Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (USSR, 1965)

As I’ve mentioned before, most of the Soviet sci-fi films I’ve covered on 4DK eventually saw release of some kind in the United States, albeit in abridged or bastardized form. This was not the case, however, with The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin, most likely because, being an earthbound story set in 1925, it lacked any of the type of special effects sequences that Roger Corman could wrap a low budget space opera around. This is a shame really, because the film is a fantastically well made and entertaining pulp adventure, one that -- anti-capitalist sentiments notwithdtanding -- I’m sure would have translated easily to any culture that counted ten year old boys among its inhabitants.

Engineer Garin was based on the 1927 novel The Garin Death Ray by Aleksei N. Tolstoy. A distant relation of Leo Tolstoy, Aleksei was a popular author of primarily science and historical fiction whose earlier novel Aelita had formed the basis for the prototypical soviet sci-fi film Aelita: Queen of Mars. The Garin Death Ray proved to be one of his most successful works, and was especially popular among school aged boys. A number of filmmakers harbored hopes of adapting it to the screen over the years, but Soviet authorities, put off by the novel’s depiction of a Russian technician who sells his revolutionary laser beam invention to the West and then flees the country, were not eager to provide the funding. (By the way, Wikipedia informs that such an invention would be a paraboloid, rather than a hyperboloid, and I would love to see a debate over that point spring up in the comments section.)

Cinematographer-turned-director Aleksandr Gintsburg and screenwriter Iosif Manevich felt they had found a way around their superiors’ problems with the material when they proposed that their version of Garin be mounted as a children’s film, and authorities indeed allowed them to start production, under the aegis of Gorky Studios’ Children and Youth wing, with relatively little of the scrutiny that would have been paid to a more widely targeted film. All of which is not to say that Gintsburg and Manevich didn't tow the party line; in this telling of the tale it is clear that the threat comes less from the death ray itself, but from the potential for its destructive power, as a result of its sale to private interests in the West, to become subject to the caprices of capital.

However, by the time Gintsburg and Manevich had completed filming on The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin, Soviet physicists Aleksandr Prokhorov and Nikolai Basov had won the Nobel Prize for discoveries related to real life laser beams. And government officials, now eager to tout Tolstoy’s prescience in foreseeing such discoveries, suddenly became a lot more hands-on with the project, insisting that some of the more juvenile elements -- including a wraparound segment involving two modern boys marveling over a laser-pierced coin -- be excised in order not to undermine the serious nature of the work. Gintsburg and Manevich, of course, complied; though it is perhaps their earlier efforts that nonetheless make some of Garin come across like an especially sophisticated Tin Tin adventure.

The much lauded Russian stage and screen actor Evgeni Evstigneez provides Garin with its compelling center by way of his dimensional portrayal of the titular engineer. As Shelga, the dogged Soviet agent on Garin’s tail, Vsevolod Safonov perhaps makes for a more conventional protagonist, but he is nonetheless dwarfed by the gravitas of the movie's star. As played by Evstigneez, Garin is a brilliant master criminal on the one hand and, on the other, a principled misanthrope in pursuit of his own utopian, if flawed, vision -- essentially a combination in equal parts of Doctor Mabuse and Captain Nemo. The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin mirrors this duality in its structure, dedicating its first half to shadowy intrigues played out in a claustrophobic noir landscape and its second to a broad horizon adventure complete with globe-spanning chases, spectacular battles at sea, and a memorable escape from Siberia by dirigible.

Despite it being putatively a childrens film, I must confess that my adult mind was baffled by some of the convolutions of Engineer Garin’s plot, which involves quite a few characters, most of whom seem to harbor some pretty fluid allegiances (not to mention the fact that Garin employs a series of doubles throughout the first half of the film in order to throw off his pursuers -- and perhaps the audience as well). But, in essence, I think it boils down to this: Brilliant engineer Petr Petrovich Garin appropriates the laser device conceptualized by one Professor Mantsev and flees with it to Paris, where he temporarily throws his lot in with Rolling (Mikhail Astangov), a craven Western industrialist who works behind the scenes to bump Garin off and steal the laser for himself. After various attempts to capture him by the Soviet agent Shelga, Rolling’s spies, and a pair of detectives who seem to be representing the interests of whichever side is paying the most at the moment, Garin escapes with his lover Zoya (Natalya Klimova, giving a silent film femme fatale performance that somehow feels so wonderfully right) to his fantastically appointed private island.

