Opus 41: Maxim’s Youth (1934)

Maxim’s Youth, op. 41 (1934)
Film on YouTube (ten-minute segments) via SHOSTAKOVI.CH: The Page of Shostakovich

As Love and Hatred did, Maxim’s Youth provided me with a web-enabled, unsubtitled, Harvey-Keitel-in-U-571-like, “Everything’s in Russian!” sort of home video experience: Kozintsev and Trauberg’s 1935 film lacks an accessible DVD release, so it’s back to the YouTube library at the SHOSTAKOVI.CH fan site for me. This time I availed myself of John Riley’s plot summary beforehand, to whatever extent that helped: Maxim, a waggish young factory worker, wakes up politically after a pair of industrial accidents, organizes covertly, demonstrates, goes to jail, and ultimately escapes to carry on his work. The story is a Soviet archetype but the film, the first in a trilogy, was very popular in its time, and the character of Maxim apparently became something of a folk hero, one not always entirely understood by the citizenry to be fictional. More useful is Riley’s description of Shostakovich’s involvement in the soundtrack, for which he acted more as a co-curator than as a composer. A popular waltz tune serves as Maxim’s theme song and most of the soundtrack corresponds to action within the film itself: Characters sing and very frequently play the accordion, dance tunes play from behind closed doors, pastiches of industrial sound set an appropriately proletarian mood.

The exception to that is the nighttime sleigh ride in the prologue, set to the only music in the film that Shostakovich composed himself. He mashes up four melodies for the scene, including a polka that he would reuse down the line in a galop in his operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki and a song (sung by a giddy woman in the middle of the scene) called “I am a Footballer!”. The prologue’s exuberant satire of a gaggle of decadent bourgeoisie recalls the visual energy of the directors’ earlier New Babylon more than any Shostakovich film collaboration I’ve watched since then. In fact the scene seems to have little reason to lead off the film other than that it looks nifty, a formalist appetizer before the directors settle into the film’s plainer, more populist attitude, aided by the absence of Shostakovich’s thick orchestral sounds.

The other notable scene for Shostakoviphiles highlights the song “You Fell as a Victim”, which the composer used prominently within his eleventh symphony two decades later. Here it serves within a long, initially very moody sequence in which a worker is killed in a factory accident. Maxim, initially backed only by a soundscape of keening whistles, comes to the factory floor and sees his fallen comrade, whose status as martyr is sealed by a shaft of sunlight; the assembled workers then spontaneously begin singing the revolutionary song as they bear the body away in a funeral procession that boils over into political demonstration.

I was pretty bored by the film by the end. Most likely that’s because I don’t know what any of the words mean, less of a handicap than commonly thought, I suspect, when watching narrative movies but a handicap nonetheless. Or perhaps it’s because the film becomes more somber and self-constrained as it works towards its didactic close; perhaps too because most films have trouble sustaining their energy and novelty all the way through to the end. For all that, the film has a number of evocative sounds and, more so, a visual panache that I find hard to define; the filmmakers’ editing is consistently snappy, as in their earlier New Babylon and Alone, and there is some striking, dramatically shadowed close-up photography of the actors. Boris Chirkov in the title role has enough high-spirited charisma to carry many scenes for me even though their finer details were incomprehensible due to the language barrier. In contrast to when I watched Love and Hatred a week ago, I didn’t push myself to try to understand what precisely the story is. Instead I took in the movie’s visual and auditory pleasures, when present (including the gritty but still somewhat fantastical factory setting, with its chorus of hooters and its tiny steam locomotives) and let myself be carried along, half distracted, through it’s duller stretches. It’s a satisfactory way to watch a film.

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