Fetishism and Revolution: Storm Over Asia (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1928)
The Mezhrabpomfilm production Storm over Asia (1928; sound version made in 1949) – known as Potomok Chingis-Khana (The Heir to Genghis Khan) in Russian – was the third silent feature made by Vsevolod Pudovkin (1894-1953). Famous as a great director of revolutionary epics (Mat [Mother, 1925], Konets Sankt-Peterburga [The End of St. Petersburg, 1927], and some later, little-studied historical films), Pudovkin was sometimes called “the Russian Griffith” due both to his “epic” proclivities and his interest in and application of Hollywood editing practices. A gifted and highly trained actor, Pudovkin was also the first of the major Soviet film theorists to be widely read abroad (his Film Technique was translated in 1929 by Ivor Montagu), and his theoretical work was a practical mainstay for filmmakers and teachers of filmmaking around the world for decades.
Storm was shot in the Buriat-Mongolian republic, mostly in and around the capital, today called Ulan-Ude, on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia, just north of Mongolia. It counts as an extraordinary achievement by the great cinematographer Anatoly Golovnia – the film contains arguably his strongest, most diverse work – who (among other things) used only one camera to shoot the famous Buddhist ritual scene (“the Feast of Tzai”) near the residence of the lama.
The hero Bair is played by the extraordinary Buriat actor Valery Inkizhinov, whose actual father plays his father in the film. Inkizhinov, alongside Sergei Eisenstein, was the only person in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s legendary “biomechanical” theater to actually instruct actors in biomechanical acting technique, and stands as its preeminent master among contemporary screen actors.1 Pudovkin asked Inkizhinov to consistently produce “a deliberately narrowed range of movement to indicate emotion, and explosions of accumulated energy in sudden fury”, and edited the film in accord with these dynamics of accumulation and release. Storm was Inkizhinov’s last Soviet film: abroad in France in 1930 with his family while promoting this film, he decided to stay. He worked a bit in Nazi Germany (and played a Soviet commissar in one Nazi anti-Soviet propaganda film) and then moved to France permanently in 1936, working fairly steadily until his death in 1973.
The script was written by Osip Brik, one of the most important Russian formalist critics, a point on the legendary Vladimir Mayakovsky-Lilya Brik-Osip Brik love triangle, and a major contributor to a number of films. It was based on a story by journalist Ivan Novokshonov, who actively collaborated with Brik in the writing and was later repressed during the Terror of 1937-38 (dying in Sverdlovsk in 1943). It is not clear that the story was actually written by the time Brik wrote the final script: Novokshonov apparently told Brik over drinks one evening about a Mongolian youth who fought against the British interventionists, was caught, and was found to carry a special amulet. The British at that point considered making him into a puppet king of Mongolia, according to Novokshonov, but nothing came of it. That, said Brik in 1936, was the whole basis of the script, and indeed it seems likely that the story was actually written down after the film was made (it was first published in 1966).
The historical narrative of Storm over Asia is a little weird, especially in its relationship to actual history. According to Pudovkin’s own summary, “it takes place in the days of the British [colonial] occupation of Mongolia, and the struggle against the red partisans [ca. 1920]” during the Civil War. One such partisan, a Mongolian named Bair in the film and Sulim in the script, was taken prisoner. On his person was found an amulet (now in a museum in Irkutsk) with an old text inside, indicating that he was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. The British (to quote Pudovkin again) “thought to use the authority of this text among the Mongolian masses, and tried to raise this partisan to the Mongolian throne. However the partisan Bair, faithful to his revolutionary convictions, outsmarted them. […] This Mongol is a manifestation of the Mongolia that senses the brotherly support of Moscow.”
The actual Mongolia-related history is a bit different. “White” (i.e., anti-Bolshevik) troops led by Baron R.F. von Ungern-Sternberg, who had been defeated during the Civil War in Siberia, did invade Mongolia in October 1920, where the opponents were Chinese, not Red forces. In October–November 1920, Ungern’s troops assaulted the capital Ulaanbaatar several times but were repelled with heavy losses. On 2-5 February 1921, after fighting a huge battle, he finally drove the Chinese forces out of the Mongolian capital. In order to eliminate the threat posed by the Baron, who indeed attacked Bolshevik-controlled Siberia in May 1921 from his perch in Mongolia and had established contacts with Mongolian nobles and lamas, the Bolsheviks (who had been messing about themselves in Mongolia since 1917) decided to support the establishment of a communist Mongolian government. Ungern-Sternberg was eventually driven out and executed in September 1921, and Mongolia (the first “people’s republic”, 1924) was in close alignment with the USSR for the next 70 years.
So what about the British? At one point during the Civil War, there had been about 1500 British “interventionist” troops in Siberia (in Buriat areas), but they were gone by June 1920. And there was no real history of British colonial involvement (fur-trading and so on) in Mongolia. So the picture of British imperialism is rather fantastical in this film: it provides a kind of generic view of colonialism and colonial types, rather than a real historical account, and indeed, it’s not clear at various points exactly whom the partisans in the film are fighting.
