Engineer Prite's Project Review
Engineer Prite’s Project was the directorial debut of Lev Kuleshov, made whilst he was still a teenager. The film no longer exists in its entirety and so what we find here is a reconstruction, just over thirty minutes in length and based on the director’s treatment. It’s the tale of young Mack Prite, a recent graduate from a technical college whose diploma involved the invention of a power station that runs entirely on peat. The fuel source is an important detail owing to its abundance - it can be found anywhere, the intertitles inform us - whilst Prite’s method is both simple and reliable. Consequently his invention poses a threat, particularly to the ‘transnational’ oil company that has a monopoly on electricity supply. This being a Soviet production from 1918, any explicit anti-capitalist message behind this is entirely intentional.
The science behind the titular project is barely discussed, rather the focus is on the days leading up to the peat-fuelled power station’s opening. Prite spends his energies to ensure that everything is running perfectly, whilst the head of the oil company, Orville Ross, spends his in order to achieve the opposite result. Ross owns three-quarters of the oil company’s shares and, without Prite’s invention, is doing rather well for himself - at the expense of smaller businesses and the common man. The new power station will change all of that, however, drastically reducing the company’s profits, its stranglehold on government and Ross’ own fortune. What follows is a tale of intrigue and espionage as the oil company boss seeks to protect his interests through whichever nefarious means necessary. Thus Engineer Prite’s Project becomes as much an action film - complete with chases and tussles - as it does a political parable.
This blend is an interesting one, particularly in the manner in which it separates the film from the then-current norms of Russian and Soviet cinema. Even at the tender age of 18, Kuleshov clearly had grand ideas for his brand of filmmaking, one that would both reflect the modernism of the times and pay a hefty homage to the American cinematic styles of the time. Here is a tale of engineers and electricity - key signifiers of the new era - told with a new brand of editing heavily influenced by the US style of filmmaking and soon to become its own distinctly Soviet technique. (Kuleshov’s future students included Vsevolod Pudovkin, Boris Barnet and, for a brief time, Sergei Eisenstein.) The effect in the case of Engineer Prite’s Project is nowhere near as developed as in Kuleshov’s later films (or those of his fellow directors), but there is no denying that his style is at a remove from that of his own teacher, Evgenii Bauer, arguably the key filmmaker of pre-Revolutionary Russian cinema.
Kuleshov served as a production designer under Bauer, creating the interiors of palaces, grand homes and the like. In part owing to its tiny budget and in part thanks to his ideas on what his particular brand of cinema should represent, the young director largely eschewed such elaborate artifice for his debut feature. Engineer Prite’s Project was mostly shot on location, utilising a mostly inexperienced cast, and with that comes an appealing immediacy. At times the out-in-the-open action recalls a sequence from one of Feuillade’s classic serials. Arguably the various bits of Westernised attire and paraphernalia - cloth caps and tweed jackets, women in trousers, men smoking pipes - add to this sensation too. There’s a freshness to the film, as a result, that proves itself to be quite infectious, even in this fragmentary form.
Of course there can be no denying that the incompleteness of Engineer Prite’s Project, despite the best intentions of those responsible for the restoration, does have its effects. The narrative is coherent enough as it stands, albeit with certain developments suffering from being too briskly dealt with or lacking in sufficient detail. Nevertheless what we do have represents a fascinating piece of Soviet cinema and one that is ably adorned with a wealth of contextualising material in this ‘Hyperkino’ edition from Ruscico. Thanks to the various annotations that can be accessed whilst viewing we are able to read Kuleshov’s full treatment for the film or view an alternative edit or understand exactly how this represented a cut-off point in Russian cinema, separating the distinctive style of Bauer from what was to follow. We can even sample some of Bauer’s work to back up such claims, noting both the lessons learned by Kuleshov and the ways in which he offered his own spin on them or a complete disavowal. There’s even an hour-long documentary devoted to the director that is only a click away. The end result is a disc that is easily the equal of the current standout Kuleshov release, Edition Filmmuseum’s excellent handling of his 1926 feature By the Law. That film may very well be his masterpiece, but in this particular edition of Engineer Prite’s Project we have an extremely valuable insight in their director’s early career and as such both should be considered just as essential.
Engineer Prite’s Project is one of six discs in the Hyperkino series have been picked up MovieMail for distribution in the UK. The others in the series are Eisenstein’s Strike and October, Kuleshov’s The Great Consoler, Boris Barnet’s By the Bluest of Seas and Alexander Medvedkin’s Happiness. (Click here for further information.) As discussed towards the end of the main bulk of this review, these are essentially ‘annotated’ editions whereby the viewer can access various notes, clips and facsimiles of documentaries via their remote. Each annotation is signified by a number appearing in the corner of the screen, though the film also appears on a second disc without the bells and whistles. The second disc also offers up a wider selection of language options; the annotated edition is available in English and Russian only.
In comparison to the earlier reviewed By the Bluest of Seas (see here), Engineer Prite’s Project is certainly the more expansive of the two in terms of these various annotations. Whereas that disc’s note were wholly text-based, here we find clips, documents and a full-length documentary to accompany the numerous mini-essays which combine both academic and anecdotal analysis to relate the film’s background and significance. As said, all of this is entirely welcome and uniformly excellent, raising the thirty-minute running time to a much meatier - and ultimately far more satisfying - viewing experience.
The presentation, however, is on the weak side. Clearly some work has gone into cleaning the surviving elements, but their transfer onto disc gives them an unconvincing video-like sheen that removes much of the fine detail and dilutes the contrast somewhat. It’s nonetheless watchable, but surely it should look better than this. The intertitles never survived and so have been replicated here in Russian with additional subtitles in a variety of languages. Given the look of the disc it’s hard to be entirely sure, but I suspect that these intertitles have also been put together electronically, although with that said they do retain a font and style that appears appropriate for a 1918 production. The piano score, performed by Dmitiri Matov and recorded live, is excellent, both as suitable accompaniment to the film and in terms of its rendering on disc.