Directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin
The 1920s was truly one of the greatest times in the history of cinema. Hollywood was solidifying its status as a wellspring of creative filmmaking. DeMille pioneered the modern historical epic. Flaherty gave birth to documentary filmmaking. Chaplin, Keaton, and Floyd delighted the world with comedic masterpieces that have yet to be topped. Warner Brothers gave birth to sound pictures, MGM to musicals, and Paramount to the movie star. France also challenged to status quo by examining the artistic merits and possibilities of the film medium. Innovators like Dreyer, Clair, and Renoir, and Buñuel dared to take the cinema to new heights by treating it as a genuine art form instead of just a source of entertainment. In Germany, economic hardships sparked the German Expressionism movement, a fever dream of artistic expression and innovation.
And yet, there is one other country that redefined cinema during the 1920s: The USSR. Established on December 30, 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would forever change the balance of world power and become a defining force of world culture. Declared by V. I. Lenin as the single most important medium for educating the masses in the ways of Communism, the cinema took on a new role. Whereas in America the cinema was entertainment and in Europe it was art, in the Soviet Union, the cinema became propaganda.
Throughout the 1920s, several of the greatest geniuses to ever touch the medium were employed by the Soviet government to transform the cinema into a teaching tool of indoctrination. To do so, new cinematic techniques and methods were invented. Dziga Vertov pioneered the theory of Kino-Pravda, or film truth, which postulated that the cinema can witness and depict greater truth than can be seen with the naked eye. Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) was a bold attempt to literally redefine cinematic language and is still revered today as one of the greatest films ever made. Sergei Eisenstein released what could be the greatest one-two-three punch debut in the history of cinema with Strike (1924), The Battleship Potemkim (1925), and October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928). In these three films, Eisenstein quite literally changed the rules of cinematic construction by introducing the theory and practice of montage editing. Alexander Dovzhenko’s “Ukraine Trilogy” would become three of the most important films in early Soviet history, simultaneously gaining praise and scorn from Soviet authorities for sheer craftsmanship and political ambiguity.
And yet, there is one director from this era who almost always seems to be overlooked by film enthusiasts. While he may not be as famous as Vertov or as influential as Eisenstein, he still remains one of the most consummate cinematic craftsmen to ever come from the Soviet Union. His name was Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin. History may overlook him, but it can never overlook his work.
Just like his contemporary Eisenstein, Pudovkin helped pioneer the montage editing process. But Pudovkin differed from Eisenstein in the messages that he promoted through the use of montage. While both obviously used the montage to create scenes that praised the power of the proletariat and the strength of Communism, they highlighted different aspects of the revolutionary process. Eisenstein used the montage to glorify the image of the masses. In Battleship Potemkin the infamous Odessa Steps Massacre shows the Czarist guards as an unfeeling machine that mowed down crowds of innocent bystanders. In October: Ten Days that Shook the World, Eisenstein used hundreds of extras to create scenes where waves of humanity swept across their oppressors. To Eisenstein, there was strength, power, and significance, in numbers.
Pudovkin preferred to focus on the individual. The montage was used to highlight the individual efforts and struggles that made up the revolutionary forces that swept across Russia. In The End of St. Petersburg (1927), a single unemployed peasant becomes a revolutionary hero. His magnum opus, Storm Over Asia (1928) followed the plight of a plain Mongol herdsman who leads a revolution against English oppressors. These two films alone would be enough to solidify Pudovkin as one of the USSR’s premiere filmmakers. However, both of these films were predated by another masterpiece. The film in question was simply titled Mother (1926) and it eclipses both films in terms of emotional content and impact.
Allow me to explain. In both Storm Over Asia and The End of St. Petersburg the main heroes are exploited characters who eventually rise up against their oppressors. However, they do it by their own volition. They rebel because they believe it the right thing to do. In the case of Mother, the events are inspired by something much simpler and infinitely more powerful: love.
Based on a Maxim Gorky novel, the film follows the struggles of a simple family caught up in the failed 1905 Russian Revolution. The father is a rough brute who keeps his wife in constant terror. The son is an inspired revolutionary wholeheartedly devoted to his cause. The mother is an ever-suffering woman. Life is hard, her husband is abusive, and her only son seems hell-bent on throwing his life away. It isn’t long before her husband is killed in a worker’s strike, leaving her in charge of the family. When the son asks her to hide weapons for the revolution, she wearily agrees. But when the police come looking for them, she quickly betrays them, hoping that they will free her son.
Of course they don’t. In a farcical trial scene reminiscent of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, the son is sent to prison. Things come to a head when the prisoners try to escape. But they are brutally massacred. Inspired by the horrors of Czarist oppression and spurred on by the death of her son, she picks up a political cudgel and joins in a worker’s protest. The ending is the stuff of cinematic legend. To ruin it would be a crime. Suffice to say, the film stays faithful to history.
What propels this film to the level of a masterpiece is Pudovkin’s impeccably economic execution and delivery. As Pudovkin’s first independently produced feature, he had access to little money. So Pudovkin had to compensate with devastating cinematic grammar. Along with his cinematographer Anatoli Golovnya, Pudovkin doesn’t waste a single shot or frame composition. Rob Edelman wrote a fantastic article explaining some of the attributes of Pudovkin and Golovnya’s cinematic language:
He and his cinematographer, Anatoli Golovnya, photographed the actors from every which angle: a military officer's self-importance would be conveyed by shooting him from below; the mother's early frustration would be emphasized by shooting her from above, and at the end, her triumph and liberation is highlighted by shooting from below. When Pudovkin places his camera in this position, the character's upper body and head seem further away, more inaccessible, reaching to the sky and towering over the viewer; when the actor is beneath the camera he becomes inferior, in that the viewer is literally looking down on him. Pudovkin does not shoot his performance straight on, as if he is recording a stage play. Mood and characterization are communicated in Mother not by the actor emoting before the camera; the performer is almost a passive participant in the filmmaking process.
That isn’t to say that the acting in Mother is hackneyed. Pudovkin used a blend of professionals (the mother and son were recruited from the Moscow Art Theater) and non-actors (smaller roles like the colonel supervising the son’s interrogation) to create a dynamic world that is both highly realistic and expressionistic. The performances were also highlighted by Pudovkin’s use of montage. Take the famous scene where the son receives good news while in prison. His reaction is punctuated with images of spring: a thawing river, children playing, and birds bathing.
Inevitably (and predictably) later in Pudovkin’s career he would fall out of favor with Soviet authorities. But before he provoked Soviet ire, Pudovkin left a powerful string of films to cement his legacy. Mother will forever be remembered as one of his greatest. A genius piece of economic filmmaking, Mother also separated itself from other Soviet films by making the audience feel sympathy and love for the characters. The struggles faced by the mother reflected countless other cases of pain and suffering that permeated Soviet revolutionary efforts. And yet, as a piece of propaganda, it works its magic. It is impossible to not feel inspired and enraged by the events that transpire. Some may ask why. The answer is that Pudovkin put a human face on the revolution: that of a loving mother.
The entire film can be watched for free on youtube. Below is part 1/11.