In 1906, the Russian author Maxim Gorky was traveling to the United States and achieved something remarkable along the way: he started writing what must be considered one of his greatest novels, ”The Mother”. After the revolution of 1905, which was crushed by the Tsar’s forces but still resulted in profound changes in how Russia was governed, Gorky wanted to create something that would inspire the revolutionaries to continue fighting.
He based his novel on actual events that had taken place in 1902 during a demonstration in Sormovo; Gorky was related to the titular ”mother” of the book. When Vsevolod Pudovkin turned it into a Soviet propaganda film decades later, the story became even more famous.
Father and son on opposite sides
A strike is being prepared at a local factory. There are two sides forming, one that supports it, one that opposes it. Vlasov (Aleksandr Chistyakov) is rather useless to his wife Pelageya (Vera Baranovskaya) and son Pavel (Nikolai Batalov) and things are not improved when he’s manipulated into joining the faction that opposes the strike. His son ends up on the opposite side; unsurprisingly, there’s a woman involved, who makes him hide weapons. During the strike, Vlasov is killed and Pavel arrested. He stands trial and is sentenced to hard labor. Pelageya can see how unjustly her family has been treated and joins the revolutionaries…
The power of editing
After gaining experience since 1920 as a screenwriter, art director and assistant director, Pudovkin made his directing debut with the documentary Mechanics of the Brain in 1926, which was quickly followed by the release of Mother the same year. A work of fiction, and Pudovkin knew how he would move his audience – through editing, not really the performances of the actors. He must have studied what Sergei Eisenstein accomplished the year before in his masterful Battleship Potemkin, which also took place during the 1905 revolution.
Mother is a film that frequently uses the art of the montage to stir the audience; one of the most effective sequences in this immensely clever piece of propaganda comes near the end when hundreds of revolutionaries are marching on the prison to free the political prisoners and images of an icebreaker crushing through ice floes are inserted. The symbolism of the film may not be complex, but its point is to reach the masses, not a few intellectuals; it’s ironic that a century later, this film’s audience is more likely to be the latter, not the former. Obviously, emotions matter a lot here. One consequence of the strike and the death of Vlasov could be that mother and son are unable to reconcile, since he’s joined the side that killed his father, but the film’s most overwhelming moments come near the end when the mother chooses the right side and becomes a revolutionary; closeups of her face and fluttering red flags contribute to an emotional crescendo that made its way into cinema history.
Baranovskaya herself is impossible to forget in the lead; as in the case of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), her face makes quite an impression. But Batalov is also good as her son, a heroic worker who falls victim to the regime.
Pudovkin turned Mother into the first part of a revolutionary trilogy, followed by The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and Storm Over Asia (1928). It is easy to imagine that the impact of the trilogy is a major reason why Britain decided to ban Mother from being shown in its theaters in 1930. Perhaps they feared the sight of British working-class women marching on Whitehall?
Mother 1926-Soviet Union. Silent. 84 min. B/W. Directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin. Screenplay: Nathan Zarkhi. Novel: Maxim Gorky. Cinematography: Anatoli Golovnya. Cast: Vera Baranovskaya (Pelageya Nilovna Vlasova), Nikolai Batalov (Pavel Vlasov), Aleksandr Chistyakov (Vlasov), Ivan Koval-Samborsky, Anna Zemtsova.
Trivia: Original title: Mat. Remade in the Soviet Union as Mat (1956) and Mother (1990). The novel was also turned into a play by Bertolt Brecht.
Last word: “In my earlier film, ‘Mother’, I tried to affect the spectators, not by the psychological performances of an actor, but by plastic synthesis through editing. The son sits in prison. Suddenly, passed in to him surreptitiously, he receives a note that next day he is to be set free. The problem was the expression, filmically, of his joy. The photographing of a face lighting up with joy would have been flat and void of effect. I show, therefore, the nervous play of his hands and a big close-up of the lower half of his face, the corners of his smile. These shots I cut in with other and varied material – shots of a brook, swollen with the rapid flow of spring, of the play of sunlight broken on the water, birds splashing in the village pond, and finally a laughing child. By the junction of these components our expression of ‘prisoner’s joy’ takes shape.” (Pudovkin, “On Film Technique”)