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The Forgotten: Butterball

A prostitute traveling by coach in Prussian-occupied France is compelled to sleep with a Prussian officer before her coach can continue.

Pyshka, 1934, directed by Mikhail Romm. Romm was an intermittently successful Soviet filmmaker who toed the line, making two biopics of Lenin. The fact that Pyshka was sonorized in 1955, with a voice-over, score and sound effects added, suggests that he was still well-regarded then. Romm had a fantastic eye for composition, light, and character. I don't know too much or have too much to say about him, but I think these images speak for themselves, and it's probable that his own WWI experience informs the shots of dead soldiers that begin the story, by far the movie's most vivid sequence.


Pyshka is adapted from Guy de Maupassant's story Boule de Suif, which has an interesting cinematic history. One of Maupassant's semi-propagandist works dealing with the Franco-Prussian war, it's been bent to the purposes of a number of different filmmakers, nations, and era.

Basically, the story tells of a party of respectable citizens hastily leaving Rouen as the Prussians occupy the place. They haven't had time to eat, but when they pick up an additional passenger, "Boule de Suif," ("Ball of lard") a plump prostitute, they soon overcome their social and moral scruples and accept offerings from her well-packed hamper of food.


Stopped at an inn by Prussian guards, they find they can't continue unless the lady of pleasure sleeps with the commanding officer. Since they've all just been protesting their patriotism, she expects her traveling companions' support in refusing this demand. But bourgeoise business needs trump nationalism, and soon all are insisting that it's very selfish of her to withhold her professional services at this time. She reluctantly yields: and finds that she is now beyond the pale, branded a slut and a traitor by all.

It's a pretty dark story, in keeping with Maupassant's cynical, despairing sensibility, and well-served by Romm's casting and mise-en-scène. Of course, even though it's a nineteenth-century period drama, it serves the purposes of the USSR by portraying capitalist Europeans in a very unsympathetic light. And indeed, acerbic as they are, the social observations are quite truthful. Too bad Maupassant never got a chance to write about the Soviet Union.

John Ford liked to claim that Boule de Suif was the ur-text behind Stagecoach (1939), though in fact Dudley Nichols's screenplay distorts the vague similarities between the Maupassant and Ernest Haycox's short story, the film's official source. In America, social divisions are seen as more permeable, and the fallen woman can be redeemed by the love of a good man who doesn't care what she's had to do, only who she is at heart. The other passengers mostly overcome their prejudices by the end of the story.

Five years later, Val Lewton fused two of Maupassant's war stories to make Mademoiselle Fifi, resulting in a somewhat disjointed structure but some striking sequences. Robert Wise directed within the typically restrictive RKO schedule and budget. Simone Simon was no more of a ball of fat than Claire Trevor had been in the Ford film, but here she's called upon to represent the true Spirit of France, and the addition of a second story allows her to transform from downtrodden victim to defiant martyr. Here, Maupassant's acidic view of his fellow countrymen serves as an implied criticism of France's submission before the Nazis, because this is a wartime propaganda film and no mistake. By admitting France's weakness, the film disarms any francophobia in its audience by seeming to agree, then showing Simon's heroism to change their minds. The sequence where she decisively knifes a German officer to death at the dinner table, with a palpable air of "so there!", is probably the most striking moment of violence in all Lewton's cinema.


For the true, undistorted and jet-black vision of Maupassant, Romm is the man to look to. Avoid the sonorized version, with the sarcastic voice-over telling you what to think, and let Romm's slanted, diffuse, overcast images speak for themselves. The other versions are fascinating for their own merits and because they show just how far you can bend a story to mean something else. And now I'm very interested to see the only major French version of the story, directed by Christian-Jaque in 1945...


