Screened December 13 2009 on NYFA VHS (courtesy of the NYU Library) in Brooklyn NY
TSPDT rank #910 IMDb
In the second installment of Mark Donskoi’s coming-of-age trilogy, based on Maxim Gorky’s childhood memoirs, teenage Maxim emerges from the ashes of his family’s destitution, as chronicled in The Childhood of Maxim Gorky. Searching for a trade to apply himself, Gorky is repeatedly sabotaged by petty folk entrenched in each establishment he enters. Whereas Childhood held a quietly romanticized view of the masses suffering under the petty tyranny of pre-Revolutionary feudalism, My Apprenticeship shows the underclass exploiting each other.
These films are saddled with a Socialist Realist agenda that threatens to reduce each scene to a civics parable, denying it of the pulsing lyricism of that other landmark childhood film trilogy, Satyajit Ray’s Apu films. But there’s a strong humanist countercurrent that takes the film beyond mere didacticism. At its best moments the film resists the easy Soviet stereotyping of characters into desirable and undesirable social types. The most memorable characters engage with Maxim over books and ruminations about their waylaid ambitions; paradoxically, it is in relaxed conversational stasis, not in reform or production, that this Marxist propaganda film envisions a state of human fulfillment. The way Donskoi deploys music to freeze time and saturate a moment with lyrical pathos anticipates what John Ford would start doing around the same period. The ultimate motif is that of the Volga River, upon which the film stages more than a few knockout moments of wordless beauty. Its gentle, constant flow evokes a grace that transcends the turmoils and conflicts, grand or small, inflicted by humans upon each other throughout time.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of My Apprenticeship among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Derek Hill, Sight & Sound (1962)
Dwight MacDonald, Sight & Sound (1962)
Gilles Jacob, Sight & Sound (2002)
Jean Queval, Sight & Sound (1962)
Halliwell’s Top 1000 Films (2005)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Donskoi’s Gorki Trilogy, completed by My Apprenticeship (1939, 98 min, b/w) and My Universities (1940, 104 min, b/w) is still widely revered as one of the all-time humanist classics, and it’s true that the films’ expert balance between guileless simplicity and rustic myth-making (seen to best advantage in Childhood) does give them a quality not often found outside the work of John Ford. But it’s interesting to note that Donskoi’s direction couldn’t lie further from the mainstream of Russian film culture. Not only is he not very concerned about montage, but his concern with the lyricism of individual images leads him to neglect continuity of almost any sort: at one level, the films play like an anthology of continuity errors. That said, though, all three films do contain images of great strength in the Dovzhenko tradition. And Donskoi’s handling of his actors (always encouraging them to play up to emotion, never shy of excess or sentimentality) certainly has the courage of its convictions.
A director with a similar approach to that of Pudovkin, and one who probably owes him a good deal, is Mark Donskoi who, on the strength of the Gorky Trilogy alone, must be rated as one of the world’s truly great film-makers. The trilogy consists of The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938), MY APPRENTICESHIP (1939) – also known as Out in the World or Among People – and My Universities (1940). The first two, which were produced at the Children’s Film Studio, are in fact one very big film split into two. The third, dealing as it does with Gorky’s early manhood, differs in a number of respects from the other two, although the production team (Pyotr Ermolov, camera – I. Stepanov, art direction – Lev Schwartz, music) remains the same throughout. But the whole trilogy is a remarkable achievement in its solving of the problem of putting an autobiography, and a very famous one at that, onto the screen. The great quality of the Trilogy is that it contains no ideological ‘types’. Donskoi, with Gorky, shows that it is not only wicked to be wicked: it is also sad.
The first two parts are in fact dominated by Gorky’s grand-parents – the man vain, stupid, brutal and hysterical, the woman an image of eternal simplicity, instinctively understanding what life is, and able to describe it as beautiful even in the moment of her greatest suffering. The playing of these two characters, by Mark Troyanovski and Varvara Massalitinova, is a rare privilege to observe. Thanks to the grandfather’s frenzied stupidity the family goes into a steady decline; and against this movement towards poverty and destitution the boy Gorky reacts, constantly seeking escape, seeking above all the rescue which can come from education.