Perhaps the “international” purview of the Mezrabpomfilm (International Worker’s Relief) studio is important here. It seems that the studio was trying to make a kind of all-purpose anti-imperialist, pro-Soviet film, transferrable to many locales, rather than an analysis of a specific setting. British imperialism was selected, in other words, because it was the most “typical” imperialism, although the film’s various bad guys seem to allude to a variety of national-imperialist types (the American-esque fur trader; the very British-seeming officer who first opens the amulet; the head consul, who looks very much like a White general). To be sure, there was great concern in the USSR at the time about imperial politics in East Asia above all, whose foremost expression on film is Yakov Bliokh’s 1927 documentary Shankhaiskii dokument (Shanghai Document). Meanwhile in Britain, the communist Daily Worker paper presented Storm, released around the same time as nationalist uprisings in India and fighting in Palestine, as above all an anti-imperialist work. In this sense, Storm belongs to the tradition of left-wing political analysis (whose most famous representative is Lenin) that tries to think of resistance to capitalism and resistance to colonialism/imperialism as one. It is worth noting, in this connection, that the incitement to Bair’s final revolt in Brik’s script is his lingering memory, effectively a traumatic memory, of “Moscow”, the word mumbled to him by a dying partisan leader; in the film, by contrast, the “heir to Genghis Khan” is moved to insurrection by the cold-blooded slaughter of one of his own, by colonialism’s violent degradation of his people.
The deliberate vagueness of the film’s historical background – noted, to sure, by contemporary observers inside and outside the USSR – prompts me to think of it not as “historical” but as a kind of revolutionary-epic fable, not entirely unlike those that Bertolt Brecht would later write. It is a stylistically heterogeneous film, incorporating poetic realism, slapstick, ethnographic documentary, avant-garde explorations of the “abstract” representation of objects (fur, above all), Westerns, revolutionary epic, and a whole array of experiments in montage, both obtrusive and unobtrusive. But it is also an intensely reflexive film – think of the heavy emphasis not only on theatre, but on editing, as in the scene when Bair is made into a colonial puppet ruler via Frankenstein-like suturing – and this self-awareness invites us to see it as a film less depicting than thinking about history, indeed as a kind of “theoretical film”.
Although the film follows Brik’s script reasonably closely, Storm is above all structured by complex associative chains of images that we must attribute to Pudovkin and Golovnia. Both men were, as it turns out, studying Marxism at the time, in preparation for joining the Communist Party (which they did in 1929); and one central notion from the Marxist chrestomathy seems to run through the film’s image track in a particularly determining and lavishly elaborated way. I am thinking of “fetishism”, a term which comes from the Portuguese work feitiçio, itself deriving from the Latin facticium, meaning artificial. The term emerged when Portuguese traders in the 16th-17th century encountered groups in West Africa with whom they traded and who insisted on either incorporating various religious objects and practices into the trading ceremonies, or ascribed “undue” value (in the eyes of the Europeans) to some of those objects. Later, the notion of the fetisso became a big part of evolutionary theories about human development – the proposition, specifically, that Africans needed “concrete objects” in order to carry out commercial transactions, and had not attained that “abstract” level of thought necessary to do without such crudely palpable intermediaries.
Marx, as film theorist Laura Mulvey has noted, turns this idea back upon Europe itself, and specifically upon capitalism, where “commodity fetishism” emerges “out of the gap between a belief in the commodity as its own independent source of value, and knowledge of its true source in human labor.”2 In the full, complete version of Storm (which is hard to track down), Bair actually captures the fox at the beginning of the film, thus inaugurating the film’s central narrative as the history of a commodity (fur), from the steppe to the tent to the trading post to the bourgeois consumer, only to be “reappropriated” at the end by Bair, but under very different conditions. (Note, however, that the fur is also shown as having a distinct aesthetic “use value” for the Mongol trappers themselves: it is, for them as well, a source of pleasure detached from exchange value.) The film becomes a great moving map of the circulation and inter-resonance of various fetishes, from the amulet (crucially, in the film, not historically connected to Bair in any way, unlike in Brik’s script); to bodies (Bair’s; those of the consul and his wife; the lama; and not least that of the unnamed girlfriend of the fur trader, the object of a quite singular “traffic” in women); to all manner of medals, tokens, jewels, cummerbunds, perfume bottles, religious objects and much more, including quite tasty glamour shots of some of the protagonists.
Does the film, a revolutionary film after all, have any real strategy for undoing the fetishism it diagrams? And does it even want to undo it? In the starkest contrast to Dziga Vertov, surely Soviet cinema’s greatest anti-fetishist, Pudovkin, Brik and Golovnia seem to argue that the fetishes of political theatre can be mobilised in radically oppositional ways, and thus should not be brusquely discarded, contra Vertov. Watching the film’s play with national theatrics, I can not help but think of all the national units and cultures that the Soviets themselves would help establish in the years to come – often regarded as mere theatrical cover for total Moscow dominance by Sovietologists during the Cold War, but which persist as independent polities well after the USSR’s own demise.
Yet we must also note that the eponymous “storm” at the end sweeps away not just soldiers, but also commodities: guns, cans, hats, balls, all blown away by the revolutionary wind. Storm over Asia shows us revolutionary energy being amassed and eventually released, but passes the actual strategic task over to “Moscow”, the destination toward which the revolutionary horde is headed. We learn little about what those further developments would consist in – which may or may not be one of the film’s strengths.