Concerning the lives and loves of a small Russian village, this little gem has been all but forgotten. Gorgeous scenery, heartfelt performances and an intriguing look at a time and place that were about to disappear forever, this movie deserves rediscovery.
Sometimes, watching classic cinema is like taking part in an archaeological dig and this is particularly true when researching the cinema of Russia. We have post-Soviet films, Soviet talkies, Soviet silents… and that is usually where the digging stops.
Hold your horses! Russia was a little late to the motion picture game but there was a vibrant film industry under the Czar. From 1907, the year of what is considered to be the first Russian dramatic film, to 1919, when the majority of the Czarist filmmakers had fled the previously-safe Yalta for France, Russia turned out intriguing, intelligent and, yes, entertaining movies.
It’s hard to get people to sit down and watch a silent movie. It’s hard to get people to sit down and watch a Russian movie. A Russian silent movie? That’s like pulling teeth! Silent westerns have similar troubles. I think a silent Russian western would be the hardest of all but, to my knowledge, no such movie exists. However, I can offer you a wonderfully weird talkie Russian western (or “eastern”) set in Chechnya, should you care to see it.
But I digress!
I chose to review The Peasants’ Lot specifically because it is so different from what is often expected of Russian film. Made with the express approval of the authorities, it was meant to celebrate the country life of “real” Russia. It also has some intriguing parallels to the work of D.W. Griffith. The picture is quite obscure. As of this writing, it is without even a placeholder on IMDB.
Get your pith helmets (or fedoras) and your khaki jackets! We are going into uncharted territory.
The Peasants’ Lot (note the plural possessive) concerns the citizens of a small village and particularly a courting couple. Petr (Ivan Mosjoukine) is courting Masha (Aleksandra Goncharova) with the help of the local matchmaker. Both fathers agree to the match and a marriage is being planned when disaster strikes. Masha’s family home is burnt to the ground. Petr’s father will not allow him to marry into a ruined family and the wedding is off.
Destitute, Masha’s family sells their cow but the money does not last. Wages are low in the country but the city offers better prospects. Masha is sent to work as a maid for a wealthy family. The master of the house notices her and waits for an opportunity.
Masha receives a letter informing her that her father is ill. The master sees her tearful demeanor, reads the letter and realizes this is his chance. He counts out a stack of bills. In the next scene, Masha stumbles into her own room with her hands full of money. Her disheveled appearance tells us all we need to know.
Masha returns to the country and gives the money to her father. He realizes how she got it and they share a tearful embrace. (Can I just jump in here and say how refreshing this is? A father, upon realizing that his daughter was the victim of abuse, NOT throwing her out into the snow. Of course, it is summer. Maybe that was the reason.)
Petr has married another woman but still loves Masha. Regret is also eating away at Masha. She begins to accept the attentions of a new suitor but she clearly misses Petr. On her wedding day, a hollow-eyed Petr bursts through the door and…
And that’s where the surviving footage of The Peasants’ Lot ends.
Director Vasily Goncharov’s path to the movies is quite similar to other pioneers of the period. A railway administrator and would-be playwright, Goncharov was bitten by the film bug in Paris when he saw what Pathe was accomplishing.
Goncharov chose to work with exclusively Russian subject matter and was noted for his patriotic spectacles and epic battle scenes. He also attempted to direct his stage-trained performers in a more natural, camera-friendly style.
Goncharov’s films (at least the ones I have been able to see) are direct and to the point. His legacy has been called uneven and Goncharov himself has been described as peculiar and grotesque.
(Most of the available information on Goncharov is based on the exhaustive Historical Dictionary of Soviet and Russian Cinema.)
Besides these scraps, very little information about this early director is available. He died in 1915 and his Czarist government-approved films were of little interest to the incoming Bolsheviks. By the time the Russian government turned its attention to preserving these pre-Revolution film, the last reel had been mislaid. As no footage has turned up in either Russia or France, we must assume that it is lost to us forever.
So, is Goncharov a forgotten genius or a guy who happened to be in the right industry at the right time? I think he was a bit of both.
Judging from The Peasants’ Lot, there is an appealing raw enthusiasm in the film. The scenes and characters are extremely natural, not just by the flamboyant Russian acting standard but compared to American and French films of the period as well. Goncharov skill seemed to be improving dramatically, I wonder what he would have accomplished had he lived longer.
The film aches for close-ups (the story is filmed entirely in medium and long shots) but each frame is stuffed to capacity with characters, props and scenery. It is a movie that rewards repeat viewings since there is so much on the screen that it is easy to miss a detail the first time. It reminds me of the elaborate folk and fairy tale illustrations that were popular at the time (think Ivan Bilibin). Further, all of those characters and props look like they belong there and the whole film has a lived-in look that adds considerably to its appeal.
The Peasants’ Lot is not without its technical interests, however. In his essay, The Hand that Turns the Handle: Camera Operators and the Poetics of the Camera in Pre-Revolutionary Russian Film, Philip Cavendish points to a panning shot early in the film. You must remember that during this period, many filmmakers were satisfied to plunk down the camera and let it grind.
