Desertir (The Deserter) (1933)




Director:     Vsevolod Pudovkin.

Starring:     Boris Livanov (Karl Renn), Vasili Kovrigin (Ludwig Zelle), Aleksandr Chistyakov, Tamara Makarova (Newsgirl for the 'Red Courier'), Semyon Svashenko, Dmitri Konsovsky, Yudif Glizer, M. Oleshchenko, Sergei Martinson, Maksim Shtraukh, Sergei Gerasimov, Sergei Komarov, Vladimir Uralsky, A. Besperstyj, N. Romanov.

labor struggle in Germany and Russia


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"Shipyards line the left bank of the river.  Across its bridges and through its deep tunnels, thousands of workers pass every morning."

Karl Renn makes a list of things he needs to buy:  two movie tickets; an apple for Greta and an apple for himself.  A buddy of his, named Strauss, tells him that the work whistle has not sounded yet.  Karl decides to check out what's going on.  His buddy says:  "Here it goes again, your people making trouble."  They run to get on the streetcar.  When they get to the shipyards, the workers jump off the street car.  They run to the ferry dock, but are stopped by a group of policemen.  The men are informed that there is no passage across the river. Those men on the second shift will be allowed to cross the river, but two hours from now. 

Some men try to jump on motor boats to get across the river.  Karl and his buddy are able to cross before the policemen can stop them.  Once the two men get on the other side of the river, they run to join a huge gathering of workers.  A fellow named Fritz shouts out:  "Our response is strike."  He goes on to say that they are not going to fall for another run-around from the bosses with their talk of setting up a "hearing committee" between management and workers.  A Social Democrat gets up to say it's not the right time to strike and to choose to strike would lead to disaster for the workers. 

Now the workers want to hear from Ludwig Zelle.  Zelle also says that a strike now would be counterproductive.  Some of the men get mad at this.

Shipyard No. 1.  Men are busy working on the construction of a ship.

A policeman on the street directs the street traffic.  A lot of rich people are being driven around by chauffeurs.  A newspaper girl shouts out:  "Red Courier.  Find out the truth about the strike at Shipyard No. 1."  A policeman starts following the newspaper girl.  She tries to get away from him but runs into another policeman who stops her and takes her newspapers from her.  In fact, it seems the police are trying to gather up all the papers.  The newspaper girl goes and gets another pile of newspapers to sell. 

A communist worker comes to Renn and tells him that the communists need his help.  When the right time comes, they want him to lead the workers out to the street.  Renn nods yes. 

Someone speaks to all the workers shouting:  "We finished the Soviet order before the deadline!"  They delayed the strike, he says, so that they could finish the Soviet ship in order to help defend the Soviet Union.  With this action combined with the strike they will inflict two blows on the bosses.  So now the strike begins. 

The Social Democrat tries to stop the strike, but he is grabbed by a number of workers and dragged away. 

Picket lines guard the dock from strike-breakers.  On the line Renn talks to a co-worker about his dream of buying a motorcycle with a side-car.  The police show up at one of the picket lines.  The men wonder if they are going to try to chase the strikers away. 

In the living quarters, Renn's buddy Strauss is getting nicely dressed.  The newspaper girl asks him if he shouldn't be on the picket line, but the fellow tells her that today he has no picket line duty. 

A policeman approaches the picket line and tells the workers to disperse.  The picketers don't move, so they police attack them using their batons to beat them.  Soon workers start rushing over to the picket line.  One policeman asks the sergeant where are their reinforcements?  They are losing the battle.  Now it's the policemen's turn to be beaten. 

Police reinforcements arrives and the workers disperse in a hurry. 

The newspaper girl asks Strauss if Renn has returned from the picket line?  Strauss doesn't say anything to her.  He leaves.  Renn comes in with his jacket dirty and torn and his hair disheveled.  The girl asks him what happened?  He just says:  "It happened to me."  He opens his right hand and sees that he holds a button torn from a policeman's uniform.   He tells the girl:  "Well, I guess it happened to them also."  Renn puts his head down on his bed and almost immediately falls to sleep. 

"A month passed, then another.  And during each day of each month, they fought the fatigue  -- the doubts --- and the hunger."

