Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Evgeni Bauer

Children of the Age (1915)

I stumbled across this Evgeni Bauer film while looking for media on “Child of the Big City” – someone has uploaded an Italian translation to Wikimedia Commons with the wrong title in English and Russian! Lucky for me, because it means I get to watch more Bauer.

 Children of the Age1

This is a shorter movie than would be considered “feature-length” today, although at the time it would have counted as long enough to take seriously. Like many of Bauer’s films, it explores the conflict of class and intimate relationships. This time, we get Vera Kholodnaia (later in “A Life for a Life” and “The Woman Who Invented Love”), later to be known as “The Queen of the Screen” in Russia, as the starring victim. She plays a lower-middle class housewife whose husband (Ivan Gorskij) has a job as a bank clerk and who has a very small baby at home. They can afford a maid, showing us that they aren’t truly working class, but their apartment is small and Vera has to sew and do other household chores. One day while she is shopping in a fascinatingly Russian-looking shopping mall, she runs into an old school friend who apparently has married up or come into an inheritance, because she can afford a chauffeured car. She gives Vera a ride home and they talk of old times. The husband returns, and eyes the car suspiciously, then agrees to meet the friend and his wife at a garden party.

 Children of the Age

At the garden party, a libertine older man (Arsenii Bibikov, who we saw before in “Child of the Big City” and “The Peasants’ Lot”) takes notice of Vera and finagles an introduction. He gives her champagne and begins a flirtation, to which Vera is politely responsive. Probably she’s flattered at the attention, but we have no sense that she means to cross the line, and as soon as her husband arrives, she leaves with him. Arsenii is not satisfied, however, and encourages the friend to bring her around more often. Vera does begin to come along to more “society” events, while the husband waits at home in a gloomy room, his worst suspicions haunting him. Arsenii then comes up with the expedient of having the husband fired from his job. Now the situation is increasingly grim, and Vera, who continues to resist any improprieties, is becoming dependent upon Arsenii. Finally, he manages to trap her in his car, and gives her a long, sustained kiss before the fade-out. Vera returns home disheveled with a look of shock on her face, and begins mechanically to pack her things. Evidently she’s going away for the weekend, over her husband’s protestations. While she’s away, he gets summoned for what he seems to hope is a job interview. Turns out it’s Arsenii, who offers him money to leave his wife. The husband responds by trying to kill Arsenii, and it requires two burly servants to throw him out. During this distraction, Vera and the friend have returned to her house and made off with the baby. The husband writes a goodbye note and shoots himself.

Children of the Age2As with “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul” and other Bauer melodramas, we get something different to what we expect in a Western movie here. The husband may seem to be the “leading man,” but he’s utterly helpless and ineffective throughout the film. Vera is the real star, and even though she ultimately loses, her battle between the temptation to aspire towards a classier life and remain loyal to her vows is a dramatic journey that gives her considerable work to demonstrate each emotion as she feels it. The version I found of this had no Intertitles, although I suspect that there were some originally which were not preserved. The movie works well enough despite this, and it is largely due to Vera’s performance, combined with Bauer’s direction and the typically excellent camerawork of Boris Zavelev. Interestingly, where he usually avoids 90-degree angles, a lot of the scenes in Vera’s apartment are shot dead-on, as if to emphasize the cramped space and lack of opportunity it offers. Some of the shots in the garden party also are framed at 90-degrees to the wall, but with the actors off-center, and the table at this party juts into the middle of the screen like a dock at a bay, making it hard to see the individuals seated there, even as we see the chaos of their merriment. There are a lot of close-ups in this movie as well, even for a Bauer film, suggesting the importance of intimacy with the characters. Bauer’s usually cluttered sets are reserved for the more up-scale locations, while the apartment is appropriately spare.

In all, this was a satisfying view, although I wish the Intertitles had been preserved and I hope to see it in higher definition someday.

Alternate Titles: Deti Veka, Дети века, Children of the Century

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavlev

Starring: Vera Kholodnaia, Ivan Gorskij, Arsenii Bibikov, S. Rassatov

Run Time: 37 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here (no music), or here (with music).

