Fridrikh Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire is one of the most canonical films of Soviet silent cinema and is considered the director’s key work. In a legendary performance, Fiodor Nikitin plays Filimonov, a soldier who loses his memory during World War I, awakens ten years later, in a new, Soviet world. Where Filimonov used to have a world of his own—a house, a wife—he now finds that his wife has another husband and the surroundings he remembered are gone; in their place are the faceless members of the Komsomol in a land of radical Constructivist buildings that press down on him from all sides. “Where is Petersburg? Who is the master here?” he screams hysterically. But there is no Petersburg. There is a new, frightful city-hybrid. And there isn’t a master—only the factory committee.
Ermler’s intentions were to show the renewal of the country, the accomplishments of Soviet power, and the liberation and rebirth of the people, all through the eyes of a newcomer. But he had a remarkable ability to let the cat out of the bag, to turn propaganda into the most unvarnished exposure of reality. After numerous public screenings to baffled audiences, the film was re-edited, losing a quarter of its running time, many of its iconic Freudian images, and its striking intertitles, which were a full-fledged element of its montage. Even the most famous shot of the film, that of Christ in a gas mask, reproduced in dozens of publications, was absent from the distribution prints.
To recreate Ermler’s vision, an international team of archivists drew from multiple sources, reconstructing the film from 35mm nitrate prints held at the Eye Filmmuseum and the Cinémathèque Suisse, with missing title sequences reproduced from Russian “montage lists” (censorship records) held at Gosfilmofond. Peter Bagrov presents a special screening of the 2018 restoration accompanied by acclaimed pianist and composer Donald Sosin. UChicago professor Robert Bird will join Bagrov for a conversation after the film.
(Fridrikh Ermler, USSR, 1928, 109 min., 35mm courtesy of San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
Peter Bagrov is a film historian and archivist. From 2013-2017 he acted as Senior Curator at Gosfilmofond of Russia. He is now the Curator in Charge of the Moving Image Department at the George Eastman Museum and the Director of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation. His main areas of research interest are Soviet film, theater, and art history of the 1910s through 1960s.
Donald Sosin has scored over 4,000 films for live performance and recorded over 150 titles for DVD, cable, and streaming on many labels, including Criterion Collection, Kino, Milestone, Flicker Alley, and Turner Classic Movies. He contributed music to Alexander Payne’s Downsizing and has performed at major film festivals from New York, Telluride, San Francisco, Seattle, Hollywood, and Washington to the world’s largest silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy.