Ranking: #33/111

Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin (Russia)

Genre: Social Drama

Every now and then, there’s an unusual confluence of factors which are conducive to the creation of a work of art which later is recognised as a historical milestone. Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926), one of the acknowledged masterpieces of the silent cinema era, is one such milestone. That’s because it’s based on a highly influential novel, of the same name, by Maxim Gorky, who became known as the father of Social Realism in Russia. This movement, in turn, had a profound influence on both Soviet society and cinema. In addition, Pudovkin’s recreation of the story of Mother in film form, in combination with the work of compatriot Sergei Eisenstein, consolidated the dominant position Russian-style montage would play in film theory, not just in the Russian State Film School, but globally.

Like Battleship Potemkin, Mother is a story about the 1905 revolution that took place in Russia and which turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the full-scale Russian Revolution at the end of World War 1. Gorky’s novel is about the radicalisation of an uneducated, working-class woman during this tumultuous period in Russian history. Through her interest in her son’s growing political activism, her political consciousness is raised. 

In addition to this literary source material from Gorky, the movie’s screenwriter drew on actual newspaper reports of the 1905 revolution.

Part of a trilogy of films by Pudovkin, including The End of St Petersburg and Storm Over Asia, Mother exemplifies the visual cinematic dynamism which distinguishes his work. From the time he saw D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, the director had believed in the phenomenal expressive potential of cinematic art: “…the cinema can approach or even transcend literature in its exceptional power of impression…In the wholeness of this reflection resides a profound force irresistibly dragging the spectator himself into participation in the creative process,” he said. (Film Technique and Film Acting – the Cinema Writings of V.I.Pudovkin, p.44)

The story revolves around the mixed fortunes of the mother, Pelageya Nilovna Vlasova, the father, Vlasov, and their son, Pavel. The film boldly depicts their dysfunctional home life. Pelageya’s husband is a drunken and violent lout and their son, Pavel, carries a hammer around in his pocket to defend his mother from his father’s assaults.

One layer of the revolutionary situation brewing in the country is the huge communication gap between the generations. The idealistic younger generation starts to rebel against the “sins” of the older generation.

Vlasov is a factory-worker and an alcoholic. He often beats his long-suffering wife, which enrages Pavel. Later, the young man agrees to hide a small cache of handguns, owned by some local revolutionaries, under the floorboards at their home.

Given his strength, a reactionary group called the Black Hundred try to turn Vaslov into a “bruiser” they can use to help them break up an upcoming workers’ strike. During the strike, however, he is accidentally, and fatally, shot. Pelageya is gutted.

The mother then tries unsuccessfully to get her son to cooperate with the Tsarist police. She naively thinks that by telling the police about the hidden firearms, her son will be saved from going to prison on account of his revolutionary activities. However, this plan backfires and Pavel ends up being sentenced to heavy labour for life. This incenses the young man’s mother and she decides to join the revolution. During a prison break, Pavel is fatally shot by Tsarist troops as he is reunited with this mother.

Through the power of its imagery, including some remarkable shots of revolutionary unrest, and through the emotional resonance of this tragic, well-structured story, Pudovkin creates a film with a powerful set of messages. The film ends with a montage of images of fortresses, churches, factories and the Kremlin’s towers with the Bolshevik flag waving on high, suggesting the idea that the 1905 uprising depicted in the story was but a foreshadowing of the eventual overthrow of the Tsarist state by the country’s mobilised proletarian forces.