Child of the Big City (1914)

Evgeni_Bauer

I’m always excited to see another movie by Evgeni Bauer, who is probably my favorite filmmaker from the period I’m studying (so far, at least). Bauer was more daring than most of his contemporaries, and could see that cinema had the potential to be a new way of telling stories, not dependent on older models like the theater, and he avoided theatrical conventions in bringing his visions to the screen. He also had a taste for unusual content, for stories that one wouldn’t be likely to see in American movies of the time.

 Child of the Big City1

I’m tempted to interpret this movie as a combination of the “Lost Girl” narrative typical of American movies with the “Vamp” that would become a hit with Theda Bara the next year. But, really, it is neither of these, although common elements can be found. Marya (or Mary, the English Intertitles vary) is a poor seamstress who works in a sweatshop but dreams of romance. One day, while window-shopping, she gets picked up by two young gentlemen who take her back to a fancy apartment for dinner and drinks. She, unaccustomed to the alcohol, rapidly gets drunk and accepts a proposition to become the “companion” of Victor, the younger and less grabby of the men. At this point, the story takes a turn as we are told she is “ruining” her new companion (presumably by spending a great deal of money on clothes, nightclubs, and a nice apartment). He begs her to join him in a more modest lifestyle, but she has gained a taste for riches and looks elsewhere for someone who can provide her the life to which she is now accustomed. Oddly, she chooses the butler for this purpose, but maybe butlers made more in Russia in those days. Victor continues to obsess over her as he sinks into poverty and hangs around the door to her apartment. Eventually, he sends up a note begging to speak to her again, and she dismisses him with three rubles. He dies on the spot, and she runs off with her society friends to Maxim’s.

 Child of the Big City2

Although this movie wasn’t quite as daring as some of Bauer’s other work, I found it satisfactorily innovative. There are a number of nicely-framed shots, including overheads and a shot up an elaborate stairwell. I liked a shot where we see Marya window-shopping from inside the store, then the reversal where the two men proposition her from outside, to the stern glare of the shopkeeper looking out at them. I also was impressed when a scene opened on an elaborate (closed) door to a nightclub, allowing us to just glance through a small glass window as a car pulls up outside, then moments later the door opens to reveal the arrival of the dinner party. In the existing print, the tracking shot into the nightclub dancer is cut into awkward jump-cuts, which may be an experiment that didn’t quite work (for me) or it could be a mistake in the restoration. There’s another good tracking shot backward as Marya leads her followers out into the night, but it cuts a bit too quickly to be fully effective. Once again, we also get a good sense of lighting, with practicals that seem to provide actual light on the set, and a great proto-noir shot of Victor in silhouette in front of an over-exposed window. On the whole, Bauer’s cameraman Boris Zavelev avoids “square” set-ups and uses diagonal angles, but where he does shoot straight-on, it’s used to emphasize the lack of choice a character (usually Victor) has in his next move. Many of the sets are heavily decorated with baroque props, emphasizing the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy classes.

Child of the Big City

Alternate Titles: Ditya bolshogo goroda, Дитя большого города, The Girl from the Street, Devushka s ulitsy

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavelev

Starring: Elena P. Smirnova, Michael Salarow, Arsenii Bibikov, Lidiya Tridenskaya

Run Time: 37 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Directors of 1915

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.med

Before I get started talking about my subject directly, I need to say a bit about Auteur Theory. I have pretty mixed feelings about it, and I’ve tried to represent that in this blog by giving equal space to cinematographers and directors (although you’ll notice I put directors at the top). In the period I’ve been discussing, the division was beginning to be formalized, with the “director” being, first, the one who told the actors what to do while the camera operator figured out the visuals, and, later, the one with the ultimate authority on the set. Part of the problem is that the concept of “director” vs “producer” was unclear in the really early years, although as cinema moved towards narrative fictional representations, it followed the division of labor that had been established in the theater. In that context, a director was seen as a “creative artist,” while the producer was in charge of practical issues like financing and advertising (the director did answer to the producer for his job, though, more on that in a bit).

