Storm Over Asia (1928)
Directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin
Thu, Apr 19; Wed, Apr 25 at MoMA's Mezhrabpom Studios series
A key to the Russian silent film period's strength was a good studio system. This can't be overstated, as artists often feel freest to experiment when they have consistent funding. Case in point, the studio Mezhrabpom and the director V.I. Pudovkin, several of whose films will be showing in MoMA's Mezhrabpom retrospective. Pudovkin had a gift for giving vivid character portraits while telling larger, fluidly moving stories, which served him for the surreal comedy of Chess Fever as well as for the forceful drama Mother. In 1928's Storm Over Asia, he used it magnificently.
The mother's place in the film is one example. It's 1918, and the old Mongolian woman lives in the desert with her family, descendants of Genghis Khan. But her husband is a sick, enfeebled remnant of an ancient warrior order, and her cheerful son will leave her soon to trade furs with British capitalists. She gives him a Buddha necklace to guard him on his journey. The son and the foreign exploiters ride off. We think we might follow them, but then turn to a tattered flag waving, a house that looks smaller from the outside, and the woman bent over. Dissolve, and we see them all even further away. She's going to live whatever life she has left alone.
In leaving her, the son's giving up family, tradition, and history. His offering glistening furs for too-low prices echoes later when the British hold him captive as a material good. "We're training the soul of the future leader," a missionary explains, as servants dress the injured, seemingly lobotomized man in ceremonial robes with hopes of turning the new Khan into a puppet. But the white man's honor cannot last. "Down with the robbers!" our hero finally cries, his body hulklike and bursting, and leads a revolt. As he and his followers make the titular storm, the glee glimpsed in close-up suggests historical constants, and utopian hopes. The class struggle has often simultaneously been a race struggle, with the losing cultures buried. In sweeping away invaders and resurrecting the spirit of history, the men here are revolting in an especially profound way. They're not only taking their land back—they're seizing the power to tell their own stories.