Why this film?
This is the only surviving film written and co-directed by the great
Russian and Soviet poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky who also starred in it. The other
co-director, Yevgeni Slavinsky, is also the cinematographer. The film
is based on a novel by Italian writer Edmondo De Amicis, La maestrina degli
operai (The Workers' Young Schoolmistress). The film was shot in Petrograd just
after the October Revolution. Mayakovsky transposed the action from Italy to
pre-revolutionary Russia. The subject of teaching young and old workers to read
and write was highly relevant for revolutionary Russia. The film remained very
popular in later year in the Soviet Union with a small adaptation: the
suppression of the last scene where the hooligan, after having refused the
cross given to him by a priest, finally accepts it and kisses it before dying.
The death scene is an uncanny premonition of Mayakowsky's death only 12 years
later. While the most commonly accepted thesis is that he committed suicide
because of the direction taken by the Soviet Union under Stalin, his daughter
has maintained that he was assassinated.
The film is a good example of silent movie conceived as an original type of art. It only uses one subtitle, when the hooligan gives to the teacher his notebook where he has writen "I love you". The development of the story, the discussions and the feelings of the characters are only conveyed through the expression of the actors who act in a very natural and expressive way. Most scenes start by an establishing wide shot and then alternates between Mid Shot, Medium Close Up and Close Up with the use of reverse shot to follow conversations. The camera is very mobile and pans to follow the characters. This, together with the alternance of different points of view and the acting style, gives a surprinsingly modern look to the film. The composition of the images is usually diagonal, with a great depth of field. Cross-cutting is used to show the simulaneous actions of the teacher and the hooligan when they are not together. The film follows a chronological line with time compression: two shots following each other can refer to different days. On the contrary, fade to black is used to separate scenes taking place on the same day. Most of the movie is filmed in a very realistic way, except a couple of scenes using double or multiple exposures when the hooligan starts having visions of the teacher.
A street in a small village, a young man, the hooligan meet another boys
and forces him to give him his money. He plays with young boys and meet a
couple dancing. The hooligan gives money to the girls and he goes away with the
girl who was dancing. A carriage arrives at the school building. A lady, the
teacher, comes out of it and enters the house. Inside, a man, the Principal, is
working at a desk, seen from three quarter behind. The lady enters the room, he
gets up to greet her, they sit down. He introduces her to two women. He makes
her recommendations before leaving. Discussion between the three women. One of
the ladies shows to the teacher a photograph of the hooligan.
The teacher comes to her lodging. She looks out of the window. Letters fill the screen: ТРАКТИР (tavern). She sees a crowd of men holding these letters and attacking her. Fade to black. She goes out of the school and walks in a wood where she meets the hooligan. They look at each other. He smiles at her and follows her. She goes back to the school. He asks the servant who was sweeping the floor who she was. Inside, she prepares herself to enter the classroom, clearly worried by the task expecting her. The class is full of pupils ranging from young boys to old men. Some of them are fighting but order is progressively restored when they notice her. She sits down with her back to the camera which films the classroom diagonally. Close up of her looking at the class and close up of some of the pupils, an old man, a boy picking his nose.
As soon as she turns around to write on the blackboard, the boys start again to squabble. The hooligan comes to the class and sits on the first row. An old man brings her his work and she corrects it. Fade to black. Outside, she meets an old woman, the hooligan's mother. The old woman asks for help to the teacher and starts crying. The teacher comforts her. The hooligan walks on a road. He sees three apparitions of the teacher coming from behind three trees. Puzzled, he checks behind the trees and sees nobody.
A tavern, men drinking, smoking and talking. The hooligan come in, sits at a table alone and starts drinking. He sees an apparition of the teacher coming in and giving flowers to the men before disappearing. He throws a young man out of the tavern. The man goes and complains to his father the butcher. At school, the teacher is making a dictation. A boy gives her his work and she corrects it. Then the hooligan gives his notebook with a wry smile. She looks at the notebook, then at him, puzzled. He has written: "I love you very much". Furious, she tears apart the notebook and shouts at him. He goes back to his seat and stares at her. Fade to black. The teacher goes to the see the principal to report what happened and starts crying. He comforts her. Outside view of the school. A man comes out followed by the hooligan, who attacks him. The teacher lies down in her lodging. Fade to black. The boy in front of the school, tries to look through the window, sits on the staircase. The teacher sees him and complains to a colleague. The hooligan leaves. The teacher, sitting on a staircase in front of the school is reading to children. The hooligan is smoking in the woods. He asks a schoolboy to bring a note to the teacher. When she receives it, she goes to find the hooligan. He kneels at her feet but she rejects him and runs away. Back to her room, the old lady comes to thank her and kisses her hand. In the classroom, some notebooks fall from the teacher's desk. The hooligan picks them from the floor and gives them to her. As she bends to show something to a boy, the bully sitting next to him catches her by her hip. He hits him and a man, the butcher seen before, threatens him with a knife. She stands between them and an old man goes to fetch the Principal who comes to the classroom to reestablish order. The hooligan threatens the old man with his fist and leaves the school. While all the pupils leave the classroom, the Principal reassures the teacher.
Oustside, the old man and a group of his friends find the hooligan and start a fight with him. The arrival of policemen makes them all run away. The teacher ask advice from two colleagues and from the Principal. They minimise the issue and he reassures them. She goes out of the school and goes to pray in front of a statue. The hooligan arrives, kneels down and kisses the hem of her skirt, then grabs her by the waist. She pushes him away gently, he excuses himself and she walks away. He throws his coat on a puddle so that she doesn't dirty her shoes. Back at school, the pupils are assembled by the Principal who gives them a stern warning. The bell announces the end of the class. All the pupils go out. The butcher with his friends looks for the hooligan. When they find him, they start a knife fight. The friends stop them and they start a bare hand fight. Meanwhile, the teacher alone in the classroom looks pensively out of the window. When the butcher's friend see that he's loosing, they stab the hooligan in the back and run away leaving him lying on the ground. Fade to black. The teacher turns away worryingly from the window.
The hooligan is lying in bed surrounded by his mother and a priest. The priest gives him a cross to kiss but he refuses. A woman comes to inform the teacher. She arrrives at the hooligan's house. He tries to sit up but is too weak. She comes to his bed ans kisses him lightly on his lips. They look at each other. The priest gives him again the cross, he kisses it and dies with the cross on his chest.