We could argue all day about propaganda's place in the world, but the debate becomes infinitely trickier when propaganda also happens to be great art.
It's easy to dismiss a Michael Moore movie, for instance, because there's usually not much there beyond the snarky, what-you-see-is-what-you-get politics. But confronted by a rush of pure cinema like Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl's regal rendering of a Nazi rally), suddenly we're in the presence of a towering work of art before which political messages, no matter how troubling, seem almost irrelevant. (It could be argued that the film's sublime artistry actually makes those messages all the more insidious, but that's another can of worms for another time.)
Stalin and Lenin also intuitively understood the agitprop potential of cinema, and, for my money, nobody has ever topped the Russians at mixing politics and art into a potent, mass-entertainment cocktail. If any further proof were needed, we now have Animated Soviet Propaganda (Kino-on-Video), a remarkable collection of gorgeously crafted films from the earliest days of the Communist Revolution in the 1920s to the dawn of Perestroika in the '80s.
The 40 short films collected here (over six hours of material) are organized thematically with each of the set's four discs laying out the party line in categories such as "American Imperialism," "Capitalist Sharks" and the unusually upbeat "Onward to the Shining Future: Communism." Cold War paranoia runs rampant, with enemies of the state literally portrayed as vermin and Soviet productivity and moral superiority repeatedly glorified in shorts like Forward March, Time! (a rare, psychedelicized piece from '77 that plays like Peter Max with a brain). A few of these films even extend Communism through space and time, positing interplanetary revolution via Soviets on Mars.
The prime targets here, though, are American greed and racism. The Famous Mr. Twister follows an ugly American abroad who becomes horrified at seeing a black man staying at his fancy hotel in Leningrad; 1933's striking Black and White takes a grimly surreal view of lynching, depicting miniaturized black bodies swinging from the rearview mirrors of Rolls Royces.
The political agenda here is painfully earnest, often bombastic and passionate to a fault, but the fertile imaginations fueling the animation keep things from becoming abrasive, often raising these shorts to the level of sublime art. Largely inspired by the arresting designs of vintage Soviet movie posters, but also incorporating overripe Disney lushness as well as the stark lines of 20th-century minimalism, these films display a level of creativity and care that is often breathtaking. "Everything was done with enthusiasm," says a commentator on the excellent documentary included on Animated Soviet Propaganda, "for art, for poetry." And even though some of these shorts are nearly a century old, that spirit of adventure is still unmistakable.
The cold war also hangs heavily over my other favorite disc of the moment, Carol Reed's The Third Man, a perennial classic newly released in a DVD edition that exceeds all expectations.
It's one more sweet irony (among many) that in The Third Man, one of the most visually striking black-and-white movies ever, nothing is really black and white. The film is all shades of velvety grey, and nothing is simple in screenwriter Graham Greene's morally dubious universe. There is no right or wrong here, only those who survive and those who don't. Greene and Reed manage to make this place not only fascinating, but also infinitely appealing.
The Third Man takes place in postwar Vienna, a once grand city carved up by the victorious Allies into various zones of influence, all of them hopelessly corrupt and ultimately unknowable. Enter American pulp writer Holly Martin (Joseph Cotton), come to visit his old pal Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who he soon discovers has died in what the authorities describe as a routine accident. Lime's death turns out to be anything but routine, however, and Holly eventually finds himself embroiled in an extremely sticky investigation that reveals almost nothing is quite what it seems — including a charming old friend who may very well be the biggest monster of them all.
The Criterion Collection released The Third Man in 1999, but their spiffed-up, double-disc set effectively renders that older edition obsolete. Technological advancements give us a noticeably improved picture, but where the new edition really shines is in the extras department.
All of the bonus features from the original disc have been retained — most notably, an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich and an episode from the Harry Lime radio series written and performed by Welles — but we also get two wonderful audio commentaries, the standout being a freewheeling conversation between screenwriter Tony Gilroy and director Steven Soderbergh, both hard-core Third Man fanatics. In addition, there's an entire second disc filled with over three hours of supplemental material — highlighted by two indispensable documentaries and a 1968 BBC production about Greene — and a fine, fat booklet. It's a fitting package for one of the cinema's true greats, come in from the cold at last.