Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Storm over Asia (1928) is an ironic fable that offers the kind of satisfaction that comes only from fables. It’s also a film of amazing visual hardness, lushness, and vigor, one of the great works of the Soviet avant-garde. And Pudovkin’s location shooting in Siberia and Mongolia makes it an important document of Central Asian culture. Which aspects of this complex work will come forward on Saturday at Sanders Theatre when the film, in a newly restored print, is shown with a live score by the stunning Tuvan throat-singing group Yat-Kha?
At the outset of the sweeping narrative, an ailing hunter dispatches his son to the marketplace to sell a valuable silver-fox fur. When a British trader seizes the fur and gives a ridiculously small price for it, the son fights back and is forced to flee. He joins a band of Bolshevik-led partisans fighting the tyrannical White Guard and their British allies. He’s captured and almost executed; then a document found in an amulet around his neck leads his captors to think that he is the descendant of Genghis Khan. The British hope to install him as a puppet ruler, but he rebels and leads his people to victory over their oppressors.
Under the title The Heir to Genghis Khan, the film was first released in the Soviet Union in 1928 in a print thought to have lasted two and a half hours. When it was exported as Storm over Asia, scenes and intertitles that identified the occupying forces as British were cut, so that the bad guys could be passed off with relatively minor offense as White Russians. In the Soviet Union, the film lost many details of local market economy and culture. Yat-Kha will perform with a newly assembled 140-minute version, probably the most complete seen since the initial release.
Pudovkin is a master of expressive composition. In an indelible shot, a dying partisan leader’s body lying on a slope in the foreground is echoed by the rise of a mountain in the background. Pudovkin gives scenes a leaping, plunging momentum through cutting. One of the best sequences portrays the shock of a British soldier when he is ordered to execute the hero. By intercutting the goings-on at HQ (where they are trying to translate the document found on the prisoner), Pudovkin heightens the desolation of the long shots of the plains across which the soldier marches the man.
Pudovkin neither ridicules nor demonizes Buddhism. We know that he had reason to be grateful to the local lamas, who moved up the date of a religious festival so that he could film it. In themselves, the extraordinary shots of the ceremonial dance convey no disapproval. And look at the heavily ironic build-up to the appearance of the all-wise grand lama, who turns out to be a child of about two rubbing his feet together and looking around with a vague expression of concern. Even with the child lama, Pudovkin doesn’t go for easy laughs: the main satire is directed against the pompous British commander (uniformed, walrus-moustached, and medaled) and his tiara’d wife.
Many of the actors are nonprofessionals — though not the lead, Irkutsk-born Valery Inkijinoff, who had been a member of Lev Kuleshov’s work group. Inkijinoff had a curious career. He went to Europe in the ’30s and acted in French and German cinema, winding up in Fritz Lang’s Indian films and other exotica before ending his career in low-grade spy movies.
The Yat-Kha score will no doubt enhance Storm over Asia’s documentary qualities. Probably it will also subvert the propaganda of the movie and release the power of Pudovkin’s tribute to the spirit of the Central Asian people — enabling us to see this not as a pro-Soviet film but as a pro-Asia film. That quality was undoubtedly apparent to its first viewers, and it must have made them uneasy at a time when a trend toward conservatism in Soviet art was obvious. The critic Victor Shklovsky — himself a target of the decriers of " Formalism " — complained that Pudovkin had perverted Osip Brik’s scenario, eliminating Brik’s " irony at the expense of the exotic " and replacing it with " dubious allegories and metaphors. " But what if behind the seeming exoticism Pudovkin had grasped something essential about the destiny of a people whom the Soviets would annex but never assimilate? We turn to Yat-Kha for clarification on this and other matters.
Banning Eyre’s review of the new Yat-Kha CD is in " Off the Record, " in Music.