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This film, commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the revolution, is hardcore Communist propaganda - and very effective filmmaking. The message is foremost, but the movie itself is based on a solid human story that must have been an emotional firecracker to the impressionable Russian audiences for which it was intended. Director, cinema theorist and actor Pudovkin won a lot of acclaim for this picture, which dramatizes the fall of St. Petersburg, simplifying the issues in ways identical to modern action films.
There are no characters, only a simple selection of types. The oafish country boy comes to the city, makes some bad decisions, and atones like the salt-of-the-Earth that he is. A downtrodden worker stoically endures the tyranny of the factory bosses, while his suffering wife goes from one tragedy to another. Free of the almost abstract stylization of Eisenstein, the owners, stock-holders and agents of the capitalist factory are fat pigs and little else, carrion to be swept away by the broom of history. And the complicated set of governments and conspiracies that was the transition from the Tsar to the totalitarian Communist state, is reduced to one ineffectual bureaucrat.
Pudovkin never represents Lenin and doesn't turn the storming of The Winter Palace into an epic, and instead uses cutting, cutting, and more editorial finesse to create concept-impressions of wars being waged, and worlds being overturned. The last image is of the worker-organizer, now in power as the new conscience of the will of the people. He looks a lot like a young Stalin, intentionally or not.
Eisenstein, in films like Strike, turned the screen into strange symbolic representations of the class struggle. Pudovkin turns his editorial skills toward creating argumentative cinematic equations. A bloody battle on the German front is compared to negotiations between two companies, by intercutting the battle with business activities and a stock-trading frenzy. The 'satisfactory business outcome' is pictured as trenches full of dead soldiers. When the stock of the Lebedev factory goes up and down, the brokers are said to be trading in human souls, an idea reinforced by fast cutting to the laborers.
Some of the montages are very quick-cut, and include snippets of reverse-motion and negative images. Associative cutting reverts to Tsarist symbolism whenever introducing a new element of Capitalist oppression, in particular a horses' ass view of a mounted Peter the Great statue. Likewise, flash-cuts back to earlier views of suffering workers are used as a tension device just as the signal is given to attack the Palace.
It's all very formal and scientific. The emotional strength of the story all stems from the performances of the three leads, who are filmed much more conventionally. The suffering mother (there doesn't seem to be any other kind in Soviet films) is so consistent in her grief that when this film toured she probably became a surrogate mother symbol for millions of Soviets.
Image's striking DVD of The End of St. Petersburg retains the original intertitles, in Russian, with non-removable English translations. The titles are brief and almost conversational, and many of them play in two or three sections, separated by shots. Unlike standard silent intertitles, they seem a part of the flow and not an interruption; as the film is really a pro-Soviet thesis argument, they really are key content.
Opening titles identify the print as a 1969 Russian restoration, and the print quality is excellent for a film of this vintage. There are a number of puzzling shots that are far too tight on top, cutting off heads, (not the intentional shots of uniforms & business suits that do so on purpose) yet there are visible splice artifacts (glue marks) when the cutting works itself into a frenzy, indicating that we are seeing most of the available frame area.
The disc has a very nice music score, that in most scenes fits like a glove. It's unattributed on the packaging.
Deserter is billed as the sound film in which Pudovkin launched his theories of audio in cinema, only some of which are communicated here. It's essentially an early talkie that uses sound selectively - entire scenes can stay silent, and whether the noise of a giant crane working right in front of us is heard or not is an artistic choice of the director. Podovkin makes good use of cacaphonous audio in his montages - Rhythmically cutting to and from a machine noise creates an 'impact' each time the sound cuts-in, that he exploits by synching with the falling of a hammer.
Otherwise the audio montage is rather primitive, especially compared to the earlier experiments in natural sound by Mamoulian, and the much more inventive and creative Fritz Lang soundscapes of M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Dialogue is just dialogue, and very little of it sounds natural. Huge dock horns heard inside an apartment, disappear entirely when a little window is shut. Pudovkin's main achievement is to contrast quiet with chaotic noise, which greatly affects his montages.
