Pudovkin’s Work and the Soviet Film Industry of the 1920s

Film scholarship has regarded Soviet filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin as one of the greatest directors of all time. As a result, many Soviet and Western film critics have examined Pudovkin’s work and offered interesting analyses of his stylistic and narrative concerns. These analyses, however, have not situated Pudovkin’s practice within the broader context of the Soviet film industry of the 1920’s and, thus, have not explained the way in which economic factors had an impact upon his work.

This paper examines Pudovkin’s films within their film industry context and asks the following questions: Which industry factors of the 1920’s shaped Pudovkin’s work? What was the role of Pudovkin’s films in the production schedule of his employing studio, Mežrabpom? How did changes in Mežrabpom’s objectives and administrative procedures affect Pudovkin’s art?

Pudovkin’s work, this paper argues, was highly shaped by the pragmatic strategies of the Soviet film industry in general and Mežrabpom in particular. Mežrabpom, a semi-private film enterprise, was established in 1924, during Lenin’s New Economic Policy. The firm brought together “traditional,” pre-Revolutionary personnel and activists of the Berlin-based organization Workers’ International Relief (WIR). Mežrabpom utilized its “traditional” artists and created rather conventional films, which attracted masses of Soviet spectators, drew a wide audience abroad, and returned profits for both the Soviet industry and WIR.

Due to its pragmatic policies, Mežrabpom faced charges of commercialism and ideological deviation. The company, however, did not cut down on its commercial production. Instead, Mežrabpom adopted different strategies: it invited personnel from the “left,” experimental film group, including Pudovkin, and added to its schedule a few propaganda films, some of which were assigned to Pudovkin.

When Pudovkin joined Mežrabpom in 1925, he was assigned Chess Fever, where he incorporated his montage experiments into a rather apolitical comedy of an international appeal. Soon, Pudovkin tried out his montage methods in a cultural-educational film, an unprofitable genre that Mežrabpom cultivated to counter attacks. Pudovkin’s next film, Mother, was devoted to the 1905 revolts; Mother capitalized upon Gor′kij’s name, the Moscow Art Theater actors, and the avant-garde aesthetics that Ejzenštejn’s films had inaugurated. The critical acclaim of Mother led to The End of St. Petersburg, Pudovkin’s most experimental silent work. Due to charges of “formalism,” however, Pudovkin’s next propaganda film (Storm over Asia,) appeared less experimental. After 1928, Pudovkin’s work was shaped by WIR’s emphasis on European politics, by the Soviet demand for contemporary themes in art, and by Mežrabpom’s investments in sound.