It is this conflict between Maxim’s ambition and the fatal course of events in which it is so nearly submerged that dominates Donskoi’s construction of the films. He takes a series of episodes and treats them in one of two ways, either elaborating them into long and carefully-built sequences (and these form the backbone of the work) or, in contrast, using an extraordinary filmic shorthand which makes a momentary but extremely cogent impact – such as the extreme long shot in which a young apprentice falls and is crushed by the huge Cross he is carrying; in this single shot resides most of the history of Russia.
To all this, and especially in the first two parts, he adds the domination of the ‘majestic river’, the great Volga, with its constant traffic and its din of ships’ sirens which, even more than Lev Schwartz’s admirable music, becomes the theme-song. Over and over again Donskoi brings his characters to the banks of the Volga for scenes of great import; and there are too the episodes on the river itself. In one, where the boy Maxim is a dishwasher on a Volga steamer, the cook, an immensely fat and sentimental character, sits entranced as the boy reads Taras Bulba aloud to him while a sneakthief waiter throws the recently washed glasses back into the swill.
In another the desire of man for the simple dignity of a job is superbly shown in a long sequence where the down-and-outs get unexpected employment in unloading sacks of grain from a sinking barge. It is raining in torrents, but as they work on (in a passage remarkable for the rhythm of its cutting) a watery sun breaks through the clouds, and they salute it with the dignity and pride with which mythological heroes of past times might have saluted the Sun God in his chariot.
The immense richness of episode and detail in The Childhood of Maxim Gorky and MY APPRENTICESHIP is saved from chaos by the characters of the grandparents and by the images of the Volga. As MY APPRENTICESHIP ends, all these elements are brought together. Young Gorky is leaving, and as the huge paddlesteamer pulls away from the jetty the grandfather, senile, childish, petulant, turns away; but grandma, with a smile of infinite sweetness, waves gently to the departing Maxim and says, ’1 shall never see you again’. Massalitinova here is sublime.
- Basil Wright, The Long View, Secker & Warburg 1974, cited on the Wellington Film Society website
Totalitarianism survives through its ability to insinuate itself into people’s consciousness from the earliest age, which is why the 1920s saw so many changes to Soviet school curricula, and why, in the 1930s, the studio earmarked for the production of films for children enjoyed generous funding. Donskoi signalled the propagandistic importance of Gor’kii’s trilogy by producing his adaptations in the Souiuzdetfilm studios, whose pedagogical remit readily accommodated tasks such as that of making accessible the achievements of a canonic Soviet writer to a new generation, and of paying tribute to an icon of Stalinist culture…
The acute self-awareness of the adult hero in My Apprenticeship represents a considerable challenge to the Stalinist film-maker… The director cannot ignore the book’s central episode: the aborted suicide attempt ensuing from Peshkov’s sense of desolation about his inability to engage with his fellow men. Yet the theme of suicide hardly befits a socialist realist legend. Unsurprisingly, Donskoi resorts to the use of intertitles, condensing Gor’kii’s drawn-out account of Peshkov’s despair at being unable to defend the students into the terse understatement: ‘He was seized by a feeling of personal inadequacy’, followed by words suggesting that the prime reason for the hero’s suicide attempt was political. For this is the voice not of the mature Gor’kii, but of Stalinist ideology in which despair has no place.
- Stephen C. Hutchings, Russian Literary Culture in the Camera Age: The Word as Image. Published by Routledge, 2004. Pages 102, 108
ABOUT MARK DONSKOI
Mark Donskoi may not be as familiar to Western audiences as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, or Dovzhenko; his films are in no way as readily recalled as Battleship Potemkin, Mother, or Earth. Like other Soviet filmmakers, he propagandizes about the glories of the Bolshevik Revolution and highlights the life of Lenin. But Donskoi’s great and unique contribution to Russian cinema is his adaption to the screen of Maxim Gorki’s autobiographical trilogy: The Childhood of Gorki, My Apprenticeship, and My Universities, all based on the early life of the famed writer and shot during the late 1930s. (Years later, Donskoi adapted two other Gorki works, Mother—the same story filmed by Pudovkin in 1926—and Foma Gordeyev.)