A hungry man puts his hand through the hedge around an outside dining area to grab some of the rolls on a table.  The waiter grabs the man's hand and won't let go.  Two bus boys go out onto the street to rough up the would-be thief.  Then they throw him to the ground.  The fellow gets up and then throws himself under an oncoming car.  Later some street cleaners clean the blood off the street. 

Renn doesn't show up for his picket-line duty.  He slowly walks the streets.  Men eager to work watch the loading of ships from behind the fence.  When they see a man fall down from exhaustion, they rush over to try to be chosen to replace the fallen worker.  A man is selected and goes in to be the replacement. 

The striking workers ask their leaders if they are expected to starve to death?  The children are starting to die of hunger.  One angry worker says that their labor leaders are:  "Killers of children!"  A woman comes over to the man to tell him to shut up and listen to her:  "Zelle is an honest proletarian!  And you, you are a coward.  Get out of here."  A worker throws himself into the river.  Meanwhile, two policemen keep throwing a worker up against a wall. 

The newspaper girl tells Zelle that ever fewer workers are manning the picket-lines.  Renn comes up to Zelle, but doesn't really say anything.  Zelle asks him if he wants to say something?  Renn says the workers have the right to strike, but if they do the strikers must be both reasonable and organized.  The strikers are starving and quitting  He says:  "This is a disaster for everyone." 

Zelle tells Renn that in the Soviet Union the workers took the power from the bourgeoisie.  Renn says that's not true. 

Another month passes and management keeps increasing its attempt to demoralize, break and destroy the strikers. 

A flyer is put up by management.  "All workers who fail to report at 8 a.m. tomorrow will be fired.  At 10 a.m. new employees will be engaged.  Men older than 40 and women above 25 need not bother."

Zelle gets a telephone call that the strike-breakers are arriving at the train station.  Zelle shouts an order to mobilize everyone to help shore up the picket-lines.  Men start running to the picket-lines.  On the train the strike-breakers are given hard hats to wear.  Strauss is one of the strike-breakers.  The newspaper girl tells everyone in her area to get up and go, but Renn just lays in his bed with one eye watching the girl.   She tells Renn to go, but he just keeps staring. 

The strike-breakers arrive.   They are loaded on trucks and driven to the shipyards.

Hearing all the commotion outside, Renn gets up and gets dressed.  Later Renn lays down on his bed again. 

The strike-breakers approach the shipyards.  The strikers notice that the strike-breakers look like their own men.  A shout goes out that the police took over the tunnel.  The strike-breakers are being taken to the shipyards through the tunnel.  A police armored car comes up and starts mowing the unarmed strikers down with its machine guns. 

A meeting is held of the union.  Zelle says they must now send four representatives to the Soviet Union.  They choose Frantz Kluge to be a representative.  The second choice is Bertha Muller.  The third delegate is Johanson.  And the final delegate will be Karl Renn.  Karl is not pleased. 

There is a huge parade taking place in the streets.  A man shouts from a balcony window that among them is a delegation of comrades from abroad.  They represent the striking dockers and came here on a ship they built. 

A man puts his hand on the shoulder of Karl Renn and tells others in the room:  "The comrade wants to stay."  The others say good:  "We need people like you a lot.  Technicians.  Understand?"  Delegate Bertha is taken from the room to be introduced to the crowd below her in the streets.  The crowd cheers for her.  Another man shouts to the crowd that the foreign delegation is returning to their homeland, but they will "convey to their comrades how the Russian proletariat welcomed their representatives."

Karl works for three months in the "New Diesel" factory.  In a report on industrial productivity in "Metalstoy" the "New Diesel" factory is criticized for having failed to modernize and having failed to meet their work quotas.  This news goes out over loudspeakers to the workers.  It is said that tens of thousands of workers appeal to the "New Diesel" people to fulfill their national commitment.  A number of leaders of the poor-performing factory give reasons for why they have not performed well.  A spokesman for the Young Communist League members of "New Diesel" say they promise that they will "immediately eliminate this shameful failure."

