals the essential dream logic behind Kuleshov’s montage experiments: a close-up of a man’s expressionless face is put next to a bowl of soup (or is it a cherry pie?), then to a beautiful woman, then to a dead child, while worlds collide (a man is walking along a Moscow street towards a woman who is walking along a street in Washington, D.C.), and a perfect body is formed under our eyes out of perfect body parts belonging to different people. This is a logic of experimentation, or perhaps a cinephilic logic: the wonderful world of film where everything is or might be connected and everything is allowed at least once.
In the end, it seems, it was precisely Kuleshov’s insistence on the power of the author that led to such a backlash against the film. Despite his visual declaration of disdain for amateur epigones of modernism in a suprematist version of a “proletarian child’s smile”, which a bourgeois lady draws in the film, a watchful critic saw it not as a satire, but as a prophetic self-portrait: “The same decadence threatens the director himself. […] He is interested not in the meaning of the [class] struggle, but only in its thrill. There is no social or realistic foundation under this struggle, there is only the aesthetics of the film spectacle’s technique.”7
Almost a decade before socialist realism was proclaimed as the only method of Soviet art, it was already apparent to a discerning eye that aesthetic dissent could and most probably did hide political dissent, and that avant-garde auteurism posed a danger to the only author possible in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party: “despite the film monopoly of the Soviet power, […] in reality, power over cinema remains in directors’ hands,” concluded the same critic who complained about the depiction of the masses always on the run. Formal experimentation undermined political order, because “our Communist attitude to art means that we subordinate form to content, and not the other way around.”8 It is little wonder that Kuleshov did not stop apologising for The Death Ray for the rest of his life.
Two years after the film’s release, Kuleshov’s former colleague, editor, screenwriter, and critic Mikhail Shneider remarked in passing: “Sometimes, there are failures in cinema which are more valuable than some victories. Such was the failure […] of The Death Ray. Only a blind man could not perceive that the methods of The Death Ray were a statement and a charge enough for a whole directorial career.”9 Instead, this charge made the film implode, sending most of the members of the Kuleshov collective out into the film world on their own
- Lev Kuleshov, Sobranie sochinenii v 3-kh tomakh vol. 2 (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1987), p. 79. ↩
- Ibid., p. 81. ↩
- Ibid., p. 80. ↩
- Anatoliy Skachko, “Luch smerti”, Sovetskoe kino 1 (April 1925): 62. ↩
- Ibid., p. 62. ↩
- Nikolai Shpikovskii, “Masterskaia Kuleshova – ‘Luch smerti’”, Kino-gazeta 11:79, March 10, 1925, p. 1; emphasis in the original. ↩
- Khrisanf Khersonskii, “Luch smerti”, Izvestiia 54, March 6, 1925, p. 5. ↩
- Skachko, op. cit., p. 62, emphasis in the original. ↩
- Mikhail Sh(neider), “Gospoda Skotininy”, Kino-front 4, March 1, 1927, p. 18. ↩