The Dying Swan (1917)

by popegrutch

With some sadness, I return once more to the work of Evgeni Bauer, who I discovered early in the first year of this project. This movie, which was one of the last he made, will likely be the last one I will review – unless I discover one I hadn’t known was available, or unless new discoveries are made in Russia.

The movie begins with a somewhat somber “meet cute,” in which a young man (Vitold Polonski) looking for a lost dog asks a young woman (Vera Karalli) if she has seen it. She turns away and does not answer, but her father (Aleksandr Kheruvimov) comes over and explains that she is mute. The young couple are introduced as Gizella and Viktor, but they make no further contact at this time. Later, we learn that Gizella is a dancer, and that her “soul” is dancing, but she is deeply sad that she couldn’t speak to the young man. They soon see one another again on a forest path while she is picking flowers and he is out for a walk. When she sees him, she stumbles and falls, turning an ankle. He helps her back to her house, thus learning where she lives.

He uses this knowledge soon after, when he comes to invite her out for a ride in a carriage. She eagerly gets her father to agree, and the two go off together. Viktor rapidly becomes romantic, telling her that she doesn’t need words because her face is “like no other the earth has seen.” She is obviously overwhelmed, but joyous. But, things turn sour after a brief courtship, when he begs off of one of their dates because of “business.” She catches sight of him with another woman, and her dreams are crushed. She runs home to her father to ask him to take her away and let her dance, and he arranges for her to go on a tour with a ballet, starring in “The Dying Swan.

The scene now shifts to the home of an artist (Andrej Gromov). His studio is filled with skeletons and sketches for a great masterwork he hopes to do on the theme of Death, but he is not happy with the results so far. His image of death is beautiful and serene, and the skeletons he draws are conventional and ugly. He turns to his friend (Ivan Perestiani), who makes fun of him for being so obsessive. He tells him about a new ballerina coming to town, and together the two attend Gizella’s performance of “The Dying Swan.”

The next sequence is that performance, mostly done in a single take, and obviously intended to show the audience the talents of the female star. She glides about the stage on her toes with her arms outstretched and fluttering, and goes through the process of gradually weakening and “dying,” folding herself into a bundle on the floor. The artist is enraptured, and he arranges to meet with her and her father. He asks to draw her for his great masterpiece, and the father gives permission somewhat reluctantly. He doesn’t like this intensely morbid artist, but his daughter assures him, “life is more horrible than death” so there is nothing to fear.

We see the first session, in which the artist is deeply moved and inspired when she takes up her pose as the dead swan. Surprisingly, however, when he shows his work to his friend, the friend reacts by saying it is “without talent, horrible!” Apparently only the artist can see the beauty in Gizella’s pain. He finds a crown in an old trunk and sends it to her as a gift, which makes her happy at first, but that night she dreams of a ghostly figure that tells her that she was entombed with that crown, and now Gizella must die also.

Shortly thereafter, she meets Viktor on a path once again. He has come to the town to pursue her, having read reviews of her work. She is all the sadder when she first sees him, but he proclaims true love and asks her to marry him (sort of forgets to apologize about the other woman – but it’s not clear whether he knows that she knows about that). Her father consents, and Gizella is rapturous again.

This poses a problem when she shows up for her next session, however. The artist is shocked by the joy in her eyes. He cannot find the beauty in her new state, and so he seizes her by the throat and throttles her, finishing the picture of her now truly-dead body.

This is pretty heavy tragedy, and it does get over-wrought at times, but Bauer rises above the material in several ways. First, the device of making the star mute works well for silent film (obviously), because she has all the problems communicating that are natural to the medium, and the audience naturally “leans in” to try to catch her meaning through expressions and body language. This is a neat way of getting us more involved with the main character right away, as we wonder whether he defect will prevent her from being able to communicate her feelings, or if she can overcome it.

Bauer continues to use cinematic space in a sophisticated way, although compared to 1914, I would say that the rest of cinema has caught up to him by now. He uses two backward-tracking shots that are effective: one, when the artist first greets her to his home, he throws down flowers at her feet as she proceeds down a long corridor. He tells her that he is welcoming “a princess to my house.” The second one will look more familiar to modern viewers: at the beginning of Gizella’s nightmare, we see her in her bed, lightning flashes from the window, signifying an internal and external storm, and the camera slowly pulls back, showing more of the darkened room. This is similar to many shots used in horror films and thrillers for decades afterward, but I think it was pretty fresh in 1917. Another interesting shot is where Gizella stands below the window where Viktor canoodles with the Other Woman. There are also some nice uses of depth in the garden and in the dream sequence. Finally, an effect in which Gizella is menaced by disembodied hands is used in the dream, then repeated during her strangulation.

This movie seems to confirm my sense that Russian film at this time was meant for an urban class of professionals and artistically sensitive people. The ballet, which is so important to the story, was not generally seen as a lower-class interest, and none of the stars seems to need money, despite Viktor’s use of “business” as an excuse to philander. Had Bauer survived past the October Revolution, these themes in his films probably would have damaged his career or possibly threatened his life. As it was, the result was that he became obscure for at least 80 years, living only in film archives and not shown while new names like Eisenstein and Vertov became symbols of Russian genius. Bauer, I would maintain, was the equal of any of them, and should be seen as an innovator of some of film’s most important techniques, not in terms of editing, but in terms of the use of the camera to describe a three-dimensional world. Hopefully he can now take his place in the history of the art of the moving picture.

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavelev

Cast: Vera Karalli, Andrej Gromov, Vitold Polonski, Aleksandr Kheruvimov, Ivan Perestiani

Run Time: 49 Min

You can watch it for free: here.