So, what’s my problem with Auteur Theory? Two things: first, I think it misrepresents the reality of working on film, especially after the division of labor caused it to become a large-scale, collaborative, industrial process, and, second, it’s promotes laziness among critics and fans.

Let me unpack that a bit for you. Auteur Theory states that a movie director is the “author” of the film, the person with ultimate responsibility for what appears on the screen. The equivalency is problematic. “Authors,” taken to mean the writers of modern novels, represent a new way of thinking about the artist as an individual in Western European society that emerged as Europe moved out of the Middle Ages. Authors are imagined as working in isolation, creating something wholly new and original from their own minds. However well this does or does not work for literature of different times and cultures, it doesn’t translate well to working on a movie. Anyone who’s been on a movie set knows that literally hundreds of decisions are made every day by people other than the director. The director may have “ultimate” authority on the set, and certainly has the right to suggest things he or she thinks are “important,” and will be the final arbiter of many of these decisions, but I’ve never seen a director who was enough of a micro-manager as to directly decide the placement of every light, or the exact shade that each wall is painted, or the detailed placement of every prop, or the precise body language the actors use. Directors do hire the people they think will do the best jobs for each of these things (often in collaboration with their boss, the producer), but that’s not the same as “authoring” them. That’s “management.” In terms of management, though, the producer really has the final say, even to the point of being able to fire directors in the middle of making a movie. And some producers seem to have as much right to be seen as “auteurs” as directors: noted examples would be Darryl F. Zanuck and “The Longest Day” and the collected works of Val Lewton. I think I’d suggest Spielberg’s influence on the original “Poltergeist” and George Lucas in terms of everything he’s produced as well.

Where I see the laziness creeping in is the language of criticism. I have seen classic movie bloggers write that a movie was “shot by” or even “lensed by” the director. No, that would be the cinematographer (or even the camera operator, to be really precise). I have a certain affection for cinematographers, partly because the movie “Visions of Light” was a turning point in my life and thinking about movies, and partly because of working for a cinematographer-turned-producer/director in my main real world movie job. But, I’m not going to propose a “Fotografia Theory” that places them as more important than directors, the way some writer did in proposing “Schreiber Theory.” Possibly, sometimes, especially in the very early years at Edison or Lumière, they might have been. But, my point is that there is no real “author” of a movie. It is a collaborative effort, and everyone’s job is worth noticing and recognizing. A serious critic needs to make themselves familiar with each of these jobs and, where possible, give credit where it is due. If you don’t have the time or ability to do that, at least try not to say Orson Welles did what Gregg Toland is actually responsible for, OK?

Gregg Toland cries every time you say Welles shot Citizen Kane

Gregg Toland cries every time you say Welles shot Citizen Kane

OK, back to 1915. I don’t mean all of the above to be taken to say that “directors are unimportant.” They have a lot of responsibility, and they do have an impact on the creative aspects of the movies they direct. So, let’s talk for a bit about some of the leaders, as well as the up-and-comers of 100 years ago.

 GriffithDW

I think I have to start with D.W. Griffith, who in 1915 was riding a wave of popularity and controversy to be possibly the most known director of his time. After years of making shorts for Biograph, he left over the issue of wanting to make feature-length films when the studio refused to release “Judith off Bethulia.” He is often credited in (lazy) film histories with having invented everything from the close-up to sliced bread. Actually, during the years he made shorts, he really was quite an innovator, and I think deserves special credit in terms of developing the editing techniques that allow audiences to understand simultaneous action taking place across distances, which is vital to establishing suspense in the movies. It’s fair to ask, however, whether there was a particular editor at Biograph he worked with in developing this technique.

 Evgeni_Bauer

I’ve already waxed poetic about Evgeni Bauer, who I think may be one of those few directors that might be able to claim something like “auteur” status, not least because of his training in set design and the obvious care he gave to camera placement. In 1915 his movies included “The 1002nd Ruse” and “After Death,” my personal favorite of his.

