The End of St Petersburg (1927)

Barbican, London

1 October 2017

(Warning: Contains spoilers)

As we took our seats at the Barbican this afternoon , the absence of familiar faces in the audience probably reflected the lure of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone.  But their loss was our gain because today’s silent was a Soviet classic, The End of St Petersburg (1927), with live musical accompaniment from the trio Harmonieband.

The End of St Petersburg opens with a naive young peasant boy (Ivan Chuvelev, image  left) living a hand-to-mouth existence with his family in a poor Russian village.  When the boy’s mother gives birth to a baby girl, another mouth to feed, it is decide that the boy will have to go to the city to find work and help provide for the family. While St Petersburg is a city of beauty and elegance it is also a city of industry, with the workers toiling in dangerous, almost slave-like conditions.  Amongst them is a Bolshevik worker ( Alexander Chistyakov)  who labours at the Lebedev factory and who observes the mistreatment of another worker by the factory stockholder. When the Lebedev factory wins a large government contract the manager is told by the factory owner (image, right) to institute longer hours for the workers in order to fulfil the contract.

Accompanied by his grand-mother the peasant boy makes his way to the house of the Bolshevik worker (who came originally came from the same village as the boy). Waiting for the worker to arrive home the boy sees that conditions in the worker’s home are little better than the countryside with poverty and hunger rampant.

In the factory, the Bolshevik worker (image, left) leads the men out on strike in protest at the longer hours. He returns home with a worker’s strike committee to secretly discuss what to do next. A  bald-headed worker is the most radical.  The peasant boy listens in on the discussion. When the meeting breaks up, the worker’s wife (Vera Baranovskaya) orders the boy out to look for a job. New workers are recruited to replace the strikers and, seeing a friend in their midst, the peasant boy joins them. At the Lebedev factory, the strikers gather at the gates to prevent the strike-breakers entering.  Scuffles break out and the peasant boy is overheard saying the strike is the fault of the bald headed worker stirring up trouble at which point he is taken to the factory manager and told to identify the strike leaders.  He leads the police to the Bolshevik worker’s home where all of the strike committee are arrested.  The peasant boy questions why the Bolshevik worker was arrested but the manager simply offers him a job.  The worker’s wife strikes the peasant boy in anger.

The peasant boy attempts to put things right and goes to the factory office in an effort to get the Bolshevik worker freed.  He attacks the factory owner and is arrested.  The police chief orders him beaten up and thrown in jail. When war breaks out with Germany the peasant boy is forcibly enlisted (image, right).  He is dispatched to the squalor and danger of the front line.  Three years pass and the war continues.  Only the speculators profit while the poor cry out for bread and popular unrest grows. When the Tsar is overthrown, the moneyed classes applaud the coalition government of Kerensky.  The Bolshevik worker, now freed, preaches for further revolution.  The police come once more to arrest him but he evades them with the help of his wife. He then seeks to spread dissent within the ranks of troops outside St Petersburg which include the peasant boy and the two meet up once again.  The troops open fire on their officers and march on the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government.  The palace is stormed and “St Petersburg is no more”.  

The next morning, the Bolshevik worker’s wife searches for her husband, not knowing if he is alive or dead.  She comes across the peasant boy who has been wounded fighting for the Bolshevik cause and, her earlier hatred for him now gone, she tends his wounds and shares her food with him and his colleagues.  Inside the Winter Palace, she is almost overwhelmed by the opulence and luxury confronting her, before finally being reunited with her husband.

Amongst numerous events organised in 1927 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1917 October revolution, the Central Committee of the Communist Party commissioned the Soviet Union’s two leading  film makers, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein. to each produce films to mark the event. Eisenstein’s effort, October: Ten Days That Shook the World, suffered considerable production difficulties (in particular, scenes featuring Trotsky had to be cut out or re-shot when he fell from favour) and was not released until 1928, to largely unfavourable contemporary reviews.  In contrast, Pudovkin brought his film in on schedule and to great critical and popular acclaim.