In general, the silent visual montage theory seems to be working too hard, creating harsh and unyielding patterns suitable only for hectoring propaganda, which Deserter certainly is. Slow sections are almost silent, and then the 2 frame cuts will bombard us whenever the director feels something is monumentally important. A speaker's words will cut to flutter-cut images of explosions. There are at least 5 similar physical clashes in the film, and all follow the same pattern - an establshing setup, and then a chaos of fast-cut closeups of blurred action and expressionistic faces. We don't pull back from details to see what's going on until the action is over. Therefore, an impassioned speech has the same impact as a fistfight or a massacre or a flurry to assemble a big machine in a factory. Pudovkin creates a controlled cinematic reality in which naturalistic truth is subordinated to the authority of the filmmaker.
One very progressive scene shows Renn committing suicide in despair. He throws himself from a bridge, but then the picture cuts back to him staring down at the water, still contemplating jumping, until a cop chases him away. It's the equivalent of the de rigeur false climaxes in modern horror films (there's even one in The Ring).
The Germans speak Russian in Germany, but German when they get to Moscow, creating a confusion that Pudovkin doesn't overcome. It's possible that Germany was meant to serve as a generic capitalist state, as the police that harass and murder the innocent strikers have uniforms much more like NYPD cops, than Hamburg Polizei.
As a drama, Deserter lumbers, with its 2 or 3 cardboard leading players backed by an army of impassioned 'faces' that montage turns into a mass proletariat character. When it comes time to advance the story, people talk simple exposition or read a notice in the newspaper, just like ordinary Western narrative movies. Deserter uses many flat intertitles, which also seem rather retro: the genius of Fritz Lang was to find effective ways to communicate story points visually.
As propaganda, Deserter might be the seed film for thousands of dispossessed American leftists in the depressed 30s, who bought the lies about Russia being a 'worker's paradise.' Since the official policy of Stalin's politbureau was that the national aim of the Soviet was to hasten the international Communist revolution worldwide, it's no wonder that conservatives, reactionaries, and anyone with plain common sense saw nothing wrong with resisting Commie influence by any means possible. The inequities of Tsarist Russia prescribed some kind of radical socialist state, but what the Russians got was something quite different. The Soviet state studied political science and exploited every technology it could to further its aims. These movies were first and foremost created as tools to make minds conform on a mass basis. History is lies told and re-interpreted at a later date, but the Soviets perfected the movie science of creating lies as a policy.
The Russian cinema scientists' idea that the medium was more important than the story didn't die; today's video media employs all Pudovkin's tricks to stimulate the audience into the illusion that it's seeing something of importance. And propaganda didn't go away; our entire economy is based on creating artificial needs through advertising, and our entertainments and news media are comfy, Democratic influence machines.
Anyone still made uncomfortable by the pro-Communist sentiments promoted by these antique movies, should think of them when watching television or going to the movies. I'm told there's a post-9.11, pre-invasion U.S. Armed Forces short subject circulating now that promotes national unity and encourages us to remain a passive cheering section for a military that everyone presumes will soon be at war. Our tax dollars are being used to regulate our opinions, and to intimidate dissent. "Gee, I guess the rest of America is for invading other countries. What's wrong with me?" We're exactly the malleable, manipulate-able mass the Soviets counted on in their time.
Deserter looks very good, for an archive restoration of such an old movie. The material is worn, of course. Again, the framing is very tight on top, as if some earlier duping had trimmed too much from the vertical extreme of the frame. Many scenes have moments where heads are half bisected on a normal television. But then, titles and other shots look perfectly framed.
There are also numerous 'slugs', bits of blank leader cut in to replace missing bits of picture and keep the film in sync with the soundtrack. Numbers and writing appear on these in reverse, flickering by, letting us know that this only print was perhaps butchered at one point to steal frames, or who knows what. At least one scene starts with noise heard over black, and because of the interruptions, we're not sure if it's on purpose or because the footage is missing.
The End of St Petersburg & The Deserter