 Charlie_Chaplin

Not often spoken about in terms of directing is Charlie Chaplin, who directed most of the movies he appeared in, starting about mid-way through his year at Keystone Studios. By this point in 1915, he’s at Essanay, and is directing some of the classic shorts that made him an immortal. It’s hard to extract Chaplin’s directing from the rest of his mythos, but I would say that he had a talent for fast-moving action that slapstick work, and that it took him a while to start thinking seriously about character development or even sympathetic characters. His later work proves that he did get it, eventually. This year, his work includes “The Tramp” and “Burlesque on Carmen.”

 Cecil B DeMille

One of the new faces on the scene is Cecil B. DeMille, who started out late in 1914 working for producer Jesse Lasky. DeMille is remembered today mostly for making sprawling epic films, but he actually did quite diverse work in the first few years. After two solid Westerns, he turned to character-driven melodramas, like “Carmen” and “The Cheat.” These are both very sophisticated movies for their day, both in terms of the mature subject-matter, and the complex story-telling structure and camerawork. DeMille was doubtless assisted by a crew of excellent quality, but he showed considerable promise right out of the gate.

 Maurice_Tourneur_in_1919

We’ve also got Maurice Tourneur, whose son Jacques would also go on to be a director of stylistic films. Tournuer had started in France and wisely got out before World War One to work at the World Film Company. He gave us “The Wishing Ring” in 1914, an “Alias Jimmy Valentine” in 1915. These are both very good character dramas, with the former a pleasant fairy tale fantasy and the second an early installment in the gangster genre. The other night I was watching an old Abbott and Costello movie in which a safe was cracked and a joke came up about “making like Jimmy Valentine,” suggesting that the movie still had some resonance a generation later.

 Louis_Feuillade

Finally, I want to mention Louis Feuillade, who kind of “started it all” for this blog with “Fantômas” and its sequels. I took time to look at some of his shorts earlier this year, and I found his work amazingly diverse. He probably would have agreed with Auteur Theory, being French and given to writing manifestos about filmmaking. Maybe in his case it applies. The thing that stands out to me about his productions is how visually rich they can be, especially when he goes outside and shoots on location, instead on the cramped indoor sets at Gaumont Studios. I anticipate returning to his crime series “Les Vampires” in time for Halloween this year.

Daydreams (1915)

Daydreams

Alternate Titles: Gryosi, Грёзы

Evgeni Bauer presages “Vertigo” with this film about death, identity, grief, and madness. A man is suffering due to the recent death of his young wife, and lops off a piece of her corpse’s hair to remember her by. Inconsolable, he wanders the streets aimlessly, until he spots a woman who is her exact double. He follows her to a theater, and watches the performance, in which she plays the part of a ghost in a cemetery. He reaches out to her, distracting the audience from the performance, then goes after her backstage, finding out where she lives. He visits her with flowers, and she receives his warm attentions with mutual interest. He tells his friend that his has found happiness again, then to his surprise his new love begins a flirtation with the friend! Unable to bear the contradictions between the ghost of his wife and the reality of the actress lookalike, he descends into madness, which is aggravated by cruel taunts from the woman. By the end, driven to the breaking point, he snaps when she starts using the lock of hair as a prop in a jest at his expense.

Daydreams1

So, we’ve got another Bauer movie from 1915, and as usual, it’s fascinating. We get the usual highly decorated Bauer sets, shot as usual from a 30-degree angle, with cutting to close-ups within scenes, and use of depth and camera movement. We also get some really nice location shots of a Russian city (I’m guessing Moscow or Petrograd, but I haven’t found a definite answer), including a very interesting tracking shot that follows the main character down the street, then halts as the woman passes, then tracks backward when he turns to follow her. From the motion, I’m guessing that this was done from an automobile, running at very low speed. The other visually interesting sequence is the theater, which includes a large number of extras (at least twenty to thirty), who are seen from front and back. They appear to be “in on” the movie, and keep to character, while some of the passersby on the street stop to stare at the camera. The theater sequence involved several camera angles, and used stage effects to show ghosts rising from the grave and smoke. The “real” ghost of Elena is represented through double exposures, ala Méliès, and sometimes shows up while her double is on the screen. It’s overall a fairly economical production, with much of the action taking place in the main character’s living room, but nevertheless surprises with its advanced techniques.

