Departure of a Grand Old Man (1912)
This Russian movie by Yakov Protazanov is more famous for the controversy it provoked than for its content. Leo Tolstoy’s widow sued the company for libel, and was successful in getting its screenings suppressed in Russia, although it was still distributed internationally. She is depicted in the film as being domineering and greedy, and ultimately as causing her husband’s death – surely grounds for a libel suit if I’ve ever heard one! This narrative is not unusual, however. She has often been accused of preventing Tolstoy from giving land and money to peasants and worthwhile causes, and the story, depicted here, of Tolstoy saying “I’m not the boss, check with my wife” had been told anecdotally long before this movie was made, whether it was true or not. It may well be that Tolstoy himself hid behind her as a kind of excuse for his own moral weaknesses, and the movie certainly fails to show the hard work she put into editing his novels.
The movie itself is fairly unimaginative hagiography. Nearly every shot is the same, they are all static, and at fairly long distance from the characters. There is some interesting documentary footage of a train station near the end, but the vast majority of the film takes place inside of small, square-shaped sets with characters entering and exiting as from a stage. The scenes are not inter-cut and do not interact with one another; each is a discreet unit that plays out until the end. A final effect shot was added for the foreign audiences: Tolstoy is welcomed into Heaven by Jesus Christ. Not really what one hopes for from Russian silent cinema.
Directed by: Yakov Protazanov, Eliziveta Thiemann
Camera: George Meyer, Aleksandr Levitskii
Starring: Vladimir Shaternikov, Olga Petrova, Mikhail Tamarov, Elizaveta Thiemann
Run time: 31 Min
You can watch it for free: here.