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Saturday, July 17, 2010

DEZERTIR / DESERTER (1933)

Is this the earliest sound film from the USSR? It’s certainly the first from Vsevolod Pudovkin, the great Soviet director who ranks with Sergei Eisenstein on any list of classic Soviet helmers. Yet somehow, this astonishingly inventive, technically exciting work is rarely shown. The first half is set in pre-Nazi Germany where an independent group of Communist ship builders struggle to organize & maintain a strike action in the face of opposition from management and their own union. Pudovkin revels in his actors and in small, but telling vignettes (watch for a marvelous bit with a girl who hands out the local Daily Worker). But he concentrates on Karl (Moscow Art Player Boris Livanov), a skilled worker whose support wanes as food, money & hope give out. He even thinks of joining the Social Democrats! But the wise, warm-hearted Party leader feels his pain and sends the young man off to Russia where his technical abilities can be of use. The second half details Karl’s response to life in the ‘workers’ paradise’ where the streets are filled with parades, and happy laborers greet him at every corner. Karl’s skills prove invaluable in helping his factory meet their five-year-plan quota, but he still feels unworthy when he’s awarded the top workers’ prize. The thrilling coda shows Karl back in Germany where he leads his comrades in a joyous march against the police that soon devolves into an even more joyous riot. (It’s also a riot of advanced film stylistics.) Many go down, but the red flag can still be seen waving. God knows, the politics now look insanely blind & optimistic to the realities of Stalin’s Russia, but viewed as film qua film, and with a bit of tolerance toward the technical crudities of early sound technology @ MosFilm, this remains a staggering achievement.

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