Queen of Spades (1910)
Alternate Title: Pikovaya Dama (Пиковая дама)
This early Russian silent movie is an adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s opera version of Pushkin’s short story. Pushkin is a remarkable cultural phenomenon in Russia, with no obvious English-language equivalent. People often compare him with Shakespeare, who is seen as the ultimate expression of English literature, but this is inadequate. If you were to stop ten people in the street in any English-speaking country and ask what they thought of Shakespeare, the answers would be all over the map. You might find a couple of enthusiasts, but some people would admit they’d never read or seen a Shakespeare play, some would say he was boring or overrated, and some would just be non-committal. If you stopped ten people in a Russian city and asked about Pushkin, the responses would range from enthusiastic to downright rapturous. The Russians love their Pushkin.
Apparently, this devotion was just getting started at the time this movie was made, seventy three years after his death, while the opera was only about twenty years old and would have been familiar to many of the anticipated viewers. That assumed familiarity is important to bear in mind in order to understand this movie. The actions of the protagonist make little sense based on the information we get from the film, which is limited largely to a single intertitle before each scene begins, and apparently even those limited titles were added after the fact; original film audiences saw the movie without them. This demonstrates again the different assumptions in Russia regarding film audiences. While in America at this time, many films were made to appeal to uneducated masses (sometimes with the “intention” of uplifting them), Russian film seems to have targeted an educated middle class, who probably paid more to see culturally familiar material.
The story is a love story in which Herman (confusingly mis-translated in our subtitles as “German”) longs for the attention of Liza, who is the descendent of a Countess. Herman hangs around a gambling table, thinking how if he could win enough money, he might win her hand as well. Coincidentally, the Countess has learned the secret of winning at cards from the famous occultist Count St. Germain, but she jealously keeps the secret, because it was foretold to her that the next person she revealed it to would mean her death. Herman meets Liza and woos her, which really should be all that matters, but now he is even more motivated to get that secret. He sneaks into the Countess’s room (in the movie by way of a secret door in the wall) and wakes her from a nap, brandishing a revolver. She has a heart attack and dies, but apparently not before giving away the secret. Then Liza comes in and finds what Herman has done. She thinks he only pretended to love her to get the secret. They go their separate ways and Herman is haunted by images of the old lady. Liza asks to meet him by the canal, and when he arrives, she sees that he is even more maddened by the secret than before. He leaves, and she jumps into the canal, killing herself. Herman goes to a gambling house, acting weird but joining in for once. His bets win, but when he bets on an ace, he gets the Queen of Spades, which reminds him of the woman he killed. Herman kills himself in despair.
This rather over-wrought story of tortured love and multiple deaths (sorry Pushkin fans) works reasonably well on the few small sets we see. Standout scenes for me included the ball where Herman gets the key from Liza and the scene at the canal. Apparently, a pit had to be dug in the studio floor in order to give the actress somewhere to go when she jumps in. Similar to American movies of the time, the camera is static and most edits take place between scenes. The sets are all about the same size and we see no close-ups, although the camera is pulled in for a tighter shot of the gambling table for the climax when Herman pulls the deadly card. The ghostly visitations are done through simple in-camera effects ala Méliès. I imagine that at original screenings, the music of Tchaikovsky was played, but I don’t think that’s what we hear now.
Director: Pyotr Chardynin
Camera: Louis Forestier
Run Time: 15 Min
You can watch it for free: here.