International Melancholia: The Deserter

To the trio of Pudovkin’s films considered his best – Мat (Mother, 1926), Konets Sankt-Peterburga (The End of Saint Petersburg, 1927), and Potomok Chingis-Khana (Storm over Asia, 1928) – it is high time we added Dezertir (The Deserter, 1933) and made the whole thing a quartet. The reluctance to consider this film on par with the earlier ones comes from the perception that it is uneven. Writing in 1937, Graham Greene thought of it as a “bad film with some superb moments,” with “moments magnificent as well as naïve.”1 A critic from the New York Times said the film would be praised by class-conscious workers, but he worried that it may have been too harsh on the Social Democrats and thought it could be shortened by fifteen minutes.2 A similar view would sometimes crop up in film scholarship later on, as in K.R.M. Short and Richard Taylor’s judgment that “the film has its moments of undoubted brilliance, despite a tendency to drag badly in the middle sections as Pudovkin explores socialist society and industrial organisation.”3 Perhaps it takes a critic writing in a Catholic magazine to point out the elephant in the room. Jacques Vergneysse singles out The Deserter as a “true” film among the usual fare, admitting: “It’s a communist film. And yes, there is nothing we can do about it.” He finds some scenes in Hamburg extremely beautiful but thinks the film flops when it aims to show the Soviet Union using the clichés of official ideology. Nonetheless, he suggests we should see it.4

A similar partial appreciation of The Deserter, though less explicit, can be found today in a note on the back of the 2002 DVD edition of the film. “Since Pudovkin’s remarkably interesting experiments with sound are primary reasons to study this film, the sound-track is presented as found without modern enhancements.”5 The Deserter was Pudovkin’s first sound film and it made him realise that “sound film is potentially the art of the future.”6 While, like Eisenstein, he was wary of the straightforward usage of sound, whereby the latter merely illustrates or matches the images, theatricalising the film, he was extremely excited about the possibility of applying the technique of montage not only to images but also to sound. Kristin Thompson solidified the film’s fame in the domain of sound experimentation when after a thorough analysis of eleven Soviet films made in the early 1930s she stated that only two films, Оdna (Alone, Leonid Trauberg, 1931) and The Deserter, seemed to “consistently” use “some kinds of sound-image disjunction” in line with the theory of contrapuntal sound sketched in the famous 1928 “Statement,” signed by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov.7 But the note on the DVD also implies that there are other elements in the film that are less worthy of study, like the dragging middle sections, the moments of naïveté, or the clichéd communism. And yet, The Deserter is much more than a successful illustration of a sound theory.

Unlike the trio of the 1920s, The Deserter is seen as sullied by Stalinism. This is not to say that Stalinist aesthetics cannot produce great films (it did), but rather that The Deserter seems like a work displaced and out of time, made of different aesthetic systems, a film of the 1920s thrown into the 1930s. The film is situated in the transitional period that saw, first, a shift towards sound cinema and, second, a shift towards socialist realism. As Pudovkin himself realised, synchronic sound can not mimic the montage of images without turning into a cacophony. The future of film sound is either to relegate montage to a secondary rank or to become montage-like itself, inheriting and surpassing the best traditions of the 1920s.8 Film history, however, developed in the general direction of the former. The Deserter nonetheless contains both directions and seems unsure which way to turn. Rapid montage sequences prevail in the German arc of the story; longer takes appear here and there, especially in the Soviet arc.

Yet it is in this transitional film that Pudovkin intensified his montage aesthetics. Flash cutting, used sparsely in his previous films, is employed repeatedly and systematically in The Deserter. For example, Pudovkin intercuts flash cuts of explosions with the barrel of a tank aiming at the communist dockers. The flash cuts of explosions, in fact, begin to appear earlier in the sequence, seemingly unrelated to anything, foreshadowing the massacre. He uses the same technique of intercutting in the sequence where the Soviet public applauds Karl’s confession. What are we to make of this connection? Does it suggest a similarity of loudness; of indiscrimination and mindless automatism (just as the tank will fire at anybody in the crowd, the Soviet public will applaud anybody that needs to be applauded); of raw, elemental power? Whatever the connection, it still suggests that there is something similar about the shooting tank and the applauding public, even if the latter redeems the former. The film clocks in at over 3000 shots and was reproved for its “intellectualism”.9 Perhaps what is most surprising is that The Deserter, “the most avant-garde of all Pudovkin’s films”10 was made in the 1930s, while filmmakers like Eisenstein and Vertov made their most avant-garde works in the 1920s.

The Deserter

The Deserter

Flash cut of an explosion intercut with the barrel of a tank.

Bazin wondered whether transition from the “epic splendour” of the years 1925-28 to sound in Soviet cinema was, in fact, less important than the transition to socialist realism. He claimed there was an affinity between the exigencies of the Party and the exigencies of the sound film.11 Indeed, speech in The Deserter is most extensively used in the public confession sequence, where Karl accuses himself of not being an “honest proletarian” because he deserted the communist struggle in Germany hoping to find a haven in the Soviet Union. This is one of the most poignant scenes in the film, as the public literally explodes into applause, reminding us of the tank that just 40 minutes ago gunned his colleagues down while he had been deserting the picket-line but also foreshadowing the show trials of the late 1930s, which would most likely have condemned somebody like Karl to be shot.

The Deserter

The Deserter

Flash cut of an explosion intercut with hands applauding.

