The Russian Revolution is as dead as Lenin and its remains are a lot harder to see. Mostly, they exist in negative space: the buildings that the Soviets pulled down; the people who died in famines and purges (and their never-born descendants); the leaders who are now oligarchs, seemingly intent on emulating the top-hatted capitalist pigs of old propaganda cartoons.
For an inkling of the world-altering energy, idealism and creativity that were rife before Stalin pooped the party, you have to look to the cinema. In the 1920s, the young, still-silent medium and the younger, noisier society made for a sparkling, if never untroubled, alliance. The result was a brief golden age, lasting roughly from 1925 to 1929. These are the rare films showing this month at BFI Southbank; the Barbican also has a gala screening of Dziga Vertov's wonderful 1929 "city symphony", Man With a Movie Camera, on 29 May.
Even to an audience jaded by sound and colour - or especially so - most of these films are exceptional. Those advances made film-makers lazy, but directors such as Sergei Eisenstein, Vertov, Lev Kuleshov, Alexander Dovzhenko and Vsevolod Pudovkin were still thrilled by the possibility of motion pictures, and their exhilaration shows. Despite financial assistance from a government that saw cinema as an ideological tool, film stock was always sparse, but these men were profligate with the scissors: Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) is made up of over 1,300 shots and the result is as consistently surprising as a series of electric shocks. This was partly artistic rigour, partly the internalisation of dogma: just as the films juxtaposed the terrors of the tsarist past with the optimistic present of the Bolshevik regime, so the editing set ideas side by side for contrast.
None of these directors doubted that one could "build" a film. They were, after all, building a society.
Why are these films so far off our radar? Eisenstein is the exception because, according to the BFI season's curator, Ian Christie, his acknowledged greatness unintentionally squashed the others' international reputation, but some clashed with British primness and suffered the consequences. Abram Room's marvellous Bed and Sofa (1927), about a ménage à trois, was banned here into the 1950s because it mentions abortion; Dovzhenko's superb Arsenal (1928), a symbolism-steeped meditation on the pity of war, manages to encapsulate more of the horror, loss and emotional and physical breakdown of conflict in its first five minutes than any government gearing up for another world war would willingly show its able-bodied young men in a year.
These Russians knew violence. An element of the films that throws the modern viewer back in time is the sense, watching the vicious reaction to a factory strike in Pudovkin's Mother (1926), that those beatings aren't so much choreographed as remembered. Potemkin was made for the 20th anniversary of the 1905 revolution. The auteur and his team would have remembered the mutiny and real massacres like the (fictional) one depicted on the Odessa Steps the way you and I remember events that happened in 1991.
That a crazy experiment in communism managed to produce such a cinematic advancement at all is a great achievement, particularly given the leadership tussles of the 1920s. But Lenin (who died in 1924), Trotsky and Stalin all agreed on film's importance to the revolution. Agitki - short "film leaflets", intended to educate the peasantry in citizenship and revolutionary duty - were produced from early on, often in unheated studios, with minimal cash and equipment. They were excellent training for tyro directors and even urban intellectuals who, as the film magazine Ekran pointed out, knew more about prehistoric life than about Russia's peasants.
But then, the leadership was hardly in tune with the peasantry, either.
Film directors who placed stylistic experimentation above content alienated their viewers, but others ran into trouble with their masters for trying to entertain peasants and workers to the detriment of the ideological message. Kuleshov's 1924 The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, for example, is a charming caper about a couple of Americans in Moscow, but the delighted audience could be forgiven for missing the good Bolsheviks among the tangle of thieves and con artists who populate the narrative. Room's Bed and Sofa portrays its two workers as fools and wife-stealers; one wryly admits that they are both scoundrels. These are hardly the words of a hero of the revolution.
Soviet cinema embodied all the contradictions of the regime that gave birth to it. Like communism, cinema was, after all, invented in the west, populist in one sense but fiercely hierarchical in another and dependent on money and sales in an embarrassingly capitalist manner: one of the reasons the ordinary Russians didn't have to like their adventurous home-grown films was that much easier American fare was still available: hiring these films out and taxing tickets made money for the cash-strapped regime. And even Soviet directors who would have agreed with the hardline Vertov that "the very term art is in essence counter-revolutionary", or who, like Eisenstein, had learned their trade in the Russian theatre, would have cited as their primary cinematic influence D W Griffith's 1916 Hollywood film Intolerance.
It was the New Economic Policy, Lenin's reintroduction of private enterprise to help revive the war- and famine-stricken country, that made the age possible: between 1924 and 1930, 514 films were made in the Soviet Union (of which a piffling 114 were about the revolutionary movement). When the NEP went, Soviet cinema changed: directors who had cast aside scenarios with debonair confidence (to the frequent fury of scriptwriters) were forced to stick to their ideologically sound blueprint, and experimentation waned accordingly.
Cinema continued to provide the regime's iconography, but it was Stalin's grey and homicidal tyranny they were charged with mythologising, and few talents were up to that challenge. Where Eisenstein had created legends - today, when many westerners think of the revolution, they still picture the proletariat swarming over the Winter Palace gates, an event that occurred only in Eisenstein's 1928 film October - he spent the 1930s battling reality, even fleeing to the US at one point. Room ran into trouble with the regime; Dovzhenko and Pudovkin became Stalinist yes-men; Kuleshov, the founding father of Soviet cinema, and Vertov, its most outspoken proponent, went into decline.
Eisenstein staged a comeback in 1938 with Alexander Nevsky, but the rates of return continued to falter. Under Lenin, Stalin was the first to give film equal status with the other arts. As leader, however, he demonstrated that, to paraphrase a certain anti-communist, if all films are created equal, some are certainly more equal than others. l
“Kino: Russian Film Pioneers" is at BFI Southbank, London SE1, until 31 May.
For more details, visit: bfi.org.uk