European Revolution on Film: Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg and Renoir’s La Marseillaise
This is part of our special feature on European Culture and the Moving Image.
Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938) are beautifully filmed and timeless stories that continue to hold the attention of the viewer almost a century after they were made. They also offer credible interpretations of two great European Revolutions: Russia in 1917 and France in 1789-1794. In doing so, the films illustrate some of the momentous developments of their own time, including the emergence of the Communist model of modernization, the rise of fascism, and the shifting of the European revolutionary tradition from France to Russia. Incorporating universalist master narratives from a European perspective, these films provide a persuasive take on Europe’s history of revolutions.
Considered side-by-side, Petersburg and Marseillaise have much to say about how the revolutionary process evolved from local grievance into global models. Interestingly, it is not clear that the directors Pudovkin and Renoir were especially aware of the other’s work. The End of St. Petersburg was released during the tenth anniversary celebration of the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power and set the stage for the creation of the Soviet Union. The film is mostly the story of the personal and political evolution of two characters during the build-up to 1917.
It begins before the Great War in the impoverished countryside as two peasants leave to find work in the capital, St. Petersburg. One of these—listed in the credits as the Young Peasant (and played by Ivan Chuvelev) —becomes a key protagonist, whose story is followed throughout. He is cast as a typical migrant of the day, with limited skills and education, threadbare as he seeks village connections that might land him a job in the vast, intimidating city. Hungry and penniless, he joins a crowd of strikebreakers at the Putilov steel factory where he naively “sells out” a Communist strike leader. The betrayal of a fellow proletarian is dramatically represented when the Young Peasant accepts a gold coin from the Factory Boss and as the Communist’s Wife—the film’s other central character (played by Vera Baranovskaya) —attacks him for denouncing her husband. This unintentional act of betrayal redirects the Young Peasant, who tries to make up for his wrongdoing by confronting the Factory Owner. The Young Peasant ends up in jail and then the army, where, as war begins, he is seen fighting German soldiers, no less disillusioned with their condition than the Russians. Throughout the film, business and government leaders are represented as profiteers and warmongers, making money and cheering on the war as financial rewards and casualties mount together.
Near the end, the Young Peasant has matured. He is hardened by combat, politicized by the events of his life, and ready to make up for the earlier betrayal of his social class. The Wife of the Communist has evolved, too, as she has come to understand the sacrifices she must make for the good of the whole. The last scenes show a touching reconciliation between the Young Peasant, wounded in the street-fighting of October, and the Communist’s Wife, now ready to share her meager bucket of potatoes with the wounded. For the first time, both characters share spare smiles with the audience. The Wife then goes to find her husband guarding the lavish interior of the just-conquered Winter Palace; he smiles, too, when he sees that the bucket of potatoes is empty. The film ends with the former St. Petersburg re-christened “Leningrad.” Though the story is obviously set in the period of the Great War and Revolution of 1917, the characters are fictional, and the historical details are generalized. The film is more about ordinary people transformed into world-historical actors than particular events, though of course the important events of the day—war, overthrow of the old regime and coming to power of the Communists—are crucial signposts for an audience who may have lived this history.
Renoir’s La Marseillaise, though not as well-known as his classics Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game, is one of the best cinema depictions of the French Revolution. It is strikingly distinctive from other films on the topic as it is not obsessed with the political violence of the period. Rather, La Marseillaise adopts a different approach, asserting that the Revolution initially divides, but then ultimately unites the country. A master narrative, perhaps drawn from the nineteenth-century historians Jules Michelet and Ernst Renan, setting France as a model for Europe, runs confidently through the movie. The story follows the personal evolution of three characters—volunteer soldiers from Marseilles—as they put aside social distinctions in a steady assimilation into the broader national and, as the film suggests at the end, universal goals of the Revolution. Initially resistant, the characters finally come around to the promises and principles of the age. The result is a personal and collective triumph over the baggage of the old regime: provincialism, egoism, and political passivism. Unlike most films about the French Revolution, not all of the action is set in Paris. Most notably, and rare among films on the topic, the guillotine does not appear. The mood of La Marseillaise is mostly light-hearted, which distinguishes it from typically somber film treatments of the Revolution. Still, produced as it was in the late 1930s at a moment when Europe appeared headed, again, for war, the story is thoroughly patriotic. In the last scene, the playfulness of the volunteers has been put aside as they set off determinedly, but also forebodingly, against foreign invaders. For all its verve, La Marseillaise does not do full justice to the history. There is, for instance, no hint of the anarchic September Massacres that were close in time to the events concluding the film. But overall, La Marseillaise does “adhere to the spirit” of the evidence, and in the end imparts to the viewer a “credible historical tale,” while also offering a comparatively upbeat take on the Revolution. La Marseillaise is a nuanced film that is prepared to take the French Revolution at some level of complexity beyond the usual stereotypes.
European revolution on film
By 1938, when La Marseillaise was released, dozens of films and plays about the French Revolution had been produced, along with an enormous library of written history and literature. Accordingly, the story that Renoir was handling was more settled than that of the Russian Revolution was for Pudovkin. Renoir especially had to play off a body of popular imagery about one part of the Revolution—the Terror (1793-94), and the guillotine, crowds, and paranoia associated with that period. For his part, Pudovkin, like his more famous Soviet counterpart Sergei Eisenstein, was helping to lay the foundational interpretation of his own revolution. Pudovkin and his generation of Soviet filmmakers were charting new territory in putting the Revolution of 1917 on film.
There are similarities in the films that say something about the times in which they were made and their visions about how to remake Europe and the world. Both are about great revolutions, the overthrow of an old regime, and the “birth of a nation;” both describe peasants or town dwellers from the periphery coming to the capital/center; both depict the evolution of ordinary people into self-conscious revolutionaries who have become aware of a collective spirit—even a kind of utopia in the making. Both revolutions occur during a time of war, and in both cases, the wars are against Germans; in both, soldiers are revolutionaries and male characters are the leads, though there are significant roles for female characters. Political factions and famous political leaders are conspicuously absent in both: no Danton or Robespierre, no Jacobins or Girondins for Marseillaise; no Trotsky or Lenin, no Bolsheviks or Mensheviks for Petersburg. Both are movies about popular, legitimate revolutions made by ordinary people. And both assume that the revolution they depict represents the promise of a better future for all—Europe and the world.
There are interesting differences, too. The End of St. Petersburg is a silent film—an essential, in fact, determinative quality for Pudovkin—while La Marseillaise was produced in the era of sound: words are spoken and sometimes sung with a regional accent to remind viewers that the French Revolution was more than just a Paris event. Despite a reputation for personalizing the characters in his films, Pudovkin did not include historical figures in Petersburg—there is just the briefest reference to Tsar Nicholas II, and in some scenes, generals and advisors are viewed only as torsos, with heads and faces above the camera shot. The depictions of heavy machinery in the Putilov steel plant are distinctly modern and visually striking. In Marseillaise, the king Louis XVI (played by the director’s brother, Pierre Renoir) and queen Marie-Antoinette are characters, the former naïve, but basically sympathetic. A scene showing the assault on the Tuileries palace in August 1792 that overthrew the Bourbon monarchy is arguably one of the best depictions of an insurrectionary crowd on film. Interestingly, religious references are clearer in Petersburg than in Marseillaise, no doubt employed as tropes for a viewing audience more familiar with these than the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric of the new Soviet state. Both films offer serious stories for their viewers, but Petersburg begins somberly and maintains the tone throughout, while Marseillaise is easily the more light-hearted of the two. At the finale of Petersburg, the Revolution is won and the mood triumphant; in Marseillaise, the story ends as war begins, the Revolution imperiled by foreign invasion, and the mood anxious.
Europe and the world
The End of St. Petersburg and La Marseillaise were made during the Interwar period (1919-1939) that was bookended by two catastrophic world wars, and saw revolutions in Russia, Mexico, and China, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism. It was an era when visions of revolutionary utopia for Europe and the world, like those represented in these two films, were matched by literary and film dystopias: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) among the most famous. It was an era of ominous contrasts: though Marxism, which stood for universalism and the end of national borders, may have won in Russia, a virulent form of nationalism was emerging in Eastern Europe, while fascism was gaining ground in Italy, Germany, and Spain.
Both Petersburg and Marseillaise come from the political left and sympathize with revolution. The films project a vision of a united Europe and world that was the opposite of the ethnic nationalism arising elsewhere in Europe during the Interwar years. Pudovkin was a supporter of the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution and Civil War (1918-20). His definitive body of silent-era films—Mother (1926), The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and Storm over Asia (1928) —was rendered in support of Soviet power and its goal of universal transformation. The scholarly consensus about his generation of Soviet filmmakers is that they were mostly genuine enthusiasts of the Revolution, and that when political and artistic compromises happened, they did so only with the end of NEP (1921-28, when elements of capitalism were reintroduced to build up the economy) and the emergence of Stalinism at the same time. In the 1930s and 1940s, Pudovkin made movies that were approved through the state apparatus and, after the Soviet Union joined the war against the Axis in 1941, by Stalin himself. Pudovkin seemed to remain faithful to the aspirations of 1917, but as Soviet internationalism transformed into Soviet nationalism under Stalin his later films are clearly different from the early classics.
Renoir’s political affiliation was less pronounced than Pudovkin’s, though the critique he leveled at French foreign policy and bourgeoisie in Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939) placed him on the left or center left of the political spectrum. La Marseillaise was partly financed by France’s Popular Front government, which was an alliance of parties from the political left. The Popular Front sought a broad, European bulwark against the ultra-nationalism of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, and was sympathetic, like Renoir himself, to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), who were losing the struggle against fascism as the film was released. Ordinary people of different social classes and political inclinations coming together for the greater good is a running theme in Marseillaise—a memorable scene has a camera, mounted on a crane, survey the volunteers mixing with local people and practicing their catchy new marching song as they prepare to depart for Paris. Marseillaise is a characteristic Popular Front-era creation.
For Pudovkin, the tenth anniversary of 1917 offered an opportunity to create a narrative framed by universal ideals. “Nation” in The End of St. Petersburg is a relic—outdated, doomed, and corrupted by capitalism. Patriotism is positioned as a false idol used to stir up a population for a disastrous war that satisfies only the greed of industrialists and financiers. The glue that binds ordinary people, including proletarians, peasants, soldiers and sailors, is not “nation,” but their joined interests as “toilers.” Visually, this is represented throughout the film, including near the end where a squadron of soldiers fire their guns at their officers rather than at the Young Peasant and the Communist. The solidarity of the toilers is prelude to universal triumph. Pudovkin also integrates into the story Christian themes of suffering, betrayal, and redemption, even as the film offers a classic Marxist view. Accordingly, the master narrative, the founding myth, the sought-after revolutionary utopia the film’s characters are grappling for, does not revolve around the birth of a nation, but rather the universalist logic of Marx—a world where class interests become clarified, as real (as opposed to false) enemies are defeated, and where in the end everyone happily shares what they have. As Pudovkin later insisted, these universal values could be communicated most effectively (perhaps exclusively) through silent, rather than sound film. He lamented the end of silent films, which he considered “visually international in the fullest sense of the word.” With the “advent of sound,” he wrote in the 1940s:
All the vast significance of unimpeded vision and the examination of life which the motion picture camera had given us was replaced by verbal narrative…. Sound films… completely lost their international character.”
Indeed, for Pudovkin, it seemed that “words” equaled social division and nationalism; the simultaneous development of sound technology and the extreme nationalism of fascism in the late 1920s was, for him, not a coincidence.
For Renoir, looking back to the late eighteenth century, revolution was part of a larger narrative about the demise of an old regime and the rise of a new kind of nationhood that aimed at something universal. Marseillaise was produced in the era of sound technology and fascism, and indeed words are important in his film. The words in the marching song adopted by the volunteer Marseillaise are inspiring, but also violent. They are part of the founding of a new nation, the French Republic of 1792. As the audience knows, the song would become France’s national anthem. Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg looks back upon the nation as one stage in the development of human society. The movie communicates universal messages through images unburdened by words, language or accents. The era of silent film would become a lost utopia for Pudovkin. Renoir’s La Marseillaise describes a new nation in the making, one that overcomes regional and class distinctions, and that promises to bring the “good news” of human rights to the rest of Europe and the world. The most potent visual representation of this sense of mission comes in the last scene where the volunteers are shown marching to war—somber but determined. Making a new Europe and a new world will not be easy.
It is customary to focus on the ill-fated, dystopian moments of the French and Russian Revolutions. The End of St. Petersburg and La Marseillaise instead offer alternative, but no less historically reliable visions about how ordinary people—represented by the characters of the Young Peasant and Communist Wife and the volunteers from Marseilles—engulfed in revolutions that, initially, they barely understood, help make a new Europe and a new world. Though not as well-known as they might be, these two films depict, persuasively and movingly, core ingredients of modern revolution: Petersburg signaling a shift in the revolutionary tradition from France to Russia, from the national to the universal, from divisive words to international gesture, while Marseillaise, produced a decade later, offers a narrative (minus the guillotine), that embraced word and sound even as Europe embarked on yet another terrible world war. Nor are The End of St. Petersburg and La Marseillaise outdated, for these two films present visions of Europe and the world that are antidotes to the nationalism and fascism still with us.
Casey Harison is professor emeritus of history at the University of Southern Indiana. He is currently working on a book about the cholera pandemic that effected Europe and North America in the early 1830s.
 Stuart Liebman, “La Marseillaise,” Cineaste, Fall 2020, vol. 45, no. 4.
 Leger Grindon, “History and the Historians in ‘La Marseillaise,’” Film History 4 (1990): 227-55. On French master narrative, see Paul M. Cohen, Freedom’s Moment: An Essay on the French Idea of Liberty from Rousseau to Foucault (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), ch. 2.
 On the use of film by historians, see Sarah Hanley, “European History in Text and Film: Community and Identity in France, 1550-1945,” French Historical Studies 25 (Winter 2002), 9 ff.
 On negative film depictions of the French Revolution, see Casey Harison, “The French Revolution on Film: American and French Perspectives,” The History Teacher 38 (May 2005): 299-303.
 George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1948) were not far off.
 Peter Kenez, Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 196; and Julian Graffey, “Writing about the Cinema of the Stalin Years,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian Eurasian History 10 (Fall 2009): 809-23.
 On Renoir and the Popular Front, see Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 158-62.
 Vsevolod Pudovkin, “The Global Film,” Hollywood Quarterly 2 (July 1947), 328-29. See also Sarah Davies, “Soviet Cinema and the Early Cold War: Pudovkin’s Admiral Nakhimov in Context,” Cold War History 4 (Oct. 2003), 59-61.
 Writing about “utopian vision and experimental life” after 1917, the historian Richard Stites describes modern revolution as “(r)evelation, an eschatological moment in human experience that announces the New Order, the New World, the New Life”; Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Visions and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 7.