The Death Ray, Silent Soviet Agit-Pulp on Fast-Forward

09/08/2009 2:11 PM |


Silent Soviet cinema seems today like so many shovelfuls of dry hay, fed to viewers to make them work, but look out: Lev Kuleshov, most famous for the montage experiments that fueled the USSR’s agitprop film industry through the 20s and 30s, was also a devoted pulpmaster, and his hardly-ever-seen 1925 film The Death Ray may be the most crazed and happily psychotic film from that lost nation’s peak era. Essentially a nutso espionage serial unrolling in the familiar landscape of factory uprisings and budding industry towns, the movie comes off as a scramble of Feuillade and Kenneth Anger, but on fast-forward — it’s virtually impossible to follow the story, which pits “fascists” (whose hideout harbors a mascot owl) against virtuous workers, amid a cataract of slapstick, wicked jump cuts, ritualized caricature, raving performances (particularly from Mrs. Kuleshov, the elastic-faced Alexandra Khokhlova), rampaging action editing, hidden passageways, surprise disguises, quicksand, knife fights, and on and on. The Russian landscape here feels more like the secretive, mysterious Paris of Les Vampires than the laborers’ paradise of other Soviet films — and there’s even a black-tight-suited cat-burglar spy who scales buildings. Co-scenarist Pudovkin shows up as a pious priest, but this campy, rambunctious lark is nothing if not self-satirizing — while seemingly blowing raspberries at both action serials and collectivist propaganda dramas of the kind Eisenstein made famous that same year. Reels of The Death Ray have been and still are missing, but you won’t be able to tell from where, especially if avant-gardist/presenter Keith Sanborn picks some rousin’ music for accompaniment.

Screening tonight at Light Industry.