The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

You could have done a simple internet search and added some interesting information about Romm to your article. ‘Pyshka’ was his debut film. His next film ‘The Thirteen’ (1936) was considered the first Soviet ‘eastern’ (or ‘Red western’). This could have tied in with your discussion of Ford and ‘Stagecoach’. He studied sculpting and also worked as a translator. Romm spent many years working as a professor at VGIK and influenced a new generation of Soviet directors. He wrote books and articles on film theory. He was the chairman of the film union. Maybe most odd and interesting, Eisenstein cast him as the virgin Queen Elizabeth in ‘Ivan the Terrible, Part 3’! Romm was a major figure in the history of Soviet cinema.
Thanks for that. I hear The Thirteen is magnificent, but a subtitled video copy eludes me. Elizabeth I has a tradition a a drag role, it seems: Quentin Crisp played her in Sally Potter’s Orlando.
This does look amazing. And strangely enough Romm’s “The Thirteen” (which is as good as it’s reputation suggests) is actually a stealth remake of Ford’s “Lost Battalion”…
Also of interest: Romm’s career lasted into the 1970s. That’s pretty impressive.
Ford made it to the 70s too. Apparently Romm died before completing his last film and Elem Kimov and another guy finished it.
Not surprising that Ford made it to the 70s. He’s a legend of international cinema, like Hitchcock. Ditto for Godard, who is cruising into his seventh decade of filmmaking with no end in sight. But we’re here to shine a light on Romm, not these other titans. I believe Klimov was a student of Romm’s at VGIK.
Yes, so was Khutsiev. This was the last Russian silent, and it’s a very late silent by western standards — kind of shows how film style might have developed if The Jazz Singer had flopped. The intense angles and diagonal compositions recall Eisenstein a little, but the murky, crepuscular feel is very much its own. Diffusion seems to play a major part in the look of other Romm films going by the frame grabs I’ve seen.
‘This was the last Russian silent…’ That’s interesting. It’s late, but not really so late by Western standards. After all, Chaplin made ‘Modern Times’ in 1936. And by Eastern standards it wasn’t strange to have silent films produced throughout the 30s. Crepuscular? I had to look that up! Haha! Eisenstein cast a long shadow. Often Soviet silent film directors are described as Eisenstinian, at least a little bit.
Well, you have to bear in mind that Modern Times wasn’t a representative example of any small group of late American silents, it was an absolutely unique event by the only true independent filmmaker in Hollywood at the time. There were NO other Hollywood silents that year. As early as 1931, City Lights and Tabu were probably about the only American silents being released. Japan seems to have got the talkie bug by 1936, I don’t know about elsewhere. I’ve seen at least one Indian talkie from the mid-thirties.
No, ‘Modern Times’ was not a representative sample. But it was a silent, and you did mention two others that were made in the 30s in America (by major filmmakers making major artistic statements, no less). So that makes Romm seem even less ‘late’, and we have to question those ‘Western standards’ that we’re using as a measuring stick.
Well, it’s kind of inarguably late by Russian standards since it’s the last one.
‘Last’ and ‘late’ are not necessarily synonymous. By Soviet standards it was right on time, because they transitioned to sound when they wanted to, not when the West told them to!
I wasn’t suggesting it was tardy. There’s “early”, “middle” and “late” silent cinema. This is from the late period. The Japanese kept going for only another year or two so it’d be late by their standards also. And absolutely everybody working in the mainstream industry in America had stopped except for Chaplin, who stopped that year (except that Modern Times isn’t by any means silent, it just uses little dialogue. In its experiments with sound and music it’s very advanced and interesting). Our terminology and what it means seems to be sliding about between comments, so it’s probably time to halt this. You can have the last word if you like.
I see what you mean. If you had said ‘late period’ I would have understood your categorization (and intent) better. Sorry we confused each other. ‘Modern Times’ wasn’t the only ‘silent’ film that made expressive use of sound and music. So I guess many silent films aren’t by any means silent. Though you’re right — we’re sliding around now and getting away from a discussion of Romm and Soviet cinema. See you in the next ‘The Forgotten’.
I wrote about THE THIRTEEN from Rotterdam this year:
Oh yeah, I remember that article. Thanks for reminding us! Looks like the tag needs to be updated.

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