Mother (Mat, 1926) (Kino Lorber)

Pudovkin Makes the Revolution Human: The Bolshevik Trilogy

Inspired by D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, Vsevolod Pudovkin would leave his chemistry studies for cinema. His films Mother, The End of St. Petersburg, and Storm over Asia are presented in The Bolshevik Trilogy.

The Bolshevik Trilogy
Vsevolod Pudovkin
Flicker Alley
10 March 2020

Comrades, the Soviet cinema of the 1920s marked a creative explosion, especially in techniques of editing, the like and breadth of which were never seen again. Among these creators was Vsevolod Pudovkin, four of whose most important films are showcased in The Bolshevik Trilogy, a Blu-ray set produced by Flicker Alley in collaboration with Blackhawk Films and Lobster Films.

A little older than his colleagues, Pudovkin displayed techniques slightly less splashy than those of Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov and correspondingly more at the service of individual humans rather than “the masses”, and the irony is that this probably made the masses more emotionally responsive to his films. We mention these filmmakers together because they are the most famous and the most self-conscious in applying editing techniques, and also because they were the most forthright and effective in using cinema as propaganda in praise of the Russian Revolution and the workers’ state.

Pudovkin apprenticed with Lev Kuleshov, a master several years younger than he, who proclaimed the principles of editing to create emotions in the viewer. While pioneers in theatrical drama, such as Konstantin Stanislavsky, were exploring how the actor must embody and convey emotion, Kuleshov virtually refuted cinematic acting by demonstrating that the identical close-up of an actor can be “read” as containing the appropriate emotion depending on what objects are in the surrounding shots. This process, dubbed the “Kuleshov effect”, is the opposite of an actor projecting emotion for the audience. Essentially, actors don’t need to act if viewers can project the emotion for them out of the raw material of film images.

Editing also creates actions that never existed in a world that doesn’t exist. That idea can be found in Pudovkin’s first fiction film, the satirical short Chess Fever (Shakhmatnaya goryachka,1925), co-directed by writer Nikolai Shpikovsky. It’s included as a vital bonus on the Blu-ray.

As the late filmmaker and historian Jay Leyda explains in his landmark Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (Allen & Unwin, 1960), Pudovkin was asked to make a film about the International Chess Tournament at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol in November 1925, where such masters as José Raúl Capablanca were playing.

Pudovkin filmed them, ostensibly as newsreel footage, and cut them into a comic scenario about a lanky brush-headed fool (Vladimir Fogel) swept up in the city’s chess fad to the consternation of his neglected girlfriend (Olga Zemtsova, aka Mrs. Pudovkin). By editing Capablanca with bodily closeups of another actor entirely, the film creates the impression that the chess master engages in a little drama with her. This sets a precedent for how footage of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on their visit to Russia would be incorporated into Sergei Komarov’s comedy A Kiss from Mary Pickford (Potseluy Meri Pikford, 1927). Those Russians knew how to co-opt their foreign visitors.

The witty editing and wacky visual gags are the attraction of Chess Fever and show how these montage techniques can work as well for comedy as they had for kinetic action in Kuleshov’s The Death Ray (1925), scripted by Pudovkin as a pastiche of American chase films and French serials. Better, in fact, since The Death Ray wasn’t a popular success. Incidentally, a Blu-ray collection of Kuleshov’s films would be welcome and important.

img-4861( Storm Over Asia) (Kino Lorber)

Aside from a scientific documentary, Pudovkin’s next film and first narrative feature turned into a monument of Soviet cinema: Mother (Mat, 1926), a simple emotional drama from Maxim Gorky’s famous 1906 novel. The book was inspired by the failed 1905 Revolution, which is also the subject of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925). In Soviet mythology, this event is perceived as the forerunner that would bear fruit over a decade later in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The little mother of the title, bent under the worries of poverty and a drunken useless husband (who’s not in the novel), her head wrapped in a scarf like some old babushka, is played by Nina Baranovskaya, a professional stage actress associated with the Moscow Art Theatre and only just hitting 40. She’s initially examined from a height, the camera looking down upon her as a small downtrodden figure in a room made bare by poverty and her husband’s tendency to trade objects for booze.

When the husband (Aleksandr Chistyakov) is killed in a political brawl over the workers’ strike into which he’s manipulated, it’s more of a release to the mother than a stress. She reacts with a mostly contained impassivity that, according to the commentary, was a point of contention between actress and director. He would allow her sometimes to act whole scenes expressively, and then only use brief shots from the end of the performance in order to present her in an understated, naturalistic register.

The real conflict involves the son Pavel (Nikolai Batalov of full sensual lips and frizzy hair), who’d been asked by a revolutionary girlfriend (Zemtsova) to hide some guns under a floorboard. The mother is so beaten by life and so fearful of any visit from the Tsar’s military authorities (one of whom is played by Pudovkin) that she thinks she’s best avoiding trouble by handing the guns over. Of course, the next blow is that her son is condemned to Siberia in a trial scene of near-parodic caricatures among judges and spectators.

