Ready for some good old-fashioned artistic propaganda, Soviet-style Russian filmmakers tried to make film grammar into an emotional-intellectual science, and these pro-Revolution masterpieces by Vsevolod Pudovkin are terrific lessons in cinematic persuasion. The first two commemorate big moments in proletarian revolt. The third heads east to Soviet Mongolia for an even more powerful demonstration of Pure Kino-Power harnessed to political ends. With plenty of extras including informed, insightful (and needed) audio commentaries.
The Bolshevik Trilogy
Three Films by Vsevolod Pudovkin
1926-1928 / B&W / 1:33 flat / 87, 73, 131 (291) min.
Street Date March 23, 2020
Available through Flicker Alley / 34.95
The End of St. Petersburg
Storm Over Asia
Directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin
The more abstract Soviet agit-prop film classics were a tough row to hoe in film school. We’d study the writings of Sergei Eisenstein, etc., but the theories on paper didn’t always apply to the films we could see. In the early 1920’s Russian film theorists approached cinema as a science, with the aim of breaking down its syntax as a linguist would written or spoken language. Lenin wanted to use cinema to shape minds and bring a multitude of ethnic Soviets in harmony with the Party Line — what better than a visual, emotional medium that knows no language barriers?
Although I like these interesting Soviet pictures, I can’t claim a full grip on Soviet Cinema Aesthetics. I’ll just try my best to offer a few coherent thoughts. And to spell Vsevolod correctly.
In theory at least, the Soviet aim was to inspire people to stop thinking selfishly, and act and behave as part of a selfless group with a bigger goal. I don’t think it’s cynical to call that a vain ambition, although millions climbed on Lenin’s bandwagon. We’re told that Sergei Eisenstein’s cinematic contribution to the Revolution (this is a big generality) was the creation of a collective ‘hero,’ instead of focusing our emotions on a single representative. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin splits our sympathies and attention among scores of nameless sailors and the citizenry on those famous steps, and largely succeeds.
Like Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893–1953) was a serious academic, and wrote serious essays on film. Pudovkin wrote a theory of montage, and later, a manifesto about the use of sound on film. His ‘revolution’ trilogy certainly got him off on the right foot with Stalin, as he was given national awards of service several times during his career. In contrast, Sergei Eisenstein’s work in Hollywood and Mexico made him a target of suspicion back in Moscow. He found favor with Stalin only in certain periods, as with the production of Alexander Nevsky.
The films in Pudovkin’s The Bolshevik Trilogy deal with individuals within a revolutionary context. The protagonists are individualized just enough so that extreme events can carry them from unenlightened ignorance to a position of empowered self-realization — they ‘become’ the Revolution. It needs to be remembered that these films were meant to communicate to a vast variety of Soviet citizens, many of them illiterate and not accustomed to receiving complicated messages in any medium. As Robert S. Birchard would say (albeit about a different kind of movie), these were ‘simple stories for simple people.’
Mother (Mat, 1926) is from a novel by Maxim Gorky about the attempted revolution of 1905. An impoverished family becomes involved in the strike/revolt and is destroyed. The long-suffering mother (Vera Baranovskaya) can’t keep her drunkard of a husband (Aleksandr Chistyakov) from stripping the house for money for drink. The son (Nikolay Batalov) hides guns for the strikers, at the request of a beautiful activist (Anna Zemtsova). The foolish father is recruited by thugs hired by the police to kill strikebreakers, not realizing that his son is among them. The mother asks the Tsarist authorities for mercy, but informing on her son does the opposite of what she hoped it would. She must suffer more at her son’s trial.
A major silent Soviet film landmark, Mother dramatizes the martyrdom of ‘good Russians’ under the terror of the Monarchy. We see lumpen proletariat workers, including the standard character of the ‘worker foreman’ with his bushy eyebrows and intelligent stare. Father is an innocent lout. The son is innocence and patriotic virtue and little else. There’s barely a hit of potential romance with the attractive activist woman.
The editorial theory at work in Mother — Pudovkin’s five rules — don’t affect us as much as his clear storytelling and strong visual compositions. Isolated images of giant statues represent the state, but the Tsar’s evil judges are condemned in narrative terms — they’re more interested in race horses than justice. A broken clock is a big symbol, and mother’s anguish is expressed at one point by a simple superimposition of the cache of pistols she has surrendered to the police. Elsewhere Pudovkin’s movie communicates the way any action suspense film would, with exciting chase and battle scenes. The strong narrative and Vera Baranovskaya’s expressions are what deliver the emotions. At least for me, when Pudovkin cuts to a shocked face out of context, it doesn’t combine with the shots around it to mandate a certain audience reaction. The movie still works more like a D.W. Griffith film than an experimental triumph of political communication.
Actually I believe that Pudovkin was sometimes called the Soviet Griffith. Mother even quotes a famous Griffith scene, when the son tries to escape across a frozen river of drifting ice sheets. In this context others interpret the breakup of the ice as the beginning of the thaw that will bring the Revolution.
