I am no expert in the history of silent Soviet cinema, merely an enthusiastic hobbyist, but I think I'm still comfortable saying that the two most important, well-regarded filmmakers in the USSR in 1927 were Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. So it makes sense that those two men were tapped by the Central Committee to create cinematic celebrations of the October Revolution on the occasion of its 10th anniversary (the anniversary was held on 7 November, 1927, while the key date of the revolution was 25 October, 1917; in between, the new Soviet government finally moved the country over to the Gregorian calendar, necessitating the 13-day shift).

The two films were produced somewhat in a spirit of rivalry, but in the end Pudovkin decisively won out, practically if not necessarily artistically. Eisenstein's October ran into problems with the censors owing to his portrayal of the out-of-favor Leon Trotsky, and was delayed until 1928 while he refilmed and recut it. This left Pudovkin's The End of St. Petersburg with the spotlight all to itself, and its success led to Pudovkin's brief tenure as the most celebrated of all Soviet filmmakers in his home country. And while he had a difficult time transitioning to sound film (as did the Soviet industry as a whole, really), Pudovkin remained admired thereafter until his death in 1953, never falling under official scrutiny as intense as that which Eisenstein faced multiple times over the subsequent decades.

Pudovkin's reputation has waned a bit in recent years; Western critics always preferred Eisenstein first and foremost among the Soviet montage directors, and it's surely the case that both Alexandr Dovzhenko and Dziga Vertov have eclipsed Pudovkin as well. I suppose it's because, of these four most famous of 1920s Soviet filmmakers, Pudovkin made far and away the easiest films to watch and understand. His best film, 1926's Mother, is as close to a straight-up melodrama as one could possibly fit into an explicit propaganda film, and while The End of St. Petersburg moves much closer to the more formalist, intellectual terrain of Eisenstein (it is conspicuously haunted by the specter of Eisenstein's first feature from 1925, Strike), it has quite a substantial heart of melodramatic appeal at its core as well.

The End of St. Petersburg begins about three years before the event prophesied by its title, when a young peasant (Ivan Chuvelev) arrives in St. Petersburg to make his fortune. Here, he finds soul-crushing work in a factory, where one of his co-workers (Alexander Chistyakov) is a Bolshevik activist. The work and the Bolshevism both inspire the young man, but he remains aimless and at a loss for how to move through the world, ultimately finding himself arrested and sent to the Eastern Front, where he witnesses firsthand the hideous exploitation of the Russian people, thrown against the German army to die and and protect the interest of the self-indulgent wealthy business owners. Eventually, 1917 rolls around, and the young man is in the vanguard of revolutionaries ready to tear down the Winter Palace and install a people's government.

Shorter version: well, obviously it's propaganda. It was commissioned by the Communist Party to celebrate the victory of Bolshevism. But it's awfully damn good propaganda. The main appeal of Pudovkin compared to other Soviet filmmakers of his generation is that his films are more emotionally accessible; we feel the outrage of the young man as he discovers the corruption of the ruling class, rather than simply process it as a series of political arguments made through complicated visual motifs. The End of St. Petersburg isn't afraid at all to foreground strong personal sentiment as a means of activating its audience's sense of moral and political outrage. The post-revolutionary coda, in which the Bolshevik worker's wife (Vera Baranovskaya) encounters the young peasant at the bombed-out Winter Palace, embraces tearjerking uplift that wouldn't have felt a whit out of place in a contemporaneous Hollywood movie, if not for the conspicuous fact that part of the uplift comes from the characters' final, full-hearted embrace of the Bolshevik Communist ideal, under the beaming gaze of the (dead?) husband, resurrected as a spiritual embodiment of the revolutionary promise.

None of this means that The End of St. Petersburg is a simple mainstream entertainment, by any standard except the one where we're comparing Pudovkin directly to Sergei Eisenstein. The film is an accessible example of the tenets and style of Soviet montage filmmaking; but Soviet montage filmmaking it is nonetheless, and there has perhaps never been a film movement more firmly based in purely intellectual activity and complicated theories of perception and visual meaning-generating. The most conspicuous example of montage as we generally conceive of it in this film is probably the battle sequence: fragmented, violent images of soldiers dying are contrasted with shots of the stock market back in St. Petersburg, where corpulent businessmen cheer and hoot in orgiastic enthusiasm as the prices rise with the slaughter of the Russian Army.

"Orgiastic" isn't a word I use idly; one of the most striking visual motifs in the film compares the military and economic power of corrupt imperium to loutish male sexuality. Another major montage sequence contrasts the suffering of Russian citizens left without bread as the government sinks all of its declining resources into producing ammunition and guns, and these latter things are framed in unabashedly phallic compositions: men grinning apishly as they stroke their big thick bullets, straddling the long barrels of cannons, that sort of thing.

This kind of explicit symbolism isn't, maybe, the heart and soul of montage theory, which is more about the meaning created between images than meaning within images. But it still works at the level of raw propaganda, which was the film's mission first and foremost, and it's terrifically engaging at that. The distressed faces, streaked with hunger and misery, are one of the most potent images in any '20s Soviet film I've seen; the emotional arc from the terror of the war, depicted in a series of disjointed, chaotic images of bodies being damaged, to the geometry and clarity of the Bolsheviks in their steady rows, is a strong visual argument for the film's subject, whatever one might think of that subject.

In short: propaganda, yes, but enormously artful propaganda, using a striking collection of images laden with emotional affect, and a personal story of one man's journey through the Russia of the middle 1910s that works like gangbusters as melodramatic hokum. It's not the most artistically accomplished of the canonically great '20s Soviet films by any means, but it's enjoyable and moving as a story, something virtually none of the others tried to be. On all possible fronts, it's less interesting and successful than Mother, but in its own right, it's a rare example of a Soviet art film that's also satisfying as mass entertainment, even without buying into its admittedly blunt political messaging.