“Where is truth?” she cries in possibly her life’s first outburst against authority. As her son awaits deportation or escape, she joins the uprising masses in a demonstration that will be brutally put down. What matters is her raised consciousness as a symbol of Mother Russia, purposely doubling her with Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People as she defiantly carries what we understand as the red flag of proletarian revolution. Whereas she’d been introduced as a small figure looked upon from on high, the camera now looks up at her, free of her scarf, striding like a colossus.

If a book could be written on the symbolism of Russia as mother, that’s partly due to Gorky and this film. It’s not the first film of Gorky’s novel — Alexander Razumni had made one in 1920–and not the last either, but this is the famous one. The characters are types and, as with Eisenstein, most of the actors are typecast from physical and facial characteristics. Individual shots have all the considerable iconic power that can be created from uncluttered mise-en-scène, angle, lighting and the human face, yet it’s the editing that most effectively conveys the ideas to be manifested from these images.

As Russian scholar Peter Bagrov observes in his commentary, writer Nathan Zarkhi makes a few significant changes to Gorky’s story, and Zarkhi and photographer Anatoli Golovnya must be counted as equal collaborators with Pudovkin, working out every detail together from the start. Bagrov observes not only the Delacroix reference but a nod to a Van Gogh painting, observing that in this flowering of avant-garde techniques, “anything goes”. Much of Bagrov’s input quotes Leyda, whose extensive discussion of the film remains a basic text. Among other remarks, Leyda asserts that this film’s “expert cutting on human movement” has been “more widely absorbed into general film technique than its more abstract cutting propositions.”

Pudovkin’s acknowledged debt to D.W. Griffith is demonstrated in the scene where Pavel jumps from one ice floe to another in emulation of a famous scene in Way Down East (1920). This is another way of saying the film owes a hidden debt to American novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, since Griffith lifted the idea from her 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and its barnstorming stage productions.

img-4862(Storm Over Asia / The Bolshevik Trilogy) (Kino Lorber)

Mother was tremendously successful at home and abroad. In fact, the print here is an old American one with English titles, and it’s in fairly battered and unrestored shape with a piano score by Antonio Coppola. The next film, The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga, 1927), is a 1969 Russian restoration of a film commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution within a fictional story. It’s by far the best-looking print in the set.

Again working with writer Zarkhi and photographer Golovnya, and credited as co-director with Mikhail Doller (who’d also worked crucially on Mother), Pudovkin constructs a story of evolving class consciousness and solidarity among the downtrodden workers. The film opens in bucolic rural beauty, and when Pudovkin shoots the lyrical countryside, he tends to do it from an elevated perspective so that the ground fills the screen as people walk across it. This beauty is contrasted with the harshness of farm life, as a woman’s birth of a daughter is greeted by the glum, ancient, Tolstoyan onlookers as “another mouth to feed”.

In response to this crisis of another mouth, the strapping handsome blond peasant (Ivan Chuvelev) travels to the city in hopes of finding work, perhaps in the factory where his Bolshevik cousin (Chistyakov, the drunken brute in Mother) works. This time, the housewife (Baranovskaya again) is younger and harder, calmly announcing to the country bumpkin that he’d better go out and find work for himself, as nobody will feed him.

She seems to have little use for a bald rabble-rousing co-worker (Alexander Gromov) in their midst, but when our peasant finds himself goaded into denouncing the bald one for fomenting a strike where the peasant has been hired as a scab, the peasant realizes that he’s unwittingly caused the arrest of his own cousin as well, just as the title figure in Mother unwittingly caused her son’s arrest. The wife beats her fists against the traitor, and when he goes to protest injustice at the factory and makes a violent scene, he gets arrested and shipped off to fight in the newly declared war, the Great War or World War I.

This war is defined as the result of finagling among financiers who profit from the labor of soldiers just as they’ve been profiting from farmers. A roomful of identical stuffed shirts in glittering finery, presented with their heads cut out of frame, observes that apart from its obvious advantages, war will take the peasants’ minds off strikes and revolutions.

Cross-cutting between the parallel activities of bowler-hatted speculators at the stock exchange and the soldiers dying in muck becomes the cinematic equivalent of a political pamphlet and prepares the viewer for military uprising when soldiers are called upon to defend the fatcats who rule the provisional government of February to October 1917, with their monocles and pinstripes and, among the women, gloves and feathered fans.

Choices like this support Leyda’s opinion of The End of St. Petersburg as “the most deliberately symbolistic of Pudovkin’s films, and the influence of Alexander Blok’s poetry and of Andrei Byely’s novel, Petersburg, can still be detected in this rich film.”