As far as the story goes, I think it may translate to modern audiences better than “The 1002nd Ruse” or “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul.” The actress seems a bit too shamelessly wanton and cruel to be believed, but I’m inclined to read this as being seen from the perspective of a man whose perceptions are distorted by grief and madness. He, after all, is demanding that she re-fashion herself to “be” his dead wife, when she is clearly her own person with her own motivations and interests. Not the most reasonable way to establish or maintain a love affair. No doubt at a certain point she feels the need to reassert her own identity, and to demand to be treated as her own person. And who would love someone who was constantly moping around about his dead wife? This is somewhat strengthened by the fact that the actor (Alexander Wyrubow, who as far as I know never worked in movies again) is rather a ham, over-acting when sulking, reaching out for his new interest, and when “going mad” with jealousy. It works for the story of someone with a tenuous grip on reality, but also seems to emphasize why the actress isn’t thrilled with her new relationship.

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavelev

Cast: Alexander Wyrubow, N. Chernobaeva

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

1002nd Ruse (1915)

The_1002nd_Ruse_(1915)

Alternate Title: Tysycha vtoraya khitrost

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later; there was bound to be one film by Evgeni Bauer that disappointed me. After all, he set such a high standard with movies like “After Death” and “Silent Witnesses,” not all of his work could be so great. Still, when you love a film maker, it hurts to run across a miss in his list of hits. This movie is an attempt at comedy which didn’t even elicit a chuckle from me. Apparently, it’s based on a stage play, and I’d be willing to guess that it could work better with dialogue. The plot is simply that an old man reads the book “1001 Feminine Ruses” and spends the rest of the movie congratulating himself on being one up on his wife – until, of course, she invents a new one. It’s the sort of comedy that I’m not crazy about in general, since there are no sympathetic characters and everyone is basically nasty to one another, but I find that “situational” humor like this is especially weak in silent viewing. The movie is mercifully short, and Bauer still shows a degree of cinematic competence, but there’s nothing really brilliant here. He makes use of a keyhole matte to establish the husband’s spying, and there’s some nice exterior footage of a Russian city (Petrograd? Moscow? I’m not sure), but most of the shots are basic square stages and the camera never moves.

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Starring: Lina Bauer, S. Rassatov, Sergei Kvastnitskii

Run Time: 14 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Evgeni Bauer – A Russian Artiste

Welcome to a couple of firsts for my blog: this is both the first time I’ve participated in a blogathon and also the first time I’ve tried to write about the career of a specific filmmaker, rather than examining their films one at a time in capsulized reviews. Perhaps even more exciting: this post falls on my blog-birthday: The Century Film Project has now been in the blogosphere for exactly 1% of a century!

Evgeni_Bauer

The Story According to Wikipedia

When I heard about the “Russia in Classic Film” blogathon being held by Movies Silently, I knew I wanted to see what I could come up with on Evgeni Bauer.* I had only just discovered him, and have since written three reviews of his films, but I knew I had found someone special. His movies are so advanced by the standards of the teens that it’s hard to believe they aren’t ten years later than the dates they show. Although he seems to have worked with more than one photographer, the use of composition and lighting is always remarkably deliberate, and one suspects that he worked very closely with his cameramen to get the effect he wanted. No surprise that he was a production designer, because the sets are always carefully and artistically planned, and he gives actors and camera space to move around within the set as well. Finally, he was one of very few directors at the time who worked in three dimensions – what happens in the foreground and background can be more important than center stage, and performers move in all directions in his movies.

A still from Yevgeni Bauer's 1917 film Za schastem with Lev Kuleshov and Tasya Borman.

A still from Yevgeni Bauer’s 1917 film Za schastem with Lev Kuleshov and Tasya Borman.

Looking Deeper: Tsarist Russian Cinema

The one book I could find in English that provided any insight into Bauer was Silent Witnesses: Russian Films, 1908-1919. It’s a fairly rare book, I had to have my library order it from a University in Orange County, CA, and it’s rather odd as well. It’s dual-language, with English on the left side and Italian on the right, and sometimes the English reads is if translated by someone with only second-language skills. It refers to itself at several points as a “catalog,” and seems to have been intended to serve as companion to some kind of film festival or showing, in spite of its immensity (600+ pages). A lot of the text is apparently made up of comments from Russian film magazines, translated for current readers, with additional comments on each film by the editors.

