Sunday, May 8, 2011
Filming the Myth of October
Vsevolod Pudovkin's 1927 silent film, The End of St. Petersburg, is a masterful telling of the central myth of the October Revolution. It begins, where Russia begins, amidst the foil of the new revolutionary order: the dirty, squalid peasant countryside. Here we see poverty, lethargy, a dust storm, a dying mother, field laborers, and a baby who will grow up poor and someday need to move to the city in order to survive.
After getting a glimpse of the sickle, Pudovkin takes us to see the hammer: the factories of St. Peterburg. In the city, we see smoke, hard working, sweating proletarians, and the symbols of late Tsarism, including monumental architecture, the statue of the Bronze Horseman, slum housing for the working class, a bustling stock market, and wealthy and corpulent shareholders.
In old Russia, capitalists are fat and idle, and their markets dynamic but inhuman, methodical, greedy, and impersonal. In contrast, St. Petersburg's workers are strong, hard-working, muscular, and action-oriented. Yet the personal lives of the lives of workers are also circumscribed by poverty, wage slavery, and political oppression. In the tenements, clothes are perpetually drying on the clotheslines, tenement rooms are persistently crowded, dark,[ and windowless, and strike breakers are always at hand to quash labor unrest.
When the rural boy, now turned man, arrives in St. Petersburg looking for work, he's taken in by folk from his village who have migrated to the city previously. Gradually, the naive young man figures out that the system is stacked against ordinary men like him, and that the police, factory owners and bosses, members of the legal caste, and scabs collude to keep working men in brutal circumstances.
The director next takes his audience on a tour de horizon of the First World War, contrasting the enthusiasm of the governing classes with the spectacular suffering of ordinary soldiers. Following Lenin's reasoning, war in general is the product of vampiric capitalist machinations, designed to increase profits while distracting workers from their own class interests.
Eventually, the war leads to the first phase of the Revolution, but the director is completely unsympathetic to the Provisional Government, which maintains the war effort for the benefit of the propertied classes. Scenes of war dead in the flooded trenches are interspersed with scenes of happy bourgeois toasting the fall of the tsar and the rise of the bourgeois phase of the revolution. And Kerensky, leader of the coalition government, is portrayed, not without historical evidence, as something of a clown. He's isolated, attempting to use dramatic rhetoric alone--theater essentially-- to convince soldiers to overrule their own interests to quash the Bolshevik insurrection. They resist the temptation to fire on their brothers and instead march on the Winter Palace.
The movie concludes with the triumph of the revolutionaries, as one woman (apparently the same woman who starred in Pudovkin's Mother) marches through the cold, majestic Winter Palace to find her husband, a worker, soldier, and loyal Communist. The Revolution has transformed this woman who, while originally only immersed in a private struggle to help protect her immediate family, has recently begun to help comrades engaged in revolutionary struggle. And of course the Revolution has transformed ath city itself, which has been reborn as Leningrad. Brief but real historical of Lenin's oratory helps to reinforce his presence in this film which was, according to a writer for the Sense of Cinema, commissioned by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.