At the beginning of the twentieth century, Russian culture was a hotbed of innovation. In constant conversation with Europe, Russian painters, writers, musicians and filmmakers were rapidly absorbing new ideas from France, Italy and Germany, and blazing new trails of their own.
When the Revolution occurred in 1917, it only seemed to add fuel to the fire. Artists were called on to promote the creation of a new social order, and many of them responded enthusiastically. But there was a shift in direction. Now the ideal was not art for art’s sake, but art that served the people. And so the photographer Alexander Rodchenko began designing posters and packaging. Liubov Popova went from creating paintings to creating textiles. Vladimir Tatlin, known for his abstract constructions, was commissioned to build a monument to the Revolution.
Film was to play a key role in educating people about communist concepts. Since much of the population was illiterate, it was important to communicate the ideals of the Revolution without words, and film had proven its potential as a tool for propaganda. Initially filmmakers were encouraged to experiment, and people like Eisenstein, Vertov and Dovzhenko created visually dazzling features that celebrated the common man.
Among this group of innovators was Vsevelod Pudovkin. In 1927, on the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, he directed The End of St. Petersburg to commemorate the overthrow of the Tsar and the transition to a new society. The story is blunt propaganda. It tells us how the simple, honest workers rise up to defeat the soulless, corrupt capitalists. A starving farm boy comes to St. Petersburg looking for work at a factory. Hoping for help, he calls on a friend, but the friend’s wife says she has nothing to offer and turns him away. When a strike is called at the factory, he jumps at the chance for a job without realizing what he’s getting into. Caught in the middle of a chaotic situation, confused as to what’s going on, he fingers one of the strike’s leaders, who is then arrested. Realizing what he’s done, the boy sets out to correct his mistake, but runs up against the evil oppressors and is thrown in jail.
In the hands of a lesser director this would be a dreary tract. But Pudovkin takes simplistic propaganda and creates an epic canvas populated by mythic characters. And somehow, even though the characters are all archetypes, the director makes them searingly human. Much of this is because of the way Pudovkin handles the actors. In the first place, these are not movie stars. They look like ordinary people. The faces of the peasants on the farm are weathered and worn. It’s not hard to believe they’ve been ploughing these desolate fields for years. When tragedy strikes, the actors don’t dramatize their pain. Instead they confront suffering with a weary stoicism. It’s as though a life of backbreaking labor has robbed them of their emotions.
But Pudovkin doesn’t just speak through his actors. He also speaks through images. The film is a blistering visual poem. When we arrive in the city, Pudovkin doesn’t just show us a factory. He creates a montage that assaults us with the terrifying energy and sweltering heat of the Industrial Age. Giant steel wheels spin, vats spill streams of molten metal and chimneys spew vast clouds of black smoke into the sky. The workers are scorched and spattered. They look as though they’ve been pushed to their limits. And so when the factory manager insists that they put in more hours, they refuse. They’ve had enough.
A strike is called. The capitalists crush it. The boy from the farm and the leader of the strike are made soldiers and sent to fight the Germans. But rather than making the war sequences about their struggle for survival, The End of St. Petersburg takes a completely different approach. The horrific images of violence and death are intercut with scenes of stock market traders frantically buying and selling their shares. Prices climb higher and higher on the exchange as the body count rises on the battlefield. When the fighting is over, the titles tell us, “The transaction is completed. Both parties are satisfied.”
Most propaganda films end on a celebratory note. Here the final scenes are muted. The revolutionary forces overthrow the monarchy, but at great cost. After the battle is won, the soldiers who fought to take the Winter Palace are tired and hungry, on the verge of exhaustion. The woman who had turned the boy away earlier comes to the Winter Palace looking for her husband. As she climbs the steps, she comes across the boy, lying on the ground, wounded and weary. Though she sent him away earlier, now she kneels and holds him in her arms. Knowing he must be hungry, she gives him the little food she has left, a handful of potatoes. This simple, caring gesture is more powerful than any revolutionary slogan, any celebration of the workers’ triumph. Pudovkin may have been making propaganda, but ultimately he was more interested in people.
This brief period of astounding creativity in Russian cinema was short lived. As Stalin consolidated his power, he exerted more and more control, not just over filmmakers, but also writers, composers and other artists. The idealism that had lifted them to new heights, that had inspired them to make revolutionary art, was crushed. It would be decades before Russian cinema found its voice again.