Mother, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s first major film, was released in 1926, two years before The End of St. Petersburg. I’ll leave the question of whether or not Mother is a feminist movie to the feminists. This essay by Cara Marisa Deleon does a better job of breaking down the way Mother approaches gender issues than I could. I am mainly interested in comparing the ways in which Mother and The End of St. Petersburg deal with the issue of how women become radicalized, and in what that means for the idea of working class revolution.
Mother, which is loosely based on the Marxim Gorky novel of the same name, is the story of a timid, Russian peasant woman played by Vera Baranovskaya. It’s rightfully considered one of the great peformances in all of silent film. Mother opens shortly before the Russian Revolution of 1905. Pelageya Nilovna Vlasova, the “mother,” is torn between her husband, a drunken ne’er do well who abuses her physically and emotionally, and Pavel, her grown son. Vsevolod Pudovkin isn’t coy about his politics. He clearly sees Pavel, a revolutionary militant, as the way forward, and the husband, a drunken, lazy reactionary, as everything dark and backward about Czarist Russia. The power to determine the course of history, therefore, devolves upon “the mother,” the as of yet politically uncommitted majority of the Russian people.
The political transformation of the imprisoned Bolshevik organizer’s wife in The End of St. Petersburg goes on largely behind the scenes. Her gesture at the close of the film, the act of sharing a bucket of potatoes, is both very realistic and specific. We see her initial reluctance to up a precious supply of food during wartime as well as the flood of relief that overcomes her when she finally decides to let go. That she’s such a minor character, just one more anonymous woman in St. Petersburg whose views have ever so subtly changed in response to the world historical events going on around her, is paradoxically what makes her so important. Revolutions are not created out of thin air by great leaders. They are, rather, the end result of a collective shift in consciousness by the people as a whole. An ordinary housewife who feels confident enough to give up food during war time is more dangerous than a hundred Trotskys or Che Guevaras.
The woman of Mother, by contrast, begins as an ordinary woman, but ends up as an iconic revolutionary. After her husband is killed in a drunken brawl, and Pavel is caught stockpiling arms and revolutionary pamphlets, turns him into the secret police, not because she wants to harm him, but because she believes in the authority of the state and the essential benevolence of the Czar. Pavel, she has decided is headed for the same bad end as her husband. Snitching is the only way to put him back on the right track. After Pavel is sentenced to hard labor, she realizes her mistake. Her conformism, her trusting nature has condemned the young man to a short, miserable life in Siberia.
The biggest thing we miss about silent film is its universality. I don’t have to speak Russian to understand what Pudovkin is trying to express in Mother. I don’t even have to know very much about Russian culture. All I need are my own eyes. Pudovkin sees the woman’s response to her son’s imprisonment, not as a case of tragic regret, but, rather, as a liberation, as the transformation of a timid, beaten down woman into a revolutionary. As a Russian, he chooses an image that any Russian, or northerner, would immediately recognize. After Pavel is sentenced, Mother becomes an extended montage, a May Day parade and the melting of an ice flow. As winter gives way to Spring, as the Mayday parade makes its way to the fortress where Pavel is imprisoned, we see the evolution of a group of ordinary people from an oppressed, unconscious and obedient mass, into an unstoppable army of revolutionaries. That the “mother” and her son both die under the guns of the Czarist authorities, that the revolt is crushed, only makes the ending that much more optimistic. If Winter is here, Percy Shelley once wrote, can Spring be far behind. Pavel dies, but not before seeing his mother transfigured, a ferocious icon of “Mother Russia” who has raised the red flag and joined the revolution.
Note: Vera Baranovskaya died in 1935 in Paris. Was she living in France as an exile from Stalin’s tyranny? A Google search offers no real answers.