Socialist realism itself, first and foremost a literary quality, was forged between 1932-34. In the novel, as Katerina Clark claims, it functioned as the reproduction of the master plot from select canonical works and was stylistically marked by “modal schizophrenia”, that is, by the dialectic split between what is and what ought to be, between the realist mode of here and now and the utopian mode of mythical time.12 There is a “modal schizophrenia” in The Deserter, as suggested by the perceived unevenness of the film and its shift from the gritty social realism of the German arc to the optimistic socialist realism of the Soviet arc. But the optimism in the latter is far from assured. For example, Karl Renn (played by Boris Livanov) speaks and writes only in Russian while he is in Hamburg, but when he is in the Soviet Union he “forgets” Russian and speaks only in chopped, exaggerated German. The avant-garde montage of the German arc subsists but is now largely displaced onto that chopped, foreign voice that makes Karl frail and vulnerable. As Karl confesses, Pudovkin inserts reverse shots showing the Soviet public whose reaction to his spasmodic speech ranges from confusion to automatic smile. Is this the kind of a public that will judge Pudovkin’s now alien “intellectualism”? Karl asks his colleague to translate, and the confession ends with the redemptive albeit disconcerting burst of applause. This key sequence is a negotiation between two different aesthetics and an attempt to resolve the dialectic.

Seemingly in spite of itself, however, the film undermines the supposed unity of the international proletariat: hence melancholia, in the broadest sense: the difficulty of coming together, the fragility of international community. When Pudovkin began shooting in Hamburg in 1931, there was still a need for international cooperation between the workers. By the time the film was done, Hitler’s arrival to power made this cooperation impossible.13 The shoot was supposed to be a quick four-week gig, but the initial production company Prometheus – the German branch of Mezhrabpomfilm, “the Russian Hollywood” – ran out of funds. The production dragged on. The film’s fragmentary and belated aesthetics reflects the fact that it was shot little by little and in many places: Hamburg, Berlin, Moscow, Leningrad, Odessa, Nikolaev, and Magnitogorsk.14 The Nazi Brownshirts terrorising German cities presented another obstacle for shooting there.15 The Hamburg of the film had to be supplemented with shots from Leningrad and Odessa; the German version was never made.16 And so the “Germany” of The Deserter disappears. Nothing, seemingly, remains of it but a few signs in German from the original shoot. Hamburg dockers speak in Russian. The film could be read as an allegory of what Clark identifies as the coexistence of nationalism and cosmopolitanism in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.17 Alongside the story about intercommunity, The Deserter slips in a story about incongruous elements in need of readjustment within one and the same community.

The Deserter

The Deserter

The flag emerges from the same street in which it retreats.

What is often perceived as an optimistic ending of the film suggests, in fact, the unattainability of the international revolution. The red flag, carried by Karl who has managed to elude the police, shrinks as it recedes in the background before the fade-out. Judging from the camera position in relation to the whole sequence, the flag recedes in the same street from which it initially emerged with Karl, freshly returned from the Soviet Union, fully class-conscious, leading the march. However, as spectators, we are left, in the final shot, occupying the position where the protest has just taken place and were the beaten bodies lie, watching as the flag retreats, leaving us and “Germany” without a revolution. We are left wondering: is Karl back on his way to the Soviet Union, deserting his comrades again?


  1. Graham Greene, “The Cinema”, The Spectator (February 19, 1937): 312.
  2. H.T.S., “Directed by Pudovkin,” The New York Times, October 13, 1934, p. 10.
  3. K.R.M. Short and Richard Taylor, “Soviet Cinema and the international menace, 1928-1939”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 6:2 (1986): 139.
  4. Jacques Vergneysse, “Des films et un film”, Sept: l’hebdomadaire du temps présent, September 1, 1934, p. 10.
  5. Two Pudovkin Classics: The End of Saint Petersburg and Deserter, DVD, Image Entertainment, 2002.
  6. Vsevolod Pudovkin, Film Technique and Film Acting, trans. Ivor Montagu (New York: Grove Press, 1970), p. 201.
  7. Kristin Thompson, “Early Sound Counterpoint,” Yale French Studies 60 (1980): 116. Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Gregori Alexandrov, “A Statement,” in Eisenstein, Film Form, trans. and ed. Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt, 1977), pp. 257-259.
  8. Pudovkin, Film Technique, pp. 195-196, 199, 201-202.
  9. Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 297.
  10. Katerina Clark, Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 64.
  11. André Bazin, “Le cinéma soviétique et le mythe de Staline”, Esprit 170 (1950): 225.
  12. Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), pp. 3, 6, 37, 43.
  13. K.R.M. Short and Richard Taylor make the same point with respect to Okraina (The Outskirts, 1933). “Soviet Cinema and the international menace,” p. 135.
  14. Oksana Bulgakova, “Les rapports avec l’Allemagne,” in Aïcha Kherroubi (ed.), Le studio Mejrabpom, ou l’aventure du cinéma privé au pays des bolcheviks (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 1996), p. 111; Ekaterina Khokhlova, “L’histoire,” in Le studio Mejrabpom, p. 25.
  15. K.R.M. Short and Richard Taylor, “Soviet Cinema,” p. 139.
  16. Leyda, Kino, p. 295.
  17. Clark, Moscow, the Fourth Rome, p. 4.

About The Author

Tadas Bugnevicius is a PhD student in French and Film and Media studies at Yale University.

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