Sunday, 19 March 2017

The fault in our Tsars… Mother (1926), Barbican with Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne

“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.” Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

So, a method driven by process with the director controlling the cinematic context for human reaction by inserting his players into events? That said, this film is crammed full of expressive faces and would be nowhere near as good without the performances, especially the magnificent Vera Baranovskaya: Comrade Pudovkin knew that you can edit all you like but without emotion  it’s just pictures and pyrotechnics.

Vsevolod Pudovkin, as Sergei Eisentsein, looked back to the failed 1905 Revolution to find brutal injustice the helped inspire the change that was to come in 1917 and, by the mid-twenties, was being consolidated. As with any new regime, it was important to remind people how things came to be and, we must remember that this was the early days of the Soviet Union; a time of optimism for many and not the inevitable failure as viewed through the decedent lens of modern cheap-shot historical judgement.

Communication, travel, industry... all in one frame
This new order followed many decades of struggle against brutal Tsarist rule which had finally taken a Great War in which more Russians were deployed than weapons to force a revolution not just of communists but liberals too. After the February 1917 uprising there was a period of uneasy alliance between the various parties before the Bolsheviks assumed control. There then followed years of civil war and foreign interventions as the European order tried to re-assert itself, then final victory, the death of its inspiration and a power struggle won by a man who would grow into a tyrant…

In 1926, it was still the time to make sense of it all and to remember the way Russian lives had been valued by the old regime. Pudovkin’s Mother stands as one of the pre-eminent examples of contextualising propaganda of the time as well as being a superbly crafted piece of cinema in its own right.  

The story was based on Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel The Mother and bears similarities to the Bloody Sunday attrocities in which the imperial guard were ordered to open fire on a demonstration in St Petersberg in January 1905. That event led to long-term consequences yet this film is is not a simplistic take on revolutionary innocence versus black-hearted oppression but a tragic story of a nation undermined by a careless, fatal, malaise.

Vera Baranovskaya plays the Mother and she is married to an abusive alcoholic husband Vlasov (Aleksandr Chistyakov), a man who would steal even the family iron if it would get him another vodka. He lashes out at his wife and slaps down their son, Pavel (Nikolai Batalov) as he comes to her aid.

Aleksandr Chistyakov
He is a sad sack of a man who has been defeated by life and in the local tavern he’s an easy mark for a group of men looking for a patsy to help them break an impending strike. The problem is that Pavel is one of the group organising the action. He meets a girl, Anna (Anna Zemtsova) who hands him a package, he goes home and hides it disturbing his sleeping mother just enough for her to see what he is doing.

Come the day of the strike, Pavel and his group are ambushed at the gates of the factory and badly beaten. Pavel and a pal are chased  into the tavern, yet whilst Pabvel makes good his escape his mate is grabbed by the inn-keeper. In the melee his gun is fired and Vlasov is shot dead.

Nikolai Batalov
Our sympathy shifts as the insurgent's mother becomes a widow, staring in vacant horror as her husband is carried lifeless into their rooms. Before long she has discovered what Pavel was hiding, a collection of firearms, and honest citizen that she is, believes the policeman when he promises that if her son only tells the truth he will be free.

The family are now involved in the legal machinery of the Tsarist state and all other considerations are discarded as punishment becomes more important than the crime…

A shock from under the floorboards
“Righteousness, justice, mercy… “ the tribunal sits lazily on the question of Pavel’s life, more concerned with fine horses than the three words they are supposedly guided by. There will be precious little of any today and Pavel is sentenced to hard labour. Incredulous, his mother begs forgiveness – she had no idea that her faith in authority would be so misguided. But she is not alone and soon there is a plan to free Pavel and other prisoners…

Now the film shifts tone and pace as the director drives on towards the family’s ultimate betrayal by their country in an ending possibly inspired by a smuggled copy of East is East. The use of montage is mesmeric, with repeated shots of partly melted ice on the river being juxtaposed with the movement of people towards the prison and then in aid of the rescue: it’s a relentless flow in both cases and very powerful.

“And don’t spare the guns…”
Pudovkiz is so good on the details as well as the scale. As Vlasov’s body lies in death, he focuses on mother, then a dripping tap, then her dead husband, the floorboards, her son and back again: the monotony of grief and despair. There is a rhythm and logical completeness in the way he goes about his story telling and it is perfect for the accompaniment of the Horne/Pyne collective….

The duo sounded more like a quintet with Martin on vibes as well as percussion and Stephen playing his usual array of piano, accordion, flute and sundries… at times their response to Pudovkin’s rapid cuts reminded me of hard-hitting modern jazzers The Bad Plus (known for their covers of The Pixies, Nirvana and Black Sabbath). The duo have developed their counter-play and this film with its revolutionary rhythms is an ideal movie metronome for them to progress their innovative collaboration.

I liked the way Martin’s vibraphone hung notes in the air as the imagery became more fluid only for the beat to strengthen and the music to develop­­­­­­­­­ firmer resolve as the narrative hardened towards the horrific conclusion.

A top notch 35mm print from the BFI was projected and the screen grabs here don’t really do the film justice. It’s available from the Internet Archive and also on cheap import DVD from Amazon or eBay but it surely deserves the same restoration care and attention as many lesser contemporaries.

A statue of Nikolai Aleksandrovich Romanov looks out over his people


  1. You had me at the title ... well played, Paul. ;)
    I need to rewatch this, I saw it long ago. Vera Baranovskaya is such a wonderful actress, and a great supporting cast too (Koval-Samborsky, Batalov, etc).
    Regarding Baranovskaya, did you ever see Takový je zivot aka Such is Life? Her performance is again the heart of the film - and a very good film it is.

    1. I just couldn't help myself with that one!

      I watched the film aagin after the screening and it just gets better. I've alot more to discover with soviet film and I must watch Such is Life!

      Best wishes and thanks for reading!