By John Duncan Talbird.
Vsevolod Pudovkin entered Moscow University to study physical chemistry at the age of seventeen. His studies were disrupted by the start of World War I where he was soon taken prisoner. Reportedly, he saw D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) in his late twenties and his passion for film was set. Due to his use of editing, rhythm, and camera position, he was often referred to as “the Russian Griffith.” He was, and is, less famous in the West than his contemporary, Sergei Eisenstein. A student of the great Soviet theorist and filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov, Pudovkin was, like Eisenstein, a theorist of cinema and filmmaker. Film historian Amy Sargeant writes that Pudovkin’s books and articles were more practical manuals as opposed to “Eisenstein’s speculative philosophizing about film and its relation to other areas of artistic speculation.” His first three silent features are his most famous and, christened by history “The Bolshevik Trilogy,” are newly available in crisp new transfers on Blu-ray set from Flicker Alley.
The first of these, Mother (1926), is an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s novel of the same name. Unlike its tedious, overlong source material, it is a lean 87 minutes and this version is accompanied by a piano score by Antonio Coppola. Of the three, it is the most satisfying aesthetically and narratively. Mother, like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, details events of the 1905 Russian revolution. But Eisenstein’s film presents a mass protagonist, an approach that even today seems avant-garde compared to Hollywood productions which tend to depict complex historical events as the story of one (usually white, male) hero (i.e. Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Braveheart (1995)). The protagonist of Mother is played by the famous Russian stage actress Vera Baranoskaya who appears in most of the film’s scenes, her careworn peasant’s face slowly losing its fear and gaining a level of confidence as she moves toward the film’s violent and cathartic denouement. She plays the mother of a young revolutionary (Nikolay Batalov) who is arrested by the Czarist police. The film traces her journey from poverty-stricken and abused wife to flag-waving insurgent. Pudovkin worked with the same cinematographer, Anatoli Golovnya, for all three films, and the beautiful camerawork combined with editing is a unifying strength of all three. Much of the cinematography calls to mind the American still photographer Alfred Stieglitz in its modernist juxtaposition of the soft curve of natural images with the hard vertical and horizontal lines of the built environment. And, like Eisenstein, Pudovkin peoples his narratives with actors who look like real people, their worn faces and grizzled beards often in closeup, the gaps of missing teeth evident in many. He is particularly good at depicting violence, the combination of mise-en-scene and editing creating jarring scenes of physicality.
The End of St. Petersburg (1927) is the weakest of the three films. Commissioned to commemorate the October Revolution, the movie depicts the fall of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and the city’s rechristening as Leningrad (or “City of Lenin” as it’s called in the film). Like Mother, sweeping historical events are depicted in the life of a single person, this one, a naïve peasant boy (Ivan Chuvelyov) who leaves his village to come to St. Petersburg to find work. Inadvertently, he ends up informing on a peer who is a labor leader (Aleksandr Christyakov) who then gets thrown in jail. The whims of history send the boy, the labor leader, and the leader’s wife (Vera Baranovskaya who played the mother in Mother) on different pathways, only to come back together at the end. The conclusion is the major strength of the film and the most balanced narratively. Suspense is generated and events are depicted in vivid fashion as Bolshevik soldiers await the signal to attack, overthrow the Czarist government, and succor wounded in the aftermath. However, much of the movie sacrifices narrative forward movement for sloganeering, sometimes to unintentionally comic effect. Many of the shots of workers seem like cinematic depictions of old Soviet propaganda posters. Granted, some of these shots – though narratively dead – are stylistically arresting. And some of the compositions – czars framed with their heads cut off, greedy capitalists at the stock market juxtaposed with men dying in foxholes – were undoubtedly fresh for their time, though they have not aged well.
Storm over Asia (1928, originally titled The Heir to Genghis Khan) is the longest of the three films at over two hours and is, in some ways, the most complex. It is sometimes as suspenseful as Mother and sometimes as narratively confused and fragmented as The End of St. Petersburg. This story follows a young Mongolian trapper (Valéry Inkijinoff) who gets into a conflict with a fur trader over a beautiful fox skin. The trader (Viktor Tsoppi), dressed in fur coat, chomping on a cigar, is an instant-read icon depicting capitalistic greed, dishonesty, and unsavoriness. In fact, James Caan’s Sonny Corleone from The Godfather (1972) could be a reincarnation of this man. Like The End of St. Petersburg, these characters – even the fox skin – will dip in and out of the narrative, paths crossing again to create various ironic effects. The Mongolian ends up joining the Bolshevik army in battle against the British. After a series of events, including a near-death by shooting, the British military brass believe that the trapper is the descendent of Genghis Khan and decide to use him as a puppet leader in their fight against the Bolsheviks. In the final scenes, Pudovkin depicts a storm that destroys the British encampment, an army of Mongolians on horses with swords, the trapper, now a modern-day Genghis Khan in the lead as they ride toward their enemies. In her enclosed essay, Amy Sargeant compares these final images to the ride of the Klansmen at the end of The Birth of a Nation. This is an ironically apt comparison since, like Griffith, Pudovkin was on the wrong side of history. The Russians, not the British, were guilty of invading and colonizing Mongolia.
In addition to Sargeant’s long essay on Pudovkin and the three films, there is also a short film called “Chess Fever” from 1925, a delightful comedy which utilizes much of the same physical humor that you see in early Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd films. Also, there are two documentaries that offer examples of Pudovkin’s five principles of editing: 1) contrast, 2) parallelism, 3) symbolism, 4) simultaneity, and 5) leitmotif drawn from the three features. (Although the example offered for symbolism – the Russian Czars decapitated by the frame in The End of St. Petersburg – is an example of framing/cinematography and not editing.) Despite any cavils, The Bolshevik Trilogy is a beautiful collection for scholars and students of Russian and silent cinema and is an excellent introduction for those who don’t know this important director and his early films.
John Talbird is the author of the chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind (Nortre Maar). His novel The World Out There will be released in 2020 by Madville Publishing, and his fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Grain, The Literary Review, Ambit, Potomac Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many others. He lives in Queens, NY and is an English professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY.