My first impression of this film was that it was a lot like Georges Franju’s Judex. Both films came out within a few years of each other, both films have a very similar black and white aesthetic, with lots of sharp, high contrast compositions, and both films are set in the past to tie them in to an earlier work. One is tempted to call them “retro” although that isn’t quite the feel of either film.
Perhaps more to the point is that the slyly satiric and understated humor of Franju’s film seems to be mirrored here, although one wishes that Aleksandr Gintsburg had allowed a touch more of the implicit comedy of the film to show: some sources suggest that the Soviet studio bosses edited the film before its release and I suspect they may have cut some of the funnier bits because they weren’t serious enough for Communists. However, it is hard not to laugh at the beautifully ironic final shot of the film.
The other parallel that comes to mind are the Republic movie serials: the film moves at an incredible pace, burying us under doubles, conspiracies, lots of sinister characters, mysterious clues, and of course, the expected collection of assorted murders. In fact, it takes a while to sort out this deliberately overcomplicated mess of plotlines.
But the movie suddenly changes gears once the sinister Engineer Garin finally uses his “Hyperboloid” (or “Death Ray”, for those of us not trying to impress the audience). Garin himself is a marvelously devious, endlessly scheming character who easily outmaneuvers everyone around him to achieve the sort of world domination that only serial villains ever got to dream of. In a Soviet film like this, one expects a cabal of capitalists as the villain – or possibly a single, master capitalist, although that is rarer. So it seems odd that Garin neatly makes the evil capitalist his unwilling crony, and uses him as a tool in his plan to destroy the world economy. Garin then plans to bring about a brave new world of his own design, a new, rational order to take the place of every existing system.
This is not one of those things most Soviet villains do. In fact, by the time he has put his plan for world “peace” into action, he is starting to sound more like a socialist.
The hero is entirely forgettable and spends much of the film recuperating from his last set of adventures. However, for Western audiences, there is something fundamentally uncomfortable about Comrade Shelga. While we never learn exactly who or what he works for, he clearly is a Soviet official, a plain-clothes investigator who seems completely independent of any local authorities and even operates overseas. In a land dominated by secret police, it seems odd that anyone would make one a movie hero (whether he’s supposed to be OGPU, KGB or GRU) and even stranger that the Commissars would let them.
It does have one moment at the end that will shock most American viewers, as it is one of those things that Hollywood never does – although it reflects the Soviet ideological belief that the whole is more important that any of us.
The film is based on a novel by Alexi Tostoy (not that Tolstoy, although he was related), the author of Aelita, Queen of Mars, and is set in the year that the book came out, 1926. But I suspect that one of the main sources was a 1925 movie by Lev Kuleshov, Luch Smerti (The Death Ray). While many sources have claimed that it was based on the same novel as The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin this is not true, but the two still have much in common: the surviving portion of the film (the first and last reel are both missing) has the same race from one action scene to the next, and the same snarl of characters. It is hard to miss that the heroes of the two films look alike, as do the villains. Many of the scenes are similar.
Just as Franju had Feuillade’s silent serials in mind when he made Judex – but more the idea of those serials as he had not seen them prior to beginning his film, so Gintsburg seems to be trying to make a film like Luch Smerti but not an actual remake. One wonders, as Luch Smerti did very poorly at the box office (despite its huge budget), whether Gintsburg had ever seen it – or if he had, if he’d seen the complete film.
This would help explain the similarity between Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin and the Republic serials, as Kuleshov was trying to make a Soviet version of some of the more popular American films allowed in the USSR at the time – non-ideological action and detective movies and serials.
Oh, well. The movie looks good, it has incredible model work, an interesting villain and some very remarkable sequences (Garin’s mine at the end is particularly impressive – it looks like it came out of one of the 1930s German SF films like Gold or F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer). If you can get past the slow start and the initial confusion, then the film will end up grabbing you and dragging you along. Until the engineer’s ray gets you, of course. I just wish it had had more of the satiric edge that seems to be lurking just under its surface.
But then, considering where and when it was made, then it is truly incredible that they got as much in as they did.
(English Subtitles available here.)