Monday, July 1, 2013

Childhood of Maxim Gorky, The (1938)



Soyuzdetfilm (Soviet Union)
Director: Mark Donskoy

In the Soviet Union the name Maxim Gorky, born Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, was well known as an author, a major Soviet influence, and a political activist held in high esteem by the people and the government of his home country. With Gorky’s passing in 1936 Russian filmmaker Mark Donskoy would take it upon himself to recreate the life of this man through adapting the author’s autobiography into motion pictures. In The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is covered, as clearly stated, the younger years of this influential man’s life, to build up for future sequels to cover other major moments of his life while standing as a fine picture all on its own. It is the story of a boy and his humble upbringing, not knowing what will come his way, but ultimately making his own decisions.

The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is a biographical picture depicting a young Gorky around the age of 12, his careless upbringing, the colorful characters he met that would inspire him, and ultimately setting the stage for the man he would one day be. Aleksei Lyarsky (Aleksei Peshkov), the name of the man who would one day pen under the pseudonym of Maxim Gorky, here is a young boy abandoned by his single mother to be raised by his grandparents. Life lessons are implanted throughout through the colorful cast of characters he meets through is harsh, young life. His grandparents serve as near opposites in his upbringing, with his harsh,abusive grandfather (Milhail Troyanovsky) beating him when easily upset, and his grandmother (Varvara Massalitnova) severing as inspiration with the sharing of great stories of days past. Aleksei watches a people he befriends are mistreated and even die at the hands of those that claim they know better. All this leads to his family becoming destitute and begging, while Aleksei parts ways with his household off into the unknown future for such a young boy of only twelve.

It is a far cry from a western society, perhaps Dickens-like, story of a boy with the humblest of begins, but The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is based on the true events of Maxim Gorky’s life. Glorifying the metal tenacity of a young boy to make the decisions on his own, this coming of age picture does a fine job melting together the words of Gorky’s own pen, recreating dramatized events of his childhood, and stirring up the ideas of what a young boy could have gone through in such events that formed the base upon which his maturation would grow. With beautiful filmmaking this picture makes for a very fine feature, even without knowing who Maxim Gorky is or that it is about a person who would have heavy socialist beliefs.

The young star of the film, Aleksei Lyarsky, performs brilliantly as a child who intellectually looks at his world, even with his very limited education. His depiction of a young Gorky portrays a boy scared of his environment, but stern enough to stand up to what he dislikes, learning from the wisdom of others, and learns to make his own decisions in life. Aleksei Lyarsky would act in only one more picture, once again as a young Gorky in the sequel to this film. He would be honored by the filmmakers for his humble performance in both his features, but he would tragically die young at 19 years old in a battle, a casualty of World War II.

The cast of supporting characters would be utilized to manifest different aspects of Gorky’s future self in how he would view the world and ideas. The most influential in this depiction would be his grandmother played by the long time stage and film actress Varvara Massalitinova. Her character provides the basis of Gorky’s future creativity, and Massalitinova would be given a major state award for her performance as the nurturing matriarch in the film. The grandfather played by Mikhail Troyanosky would become everything Gorky would hate, a man that ruled his house and business with an iron fist, never listening to anyone, ultimately leaving him broke and bitter. It would be the humble side characters that came and went that had profound impacts on Gorky; including a gypsy named Ivan who quietly aided the boy before being killed by labor from Gorky’s uncles, a free thinking man that encouraged deep contemplation who ultimately would be arrested for his beliefs, and even a crippled boy who found happiness in the smallest things, even his pets bugs.

What makes The Childhood of Maxim Gorky so different from the other major films coming out of the Soviet Union during this period is the complete lack of a communist ideal in the story. Gorky would play a major role in influencing a population with his own thought on politics, even though he was a poor man, but the picture does not push any politics into the story. The plot is simply about a boy and his hardships. The story is rather modest and allows you to just watch without propaganda or even the hint of socialist ideals making its way to the surface. It comes off as a good biopic that stands on its own as a dramatic feature film without the foreknowledge of actual person and his future life. It would not be necessary to know of Gorky going into the film, but it would help, especially considering the intermittent title cards to progress from once scene to another.

The picture would be the beginning of a masterpeice for director Mark Donskoy which resulted in a trilogy based on the Maxim Gorky autobiography. The follow ups would be released over the next two years in On His Own (sometimes referred to as My Apprenticeship) and My Universities. The Maxim Gorky trilogy would define the career of the Soviet filmmaker, winning him many accolades and awards.

As mention before, The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is a very well made picture that comes out of Soviet Union that has been enjoyed by many outside of its parent country. Its complete lack of politics from the historical figure allows the film to be a drama watchable by many, but also allows a look into the world and minds of a non-political side of Soviets during the period when war was breaking out in Europe.

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