100.000.000 peasants - illiterate, poor, hungry. There comes a day when one woman decides that she can live old life no longer. Using ways of new Soviet state and industrial progress she changes life and labor of her village.
Sergei M. Eisenstein
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Masterful account of a decent man alienated from grotesque society
Tolstoy's The Living Corpse, once a very popular play (John Barrymore did it on Broadway), starts with what could be the premise of a legal expose— the main character, Protassow (played by the director V.I. Pudovkin), wants to divorce his wife so she's free to marry her aristocratic lover, but both church and civil divorce law conspire to make this simple matter between adults illogically difficult.
But what it's really about is moral alienation; throughout the story, legal solutions to the dilemma present themselves, but Protassow finds them all so degrading, hypocritical, alien to his sense of decency that he just can't go along with the "sensible" thing to do in a corrupt society. In many ways it reminded me of the Coen Brothers' latest (and outstanding) film, A Serious Man, likewise driven by a wife's desire to divorce and marry her lover— Protassow is trying to be a serious man, an ethical and responsible man, but people keep turning up in front of him saying "Here's the sensible thing to do," which invariably really means, "Here's the sleazy thing it would be really, really convenient for me if you would corrupt yourself by doing."
Film history, on no particular evidence, has awarded Pudovkin credit for most of this film, when in fact writer-director Fyodor Otsep/Fedor Ozep was a more prestigious figure at this time and it has clear similarities to his previous and next films, The Yellow Ticket and The Murderer Dmitri Karamasoff. Although one can see Pudovkinesque touches in some montage sequences, the style of the film is more subjectively psychological than didactically Soviet- Hegelian, mirroring the mental state of its main character.
When he's dark and moody, the film is too— capturing a sick bourgeois society with a mordant eye for grotesqueries. When Protassow goes to a tavern, the first thing he sees is a sailor getting drunk while his child begs him to come home. And the three pimps who offer to help him by setting up a scene of adultery to facilitate the divorce are gargoyles straight out of George Grosz, particularly one with what looks like a double-wide set of teeth. The sinister politesse with which they try to transact their business is the equal of anything in Pabst or Lang for moral rot— and equally Weimar-Germanic in feel. (The film was actually shot in Germany by a Soviet production company.)
But when he gets a taste of freedom from his intolerable situation— as when he visits a gypsy dance club— the style goes manic in a manner that looks much less like his fellow Bolsheviks, and far more like that of Ozep's old White Russian colleagues like Alexander Volkoff and V.I. Tourjansky, who were by then working in France. The rapid cutting suggests Volkoff's Kean or Gance's Napoleon (on which both Volkoff and Tourjansky assisted), while the hand-held camera-work suggesting exhilaration or agitation in several sequences reminds one not only of Napoleon but of Dmitri Kirsanoff's Menilmontant.
To have made a film of such psychological acuity, in which the drama comes from inner states rather than outward events of the plot, was rare enough in the silent days, though others (notably Stiller and Pabst) certainly did it. But it is hard to think of another film in which those inner states are melded so completely with the style of the film, and in such a varied and visually innovative fashion. It's one of those late silents that leave you marveling at the medium as it existed— at its end.
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