Simply Essential
by Sergei Kapterev
Aug 29, 2013 | 453 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A Simple Case
A Simple Case
Vsevolod Pudovkin, one of the icons of Soviet cinema, began his career with three grand-scale studies of individuals embracing the cause of social liberation: Mother (1926), an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s landmark story of class struggle; and the revolutionary epics The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and Storm Over Asia (1929). For decades, his subsequent work A Simple Case remained lesser known and largely unavailable. Its revival at Pordenone was a groundbreaking event, stating the film’s case as a candidate for the canon of silent cinema.

Pudovkin planned A Simple Case as a combination of silence and sound, a continuation of Soviet montage methodology and an alternative to early sound films. He described the story as a “lecture-cum-operetta,” telling a story of adultery committed by a hero of the Russian revolution, confused amidst the dilution of revolutionary idealism. After Storm Over Asia was criticized for excessive “mass appeal,” Pudovkin reaffirmed his devotion to experimentation (though, under ideological pressure, he later disparagingly referred to A Simple Case as “a catalogue of directorial devices”). A Simple Case was based on a script by Aleksandr Rzheshevskii, an avid champion of “the emotional scenario,” which emphasized sentiments and moods through poetic rhythm, epithets and romantic intertitles that embodied inner monologue or addressed the audience. Pudovkin praised Rzheshevskii’s work as inspiring his inventiveness without imposing excessive constraints.

Originally entitled Life Is Beautiful, the film began shooting in the spring of 1929. After the first screenings in 1930, critics complained that it lacked drama and bewildered viewers. Pudovkin recut the film into a simplified and presumably clearer version, now titled A Simple Case. Rzheshevskii disliked the results and asserted that Pudovkin’s revisions and “formalism” neutralized the strengths of the original. Pudovkin’s narrative experiments were combined with the systematic use of “temporal close-ups,” a method of fixing the viewer’s attention on particular details by decelerated or accelerated motion, and they were meticulously integrated in the film’s rhythmic structure. A major prerequisite for such integration was the high quality of cinematography, here done by Grigorii Kabalov.

Pudovkin and his associates created monumental but psychologically subtle imagery. His “blank slate” actors, with no cinematic experience or who came from the ranks of non-professionals, were inventively incorporated. With the help of co-director Mikhail Doller, another long-time associate and acting expert, Pudovkin put the actors into specific “psycho-physical” states, accentuating their gestures and implementing his belief that an actor’s performance should incorporate “understanding and perception of the film’s shot-by-shot structure.”

A work of deep emotion and diverse rhythms and textures, A Simple Case is more than an experiment and is crucial for understanding the stylistic and philosophical complexity of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s achievements. It provides a remarkable epilogue to the history of montage cinema.

Sergei Kapterev is senior researcher at the Institute of Cinematic Art, Moscow.Reprinted with permission from the Pordenone Film Festival

A SIMPLE CASE | U.S.S.R., 1930, 96m | Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin

Featuring an original score performed by Gabriel Thibaudeau

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