What I did get from this was an interesting view of the Russian film culture of the period. Judging by these magazines, there was quite a thriving film industry and film-going public in Russia at the time, one which seems to compare to the United States. Now, I have to imagine, given what I know of Russian society, that this would have been a largely urban phenomenon, and that it would have been restricted to population centers like Moscow and Petrograd, excluding much of the rural population and presumably the lower classes, who wouldn’t have money or leisure for something like movies most of the time. But, that may itself give us some insight. These journals take film very seriously: it is clearly regarded as an art form already, not just a cheap way to make money, as it often was in the US. The critics writing for these magazines had very high expectations of the literary and visual quality of the films they talked about. Presumably, Russian audiences had similarly high standards.

What I Can Say (or Guess) about Bauer’s Career

In that sense, the emergence someone like Bauer begins to make sense. D.W. Griffith had to fight tooth and nail with Biograph in the United States to try to make anything “artistic.” He took too long, spent too much; all that was wanted was lots of content produced quickly so that the distributors could buy it up by the foot and fill up the nickelodeons with eager viewers. Bauer’s bosses at Khanzhonkov probably had a different approach (though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were arguments about budgets there too). They wanted to beat the competition in terms of producing works that would impress people that could be spending their time and money on live theater, and so were more willing to innovate to get an advantage. I don’t have numbers to prove it, but I’d bet there were fewer venues for film in Russia, so less reason to try to make lots and lots of movies, since a lot of them would have nowhere to be shown. They let Bauer work in longer formats, take more time with set ups and rehearsals, and in general they wanted to see quality at least as much as, if not more than, quantity, because that’s what they could sell.

Bauer himself came from an artistic background. His father had been a famous zither player and composer, his sisters acted on stage, and he went to the Moscow School for Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. No doubt it was there that he learned about composition and lighting, and he may well have brought painting techniques with him into film. After moving through several careers, he became a set designer, and was praised for the intricacy and style of his work. By the time he started making sets for the movies in 1912, he would have been forty five or forty six years old, was married, and had worked in various communications media, including the theater, newspapers, and magazines. He made 82 movies for Drankov, Pathé, and Khanzhonkov, had the highest salary of any Russian director, and became part-owner of the latter company through ownership of shares. He worked as a director only from 1913 to 1917, when he died due to pneumonia contracted after a fall while rehearsing walking with a limp for one of his movies.

Another still from Za schastem

Another still from Za schastem

Critical Reception

Now, back to those reviews for a moment. Considering how good his movies look today, I was surprised how harsh the criticism was, especially of my favorite Bauer so far, “After Death.” That one wasn’t about the film’s quality in itself, it was because he had dared to tamper with the sacred Ivan Turgenev, changing characters names and details for the movie. He actually wrote a sort of apology, admitting that “Turgenev should be approached in a different spirit and with different habits” than most film scenarios. Again, evidence of the high standards of Russian moviegoers!

A Tragic Loss, But…

It’s hard for me not to speculate about what would have happened if he had survived into the Soviet period. Many of his actors continued in the Soviet silent period, and certainly good movies continued to be made, but I wonder about the politics of some of his films. He got his start in the business building sets for “The Tercentenary of the Rule of the House of Romanov,” not a subject the Bolsheviks would be likely to approve, though I note that its two directors continued working through the twenties. The portrayal of the proletarian in “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul” would also have been potentially embarrassing, certainly by the time of Stalin’s ascendency, but it’s possible that, had he lived, we’d have gotten a lot more great work from Evgeni Bauer.

Of his movies, 26 supposedly remain, but for an American with limited resources, it’s hard to even see a dozen of them. The Wikipedia page for Bauer has links to watch seven of them, and I’d recommend them wholeheartedly to any fan of silent movies.

