A MoMA presentation of films from early Soviet studio Mezhrabprom saves the best, ‘Miss Mend,’ for almost-last

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A scene from 'Miss Mend.' ()
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It's been provocative, disturbing, as well as entertaining, to be at the Museum of Modern Art this month watching films produced by Moscow's Mezhrabprom studio—"The Red Dream Factory"during the 1920s and '30s.

On view has been filmmaking at its most potent and even poetic, yoked in various degrees of severity to a crude and often brutal totalitarian ideology. And yet there's levity here, too, of the sort that could have made even Garbo's Ninotchka crack that first smile.

The series runs through April 30, and MOMA has saved one of the most fun offerings for almost-last. On April 26 and 28 it shows 1926's Miss Mend, a comic thriller mostly set in the mother ship of capitalism, our very own US of A.

Started in 1922, the Mezhabprom studio was a product of the New Economic Policy—"N.E.P."—which began in 1921. The young and impoverished Soviet state was relaxing its proscriptions on private enterprise and looking for foreign investment. German Communist Willi Münzenberg and Russian entrepreneur Moisei Alenikov struck up a partnership. They saw an opportunity in the drop in Soviet film production, and began importing great films from the peak of German Expressionism into the USSR. But then, with the establishment of Mezhrabprom's Moscow plant, came the unspooling of authentic Soviet product that would go on to establish an international presence and influence.

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Soviet film experimentation participated in the international exploration of techniques for telling stories in ways that would be unique to film. The Soviets incorporated and innovated from American dynamism of direction and editing. The films on view at MOMA maintain visual and narrative rhythms that make use of alliterative staccato; frequently we're strafed with rapid-fire close-ups that keep getting get tighter and tighter. The acting techniques are a hybrid as wild as the political times. There's the naturalism of Stanislavsky as well as the frankly theatrical and exaggerated styles that Meyerhold and other Russian directors started to promote in the decade before the 1917 Revolution. And there is the didacticism of Socialist Realism, which in the early 1930s became the Soviet party line in the arts. That gives us Soviet actors striking a heroic new gaze at the future, while sometimes seeming to turn themselves into human placards in the process.

Shown earlier this month were two extraordinary talkies directed by Boris Barnet. 1931's Thaw exists in support of evil: Stalin's extermination of the kulaks, the land-owning peasant class. (As arbitrary and draconic arrest quotas were established, that could mean anyone caught near an inch of dirt.) Over and over again, the kulaks in Thaw do bad things to the true village proletariat. 1933's The Patriots shows a small Russian city that survives World War I, then the provisional government that unseated Czar Nicholas II, before finding salvation with the Bolsheviks. Barnet's directing provides almost a waffling counterpoint to the polemics; his shifts of tone from extremes of comedy to melodrama keep confusing the dogma.

Comedy films of the era tended to elude doctrinal strictures most of all. During the '20s, the Soviet population came to love American films and film stars. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks even visited the USSR in 1926. Sergei Komarov's 1927 A Kiss For Mary Pickford employs actual newsreel footage of their visit. To please his girlfriend, Igor Ilyinsky, one of the most important Soviet comic stars, becomes a movie studio stuntman. He gets to kiss Mary when she visits, becomes an instant celebrity as a result, and then decides fame is not for him.

Directed by Barnet together with Fydor Osep, Miss Mend is long, and will be shown with intermission. But there's not a single dull moment in it. Ilyinsky, Vladimir Fogel, and Barnet himself star as three Ameican journalists. They became entangled with an organization devoted to defeating Bolshevism, headed by a sinister mastermind who's invented a toxic serum. Eventually they have to follow him to the USSR to stop him before he knocks Bolshevism clear out of the ballpark. All three actors are outstanding exponents of physical comedy, and this film virtually dances off the screen.

The New Economic Policy ended in 1928 with Stalin's first Five Year Plan. An accelerating implementation of hypernationalism and xenophobia meant that Soviets who had any contact with foreigners easily became suspect. Mezhrabprom didn't stand a chance; Stalin turned it into a studio for children's films in 1936.

Originally organized by the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin, and the Berlin International Film Festival, MOMA's series includes a number of films available on DVD, but the chance to see them on the big screen is a rare opportunity. The excellent prints were loaned by archives in Europe and Russia, and the silents hum along to live accompaniment by Ben Model.