Friday, July 28, 2017

The End of St. Petersburg (St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad) (Mezhrabpom-Rus, 1927)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was The End of St. Petersburg, a.k.a. St. Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad, a 1927 production by the “other” great Soviet silent director, Veslvolod Pudovkin, who along with Sergei Eisenstein (the first name that comes to mind when discussing Soviet silent directors) was commissioned by the Soviet government to make a movie to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that had brought down Russia’s provisional government just seven months after it had been established in the wake of the abdication of the last Czar, Nicholas II. Eisenstein’s film, October, was a dramatization of the Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin (played by a Moscow butcher with no acting experience because Eisenstein thought he looked just like the real Lenin) and Trotsky, but it didn’t get shown until 1928 because in the meantime Stalin had ousted Trotsky from the Soviet leadership and Eisenstein was obliged to re-edit his film to eliminate Trotsky and all the other upper-echelon Bolsheviks who had supported him. (He left in two sequences in which the actor playing Trotsky had his back to the camera — and at the premiere Stalin’s police goons ordered the film stopped and the house lights turned on so they could find out who in the audience had applauded when Trotsky appeared on screen.) 

Pudovkin got his film completed and shown on schedule because it didn’t depict any of the Bolshevik leaders; instead he and his screenwriter, Natan Zarkhi (though the film’s page gives the writer’s first name in its English form, “Nathan”), managed to create a parable of both rural and urban oppression and impoverishment that pulled off the trick just about any political film has to: giving us enough individual characters to identify with we can see how the repression affects people directly and also giving us a sense of the largeness of the events overall. A character identified only as “A Worker” (Aleksandr Chistyakov) and his wife (Vera Baranovskaya) leave the farming region around Novgorod to come to St. Petersburg looking for work since his mother has just died and a recently born daughter has just added to the burden of feeding his extended family. Clearly they’re hoping that he’ll land a job paying well enough not only to support them in St. Petersburg but give him money he can send as remittances back to the rest of his family in Novgorod, and he has a contact — another relative who has a job at the factory of capitalist Lebedev (V. Obolensky). Unfortunately, his timing turns out to be rotten: he arrives in St. Petersburg just as a communist agitator at Lebedev’s plant successfully organizes its workers to stage a wildcat strike in response to Lebedev’s order that the workers put in longer hours so he can fulfill a government contract, which he used to bid up the price of his own company’s stock. (There’s a weird scene early on in which, after we’ve seen only handfuls of rural peasants and urban proletarians, a whole crowd of stock speculators masses on the steps outside the St. Petersburg stock exchange and bids up the price of Lebedev’s stock. It seemed odd, to say the least, that a film about the class struggle ostensibly taking the side of the 99 percent would show so many more of the 1 percent. “That’s so they could have fewer superheroes and more villains,” Charles commented.) 

Then World War I starts, the Worker gets drafted and he survives three years at the front, only when he comes back Russia is in the middle of its revolution, the Czar has been toppled and the Provisional Government is haplessly hanging on as best it can against the onslaught of the Bolsheviks, who won the support of the rank-and-file in the Russian military primarily by promising them an end to the war while the other parties were pledging to continue it. They also won the support of the peasants by promising to expropriate the big landowners and distribute the land to individual peasants — a promise that kinda-sorta got honored until 1929, when Stalin abruptly decided that the future of Russian agriculture lay in collective farming, and he implemented that policy with his usual thug-like determination and fervor. An officer still loyal to the Provisional Government tries to order his troops to shoot the Bolshevik militants, but instead the troops switch sides, the crew of the cruiser Aurora mutinies and threatens to shell the city if the Provisional Government doesn’t resign in favor of the soviets (the roughly organized workers’ and peasants’ councils through which the Bolsheviks ultimately gained control), the Czar’s Winter Palace gets stormed and the Worker’s wife finds him in the street, dying — in a piece of heart-rending (if somewhat predictable) irony, he survived World War I only to get mortally wounded in the Revolution, but she’s able to say his last goodbyes to him before he expires and she shows off her collective spirit by giving the food she’d brought him (it was hard to see what was in her little bucket — they looked like potatoes but the people she gave the foodstuffs to were able to eat them immediately instead of having to cook them) to the other Bolshevik fighters. She strolls through the now-deserted Winter Palace — obviously Pudovkin got permission from the Soviet government to film in the real one — and the contrast between her state and the preposterous decorations of the Palace’s walls makes the point Pudovkin and Zarkhi intended about the fundamental injustice of a handful of people at the top of a society living lavishly while most everybody else, whose labor is generating the wealth that the upper class seizes, is starving. 

One French critic said of Russia’s two great silent directors, “Pudovkin’s films resemble a song; Eisenstein’s, a scream,” and there are certainly some quite lyrical shots in The End of St. Petersburg, including ones of rivers flowing and others of farmers tilling fields (still with human-pushed plows in the early 20th century!). The overall effect of this film is somber and sad — if you want an exuberant celebration of the revolutionary spirit, watch Eisenstein’s October instead — and of course it’s impossible to watch this film today without imagining the sequel, the 74 years during which the Communist party tyrannized Russia and ruled by force and terror, then collapsed and led to yet another Russian oligarchy that has restored St. Petersburg to its original name. (The Russian title St. Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad reflects that in 1914, since Russia was fighting Germany in World War I, the Czar’s government decided to change the ending of the city’s name from the German “-burg” to the Russian “-grad,” both meaning “city,” and after the Bolsheviks took over they took Peter the Great’s name off the city he’d founded and put their own leader’s name on it instead, and since it was the name for only three years almost nobody calls it “Petrograd” unless they’re writing or talking about the Revolution.) The End of St. Petersburg is a brilliant film, an acknowledged and deserved classic; it’s true, as an reviewer said, that it’s “great without actually being entertaining,” though at least part of that depends on what you consider “entertaining.” Just as Dwight Macdonald once wrote that to him the French art film Last Year at Marienbad was entertaining (he defined “to entertain” as “to hold the attention agreeably”) and a Jerry Lewis comedy wasn’t, so to me The End of St. Petersburg is entertaining and a modern-day gross-out comedy with farts, belches and semen hair-gel isn’t.