Fridrikh Ermler’s last silent feature, Fragment of an Empire, tells the story of a Russian non-commissioned officer, Ivan Filimonov (Fyodor Nikitin), who was shell-shocked, thought to be dead in the First World War and in loss of memory. Filimonov regains his memory in 1928, ten years after the Russian Revolution. Determined to find his wife and get his job back, he goes home to Saint Petersburg only to find out that his wife has remarried and his former employer has been replaced by a factory committee. The Saint Petersburg that he used to know also does not exist anymore. Renamed Leningrad and deprived of its status as capital, the city with its monumental buildings and statues of Lenin is foreign to Filimonov as is everything else in this new world created by the 1917 Revolution. As time goes by, however, he learns to appreciate the new ways. Although he is not reunited with his wife, he regains full control of his life. At the end of the film, Filimonov breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly as he declares, in true Soviet propaganda fashion: “There is still much work to be done!”
A young man who lost his memory during WWI seems to regains it many years later in Friedrich Ermler’s intriguingly cinematic silent drama. Elegantly rendered in glowing black and white Fragment of an Empire is often referred to as the most important film in Soviet Cinema. It certainly makes compelling viewing as a socio-political satire and outstanding critique of the soviet regime, all showcased in an inventively avant-garde arthouse drama that explores the process of remembrance through the medium of film.
The central character Filimonov (Feodor Nikitin) experiences the brash new postwar Soviet world of 1928, through his pre-war Tsarist-era eyes, a decade after WWI began. St Petersburg has now become Soviet Leningrad. The film opens in a stable where a dog who has just given birth to a large litter of puppies. This heart-rending sequence ends with the dog being shot as she looks up with a pleading vulnerability at a group of men who have discovered a soldier’s hiding place.
Made in the same year as Dziga Vertov’s energetic documentary Man with a Movie Camera, this is thematically a more ambitious and daring film that sets out to contemplate the social implications of the postwar period in Russia and to examine memory, through an entirely fresh perspective. Changing attitudes in the aftermath to hostilities have given rise to a new social and political landscape.
The hero (Fyodor Nikitin) gradually remembers he was married and sets out in his Cossack hat and overcoat across a landscape dominated by farming to find his wife (Lyudmila Semyonova) in his hometown of St Petersburg. In ten years the changes have been seismic. Large building soar up into the skyline, where once where small houses. He is completely dismayed by massive statues of Lenin and mesmerised by women wearing short skirts in the tram. The passing traffic bewilders him as he spins round trying to gain his bearings. Eventually he discovers his workplace has been taken over and his wife has re-married. His inquiries are regarded with derision by people he once new and trusted. The frenetic final act recalls Vertov’s film of the same year with its frenetic rhythms but the symbolism here is a sinister parody of Sovietism. MT
Fridrikh Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire has been described by Bryony Dixon as “a powerful personal story and the critique it allows of the revolution as seen by a soldier stuck in a Tsarist past. The film opens in the chaos of a bloody battle in 1914 and follows with an extraordinary evocation of the main protagonist’s returning memory. As played by regular Ermler lead Fiodor Nikitin, his response to the social changes he sees is both moving and politically astute”.
— Meredith Taylor (Filmuforia)
Extra commentary track by film historian and curator Peter Bagrov and film restorer Robert Byrne is included.
3.19GB | 1h 50m | 770×576 | mkv
Language(s):Only music with Russian intertitles