April 27, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Vsevolod I. Pudovkin
Storm over Asia. 1928. USSR. Directed by V. I. Pudovkin

Storm over Asia. 1928. USSR. Directed by V. I. Pudovkin

These notes accompany the Vsevolod I. Pudovkin program, screening April 28, 29, and 30 in Theater 3.

Vsevolod Illarionovitch Pudovkin (1893–1953) was, like Sergei Eisenstein, a pupil of Lev Kuleshov (1899–1970), and all three of them were heavily influenced by the work of D. W. Griffith, particularly his mastery of editing. All three also wrote copiously on film theory, finding intellectual justification for the choices they made in creating their movies. Few American filmmakers made much effort to convey their thought processes, and most seemed happy to leave the impression that their work was largely intuitive. When Peter Bogdanovich asked John Ford how he did a particular shot, Ford replied soberly, “With a camera.”

Of course, Alfred Hitchcock did submit to Francois Truffaut’s book-length interview, and King Vidor did write his own book, King Vidor on Filmmaking, to try to explicate his methods. Neither of these, however, quite matched the portentous tomes that Pudovkin and Eisenstein published. I would suggest that their editing (montage) theories were more amenable to intellectual codification than such subtleties in Ford’s work as evoking resonance and poignancy by using a certain actor in a certain role—to which Ford’s audience could relate memories of previous appearances by that actor in other Ford films. Josef von Sternberg’s charming autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, does include some discussion of his technique and style, but the greatness of such films as Morocco, Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil Is a Woman have just as much to do with the unique alchemy of Sternberg’s and Marlene Dietrich’s talents and the “baggage” they carried with them in successive films. Such things are inimitable, and hardly grist for Film Directing 101 textbooks.

Back to Pudovkin, his first released film was the short comedy Chess Fever (1925), and upon its release he was already hard at work on his documentary, The Mechanics of the Brain. His real breakthrough came the following year, with his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s novel Mat (Mother), a story of a mother-son relationship caught up in the sweep of Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution. Here, he seems to establish his fundamental differences from Eisenstein, whose revolutionary zeal would not permit him to traffic much in sentimentality and emotionalism. Pudovkin was no less a supporter of the Revolution, but he had the awareness that the collective was made up of individuals and that audiences who were attracted to Charles Chaplin or Lillian Gish in the Griffith films might have a need to identify with a character, a personality, and not just a cause. In this, he seemed more astute about the ultimate power of the movies.

If Eisenstein was the preeminent Soviet propagandist, Pudovkin and his Ukrainian contemporary Alexander Dovzhenko (1894–1956) (with whom we will deal in a few weeks) were the epic visual poets of the regime. Pudovkin’s Potomok Chingis-Khan (Storm over Asia) (1928) presents a cathartic spectacle pretty much unprecedented in world cinema. His use of masses photographed with a moving camera and subjected to his theories of editing certainly rival similar scenes in Griffith’s Intolerance, and they possess a contemporaneousness that Griffith’s faux-Babylonians could not equal. Pudovkin was recreating the recent history of Russia and its fringe republics, and he believed in the cause as John Ford believed in America’s destiny. Whether Pudovkin had seen Napoleon, made two years earlier by another Griffith disciple, Abel Gance, both films share a soaring epic quality, and both focus on an unlikely hero who grows to greatness before our eyes. With the coming of sound and Stalinism, Pudovkin never again rose to quite the same heights, but he retains an honorable place in the history of film and film literature.