The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga, 1927) was commissioned to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the October taking of the Winter Palace. It again tells a relatively intimate story on a larger canvas, simplifying events in the Bolshevik revolution. An ignorant peasant boy (Ivan Chuvelyov) goes to the the big city to find work, and stops at the apartment of a struggling labor couple (Aleksandr Chistyakov and Vera Baranovskaya again) originally from his village. The couple is involved in a major strike at the factory. The boy foolishly goes to the Capitalist owners to complain; they turn him over to the police, who use him to arrest the worker and his comrades. The boy is also arrested and forced to join the army, which leads to some fairly realistic scenes at the front. When the Army eventually revolts, the boy returns to help seize the Winter Palace. He meets the worker’s wife, who forgives his earlier informing; they reconcile.
Again, what we see works more as a silent melodrama than a cinema experiment despite the striking use of imagery, the symbolic use of statues and a couple of sequences with furious fast cutting. Pudovkin’s use of landscape and architecture is excellent. The characters are ciphers given emotional strength mainly by great portraiture. Pudovkin presents entire revolutionary battles with just a few shots of smoke and jarring cutting. Classic Hollywood montages do the same thing, but I’d call that narrative-graphic compression, not a Soviet editorial principle. Pudovkin doesn’t make use of Eisenstein’s ‘political cartoon’ technique of comparing people directly to animals. When he wants to show decadent capitalists he just uses dramatic exaggeration, as might a filmmaker anywhere.
There’s no denying the dramatic power of The End of St. Petersburg. The peasant boy is a dumb but decent salt-of-the-earth type, sort of a Gomer Pyle whose courage and strength need to be channeled toward the right goal. Those fat and greedy Capitalist oppressors at the stock market buy and sell the productivity of human labor, which to Marxists means they are buying enslaved humanity. Those sequences get the message across clearly, in a ‘See Spot Run’ narrative sense.
The classic conclusion counterpoints dramatic contrasts in scale. On the morning after the storming of the Winter Palace, the worker wife (Vera) enters an empty shell of monarchical grandeur, with just a few corpses lying here and there. The very wide shots of her humble figure climbing stairs alternate with closer shots of Vera, looking impressed indeed. She finally climbs the steps toward her husband, who appears above. No hugs, no personal emotion, just looks of recognition. A hint of a smile from Vera is like a bolt of lightning, as for two full features we’ve only seen her unhappy or anguished. When the husband stares down at her from above, he seems the personification of the Revolution, of Stalin, of ‘Big Brother.’
Weirdly, the conclusion of King Vidor’s 1949 The Fountainhead utilizes similar imagery: a worshipful woman climbing toward a man who is now ‘more than a man.’ The same effect is created — we’re in awe of a righteous man of the future, triumphant.
Storm Over Asia (Potomok Chingis-Khana translated: ‘The Heir of Genghis Khan,’ 1928) must have been a dream assignment for Pudovkin and his filming team. The show is part-documentary in that it was filmed far in the East, in territory similar to Mongolia. The dramatics build through four or five top-notch sequences, making Storm the strongest feature of the three.
The mostly ethnic-authentic actors give the show a feeling of documentary verisimilitude, even if the whole setup is fictitious. The star is Valéry Inkijinoff, a wholly convincingly Mongolian (he was from an Eastern province). Inkijinoff also played a convincing Indian 31 years later in Fritz Lang’s Indian Epics. Here he is Bair, a Mongol nomad who rebels when the white fur traders grossly underpay him for a beautiful silver fox fur worth a fortune. The Civil War is on, With Mongolian partisans and Red Army units pitted against British colonial forces. That opposition is pure invention, as the English never occupied Mongolia. The English had allied with the Whites during the Civil War — but not in Mongolia. It may have not been politically convenient to remind the audience that there had ever been a White Army.
Although slow at first, the storyline is quite inventive, unique, even. Bair never really understands the political machinations that entangle him. He joins the Reds fighting the British out of simple companionship; when he’s captured by the Brits, a general orders him to be shot almost as an afterthought. That launches a famed, oft-referenced extended set piece scene in which an English soldier (Boris Barnet) is ordered to walk Bair out of camp and execute him. I vividly remember critic Arthur Knight waxing enthusiastic about this scene in an old textbook (written in 1957). The reluctant executioner finds it difficult to communicate with his relaxed, smiling victim: Bair is unaware of what’s going to happen. It’s a brilliant piece of directing for performances.
The great set-piece scenes do indeed use Pudovkin edit patterns to proffer more sophisticated propaganda concepts. Parallel cutting equates the colonials and the Buddhist priests as parasites on the people: shots of the General’s wife affixing her ornate jewelry are intercut with a priest donning his finery. The General attends a lengthy coronation sequence, in which the priests invest a one-year-old boy as the new Lama. The general talks about helping the Mongolians, and Pudovkin cuts to English troops firing on local tribesmen. At least one scene briefly uses an Abel Gance- like flutter cut, alternating every frame between a moving shot and a static text title. I believe we can see the marks of splicing tape that was added later to reinforce old cement splices. They don’t spoil the dizzying effect.
