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The Silent Revolutionary
In 1926 a young Russian escaped from prison on a block of ice - and changed the course of film history. Jonathan Jones on the work of Vsevolod Pudovkin
Without Lenin, we wouldn't enjoy Hollywood half as much. The one idea
the October revolution definitely gave us was the notion that a film is
made in the editing suite as much as on the set. Think of the end of The
Godfather, cutting between a baptism and the brutal assassinations of
the heads of the five families - pure Eisenstein montage.
Kuleshov's workshop took this research further. They used a piece of
footage of Ivan Mozzhukhin, a famous Russian actor who had fled the country
in 1917, and cut the same shot in three sequences. In one, they juxtaposed
his face with a plate of soup; in another with a little girl playing;
in another with a dead woman. Audiences praised Mozzhukhin's range - showing
hunger when he saw the soup, joy in seeing his daughter play and grief
for his mother. The Soviets called their editing technique "montage",
and "montage theory" has since become one of the most heavily
analysed topics in cinema. Really, it's a simple point, and an essential
one to our pleasure in film.
Pudovkin was a dedicated propagandist - far less ambiguously so than his rival Eisenstein, who was to subvert Stalin in Ivan the Terrible - and to a degree that shocked his teacher Kuleshov, who thought artists should be independent. Pudovkin used his brilliance in the service of history as he saw it. History let him down, but his silent films - above all his 1926 masterpiece The Mother - live.
The Mother is based on a sentimental novel by Maxim Gorky (also dramatised by Bertolt Brecht). It's the story of a woman who naively fails to understand why her beloved son is risking his life as a trade union activist in tsarist Russia. Only when he is sentenced to penal servitude does she finally realise the necessity for revolution, joining a mass demonstration against the prison. It's the editing, not the plot, that makes this film compelling. The montage effects are different from those of Eisenstein, who believed editing was a way of achieving dissonance, making a jagged cinema of conflict. Pudovkin is more lyrical. His cross-cuts, while dramatic, do not break up but enhance the narrative. In fact, it's Pudovkin who is the true ancestor of the modern Hollywood film.
Pudovkin theorised that actors on screen do not really act; it's their context that moves us - something established, through montage, by their relationship to exterior objects. Thus the factory owners and police officers in his films wear sinister leather gloves, which he cuts to in close-up before returning to the peasant nursing her child. More subtly, he uses editing to suggest psychological states. The tensest scenes in The Mother come from the woman's knowledge that her son has a cache of guns under the floor. Pudovkin builds up empathy with her mental state superbly, by constantly cutting from her troubled face to the floorboard under which the guns are hidden, in a way that reminds you of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart.
These emotional effects have since become film's basic vocabulary, but you can see them here for the first time. Pudovkin's most ambitious montage, later in the film, has few equals in any cinema. The Mother is full of shots of the Russian landscape. At first these seem almost random; only in the final march on the prison does the full power of the imagery hit home. As the mother and comrades march towards the prison, it's spring and the snow is starting to melt. Cut to an immense frozen river, its surface cracking, splitting. This is a piece of Marxist poetry. The river is history, flowing unstoppably, breaking out of the carapace of ice under which it has been trapped through the long tsarist winter. It's awesome, scary. When the son breaks out of jail he's chased down to the river's edge. Trapped! His only chance is to jump on a block of ice, let the river carry him, and that's what he does. He seems doomed as the ice is carried very fast - he'll never make it - but he does, and the film moves to its historically-determined climax.
Pudovkin uses the same montage techniques to lighter effect in his most-seen film today, Chess Fever (1925), whose popularity is as much for its rarity value (a Soviet comedy!) as its wit. Chess Fever is a fascinating glimpse of everyday life in Lenin's Moscow. Pudovkin plays a classic montage trick, this time on the international chess stars who have gathered in Moscow for a tournament. Sending his crew to the tournament under the pretence that they are making a newsreel, he intercuts the players' concentrated faces with shots of his own actors in a frivolous love story about a woman driven half-mad by her chess-addict boyfriend.
Chess Fever was made in a welcome break from filming The Mechanics of the Brain, a documentary about Pavlov's mechanistic behaviourism, which is a little harder to watch. Very deliberately and repetitively, the film shows us what happens when you electrocute a frog: here, now here, and this is what happens when you sever its spinal cord . . . see, the back legs no longer respond. The film's title can't help but make you think of Stalin's demand that the artist become "an engineer of human souls".
Chilling, but it's naive to completely separate the cinema of the avant-garde in 1920s Russia from what came afterwards. They were propagandists, and Pudovkin's emotive editing gets inside you to produce gut responses at odds with any scepticism you might feel about his melodramas of revolution. At the same time, there's a scope and richness that elevates them beyond propaganda and will help them survive as long as cinema itself.
By the end of the 1920s, the golden age of Soviet culture was over. Pudovkin carried on working into the 1950s, trotting out the Stalinist line. Only his early films demonstrate genius. The Russian spring was brief, but unforgettable.