Leyda is worth quoting further: “Indeed, the film’s comments on ‘war’ seem far more meaningful than its comments on ‘revolution’. The man who made the agonizing battlefield scenes of The End of St. Petersburg had seen both real battlefields and the battlefields shown in [D.W. Griffith’s] The Birth of a Nation (1914), but the man who related those scenes to the frantically grabbing scenes at the stock-exchange, in a brilliant image of ‘encouragement’, had stepped intellectually beyond his master Griffith.”

As the October Revolution wasn’t put down, the ending is “happy”, albeit intriguingly subdued, as it focuses on its three long-suffering characters who are considerably less triumphal than the blaring title cards.

The following year, Eisenstein and Grigori Alexandrov covered similar ground in another anniversary project, October: Ten Days That Shook the World (Oktyabr’: Desyat’ dney kotorye potryasli mir). Leyda points out two other films on the same subject released within a week of Pudovkin’s: Esther Shub’s found-footage documentary The Great Road (Veliky put) and Boris Barnet’s Moscow in October (Moskva v Oktyabre).

The allegedly decadent provisional government would also be satirized by association with the 1871 Paris Commune in a truly delirious film from Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon, 1929), a late silent released with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich. Pudovkin appears in it. A Blu-ray of that would be well in order.

img-4863Storm Over Asia (Kino Lorber)

The third film in Pudovkin’s Revolution trilogy is Storm Over Asia (Potomok Chingiskhana, 1928), presented in a 2K scan (not a digital restoration) by Lobster Films. It still looks good as shot by Golovnya in the bleakly magnificent Mongolian steppes. The story appears to take place in a Mongolia under the control of the British Army. According to Jan-Christopher Horak’s commentary, Pudovkin referred to this as “poetic license” when it was really historic license. Various soldiers invaded Siberia and Russia during WWI, but the only foreigners to occupy Mongolia were the Tsar’s Imperial troops, who imposed various taxes and restriction on the native nomads.

The Russian public probably had little trouble swallowing the fiction about England because it was remembered that they’d participated in the Crimean War in the 1850s. Nevertheless, this sleight of hand begs the question of why such “license” was desirable. The film wants to portray Red Army partisans as heroes, which means they must be placed in Mongolia; one dying leader is played by Chistyakov. In other words, the idea of Russian foreigners on Mongolian soil can’t be seen as entirely negative, especially if Russians were, in fact, currently there.

So, the British in this case are convenient all-purpose substitutes for imperialist and capitalist interests in general, and they are shown in mutual back-patting with local Buddhist lamas and their lavish religious traditions. Pudovkin presents many semi-documentary minutes of Buddhist ritual and splendor, as couched within atheist criticism of organized religion as oppressors of the people. Thus, the first lama we see tries to claim a valuable fox fur from a nomad family, which hardly seems a spiritual proclivity, and this fur’s fate as it’s pocketed by dishonest and racist foreign traders becomes crucial to the story’s trajectory.

Our hero is a young Mongolian nomad played by ethnically authentic Valéry Inkijinoff, later a busy European character actor in such films as Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) and Philippe De Broca’s Up to His Ears (1965). Receiving the valuable fur from his father (played by the actor’s real father), our young nomad is cheated of its value and flees for the hills after getting in a fight with the trader. He briefly joins Red partisans, more or less as something to do.

After being captured, a coincidence leads the occupying commander to use the wounded prisoner as a puppet leader, proclaiming him a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. As Horak notes, more than ten percent of Mongolian males today could make the same claim. The ending of the film has always been controversial, especially among doctrinaire Soviet critics, for blasting into full-blown symbolism.

Pudovkin’s ending provides a literal whirlwind of edits, some more rapid than the eye can process and creating a blur of mentally overlapping images. This technique complements earlier moments in which troops of foreign soldiers were edited with lapses of footage, creating a mechanical stop-motion effect. Such glorious demonstrations of technique would get the avant-garde into trouble with dreaded accusations of “formalism”.

Leyda: “To all who were interested in the content-excuse for the film, this end was an evasion. But how else was Pudovkin to end a film subject whose attraction for him had been its fable and exotic imagery, except by hyperbole? A realistic revolutionary end would have been inconsistent with the tale-spinning character of the film, and would have been as jolting a sensation as Pudovkin’s own well-known example of a made-up face against a real landscape — though here it would have seemed a real face against a painted landscape. Golovnya’s field-day may have been Pudovkin’s compensation for deficiencies in ideology and structure.”

When critics opine that Pudovkin’s dozen or so talkies are less adventurous, they mean that he pulled back into the kosher confines of “socialist realism” while pursuing his approved subject matters. His later films certainly won their share of prizes, and it would be good to see them and judge for ourselves, but they’ve been scarcer outside of Russia than his silent classics.

For now, this Blu-ray provides a significant one-stop shop for possibly the most humane master of Soviet montage and a chance to chart his evolution of technical genius as guided by a sympathetic heart.