In the trilogy, Donskoi chronicles the life of Gorki from childhood on, focusing on the experiences which alter his view of the world. At their best, these films are original and pleasing: the first presents a comprehensive and richly detailed view of rural life in Russia during the 1870s. While delineating the dreams of nineteenth-century Russian youth, Donskoi lovingly recreates the era. The characters are presented in terms of their conventional ambitions and relationships within the family structure. They are not revolutionaries, but rather farmers and other provincials with plump bodies and commonplace faces. The result is a very special sense of familiarity, of fidelity to a time and place. Of course, villains in Gorki’s childhood are not innately evil, but products of a repressive czarist society. They are thus compassionately viewed. Donskoi pictures the Russian countryside with imagination, and sometimes even with grandeur.
—Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com
ABOUT MAXIM GORKY
Russian short story writer, novelist, autobiographer and essayist, whose life was deeply interwoven with the tumultuous revolutionary period of his own country. Gorky ended his long career as the preeminent spokesman for culture under the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin. Gorky formulated the central principles of Socialist Realism, which became doctrine in Soviet literature. The rough, socially conscious naturalism of Gorky was described by Chekhov as “a destroyer bound to destroy everything that deserved destruction.”
“The long files of dock labourers carrying on their backs hundreds of tons of grain to fill the iron bellies of the ships in order that they themselves might earn a few pounds of this grain to fill their own stomachs, looked so droll that they brought tears to one’s eyes. The contrast between these tattered, perspiring men, benumbed with weariness, turmoil and heat, and the mighty machines glistening in the sun, the machines which these men had made, and which, after all is said and done, were set in motion not by steam, but by the blood and sinew of those who had created them – this contrast constituted an entire poem of cruel irony.” (from ‘Chelkash’, 1895, trans. by J. Fineberg) Aleksei Peshkov (Maksim Gorky, also written Maksim Gor’kii) was born in Nizhnii Novgorod, the son of a journeyman upholster. Later the ancient city was named ‘Gorky’ in his honour, and in Moscow one of the leading thoroughfares was named Gorky Street. Gorky lost his parents at an early age – his father died of cholera and his mother died of tuberculosis. The scene of his mother, wailing and mourning over her dead husband, opens his book of memoir, My Childhood: “All her clothes were torn. Her hair, which was usually neatly combined into place like a large gray hat, was scattered over her bare shoulders, and hung over her face, and some of it, in the form of a large plait, dangled about, touching Father’s sleeping face. For all the time I’d been standing in that room, not once did she so much as look at me, but just went on combing Father’s hair, choking with tears and howling continually.”
Orphaned at the age of 11, he experienced the deprivations of a poverty. The most important person in Gorky’s life in those years was his grandmother, whose fondness for literature and compassion for the downtrodden influenced him deeply. Otherwise his relationships to his family members were strained, even violent. Gorky stabbed his stepfather, who regularly beat him. Gorky received little education but he was endowed with an astonishing memory. He left home at the age of 12, and followed from one profession to another. On a Volga steamer, he learned to read. In 1883 he was a worker in a biscuit factory, then a porter, baker’s boy, fruit seller, railway employee, clerk to an advocate, and in 1891 an operative in a salt mill. Later Gorky used later material from his wandering years in his books. In 1884 he failed to enter Kazan University, and in the late 1880s he was arrested for revolutionary activities. At the age of 19 he attempted suicide but survived when the bullet missed his heart.
After travels through Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Crimea Tiflis (late Tbilisi), Gorky published his first literary work, ‘Makar Chudra’ (1892), a short story. ‘Chelkash’, the story of a harbour thief, gained an immediate success. He started to write for newspapers, and his first book, the 3-volume Sketches and Stories (1898-1899), established his reputation as a writer. Gorky wrote with sympathy and optimism about the gypsies, hobos, and down-and-outs. He also started to analyze more deeply the plight of these people in a broad, social context. In these early stories Gorky skillfully mixed romantic exoticism and realism. Occasionally he glorified the rebels among his outcasts of Russian society. In his early writing career Gorky became friends with Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and Vladimir Lenin. Encouraged by Chekhov, he composed his most famous play, The Lower Depths (1902), which took much of the material from his short stories. It was performed at the Moscow Art Theater under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky. The Lower Depths enjoyed a huge success, and was soon played in Western Europe and the United States.
Gorky was literary editor of Zhizn from 1899 and editor of Znanie publishing house in St. Petersburg from 1900. Foma Gordeyev (1899), his first novel, dealt with the new merchat class in Russia. The short story Dvadsat’ shest’ i odna (1899, Twenty-Six Men and a Girl) was about lost ideals. “There were twenty-six of us – twenty-six living machines locked in a damp basement where, from dawn to dusk, we kneaded dough for making into biscuits and pretzels. The window of our basement looked out onto a ditch dug in front of them and lined with brick that was green from damp; the windows were covered outside in fine wire netting and sunlight could not reach us through the flour-covered panes. Our boss had put the wire netting there so we could not give hand-outs of his bread to beggars or those comrades of ours who were without work and starving.” (from ‘Twenty-Six Men and a Girl’, 1899) The joy in the lives of the bakers is the 16-year old Tania, who works in the same building. A handsome ex-soldier, one of the master bakers, boasts of his success with women. He is challenged to seduce Tania. When Tania succumbs, she is mocked by the men, who have lost the only bright spot in the darkness. Tania curses them and walks away, and is never again seen in the basement.
Gorky became involved in a secret printing press and was temporarily exiled to Arzamas, central Russia in 1902. In the same year he was elected to the Russian Academy, but election was declared invalid by the government and several members of the Academy resigned in protest. Because of his political activism, Gorky was constantly in trouble with the tsarists authorities. He joined the Social Democratic party’s left wing, headed by Lenin. To raise money to Russian revolutionaries, Gorky went to the United States in 1906. However, he was compelled to leave his hotel, not because of his political opinions, but because he traveled with Mlle. Andreieva, with whom he was not legally married. At that time, he had not obtained divorce from his first wife, Ekaterina Pavlovna, with whom he had two children. The American author Mark Twain expressed his support to Gorky at a dinner party, saying, “My sympathies are with the Russian revolution, of course.”
In 1906 Gorky settled in Capri. Lenin visited his villa in 1908, he fished there and played chess, becoming childishly angry when he lost a game. Gorky was disgusted by Lenin’s smug Marxism and after reading only a few pages from his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism he threw it on the wall. In the controversial novel The Confession (1908), which rapidly fell after the Revolution into relative obscurity, Gorky coined the term “God-building”, by which he combined religion with Marxism.
During his ill-fated mission to America to raise funds for the Bolshevik cause, Gorky wrote in the Adirondack Mountains greater part of his classic novel, The Mother, which appeared in 1906-1907. Its heroine, Pelageia Nilovna, adopts the cause of socialism in a religious spirit after her son’s arrest as a political activist. Pelageia’s husband is a drunkard and her only consolation is her religious faith. Pelageia’s husband dies, and her son Pavel changes from a thug to socialist role model and starts to bring his revolutionary friends to the house. Pavel is arrested on May day for carrying a forbidden banner. While continuing to believe in Christ’s words, she joins revolutionaries, and is betrayed by a police spy. Gorky based her character on a real person, Anna Zalomova, who had travelled the country distributing revolutionary pamphlets after her son had been arrested during a demonstration. The novel, considered the pioneer of socialist realism, was later dramatized by Bertolt Brecht.
In 1913 Gorky returned to Russia, and helped to found the first Workers’ and Peasants’ University, the Petrograd Theater, and the World Literature Publishing House. The first part of his acclaimed autobiographical trilogy, My Childhood, appeared in 1913-14. It was followed by In the World (1916), and My Universities (1922), which was written in a different style. In these works the author looked through the observant eyes of Alyosha Peshkov his development and life in a Volga River town. When the war broke out, Gorky ridiculed the enthusiastic atmosphere and broke off all relations with his adopted son, Zinovy Peshkov, who joined the army.