On the island, Garin has set up a massive mining operation, wherein, using the laser, he plans to access a nearly inexhaustible supply of gold located deep within the bowels of the Earth. This he will in turn use to destabilize the world’s economy and, of course, make himself the master of all -- a plan that the assembled fat cats of the world, dazzled by the idea of limitless gold, welcome enthusiastically, as demonstrated in a scene where a crowd of them cheers Garin on at a Nuremberg-style rally while waving signs reading "GOLD". Of course, the world's more sober elements,  less easily distracted by shiny things, object, but quickly find that their many battleships are no match for the destructive power of Garin’s laser.

As lensed by cinematographer Aleksandr Rybin and designed by Yevgeni Galej, The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin is undeniably a handsomely crafted and imaginatively visualized film, not only rich in composition and fluid camerawork, but also delightful in the way it combines the sensibilities of both its own time and that of Tolstoy’s novel. The dense atmospherics and breathless cutthroat antics of the first half call to mind at once the serials of Louis Feuillade and the more contemporary German Krimi, while the second has a look that seamlessly blends deco and mod era futurism (all of which is bolstered by a score by composer M. Vainberg that is tense, angular, and aggressively modern). This last is especially true of the scenes involving Garin’s island fortress, which were shot combining miniatures with footage shot at the newly completed All Russia Exhibition Center metro station, and during which the film achieves a sort of steam punk James Bond aesthetic long before that would be a thing. Along with the impressive effects sequences depicting the attack on the island by sea and Garin’s destruction of a sprawling refinery owned by one of Rolling's competitors, all of the above exemplify the high technical standards that made Soviet fantasy films so ripe for pilfering by penny pinching Western producers.

At the conclusion of Engineer Garin, the efforts of Shelga and a plucky youngster named Ivan put a predictable end to Garin’s scheme. And even though the fact that Garin is here a representative not only of classic monomaniacal villainy, but also the evils of capitalism itself, preordains such an outcome, I couldn't help feeling a little sad that he didn’t get away with it. This is due, I think, as much to Evgeni Evstigneez’s charismatic portrayal of him as it is to my unreformed Western mindset. But it also may simply be a matter of me grieving the fact that The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin had to end at all. For with its end came the awareness that I am indeed a grown man, and not the wide eyed grade schooler that watching it momentarily reduced me to.

[Forward to 2:00 to see the hyperboloid in action.]


Michael Barnum said...

A few weeks back, quite by coincidence...although your past blog posts are likely what put me in the proper frame of mind...I was adding assorted Russian fantastic films to my "wish list." Somehow, this movie escaped my notice. Thank you for rectifying that, Todd!

Now, if you can do something about my credit card bills so that I can actually afford to buy all of these splendid Soviet DVDs....

Todd said...

I'm sorry, Mike. Going broke buying Soviet DVDs is the only way for you to learn about the perils of consumerism.

Idrian said...


I just watched the video clip you posted in its entirety. I have to say the death ray's effects don't astound me (sorry), although the few shots of the apparatus itself give me a '20s vibe. What I arguably liked more was the noirish effect of the excerpt (no one would ever think this was made in the mid-'60s) and how Garin is Such a manipulator and Shelga his opposite.

Todd said...

Sorry you were under-enthused by the death ray. I will scrap my prototype post haste and start anew. On the DVD, there's an interview with this film's cinematographer, who said that, for the larger version of the hyperboloid, they just used the studio's rear projector and built the sets around it. I think it helps if you're a 1920s guy in terms of being awed by it (perhaps try wearing a bowler while watching it next time). And, yes, I really enjoyed the noir-ish feel of the movie overall, too.

Idrian said...

Thanks for the advice, Todd.

Morgan Champion said...

Youtube has just deleted the account because of copyright infringement.