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One of the first Soviet sound films—with an imaginative sound track far ahead of its time—Nikolai Ekk's Road to Life was a smash hit both in Russia and in the West, where its impact generated some dozen spin-offs on its theme of ''difficult'' children. A Soviet critic, legitimising its official function, wrote that ''the film's success depended on the social problems involved, problems of responsibility towards a new generation.'' But he added, more acutely, that the film broke new ground because ''it did not merely manipulate the life stories of the people involved in order to illustrate social problems but let the problems grow out of these life stories and their dramatic development.''
The film's theme is the reformation—or rescue—of one of the bands of besprizorni (homeless children) who roamed, and terrorised, city streets in the difficult post-civil war years. The gang loyalties are torn between Zhigan, a sort of Fagin character played by Mikhail Zharov, who urges them to carry on thieving, and Sergeev, the head of a ''work-commune,'' played by Nikolai Batalov, who tries to lead them into the paths of righteousness. The children themselves were not from a stage school but were inmates, or pupils, of work-communes (reform schools or rehabilitation centres in which students were expected to work on real projects—in the film, the building of a railroad). Despite their superb performances, not one of these kids later became a professional actor, not even Ivan Kyrlya, who plays the gang leader Mustafa, whose Asian features, far from inscrutable, vividly expressed every emotion. Kyrlya grew up to become a famous poet, writing in Mari, his native language.
Highly professional, the actors who played hero and villain gave performances that seem equally natural and true to life. Zharov was no Dickensian villain, but used his powerful physical presence to portray a man governed by instinct, a man able to attract as well as intimidate his teenage thieves. His moments of melancholy rapture, whenever he picks up his guitar, made the songs he sings top of the contemporary pops. Although accused therefore of romanticising thieves and their slang, Ekk had no Brechtian intention of updating the Beggar's Opera by introducing underworld folksongs as ''production numbers'': as he intended, they come across as spontaneous expressions of the character and are an integral part of the film.
If Zharov portrayed instinct, Batalov, the hero, portrayed thought. As, with imaginative accuracy, his dialogue is limited to the repetition of a few dozen pithy phrases, he has to convey much of his thinking with his eyes and facial expressions. But Batalov arrived at this impressive performance only after spending much time at a work-commune, getting to know its Head and (in Batalov's words) ''learning his method of handling the students, which had an enormous influence on my interpretation of the role.''
Ekk steers his simple down-to-earth story of good and evil daringly close to, but (despite the tear-jerking presence of his band of boys) always clear of sentimentality, always remembering that the boys are wicked as well as innocent. He is never afraid of shock sequences—mutiny in the commune, smashing up the thieves' den, Mustafa's death on the railroad—for they seem to arise logically from the realistic documentary course of the story and fit smoothly into the somewhat spiky but deeply expressive rhythm of his editing technique. A talented but sensitive and retiring man, Ekk was never again to equal the success of Road to Life, which had so great an influence on filmmakers both at home and abroad.
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