For those who feel that classic Russian cinema is too often drowned in propaganda, nationalism and obsolete contemporary politics to be appreciated on anything but a formal level, then a film such as Donskoy’s The Childhood of Maxim Gorky may come as a pleasant surprise. Ostensibly, such a film would not make a good candidate for being a timeless work of art. It is, after all, about one of 20th Century Russia’s most famous writers, Maxim Gorky, who, himself, was a proponent of the socialist realism movement that sought to spread political philosophy throughout the art of communist/socialist countries. The film is even based on Gorky’s autobiography and exists in a time in which that socialist realist movement was in full swing.
It’s not so much that the film lacks the essential elements that made up the propaganda of socialist realism, but merely that it’s much better than most other examples at keeping the heart and soul of the film on a universal and interminably relatable level. It does this by eschewing overt politics in favor of characters and story, biased distortion in favor of phenomenal clarity and dictatorial narration in favor of a slightly more distant observance. It is tremendously helped by the fact that it anchors this observance to the life of a child who is completely ignorant of the sociopolitical context that surrounds him. Because his conflicts echo on a primal level—the struggle for survival, the need for love, companionship, guidance and knowledge—it drowns out any didacticism that marred so much great art that came out of the movement.
The film barely requires a plot synopsis, as this is one instance where the title is almost sufficient to describe what the film is about. It stars Aleksei Lyarski in the title role of a young Gorky who is sent to live with his domineering, Lear-like grandfather (Mikhail Troyanovsky) and loving, imaginative grandmother (Varvara Massalitinova) when he’s abandoned by his mother. He must also contend with his selfish uncles, Yakov (Vasili Novikov) and Mikhail (Aleksandr), who have little regard for him or for the fate of his grandfather’s failing dye business. This leaves Gorky to find friends amongst his grandfather’s workers, like the gregarious gypsy, Ivan, and the purblind Grigori. Gorky also makes friends amongst the boyhood tramps and falls in with a mischievous gang and even befriends a crippled boy with a menagerie of insects.
In the strictest sense, one couldn’t “children” a remotely comprehensive biography of a great man, though it might be unfair to even judge it on such a level since it was made as part one of a trilogy (the other two of which are scarcely available to be seen). Yet Donskoy’s film has the mark of most great cinema in that it’s able to suggest infinitely more through its truncations and ellipses than tens-of-thousands of words could accomplish. The result is a film that’s rather impressionistic, gleaning from lengthy scenes a distilled depiction of Gorky’s most important childhood memories. These impressions range from the jovial, such as the party upon his arrival, to the tragic, such as the death of his friends, to the dramatic, such as the burning of the village, to the mystical, such as his grandmother’s folk tales.
All of these pieces come together to construct one of the most vivid and lifelike films about childhood in the history of cinema—one that, despite its strong roots in a contemporary art and film movement, seem to be looking both near and far ahead to cinema’s future. In fact, it’s not difficult to see a profound similarity between two of the 1930s greatest cinematic artists, Jean Renoir and John Ford. Donskoy has Renoir’s socially impressionistic eye and a formal elegance that is paradoxically looking down on, looking up to, and even looking directly at its subjects. Unlike Renoir, though, Donskoy is more concerned with the lower, working classes in which largely rests Ford’s domain. One could call Childhood a Russian Grapes of Wrath, or perhaps a Russian How Green Was My Valley. Donskoy also has Ford’s lyricism, though tempered with Renoir’s more detached, occasionally cynical, observation.
Donskoy also seems to be looking farther ahead to the neorealists, and the subjective camera of a film like The 400 Blows. While the film frequently betrays its studio roots, it has the same grittiness that was so important to neorealism. There are plenty of films about the poor and impoverished, but Childhood is amongst the best that are able to render the dirt and mud, the straw and wood, so palpably through images. It also looks back to a film like Dovzhenko’s Earth, but replaces his representational poetry with something more (excuse the pun) earthy. But young Gorky is also an easy analog to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel in how the camera depicts events through his naïve eyes. While Donskoy certainly presents the setting of socialist realism, the fact that it’s all seen and experienced through young Gorky takes the political sting out of it.
It’s an interesting question to ponder just how much Donskoy was consciously drawing from the world of cinema around him. His interests and studies from an early age weren’t in film, and he had, in fact, studied and practiced law for years before his interests shifted to film in 1925. He worked as assistant director for Eisenstein, which would certainly account for his adept understanding of the technical aspects of film, but this certainly doesn’t explain his humanistic tone which is almost contrary to Eisenstein’s taste for icy and dramatic technicality. What’s not in doubt is Donskoy’s affection for Gorky, whom he knew, and from who’s life and work he based many films. Perhaps the fact that Dosnkoy was never a member of the Communist party explains his ability to view the nationalism and social politics of his subjects with an eye that’s more compassionate and emotional, rather than abstract or theoretical.
Whatever the case may be, The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is an unusual, forgotten masterpiece from a country whose cinema seems harder and harder to pin down the more I experience it. An analog to Renoir, Ford, Truffaut and the neorealists is one of the last things I thought I’d find in a film from a country that’s most well-known from the technically brilliant cinematics of Eisenstein, Vertov and Kalatozov, or the visual poetry of Tarkovsky and Dovzhenko. Much less would I expect to find it in a film about Maxim Gorky who largely founded the movement that would have such a profound effect on all Russian art.