The "New Diesel" workers must increase the effectiveness of their performance by 350% and this is to be accomplished in 36 days.  The workers now devote 30 straight days and nights of "aggressive labor" to increase their performance.  There is only one night left. 

Karl sees in a Soviet newspaper that Zelle has been killed.  He reports back to work.  It is almost dawn, but there are still a lot of small things to be done before they are ready at the factory.  Karl is busy barking out orders to the men.  They start up the machinery and now things are going smoothly.  They finish the project in 30 days rather than the 36 days allowed.  The men have a feeling of pride in their work:  "We fulfilled our duty towards the country.  Now Metalstoy will receive power in time."

The Soviets are so pleased with the performance of the "New Diesel" factory workers that they decide to form a brigade out of the most productive comrades over the last 30 days. And all these people will be honored in the name of the killed proletarian soldier:  Ludwig Zelle.  Renn is invited up to the podium.  The winners are all announced and receive thunderous applause.  They young people especially seem to be captivated by these hard workers.  

Renn stands up to say something but his Russian is very poor.  He asks a comrade to translate his German to Russian.  (Here it's hard to tell what is going on because the German of Renn is not translated.  Only the Russian of the translator is translated into English.).  The official says Renn says good things about the Russian proletariat. The translator says that Renn is saying that he is not worthy of you the workers.   The translator says that Reen says he is no hero for at the height of the dock strike he fled.  He feared starvation and believed the lies of the Social Democrats.  "He escaped to the Soviet Union only to look for a job, to earn money."  But now, Renn has realized his mistakes after being in the Soviet Union.  There is a long delay, but then the audience gives him a thunderous applause. 

The translator now reads from a letter from Zelle about Renn.  He reads:  "Renn is an honest proletarian, a good comrade.  We are sending him to the USSR and we believe all will become clear to him."

Renn goes back to Germany. The peace of the wealthy is disturbed by strikes and strikers.  The newspaper girl sees all the strikers marching proudly and she joins with them.  One banner being carried says:  "Proletariat of the world, defend the U.S.S.R  --  the fatherland of workers from all nations!"  Amidst the strikers is Karl Renn.  The police on horseback charge the workers.  It become another battle of the police versus the workers.  The newspaper girl grabs the workers' flag and pushes forward until a policeman knocks her to the ground. The police arrest quite a few of the strikers, but the workers' flag still flies high. 


I can't say I liked the film.  It's like the old criticism of communist films.  Everything is done for Soviet politically correct reasons.  Man has girlfriend  Both he and she are good workers.  But one day they receive a tractor from the communist leadership that really helps them improve their work performances.  Now man marries tractor and lives happily ever after under the communist system.  The Soviet Union had a terrible government.  The highest party members ran the show and got hugely rewarded for it.  In fact, the workers' state was the most unequal of the European states.  The workers' state was more of a one party oligarchy run state. 

Obviously in most European countries, the workers in the industrial revolution were treated inhumanely and unfairly.  That's why the labor movement, reformism, socialism and communism began.  But of all those alternative solutions, the worst was communism.  Socialism turned out to be the best because it was transformed into advanced welfare states that care for the less fortunate.  Reformism was a good alternative too, but at least in the USA, it only developed into a rather weak welfare state that does not do a good job of helping the less fortunate. 

The film starts out in Germany.  The first part of the film relates the well-known story of the cruelty of the bosses, who were backed up by the police and the military, toward the workers.  Then the nature of the story changes because the supposed hero Renn gets disillusioned with "isms" because of the suffering he meets during the long strike.  People in the movement begin not to have faith in Renn, but the leader Ludwig Zelle believes the man has a bright future.  So he sends Renn off to the Soviet Union to open his eyes and make him realize that the workers' struggle is worth the sacrifices demanded.  Renn gets along in the Soviet Union and decides to stay longer there.  When his unit performs poorly, he is a key man in getting the group's working performance to improve. 

And now Karl sees what Zelle wanted him to see  -- that the struggle is worth it.  He feels guilty about how he behaved in Germany and tells an audience of Russian workers about the terrible proletarian he turned out to be.  But now he has seen the light.  He goes back to Germany and next we find him marching with other workers to support a strike. 

Patrick Louis Cooney,  Ph. D. 


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