1938, Movies

The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938, Mark Donskoy)

This is the first part of a three part adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s autobiographies, released in the years after his death. I don’t believe I have ever read any Gorky, but I know he’s considered one of the greats of his era.

This is a really effective portrait of the life of a young child, full of capable young actors, and memorable characters. I can’t think of an American (or English) film of its time that is comparable in terms of its realistic portrait of the life of poor children. The more I think of it, the more I can’t think of too many realist films that were made this early, though that could speak to my ignorance of the realist tradition. (And, if you think about it, realism, would predate expressionism, wouldn’t it? So maybe just ignore that content.) Anyway, it’s a pretty compelling film. And anyone who is sitting around dreaming of life in another time should watch this, as it’s a strong reminder that life for most people was pretty awful.

But the appreciation one has of the attempts at portraying realistic life in Russia in the 1870s is tempered a fair amount about how obvious the Soviet propaganda is. Life is portrayed as hard but the reasons for the hardship are portrayed as systemic – life in Tsarist Russia made it hard for most to succeed – but a main portion of the blame falls on the petty behaviour of small business owner patriarchs. The grandfather patriarch is a bit a of a caricature and we don’t get a real understanding of his behaviour, except that people like him existed, and poor Russians were born into those situations. It’s implicit (though not that implicit) that the audience is much better off now. Though in some ways communism in Russia may have been better for some, or even many, people than the previous regime, much of what is portrayed in this film likely hadn’t changed all that much. I am thinking, particularly, of people being arrested for their beliefs. So that part of the film is certainly problematic, though it’s easy enough to ignore, especially if you don’t know anything about Soviet Russia.

Anyway, it’s certainly worth watching if you are interested in films set in the 19th century in Russia, in realist films, in coming of age films, or in film history in general.


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