There’s nothing mysterious about Pudovkin’s directing — his action scenes are exciting. He makes us like Bair simply by showing the Mongolian’s infectious smile. The last act builds to a truly surprising conclusion. Through a mistaken identity, the British come to believe that Bair is a descendant of Genghis Khan. The General wants to use Bair as a puppet ruler, to rally the Mongolians to support the British occupation. The English doctors save his life in a bloody, graphic surgical scene, rolling him over on a table. When recovered, Bair passively allows himself to be fitted for western dress clothes. He isn’t alarmed — until he’s confronted with the same villainous trader that stole his silver fox fur.
The finale departs radically from the realistic context of what has gone before. Bair becomes superhuman with rage against the capitalists. He tears down an entire building, like a Mongolian Sampson. The narrative then leaps into an entirely symbolic orgy of anti-colonial destruction. Bair is suddenly joined by hundreds of Mongolian cavalrymen waving swords, and a giant windstorm literally blows the British out of Mongolia. Soldiers roll head over heels like tumbleweeds, or for that matter, the hippos in Fantasia. It’s a fantasy wish-fulfillment scene meant to galvanize audiences for the Red cause.
The outrageous exaggeration — political rage becoming a symbolic physical apocalypse — is exhilarating, if absurdly abrupt. This kind of metaphysical-poetic leap is fairly rare in cinema. One example that comes to mind is the anti-consumerist, anti-American explosive finale of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point — it’s a total break from the narrative that’s come before. And the setting aside of historical reality in favor of get-up-and-cheer violent wish-fulfillment, is similar to the finales of two separate Quentin Tarantino films.
Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray of Lobster and Blackhawk Films’ The Bolshevik Trilogy is an elaborate, if not fully restored presentation of these Soviet classics. The first two films are sourced from Soviet photochemical restorations done years ago, and Storm Over Asia is a new 2K remaster by Lobster films. But all three pictures are from imperfect archival sources. There are occasional splices and the image sometimes jumps on cuts with ‘fat’ splices. The new scan for Asia is excellent, but it also leaves intact a few visual imperfections.
The good news is that all three films look 100% better than how I saw them in college; I suspect that the old (MoMA?) copies we saw were dupes of prints that had been edited, with clumsy English titles added. These remasters retain original Russian titling, including occasional animated titles. All three shows are nicely subtitled in English, of course. The full conclusion of Asia is present; it apparently was missing or shorter in some older film presentations.
Students once had to watch these shows silent, but the Trilogy adds music tracks, one piano track and two big orchestral scores.
A choice extra is an excellent scan of Pudovkin’s 1925 Chess Fever, his directorial debut satirizing the Moscow chess craze. A prospective bride is furious that her boyfriend is a chess fiend. The end sees her getting bitten by the chess bug by spending time with Cuban champion José Raúl Capablanca. The Cuban is funny — the director can’t get him to stop looking at the camera.
Two animated pieces illustrate Pudovkin’s theories, A Revolution in Five Moves and Five Principles of Editing. Amateur Images of St. Petersburg (1930) and Notebooks of a Tourist Presents: St. Petersburg (+/- 1920) are brief vintage home movie and docu glimpses of the city.
The two audio commentaries are a prime source of information for students. Speaking on Mother is the Russian film historian and curator Peter Bagrov; Storm over Asia carries a full two hours, ten minutes of information from historian and scholar Jan-Christopher Horak. I found Horak’s commentary very useful. His comprehensive rundown on famous Russian writers and artists was fascinating — more than a couple died in the War or were purged by Stalin. Horak’s analysis of the film’s famous ‘experimental’ sequences is also illuminating.
An insert booklet contains a good essay by historian Amy Sargeant, who examines Pudovkin’s trilogy from some different angles. She remarks on the contribution of cameraman Anatoli Golovnya, who filmed all three of the classics as well as Chess Fever.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Bolshevik Trilogy
Movies: Very Russian
Video: Very good
Sound: Excellent ; Mother piano score by Antonio Coppola; Petersburg orchestral score composed by Vladimir Yurovsky; Storm score by composer Timothy Brock, performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra.
Supplements (from Flicker Alley): Two audio commentaries: Jan-Christopher Horak on Storm over Asia and Peter Bagrov on Mother; Chess Fever (1925) – Pudovkin’s directorial debut; a visual essay showcasing ‘the five edits that inspired the Bolshevik revolution;’ a second comparison of Pudovkin’s ‘Five Principles of Editing;’ brief home movie and docu film clips of St. Petersburg, in 1930 and 1920). Plus a 16-page illustrated booklet with an essay by Amy Sargeant.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in Keep case
Reviewed: March 19, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson