Black and white and red all over

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival unearths a USSR classic

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A wardrobe malfunction of epic proportions dooms a soldier (and ultimately his comrades) in Mikhail Kalatozov's 1931 The Nail

Mikhail Kalatozov's career had a large hole in the middle, one that remains incompletely explained. Why were the two periods of his greatest work separated by roughly three decades? Why did he make almost nothing between? The answer definitely involved Stalin and his fickle cultural watchdogs, even if the full reason for such a long lull (or fall from favor) might never be known.

At least he was spared a permanent gulag vacation, which would have deprived us of a late 1950s reflowering that resulted in three world classics still being discovered in the West — particularly since 1964's astonishing I Am Cuba got rereleased under Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese's auspices 16 years ago. If you've seen that or another Kalatozov film, it's distressing to think he spent any time unwillingly idle, since every feature still accessible today is some kind of masterpiece.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's 16th annual edition offers the last feature he made before that mysterious long withdrawal from the director's chair. Nail in the Boot (1931) lasts just 53 minutes, but packs in more photographic and editorial ideas than a dozen features twice its length. It's a dazzling application of sheer stylistic invention to propagandic material. Yet rather than please the apparatchiks upstairs, it ticked them off enough to derail Kalatozov's career for a good spell.

Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, he began working as an actor, editor, and cinematographer in that (reluctant) Soviet republic's 1920s film industry, eventually graduating to directing documentaries celebrating the USSR's industrial, agricultural, and cultural advancement. Little is known about a first narrative feature, 1930's Little Blind Girl. But the same year's semi-staged Salt for Svanetia won acclaim for its strikingly poetical imagery of life in a remote Caucasus Mountains village.

That success presumably greased the way for the larger endeavor of Nail in the Boot, which mixes up the epic and the intimate, beautiful shots of lovingly lit machinery and glowing worker faces intercut with striking battle vistas and the proverbial cast of thousands. The story can be reduced to the title's troublesome metal inch: when enemy forces strand armored train "Guardian of the Revolution" between blown-up track sections, a lone comrade (Aleqsandre Jaliashevili) is dispatched on foot to notify HQ. Running over hill and dale, he's severely hampered when the poorly made boot from his own factory falls apart, driving a binding nail into his foot. As a result, his trapped compatriots are gassed to death before reinforcements arrive.

At a huge subsequent Party trial, our fallen hero is excoriated as a traitor for stopping to soak his painful, bleeding foot. "You shot them! The undelivered dispatch was like a bullet!" "He spared his feet and destroyed the armored train!" angry comrades shout, calling for his head. But this nameless prole finally defends himself, indicting his footwear's shoddy workmanship as at least equal in fault. Nail in the Boot was intended as a parable (based in turn on a Russian folk tale) urging Soviets to always perform superlatively for the good of all, whatever their job. A final intertitle accuses lazy bones present: "Among you spectators: are there many like the bootmakers?"

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