A Scottish premiere of an overlooked gem of classic Armenian cinema: “House on the Volcano” at the Samizdat Eastern European Film Festival3 min read
On 13 September, a Wednesday evening, I braved the Glasgow rain to see the newly restored Armenian silent film House on the Volcano which promised to be the crowning jewel of the Samizdat festival’s programme this year. Accompanied by a live score composed by Juliet Merchant, this 4K remastering of Hamo Beknazarian’s 1929 classic drew some much-warranted attention to an overlooked gem of Armenian cinema.
House on the Volcano mythologises the establishment of communism in the Caucasus through the tale of the increasingly militant organisation of oil-workers during the period 1907-08. The film is above all transnational in its objectives, emphasising the important role of cross-ethnic unity in the face of bosses who seek to stoke division across Azeri-Armenian lines. In a time of ongoing strife between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the film’s transnational message of unity across cultural boundaries is pertinent.
Stylistically, the film wears its influences on its sleeve, with nods to German expressionism and Soviet filmmakers Eisenstein and Vertov. Beknazarian’s experimental style manifests itself in instances of handheld, shaky shots of vast landscapes and the recurring motif of framing characters through their reflections in puddles of oil. This new restoration really draws attention to these elements of playfulness in Beknazarian’s visual style, crispening the contrasts of the black-and-white images and enhancing their thematic weight. The smooth, velvety oil — fittingly dubbed ‘black milk’ in one intertitle — becomes visually associated with images of fire and water, presented as a thing of purity and beauty. With the current, dire, state of the planet integrally tied to fossil fuels, there is, justifiably, a modern tendency to view oil fields as harbingers of evil; something inherently toxic and grim. In this light, it is fascinating to take a step back from this and observe how fossil fuels are presented as prime examples of Soviet wealth and industrial strength: during the film’s prologue, industrial landscapes scattered with oil derricks are shot with beauty and shown as hallmarks of a clean, safe, and progressive future. Similarly, the workers’ village is shown as a pastoral place, filled with flowers and clean quiet streets, framed by the pure white of a cloudless sky.
Merchant’s score cooperates with this cinematography skilfully, incorporating uneasy rumbling tones with darkened shots of unsafe, crumbling machinery. Low bass drones accompany images of grinding machinery, while romantic swells of strings are employed during instances of unity and rebellion. Merchant expertly uses moments of silence to create tension, and removes the continuous beat of the percussion during the film’s pivotal fire, creating an eerie discomfort by focusing attention on the horrific images on screen, without the addition of any flourished theatrical, emotional score, thus plainly laying out Bek-Nazaryan’s vision. Gradually, the music is brought back through moments of high-frequency synth drones which evoke helpless screams.
Merchant’s performance of her score was an absolute triumph, the composer having worked with an Armenian orchestra to incorporate instrumentation from the Caucasus alongside more modern synth sounds. Distorted lofi crackles of bassy synths worked together with the intense quick-cut montage of the film’s climactic sequence. In a short talk following the film’s screening, Merchant informed the audience that her objective in writing the score was to bring a new atmosphere to the film, a task at which she has most definitely succeeded.
House on the Volcano should stand alongside the greats of the Soviet film canon: Beknazarian was a master of his craft, and the film’s subject matter feels all too relevant placed in the modern contexts of climate change and continued conflict in the Caucuses. This event really outlined the importance of a festival like Samizdat to me: in bringing together live music and an unearthed classic of a too-often overlooked film industry, the organisers have helped to stoke a renewed appreciation for Armenian film history in the process – and this is just one example pulled from their expansive catalogue this year.
House on the Volcano was screened on 13 September at the CCA Glasgow. Find full event details here.