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A fascinating document of the great Pudovkin and his first sound film.
Pudovkin, also a great Russian montagist/theorist like Eisenstein, is
usually more accessible in his films. Pudovkin (in his "End of Saint
Petersburg" as well) focuses on single working-man characters, while
Eisenstein films are usually more concerned with larger issues of
class, composition and space, and focus on historical figures bigger
than life (Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible).
"Deserter" follows the trek of a German worker who decides he can't keep working after a strike is called at his shipyard, to feed his family and for the continued glory of his homeland (Germany). Torn between hunger and solidarity for his fellow workers, he finally is sent to Russian to learn some lessons in socialism and comes back - not a deserter, but a hero. He's the seed of a new Socialist unity among the workers. The two most interesting aspects of this film is that it has a German striker as the lead protagonist, probably allowing Pudovkin to show his hero having doubts about the "cause" more easily without getting in trouble with the authorities; and also the use of sound.
It's very primitive, with sound cutting in only when needed for dialog or sound effects for emphasis. It reminds me of the sound version of Hitchcock's "Blackmail," which has a similarly uncertain feel to when and how to use sound. (For the record, generally Hitch nails it, and advanced the art tremendously.) Image's DVD print has missing frames every so often, and black leader is edited in to keep the soundtrack in sync, an annoying tactic when black flashes pepper some scenes. Pudovkin is also flirting with way-too-quick flash-cuts, akin to Dziga Vertov's work.
Nevertheless, "Deserter" is powerful agitprop cinema from one of the Russian masters. Its political force is driven home by following a worker truly torn by unfair circumstances to the point of abandoning his fellow workers and family. It humanizes the struggle many Russian political filmmakers and montagists tried to capture in their important work in the 20s and 30s.
Until a cleaned-up print (or carefully trimmed and re-timed one) can be produced and released, Russian film aficionados should not miss this film.
At first glance, this seems like a typical example of Soviet montage.
The plot for one, after the strike of German dock workers is broken by
owners and police they decide to send a delegation to the Motherland to
be taught about revolutionary practice. The camera physics, most
pertinently and as striking as ever, the eye wrestling control of
images from bourgeois reality to assemble a new world. But there is
something else here, for the first time.
There is sound. The eye is no longer mute but singing.
Now when sound was finally introduced, it was enough that an extra texture gave depth to the illusion of moving images. The effort was and continues to be for realism. It was noted very early on, that good sound renders the whole thing uniquely alive and vibrant, which is a true and tested notion and is correctly being taught to aspiring filmmakers. We may not fully appreciate the effect because we are so fundamentally programmed to process reality by sight, but it's sound that really controls our level of engagement with what is real.
It fosters an unshakable connection with an invisible fabric of the world that nevertheless announces itself at every moment. Take away sound, and it all becomes strangely unreal. Tibetans knew about this for a long time and taught that the preliminary stages of meditation should be guided by the ear. Buddhist music is rife with punctuated silence to that effect, each beat serving to re-focus the wandering mind.
Normally in films, however, sound is usually employed as a ballast, and good sound usually means a detailed background, a rich carpet. Not so for the Soviets.
The main experiment is controlled, agitated hearing. Pudovkin had theorized about it, in the same manner as film ought to work, film sound should facilitate rhythm, musicality. This means that it is no longer a natural extension that corresponds with a view, but is continuously relocated, realigned, repurposed, shifting often independent of images. As workers tirelessly pound away at the steel hull of a ship, the blistering barrage of their thrusts is a little out-of-focus. Disembodied voices scream at a rally, as though collectively produced and facilitated by each furious cut. There are stretches of pure silence, well scratchy given condition of the print, but silence for that, without any reassuring ambiance from surrounding sounds.
As with film syntax of these guys, the effort has been largely to read the radical experiment as avant-garde exercise, independent of ideological fervor, and as presaging musique concrete. This is a mistake in my view, one that limits understanding.
Now musique concrete has cinematic roots in Epstein. In tandem with the actual films, Epstein rested on the discovery of a modern world that was only possible because the eye could float in unique ways with the advent of the camera. The epiphany, radical at the time, was of something hidden in the basic act of seeing. Internal views were possible, granted by these hitherto unknown, uncanny flows. The Soviets were equally radical but committed soldiers.
Note what Kuleshov did in the famous effect named after him. He took for effect the most iconic face of pre-Revolutionary Russia and exhibited that it was, in fact, empty. Point being this; every notion is formed in the space leading up to the eye and by gaps in perception. You need not control the flow then, merely the gaps. Montage was invented. Staying lucid through these gaps of thought is the awaking point in Buddhist meditation btw.
So when Pudovkin is showing a young communist girl intruding with syncopated yells in the policed harmony of bourgeois narrative, rendered with symphonic, soft music to accompany the orderly traffic of luxurious automobiles under the austere gaze of a traffic warden, and is finally arrested by police, thus silenced from the soundtrack, he is very cleverly pointing to the fact that conventional reality is a broadcast that you control. To usurp control away from the official channel means a struggle, a bloody fight. Pudovkin's musicality - on top of the visual eye - is hence atonal, dissonant, disharmonic, implying imperfect nature, unfinished process.
Oh, the montage is astonishing and on par with anything Eisenstein did. But I will cherish this as one of the most important films for sound alone, and I'm so stoked I will be surveying more of these early Soviet sound films.
And a parting irony, to further cement why these films ought not to be museum exhibits for comfortable appreciation. The film depicts German struggles in the early 30's, asserting as main enemies of the revolution the Social Democrats. This was the Party line from Moscow and continues to be in most cases. German elections of '32 gave the combined Left - communist and social-democrat - 222 seats. Just 8 short of Hitler. His enemies bitterly divided, Hitler easily carried the election. Four years later, he commissioned from Riefenstahl the broadcast of a new national identity.
I am a great admirer of Pudovkin. People like to throw out the term
"poetic film" to anything that doesn't always follow logically, but he
understood emotion cinematic ally, not just visually or abstractly.
Eisenstein's transition into sound required a total reevaluation of his
intentions as a director, and it seems as if Pudovkin didn't recognize
the need for this consideration. But this is still a worthwhile film,
especially when seen after "Petersbourg." The layering of the political
content is admirable for getting it's self-criticism past the censors.
But yes, the sound is sloppy and the magic of his silents is audibly
swept away. It would seem that he would also reevaluate his own
intentions for his later sound films, and this may have been a
necessary part of that development.
3 out of 5 - Some strong elements
I'm not familiar enough with Russian cinema, but it's obvious Dezertir and Bronenosets Potiomkin have a lot in common. the style, for instance. and the story too. the acting performances are the same as in all Eisensteins movies. so what can I say about Dezertir? Everything is the same as Eisensteins, even the montage resembles his cinematographic power. by the way, did I already told you about how boring Dezertir is? everybody says recognizable things, but in fact, it's exactly because we already know these situations that Dezertir is just a copycat of better pictures. A lot of close-ups can't rescue it. and it's irritating there's no lyp sync. I am really sorry I spent my money to see this BEEP. when the characters start to work (or, because of the story, begin to stop working), it's being seen with some nice music on the background. yes, the music is the best thing that can be said about Dezertir. I also liked the policeman, but rather for his uniform than for his acting or role in the story. you can easily go to the toilet without missing important information. okay, so maybe I complain a lot without seeing the movie in its right historical point of view. I don't care. that argument means we all should adore old pictures, which is not the case.
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