In contrast, Goncharov and his French cameraman, Louis Forestier, use the pan as a narrative bridge to link the drunken village matchmaker with the young couple who will be the film’s protagonists. While the tracking shot was relatively uncommon in 1912, it was not unknown. However, it was often used for showing off large sets or setting the scene in an exotic or colorful locale. Goncharov’s use of the pan in this manner is significant.
(The entire essay is excellent reading and is available to download in PDF format.)
I enjoyed both the feel and the tone of the film. As with many titles from the ‘teens, The Peasants’ Lot has an unstudied, rustic quality. It celebrates country life without rubbing our faces in it, as American films of the period tended to do. Masha loves her village but she is not obliged to show it by flitting around, screaming with joy at seeing bunnies or kissing birds on the lips or other such nonsense. She is simply comfortable and happy in familiar surroundings and natural beauty that does not call attention to itself. (Yes, this is a dig at Griffith’s fluttering, bird-smooching heroines but he was hardly the only offender.)
I bring up Griffith because there are quite a few narrative elements in The Peasants’ Lot that can also be found in the Biograph films. Naïve country girl? Being swallowed alive by the big city? Young lovers parted? Yup, sounds pretty Griffithian to me. There are differences, of course. Griffith would likely have added a gaggle of gossipy women to harass our heroine. Maybe a little blackmail from the seducer, maybe Petr would have punched him in the nose. The Peasants’ Lot, however, is more concerned with the inner life of its characters.
One more interesting aspect of the film is that, whether by accident or design, it has no intertitles. Title cards were a cause for debate among silent film creators. While they were needed to tell the story—or were they?— they were sometimes used to prop up weak narratives or to pad out the runtime of low budget releases. Some filmmakers argued for doing away with them altogether.
Overall, The Peasants’ Lot conveys its story very well without title cards. This is especially impressive considering that over a century has passed since it was made. There are a few moments of confusion (whose dad is whose?) but it generally works.
I was also interested by the way the film handled its class issues. For a story designed to maintain the status quo, it was quite critical of the aristocracy. The master of the house (unnamed in the credits) is treated as a predator, nothing more and nothing less. I decided that this deserved more research.
In fact, as Denise Jeanne Youngblood brings out in her book, The Magic Mirror: Moviemaking in Russia, 1908-1918, the vamp cycle in Russian film differed considerably from the vampires in American cinema. While the American vamps were treated as unstoppable and voracious monsters who targeted weak but formerly good men, the Russian vamps often engaged in what can be best described as divine retribution against seducers, rapists and misogynists. Of course, the master in The Peasants’ Lot does not receive his comeuppance (at least in the surviving footage) but this is a rural character study and not a vamp film. However, the trend does illustrate that treating noblemen as nasty was hardly rare during this period in Russian cinema.
Now, on to the performances. The actor who receives top billing in most current reviews is Ivan Mosjoukine, the most famous Russian performer of the Czarist period and one of very few with some measure of modern name recognition. If you have heard of Mosjoukine, it is likely in connection to his work as an exile in Paris. He specialized in stylized seducers but was an actor of impressive versatility.
Mosjoukine’s performance in The Peasants’ Lot is considerable more natural than what is found in his later work, when he adopted a more opulent acting style. Wearing little or no makeup and barely twenty-three, the fresh-faced Mosjoukine is quite a goofy charmer in the first part of the story. After Masha’s return, he is wistful, trying to return things to the way they were when it is impossible. The loss of the final reel deprives us of his character’s decline into jealousy and despair, more’s the pity.
However, acting honors must go to Aleksandra Goncharova as Masha. I liked her so much that I tried to track down further details on her life. If information on Goncharov is scarce in the English-speaking world, facts about his leading lady are even more difficult to come by. Her surname, the feminized form of Goncharov, indicates that she was perhaps related to the director, either by blood or marriage. (Russian women traditionally take their husband’s surname upon marriage.) I cannot track down information to confirm the nature or existence of such a relationship. Goncharova was also the maiden name of famed author Alexander Pushkin’s wife, Natalya. (Just so everyone understands, she became Natalya Pushkina, the feminized form of Pushkin, upon marriage.)
Goncharova beautifully conveys her character’s journey from young lover to beggared housemaid to heartbroken bride. Masha never loses her open friendliness but it is tempered and flavored by the trials she is enduring. Particularly heartbreaking is the scene where she and Petr begin to recreate their harvest time flirtations only to be interrupted by his jealous new wife. The pain on Masha’s face says it all. The past is closed and never will come back.
The Peasants’ Lot is an intriguing look into the popular entertainment of pre-Revolution Russia. It is a gorgeous film and quite absorbing. The tragic loss of its ending does not make it any less important. I highly recommend it.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
The Peasants’ Lot was released on bare-bones DVD-R by Milestone as part of its Early Russian Cinema series. The entire series is an intriguing time capsule and is essential viewing.