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THE END OF SAINT PETERSBURG
(also with Deserter)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Aleksandr Chistyakov
Director:  Vsevolod Pudovkin
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Bonus Film Deserter
Length:  87 Minutes (Deserter 106 Minutes)
Release Date:  October 15, 2002

“What are we dying for?…”

Film ***1/2

Early Soviet cinema deserves to be watched for style rather than substance.  After all, most pictures were commissioned by the Communist government to serve as reminders for their citizens of how bad their lives were under tsarism, and how glorious the Leninist Revolution was. 

But politically manipulative or not, the Russian silent era produced some of the most remarkably visual and innovative films to ever flicker across a screen.  Pictures like Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike or The Battleship Potempkin, or Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth developed the pioneering vocabulary of early cinema into a startling mechanism of editing and imagery, designed to assault the eyes and stir the emotions.

One film I often feel gets overlooked from this period is Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The End of Saint Petersburg.  Visually, it falls into the same niche as Eisenstein, and Pudovkin’s use of montage editing creates similar effects, but his eye for detail and looking at ordinary objects in unusual ways gave his picture a sense of style that, for me, always seemed a little different and unique.

We’ve all seen windmills, for example, but no director has ever filmed one from the angle that Pudovkin chooses.  Other bits of equipment and factory machines as well get distorted out of proportion by his camera, assigning a sense of discomfort and danger to common everyday sights.  It’s a perfect style for his movie, because unlike some other early Russian Communist offerings, Pudovkin chooses to focus primarily on the economic plight of the Russian people in tsarist times.

We follow most closely a worker (Chistyakov), who cannot come in from the fields as his wife lays dying at home.  He ventures from the rural area to the city, only to find the rich getting richer off the backs of the factory workers.  When the owners demand even longer days from their employees, they attempt a strike.  It’s practically futile…in their economy, there’s always another poverty stricken would-be worker to take your place…and usually, one who won’t complain about the treatment.

Thinking he’s doing the right thing, our young worker fingers the strike leader, but later realizes the tragedy his actions led to.  His attempts to right the wrong only get him sent to the front to fight the Germans in World War I.  In an array of astonishingly potent battle scenes, Pudovkin says all that needs to be said about the real motivation behind the war.  The embittered peasants got sent to the lines to be slaughtered, while the rich prospered from the war (through clever editing, we see the market values going up as the bodies crumple down at the front).

The wealthy even try to forestall the revolution by enacting their own interim government when the Tsar falls, but the people have had enough.  Saint Petersburg, the once proud capital of tsarist Russia, is laid siege by the workers.

And, of course, if the story continued, we’d see that these workers merely traded one yoke for another as conditions didn’t improve under the Communist ideal, but hey, that’s another story for another film.  The central point is that Pudovkin, much like his contemporary Eisenstein, managed to create a singularly expressive work of art within the strict confines of the new government’s censures.  Modern audiences, like myself, don’t enjoy these works because of the propaganda they dispel, but because the craftsmanship is first rate, the imagery memorable, and the emotional impact ever intact.

The End of Saint Petersburg is a shining example of early Soviet cinema at its finest, and one I’d dare say no true film student should miss.

Video **1/2

It’s a 75 year old Russian silent film, so I didn’t expect to be blown away by the video presentation for The End of Saint Petersburg.  Nevertheless, I was pleased with the offering, which came through nicely despite the inevitable artifacts of time and decomposition.  The black and white photography remains quite intact, with clarity of images fairly strong, and nothing really marred by the grain, scratches or debris that aging brings.  In other words, it’s impossible to bring a picture like this up to reference-quality levels, but it should still be more than satisfying for fans of silent cinema.

Audio ***

The Dolby Mono track is actually quite impressive, with a remarkably expressive music score that enhances the action perfectly.  The audio is also peppered with sound effects to accent certain scenes.  It’s presented cleanly and clearly, and even offers a fair amount of dynamic range.  A solid effort.

Features **

It’s not advertised as a “feature”, but I consider the bonus inclusion of another Pudovkin film an extra for all intents and purposes.  Fans who want to venture further into the sound era of his career will enjoy the presentation of Deserter from 1933…not as visually striking as Saint Petersburg, but his early experiments with sound are extremely interesting.

Summary:

The End of Saint Petersburg may not get as many mentions as some of its Soviet silent era contemporaries, but don’t let that displace you.  This expressive, dynamic offering from Pudovkin is as much a shining jewel in the crown of Russian film history as any…hopefully, this DVD offering from Image will bring more modern students to this classic.