Autobiography was Maxim Gorky’s surest talent, but he did not discover it until he was nearly fifty. By that time he had found ways of using his great memory less to preach than to describe. As he wrote in his Autobiography: “I imagine myself in my childhood, as a hive to which all manner of simple people brought, as the bees bring honey, their knowledge and thoughts about life, generously enriching my soul with what they had to give. The honey was often dirty, and bitter, but it was all the same knowledge–and honey.”
In 1938, two years after Gorky’s death, director Mark Donskoy began to film the trilogy of which The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is the first part. It is a wonderful film and well deserves the publicity the Brattle has given it. Full of characters that have since become types, the movie evoked, in Eric Erickson’s Childhood and Society, a long analysis of the Russian mind. If only in one respect, Erickson is right: the movie is full of Russian life. Each frame is itself a picture; and most are crowded with Gorky’s friends, the laborers, convicts, beggars, merchants, clowns and children who live in the town of Nizhni-Novgorod where Gorky spent his childhood. The film has no continuous narrative. Instead you remember many of the images–the docks, the fair, ‘Gypsy’s’ dance, Gorky and his friends combing the Nizhni-Novgorod junk heaps for wheels, and Grandmother Kashirin carting around the family house goblin in her shoe.
As funny and free as they seem to be, the order of these images is quite important, and Donskoy has paid great attention to their detail. In the midst of a huge brawl between Gorky’s uncles, the camera comes suddenly to rest on the spout of the tea service, which is soon discovered by Uncle Yakov who turns the service slightly so that the boiling water pours gently over Uncle Mikhail’s hand. Donskoy is a magician at using montage; to accentuate the motion of his picture, he stops it.
Donskoy’s way with children is as remarkable. Half his cast was children, and he treated them like adults with the result that there is little cute or faked about their performances. Though Alyosha Lyorsky acts with great charm, Young Gorky is the least convincing of the children. He is too often posed. Sometimes, when he should apparently be silently storing up observations as befits the future founder of Socialist Realism, he just stares. Similarly, S. Tikhonravov, as the anarchist lodger, falls victim to the Soviet preferences for gallant poses.
The acting in the other roles is fine, without exception. It is the look of the characters that most gives them life. Waspish grandfather Kashirin (M.G. Troyanovsky), Uncle Mikhail (A. Zhukov) whose nose seems to run down from the part in his hair to the floor, and the carnival clowns, who don’t need to talk: they all look what they are and, in every gesture, are what they look like. None more than V.O. Massalitinova who plays massive bell-like Granny Akulina. Except, perhaps, for her, no single character dominates the film. It offers instead a horde of images of the people to whose sharp experiences Gorky was so much alive.
In nineteen years the movie has dated. But if in some ways it is strange to us, it is also beautiful like the title that flashes on the screen after Gorky’s last meeting with the anarchist: “Thus ended his friendship with the first of that innumerable company of people–strangers in that land–among whom are now numbered its finest sons.”
The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is now available on Manufactured-On-Demand (MOD) DVD from Flicker Alley.
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