In our new column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. In this instalment, Jake Moody looks at the Soviet-era biopic The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938).
Date Watched: 2nd October, 2014
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 36
Given its status as a Stalin-era Soviet biopic, it’s hardly surprising that a film like Mark Donskoy’s The Childhood of Maxim Gorky would languish in the cinema history basement, viewed rarely enough to qualify even for this column. The ideological strictures of Soviet filmmaking, particularly in the purge-ridden decades immediately following the Revolution, would lead a savvy viewer to expect the most doctrinaire of films. Which is to say nothing of its subject matter: the novelist, activist and playwright Maxim Gorky was beloved enough by the Soviet state to have his home city of Nizhny-Novgorod named after him until the collapse of the Union in 1990. Shot two years after Gorky’s death, in 1938, the film, then, should on paper function as a 2D hagiography of a Russian great, worthwhile as a document of the Stalinist culture machine and little more.
How exciting, then, that the film is instead a warm, humanist work of measured biography. Walking a smart line between the socialist underpinnings of Gorky’s work and a necessarily apolitical portrayal of nineteenth-century family life, Childhood achieves the rare feat of being a biopic that seems more true to the spirit of its subject than to the values dictating its production. Despite striking this balance, Childhood’s plot is appropriately simple. The young Gorky, then Aleksei Peshkov, returns to his maternal family home after his father’s death to find a cacophony of boisterous uncles, a penny-pinching and unstable grandfather about to hand down the family cloth-dying business, a loving and devout grandmother, and assorted lumpen worker types. Navigating his chaotic youth between family, friends, and various external influences begins to mould Aleksei into his later nom de plume Maxim, with a political conscience as well as a concern for the base humanity of troubled people.
The film’s focus on Gorky’s early years – it’s based on parts of his 1913 autobiography – creates the opportunity to incorporate the author’s own thematic conceits into an otherwise uncontroversial narrative. The family’s struggles against the harsh backdrop of the Volga basin mirror those of the characters of The Lower Depths, Gorky’s 1902 play most famously adapted by Akira Kurosawa. Emphasis on the social reality of Tsarist Russia is articulated in the film by cinematography and editing which explicitly reject the cross-cutting bombast of better-known Soviets in favour of longer shots, greater distance and a slower pace. Interior scenes, whether of a fight at dinner or hard work in the dye shed, take on the same tone, expressing communal identity and the idyll of youth without recourse to didacticism. Politics aside, freeing the film from the technical rigidity of montage also allows for some really great-looking sequences: long tracking shots around the village carnival, and the several establishing pans of blustery Russian steppe are evocative of the best of Renoir.
Rejecting the overt style of Soviet montage allows Childhood to also avoid some of the pitfalls of typical biopic fare. Aside from their propensity to lionise their subject matter – Abel Gance’s otherwise spectacular 1927 epic Napoléon springs to mind – biographical films also have a tendency towards the teleological, building a shallow mythic understanding of their subject by portraying all of their formative experiences as necessary stepping stones toward their later greatness. Any sense of nuance disappears as we witness a character develop into the real-life figure they depict, and nothing else. The Childhood of Maxim Gorky manages to avoid this cliché through its concern for the quotidian and the intimate; for example, the obviously Communist lodger who rents from Aleksei’s grandfather is less of a gorgeous doomed revolutionary, and more of a dissolute, avuncular academic type. He implores young Aleksei to learn to write “everything [his] grandmother tells [him],” the implication being that recording the popular history in his family’s rustic folk tales is as important a tool for social change as political action. Scenes are often bookended by a caricature of an older Gorky and a quote from the source autobiography, heightening the film’s sense of nostalgia and its literary (rather than cinematic) heritage. Aleksei himself is a quiet boy, and usually an outside observer to the squabbles of his family. In using his character as a relatively blank cipher, director Donskoy refuses to take the easy route of tying Aleksei the boy’s traits to the later notoriety of Gorky the man. In the film as a whole, the here and now, with its practical, human concerns, is a more emotive and meaningful space than an idealist past or future.
Unearthing a film like this is an object lesson in the limitations of ideas about the critical canon – its obscurity can be explained partly by its failure to sit neatly within either the montage-driven revolutionary epics of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, or the costume-drama vacuity of contemporaneous biographies like Korda’s Henry VIII and Rembrandt films. As a result, I approached the film only reluctantly, having noted that it featured on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They’s magnificent 1,000 Greatest Films list until last year (a canonical project if ever there was one). Finding such an enjoyable and nuanced work here has been invigorating from this perspective; a reminder that Russian cinema did not cease production after 1930, only to be resurrected by Tarkovsky. If nothing else, The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is just a pleasant slice of bucolic honesty amid an ocean of ideology.