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Pervyy eshelon (The First Echelon)

Posted by martinteller on January 3, 2015

They’re breaking ground on a new Soviet work farm, and a brigade of enthusiastic youths have arrived to plow the “virgin soil”.  The older officials are skeptical, but the director (Vsevolod Sanaev) has faith in their ability and their pride of work.  Aleksey Uzorov (Oleg Efremov) is named secretary, and he nominates his good friend Genka Monyetkin (Eduard Bredun) to drive the first tractor.  But Monyetkin makes an error in judgment and nearly ruins the equipment.  As the months go on, Aleksey rallies his comrades to work the fields and build a permanent farm there, but Monyetkin takes to drink and becomes the “black sheep” of the collective.  At the same time, Anya Zalogina (Izolda Izvitskaya) tries to catch Aleksey’s eye, and his heart.

This is the first of four collaborations between director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky.  The following three — The Cranes Are FlyingThe Letter Never Sent, and I Am Cuba — are masterful cinematic creations, using astonishing camerawork to communicate ideas and emotion.  This one (the only one of the four in color) is not quite as impressive, but there is some graceful movement, tracking shots and crane shots that any cinematographer would be proud of.  Urusevsky also frames shots with the iconic weight of Eisenstein, often shooting characters from low angles that allows their faces to be profiled majestically against the sky.  Also, the film has a wonderful, dramatic score courtesy of Dmitri Shostakovich (another shade of Eisenstein… Shostakovich’s first film score was for October).

As for the story of the film, it’s kind of scattershot but still engaging.  It feels like there’s a lot of things going on and sometimes is confusing (I think the translation might not be that good).  Most of the drama comes from watching Monyetkin’s vicious cycle of getting drunk, fucking up, being ostracized, getting drunk.  But it’s also interesting to see the various romantic pairings, and the detail of how the farm runs, and Aleksey’s struggles with his leadership role.  It’s sort of an odd movie in that the whole doesn’t really seem to add up to much, but the individual pieces are compelling enough.

It’s always interesting to observe how much more progressive the Soviets were about feminism than us Americans.  Here the women are shown to be just as skilled as the men, just as capable and hard-working.  They rightfully complain when being assigned to kitchen duty.  Women in the movies of 1955 Hollywood were rarely treated so equally.  Rating: Good (75)


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