A classic of Soviet silent film tells of a mother who is radicalized after she naively betrays her revolutionary son to Czarist authorities.
There are very few more poignant examples of world-historical irony in cinema than the Soviet silent film—the revolutionary hopes they expressed proved to be tragic illusions, but the works themselves remain deeply influential, and rightly so. Most American film buffs will be familiar with Eisenstein, but just as important is the work of Vsevolod Pudovkin. Arguably Pudovkin’s greatest film was made in 1926, entitled Mother.
Mother takes place in 1905, when a young man, played by Nikolai Batalov, joins a revolutionary group that is planning a strike at the local factory. His father, a drunk who is abusive to his wife and son, is recruited into a group of reactionary strike breakers. When the strike breakers attack the strikers, the father is killed by one of the son’s comrades (in a long sequence that is a tour de force of editing style). The mother (Vera Baranovskaya) then discovers a cache of weapons hidden under the floorboards by her son. Naïvely believing assurances from the police that they will be lenient, she betrays her son to them.
Adapted from the famous novel by Maxim Gorky, Mother was an international success, and remains one of the universally acknowledged masterpieces of Soviet cinema. And its reputation is deserved. On every level—editing, acting, photography, overall conception—this is superb filmmaking. Pudovkin has an uncanny ability to highlight the human face in powerful ways. The close-ups, and the framing of human figures within light that is bordered by shadows, create an effect like painting in motion, or like witnessing eternal archetypes of humanity taking shape on the screen.
The choice of Baranovskaya, an actress trained by Stanislavsky, in the title role, was extremely fortunate. She knows how to use her deep, haunting eyes, and how to be still—rather than trying to emote all over the place, as was still too common in films of that era—to create this character, this mother, as a living presence on screen. You just can’t take your eyes off of her.
Montage was, of course, the principal technique of the Soviet silent film. What isn’t often enough said is that the Russians taught the rest of the world, to a great degree, how to move faster in movies. There are almost no dull stretches in Mother, the cutting is so fast and dynamic, in sequences such as the attack on the strikers, or the May Day march confronted by the military on horseback, that the drama is primarily conveyed by the film’s rhythm itself rather than the plot. Even the film’s quieter scenes involve dynamic editing, and continue to stimulate one’s attention on different levels by using symbols and evocative motifs, such as the water dripping into a bucket while the mother sits by her dead husband’s bier. Moreover, Pudovkin brought a personal touch to the story—always maintaining interest in the characters as individual people, over and above their significance as types. He focused on action and style, letting character speak for itself through the fine acting, and the result was one of the world’s most beautiful and effective films.
Mother is available on DVD.