“Fridrikh Ermler was one of the greatest masters in the history of Soviet and world cinema,” writes film scholar Peter Bagrov. “This was acknowledged by such filmmakers as Eisenstein, Chaplin, and Pabst … Why he is unknown in the West is a mystery.” In her 1992 book Movies for the Masses, Denise J. Youngblood concurs: “If influence is the criterion for determining the significance of a film director, then Fridrikh Ermler is perhaps the most important director in Soviet film history.”
Fragment of an Empire, Ermler’s last silent feature, which Youngblood considers “the most important film in Soviet silent cinema” is little known and woefully underappreciated today. That paragon of Soviet film scholarship Jay Leyda called it “a model of realism, presented without any sophistication, almost as if Ermler were telling a parable, though its technique recalls both Eisenstein and Dovzhenko.”
The story concerns a young man, Filimonov, drafted into the tsar’s army during World War I, who becomes a total amnesiac due to shell shock. He begins to regain his memory a few years later and is at pains to understand what happened as his country has been thoroughly transformed by the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.
A gentle soul, Filimonov appears to be a simpleton at first. The film opens on a grim scene of bodies piled up at a rural railroad station during the Civil War between the Red Army and the Whites, who were trying to restore the old regime. Filimonov, completely unaware of the surrounding circumstances, does a kindness to a helpless Red soldier.
The otherwise placid Filimonov is haunted by a woman’s face, a medal in the shape of a cross, and other things he sees that seem familiar but cannot understand why. When the Civil War is over, his curiosity leads him to undertake a trip to Petrograd (whose name has been changed to Leningrad), his hometown. Upon arriving he recognizes the famous Narva Arch but is puzzled by a statue of Lenin, the new avant-garde buildings, women wearing short skirts.
Filimonov tries to find a job at his old workplace, but the old boss no longer runs the factory. It is run by a factory committee and is now a workers collective. Little by little, as Filimonov learns that society is run by the workers and peasants, he begins to appreciate what has happened. He becomes an accepted member of the workforce and slowly becomes aware of what it means for the workers (like himself) and peasants to be in charge.
But even as he fills in the missing pieces of the puzzle, he still longs to find his wife Natasha. Sympathetic coworkers do a little research and find out who she is and send him to her address. He is dismayed to find that she is now remarried. Her new husband is an officious party hack who lectures workers on women’s rights but treats his own wife like an inferior servant. Natasha’s new husband is an archetype of the rising Soviet apparatchik who has lots of books by Lenin on the shelf, but nothing in common politically or temperamentally with the original Bolshevik revolutionaries. Natasha, even though she is a victim of her husband’s sexist attitudes, is too weak to stand up for herself and leave him. Filimonov sees the two of them as “fragments” of the old society.
Ermler himself was drafted into the army in 1916 at the age of eighteen to fight for the tsar in World War I. Born Vladimir Breslav into a struggling Jewish family in Latvia, he had no formal education. However, his ability to speak German made him useful as a spy for the tsarist army under the name Fridrikh Ermler. After WWI, Ermler enthusiastically joined the Bolsheviks and was assigned to the Cheka, the secret police created to fight the counterrevolution. Throughout his life Ermler was known as a highly political and committed Communist Party member.
When the Whites were finally vanquished, Ermler tried to fulfill a youthful dream to become an actor but soon decided he had no acting talent and aimed instead to become a director. After a brief stint at the Leningrad Institute of Screen Arts with its old-school teachers and ideology, Ermler founded a new film school, the Cinema Experimental Workshop (KEM), with the aim of revolutionizing the entire profession. Here with KEM’s slogans “No feelings!” “No transformations!” “Down with Stanislavsky! “Long live Meyerhold!” he led the way to what he believed to be a “proletarian” approach to cinema. “A film worker should be like a cabinetmaker,” he pronounced. Cinema to him was a craft not an art. That would be too pretentious. He made films from the point of view of a political activist.
With his third film, Katka the Apple Seller (1926), Ermler’s career began to take off. This story of a young peasant woman who leaves her native village to work in the big city of Leningrad where she falls in with a bad crowd was the first collaboration between Ermler and the actor Fiodor Nikitin, who plays the lead role of Filimonov in Fragment.
It was with 1927’s The Parisian Cobbler that Ermler was able to find an effective vehicle for his concept that films should deal with the problems of contemporary Soviet society, films that were not merely empty glorifications of everything Soviet, but rather films that had both Soviet villains as well as Soviet heroes, films to confront Soviet problems. This genre became known as the bytovoi film, and Parisian Cobbler was the first. The bytovoi, or “slice of life,” film period lasted until 1934, on the verge of Stalin’s Great Purge when it became dangerous to identify any Soviet “villains” or “problems.” Those categories could change from day to day, and a single misstep could result in being declared an enemy of the state, followed by banishment or even death.
The newcomer Ermler learned his craft quickly. The work of the untutored young man soon became profound, nuanced, and layered. “From a psychological point of view,” the British documentarian and film historian Paul Rotha wrote about Fragment of an Empire in 1930, “the direction of Ermler was amazing. The subconscious process of the man’s [Filimonov] mind, particularly in the return of his memory through an association of latent ideas, was portrayed with an extraordinary power. From death to emptiness, from emptiness to perplexity, from perplexity to understanding, the changing mental states were subtly revealed.”
Ermler’s partner in Fragment, of course, was the actor who portrayed Filimonov, Fiodor Nikitin. The collaboration of those two should have been impossible; they were like oil and water. Nikitin was from an aristocratic background with an excellent education—and a confirmed admirer of Stanislavsky’s Method. To prepare for his part as Filimonov, Nikitin disguised himself as a doctor’s assistant in the Forel Psychiatric Clinic, where he studied amnesia patients. Ermler was a believer in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s more external approach to performance and enjoyed goading his lead actor on set. Yet whatever the tools used Ermler saw that he was getting a great performer in Nikitin. In all, they made four films together. By the end of shooting Fragment, however, the two could no longer tolerate each other and never worked together again.
Nonetheless, in his memoirs published in 1970, a few years after the director’s death, Nikitin spoke admiringly of the man who had vexed him so much. “I am happy that for three years I was Fridrikh Ermler’s comrade-in-arms,” he recalled. “The semiliterate druggist’s boy from Rezekne, next a soldier for the Revolution, the producer of the most talented cinematic chronicles of the party, a director of worldwide fame—surely one hears in this fairy-tale biography the mighty wind of October.”
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius