Biographies are often weakest when they recount the childhoods of their subjects. It often feels perfunctory and ultimately disinterested except as a tool for highlighting those moments that would explain the subject’s later success. We learn how our subject discovered whatever it is that made him or her famous, but little else: little Galileo might spend hours staring at the stars, or little Tina Turner might start singing, or little Mark Twain telling tale tales to his friends. The Childhood of Maxim Gorky avoids this tiresome convention; instead director Mark Donskoi focuses on the formative years of Aleskei Peshkov, later author Maxim Gorky, presenting us with a series of episodes that served to form the whole person, not just the artist, a distinction that Gorky no doubt would have appreciated.
It is something of a mystery how Gorky came out of his childhood as shown in this film with the strong sense of empathy for humanity that characterized his work. (I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on liberties Donskoi took with it.) As a young boy his mother left him at his grandparent’s house for them to raise, a household governed by the equally dominate personalities of his grandfather and grandmother. Their competing personalities made for a schizophrenic upbringing. His grandfather is taciturn, petty and often arbitrarily cruel. His grandmother, however, is warm, loving, and compassionate. Aleskei’s uncles and cousins, also living in the household, adopted his grandfather’s penchant for dominance and causing pain, but somehow Aleskei is touched more by his grandmother’s influence and he grows up with a heightened sense of fairness and justice.
Young Aleskei (tenderly played by Aleksei Lyarsky) grasps for whatever love and friendship he can when he arrives at his strange and not entirely welcoming new home. While his grandfather, uncles, and cousins torment the young boy, he of course finds solace with his grandmother, but there are others with whom he connects. One of the first is a young man named Ivan, the apprentice and adopted son of his grandparents who faces the ire of his uncles because Ivan works harder than they do, making him a more fit heir for the family business. Aleksei observes his uncles’ petty cruelties directed toward Ivan that will eventually end in tragedy. Later Aleksei befriends a group of neighborhood boys, including Alexei, a handicapped boy who is confined to his bed. It is a touching moment when Aleskei builds a cart for Alexei so the boy can finally leave his bedroom and experience the world outside.
Aleskei’s generosity extends to everyone. At first he cringes in fear but later fights back when his grandfather beats his grandmother. He bonds with Old Grigori, a lifelong employee of his grandfather’s shop. Constant contact with poisonous chemicals makes blindness an eventual certainty for Grigori and Aleskei’s grandfather will put the old man out on the street. Aleskei is moved by the old man’s plight and dumbfounded by his grandfather’s ingratitude. He also befriends a lodger at their home who reads and talks of revolution. It is through the sum of these relationships that Aleskei will turn into the great writer, the champion of the poor, the enemy of Tsarist oppression, Maxim Gorky.
Donskoi avoids a couple of major pitfalls with this film. First he chucks out any pretence of a traditional narrative. We watch the sensitive young boy grow into a hardened young teen who never lost his compassion. By the end of the film he is finally able to stand up to the tyrannical sadism of his grandfather. We don’t need any manufactured dramatics; this is an approximation of pre-Soviet Russian life and that was dramatic enough. All we need to do is visit certain episodes of Aleskei’s life to watch the boy’s social conscious progress.
Another pitfall Donskoi miraculously avoids is Soviet propagandizing, a major problem with many Soviet films of this era. Donskoi manages to relate the story without awkward condemnations of capitalism (though they are implied) or undue praise for the Soviet system to come. He keeps our focus on the story of this one boy who would collect his experiences and observations and dream of a better, more just world.
The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is a masterpiece of humanism that needs to be seen much more broadly than it is now. Many other years this would have snagged the top spot, but 1938 produced four masterpieces. Though the top choice stands above them all, Maxim Gorky is not the weakest of the four. The three after the number one choice could really be scrambled in any combination and this one ended up being number four rather randomly. It could easily have slipped into the two or three spot; it’s that good.