First the author also rejected Lenin’s hard-line policy, defending the Petrograd intelligentsia. “Lenin’s power arrests and imprisons everyone who does not share his ideas, as the Romanovs’ power used to do,” he wrote in November of 1917. After Russian revolution Gorky enjoyed protected status, although in 1918 his protests against Bolsheviks dictatorial methods were silenced by Lenin’s order. Gorky’s memoir of Lev Tolstoy (1919) painted nearly a merciless portrait of the great writer.
When Anna Akhmatova’s former husband Nikolai Gumilyov was arrested in 1921, Gorky rushed to Moscow to ask Lenin for a pardon for his old friend. However, Gumilyov had been shot without trial.
Dissatisfaction with the communist regime and its treatment of intellectuals lead to his voluntary exile during the 1920s. “To an old man any place that’s warm is homeland,” Gorky once wrote. He spent three years at various German and Czech spas, and was editor of Dialogue in Berlin (1923-25). On Capri in the 1920s Gorky wrote his best novel, The Artamov Business (1925), dealing with three generations of a pre-revolutionary merchant family. Gorky’s essay ‘V.I.Lenin’ was written immediately after Lenin’s death. The author expressed his great admiration for the Revolution leader and gave a lively account of their discussions in Paris and Capri. “You’re an enigma,” he once said to me with a chuckle. “You seem to be a good realist in literature, but a romantic where people are concerned. You think everybody is a victim of history, don’t you? We know history and we say to the sacrificial victims; ‘overthrow the altars, shatter the temples, and drive the gods out!’ Yet you would like to convince me that a militant party of the working class is obliged to make the intellectuals comfortable, first and foremost.”
In 1924-25 Gorky lived in Sorrento, but persuaded by Stalin, he returned in 1931 to Russia. He founded a number of journals and became head of the Writers’ Union – his photograph in the congress hall was nearly as large as Stalin’s. Gorky’s speech at The First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1935 established the doctrine of socialist realism.
Although Gorky criticized the bureaucracy of the Writers’ Union, but nothing changed. All the proposals of the congress were very soon buried when the Great Terror started. Writers were shot and Stalin showed personal interest in the activities of writers. Gorky’s actions and statements before and after his return to Russia are controversial. When the poet Anna Akhmatova and many writers asked Gorky to help Nikolai Gumilev, a celebrated poet and Akhmatova’s first husband, Gorky apparently did nothing to save him from execution.
Gorky died suddenly of pneumonia in his country home, dacha, near Moscow on June 18, 1936. In some source the cause of death was said to be heart desease. The author was buried in the Red Square and Stalin started earnest his Show Trials. Rumors have lived ever since that he may have been assassinated on Joseph Stalin orders. Genrikh Yagoda, Stalin’s secret police chief during the great purges of 1936-38, made a “confession” at his own trial in 1938, that he had ordered Gorky’s death. According to another rumor, Gorky had been administered ‘heart stimulants in large quantities’, and the ultimate culprits were ‘Rightists and Trotskyites’. The murder of Gorky’s son in 1934 was seen as an attempt to break the father. However, when the KGB literary archives were opened in the 1990s, not much evidence was found to support the wildest theories. Stalin visited the writer twice during his last illness. The most probable conclusion is that Gorky’s death was natural.
As an essayist Gorky dealt with wide range of subjects. His underlying theme is a passionate humanistic message and political commitment to bolshevism. In Notes on the Bourgeois Mentality he accuses the bourgeoisie of self-absorption and concern only with its own comfort. On the Russian Peasantry sees peasants as resistant to the new social order. City of the Yellow Devil, written in New York, condemns American capitalism. On the other hand, Gorky early opposed Bolsheviks, criticizing their use of violence against their fellow men. Among Gorky’s important essays are biographical sketches of such writers as Tolstoy, Leonid Andreev and Anton Chechov.