In a film commissioned by the Communist Party specifically to commemorate the Russian revolution, there was never going to be anything subtle in its recounting of events and the film obviously is intended as a propaganda piece.  But Pudovkin’s work is far removed from some dour piece of idealogically pure agit-prop. Instead, it is an exhilarating spectacle, cogently plotted and dynamically edited    In telling his story, Pudovkin focuses upon both the epic and the individual level.  The film’s middle section deals in epic scale with the catastrophic war with Germany and does not hesitate to show the appalling conditions and the savagery of the fighting. As Russia’s leaders discuss the coming conflict the scenes are framed to show just their uniformed or dress-suited bodies without their heads being visible, effectively anonymising them to underline that it was not simply the individuals who were corrupt but the system as a whole. This section is also interesting for the sympathy it demonstrates not just towards the ordinary soldiers on the Russian side but also to their opposite numbers in the German army, similarly exploited and oppressed by their own military and political leaders. But both before and after these epic scenes of conflict, the film is at a much more individual level, focused on the peasant boy, the Bolshevik worker and the worker’s wife with a conventional plot which the audience could clearly identify with.

Yet at both the epic and individual levels Pudovkin was superbly adept at juxtaposing contrasting images to drive home the messages he sought to make, what he termed. ‘parallelism’. or relational montage. In the scenes of conflict, as the soldiers go on the offensive and charge the enemy lines, this is inter-cut with shots of speculators rushing to make money on the stock-market.  In Pudovkin’s eyes, the only victors from conflict were the munitions manufacturers and the speculators.  War is reduced to the level of a financial ‘transaction’, the capitalist profits achieved at the expense of soldiers left dead and wounded in the trenches (image, right).  Similarly, as the worker’s wife walks through the Winter Palace at the film’s conclusion, the opulence and splendour of the palace and the wealth of its former occupants is contrasted with her poverty as shown by the empty food pail she is carrying.            

Amongst the principal cast, Ivan Chuvelev as the peasant boy is perhaps least convincing, naive almost to the point of imbecility at the outset, his raised political consciousness does seem to come a bit from out of the blue.  Alexander Chistyakov as the Bolshevik worker is more credible but it is Vera Baranovskaya (image, extreme right) as his wife who is most impressive. Seen initially filled with anger at the literal poverty of her life, opposed to her husband’s ‘rabble-rousing’ and unwilling to share her family’s meagre resources she is transformed by the revolutionary uprising, tending to the injured peasant boy (image, left), sharing her food and finally expresses joy in finding her husband alive. Amongst the other players, the chief of police (actor unknown) is excellent in his portrayal of malign indifference as he orders the peasant boy beaten and jailed. Also appearing very briefly was acclaimed actor Vladimir Fogel and director Pudovkin himself as two German officers.    

The End of St Petersburg along with Mother (1926) and Storm Over Asia (1928) constituted Pudovkin’s great trilogy of silent films celebrating the Bolshevik revolution, although in contrast his first major cinematic success came with Chess (1925), a light comedy, so far removed from his later propagandist work. Although side-lined for several years after a serious car accident Pudovkin continued to make films until his death in 1953 but (perhaps understandably) these were content to follow a Stalinist propaganda line and never recaptured the full brilliance of his silent era work.    

Enjoyment of this afternoon’s film also benefited considerably from the excellent live musical accompaniment from Harmonieband, on this occasion a trio comprising composer Paul Robinson on keyboards and accordion, Dai Pritchard on clarinet and saxophone and Geeta Nazarath on violin.  The performance was a clever and effective mix of well performed live playing over a pre-recorded, largely electronic, backing track which added a more powerful, almost orchestral background sound.  There was enough of a Russian folk feel in Paul Robinson’s score to give atmosphere without it becoming clichéd and the individual themes supporting aspects of the film’s story were very effective, whether at the more intimate, individual level or with the grandiose scenes of drama and combat.