by Allan Fish
(USSR 1938 100m) DVD1
Aka. Maxim Gorki Trilogy: Part I; Detstvo Gorkogo
Ode to a grandmother
d Mark Donskoi w Ilya Gruzdev, Mark Donskoi ph Pyotr Yermalov ed Mark Donskoi m Lev Schwartz art Ivan Stepanov
Alexei Lyarsky (Aleksei Peshkov), Yelizaveta Alekseyava (Varvara Kashirina Peshkova), Mikhail Troyanovski (Vasili Vasilyevich Kashirin), Valeria Massalitinova (Akulina Ivanva Kashirin), Daniil Sagaal (Ivan), Vasili Novikov (Uncle Yakov), Aleksandr Zhukov (Uncle Mikhail), S.Tokhonorov (The Lodger), K.Zubkov (Old Grigori), Igor Smirnov (Alexei), E.Marnaev (Sacha Kashirin),
Mark Donskoi’s famous Maxim Gorky trilogy holds a special place in the hearts of film-lovers everywhere. It isn’t faultless, and certainly the first part is vastly superior to the second and third instalments, My Apprenticeship and My Universities, hence it being the only one included here. It’s like getting into a DeLorean, cranking it up to 88mph and letting the flux capacitor do its thing, for we really are transported back in time. As Gorky himself is quoted in the opening caption, “in bringing the past to life I myself find it difficult to believe that all this really happened, but truth is above compassion.”
The story itself always plays second fiddle to the observations, and quite simply and poetically follows the early life of the famous author, growing up in 19th century Tsarist Russia The family is ruled harshly by its disciplinarian grandfather, so young Maxim – or Aleksei as he is called here – turns to his adoring grandmother for affection, who comes to represent much of what to him is wholly Russian, while also encouraging him to pursue his artistic dreams.
The opening sequences of a family gathered inside their humble abode, accompanied by the inimitable Uncle Yakov’s lamenting “oh how bored I am, oh how sad I am” might lead one to expect an exercise in grim melancholia, but it’s far from it. It’s been called a very un-Soviet film, and so it is. Indeed David Thomson was right to compare the central protagonist to Dickens’ David Copperfield, and as he says; “the sentiment, the sense of family, and the dense texture of everyday reality in those films will have won more friends than the montages of Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov’s cameraman protagonist.”
It’s this very universality that is both its ultimate paradox and its defining greatness. On one level it looks back to the works of Dovzhenko and Pagnol, and forward to those of Paradjanov and Tarkovsky, yet there’s equally as much John Ford in there, not to mention being influential on Bill Douglas’ later trilogy. Here is, as Maxim’s beloved grandmother observes, “such poverty that one cannot even talk about it”, and that Donskoi and his cameraman Yermalov find such poetry and beauty in such harsh conditions is a testament to their achievement. So indeed are the performances, all perfectly in keeping with the director’s vision, with special mention to Novikov’s Yakov and, especially, Massalitinova as the grandmother. She seems to represent everything not only Russian but motherly, as much a personification of her country’s undying spirit as Jane Darwell represented the pioneering frontier spirit of the mid-west. It’s one of the great character performances in Russian cinema.
Where Donskoi’s film works best, however, is in its scenes of camaraderie amongst the children, which reaches a poignant conclusion in the final sequence, where Maxim is escorted through the fields by his six friends, all of whom he turns to say his farewells to before journeying down that road – littered with telegraph poles denoting the future erosion of that world – away from home that would in turn so influence Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray and Edgar Reitz. It might not be perfect, but it’s real, and stands as a fascinating counterpoint to the usual propaganda of Soviet cinema of the period. “If we are ordered to do something wrong, our duty is to stand firm and be strong” we are told. Like that statement, the film itself has stood firm and, in doing so, preserved Gorky’s spirit better than a thousand written eulogies.