 

 

*Of course, there are several ways of transcribing his name from Cyrillic. I’m opting for “Evgeni,” because that’s how it appears in “Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer,” the most accessible DVD collection of his work. Wikipedia prefers “Yevgeni,” and you’ll also find “Evgenii” and “Yevgenii” as well in other sources.

Best Cinematography 1914

Cinema is, ultimately, the art of using a motion picture camera. In the very early days, the cameraman was king of the movie set, the person who decided everything about what the audience would see. But, innovators like Georges Méliès put an end to that – in his case for the simple expedient of being in front of the camera. The division of labor had a practical side as well. Often, it made sense for someone with experience in acting to direct the actors, while the cinematographer took care of the technical and visual side of storytelling.

By 1914, directors and producers were generally credited with most of the “creative” side of filmmaking. Even Billy Bitzer, the genius behind most of D.W. Griffith’s films, said in his autobiography that he considered himself a craftsman and not an artist. Those familiar with “Judith of Bethulia,” the first feature these two collaborated on, may disagree. Where Bitzer gives us battle and drama, Segundo de Chomón gives us true spectacle in “Cabiria.” No one, including Griffith, ever forgot the creative use of tracking shots in that film. Alvin Wyckoff, working on “The Virginian,” on the other hand, produces a unique vision of the Old West in an era when not everyone had yet forgotten it. Working in Canada, Edmund August Schwinke tried to maintain a level of accuracy in portraying the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples for “In the Land of the Head Hunters.” And, last but not least, an unnamed camera operator (possibly Boris Zavelev) showed us a truly advanced vision of the cinema in “Silent Witnesses.”

The nominees for best cinematography for 1914 are:

  1. In the Land of the Head Hunters (Edmund August Schwinke)
  2. Cabiria (Segundo de Chomón)
  3. The Virginian (Alvin Wyckoff)
  4. Judith of Bethulia (G.W. “Billy” Bitzer)
  5. Silent Witnesses

And the winner is…the anonymous camerawork of “Silent Witnesses!”

 Silent_Witnesses

This was another tough call, especially in light of the influential nature of “Cabiria” and the lasting fame of Billy Bitzer. But, as astounding as those tracking shots must have been in 1914, they don’t hold up all that well today, they seem to be somewhat random in their placement and duration, and Bitzer was also capable of better than he showed us in “Judith,” possibly being overwhelmed by the scale of the picture. I’ve said that “Silent Witnesses” isn’t my favorite Bauer, but even so, it feels ahead of its time when placed next to any of the others, at least in terms of camera positions and lighting.

Upcoming Events

I’ve started reaching out (a bit) to other classic film bloggers. The first notable result is that I’ll be participating in this:

russia-blogathon-flicker-alley-man-with-movie-camera

I’ll be writing about Evgeni Bauer, who is the only Russian filmmaker of more than 100 years ago that I’ve discovered so far. I hope this event will introduce me to some new ones!

Silent Witnesses (1914)

Silent_Witnesses

AKA Немые свидетели, Nemye Svideteli

This tear-jerker from Evgeni Bauer wasn’t quite as innovative as the other two of his movies that I reviewed previously, but some of his genius for storytelling does come through. The story again looks at gender and class difference through the lens of a romance. A young girl becomes a maid at the household her grandfather works for as a porter. The matriarch goes off to Crimea for her health, leaving her bachelor son in charge. When he is spurned by his aristocratic love interest, he turns to the maid for comfort, getting her drunk in order to take advantage of her. Then the fiancée snaps her fingers, and he goes back to treating the maid like dirt, all the while she witnesses all her infidelities in his house. She remains silent and tormented, saying nothing as they go off to get married. The end. I’m not sure why Bauer opted for a more traditionally “stagey” approach for this film, but it didn’t really work for me, although the stages are often at slight angles. We also see split screen used to demonstrate phone conversations, some overhead shots, and some occasional pans, but much of the filming is static and conventional. The male lead swings from pathetic to despicable and back to pathetic again, which doesn’t help anything, either.

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Starring: Dora Tschitorina, Aleksander Chargonin, Elsa Krueger.

Run Time: 1hr 4 Min.

You can watch it for free: here.

After Death (1915)

After_Death

After seeing this, I feel I was entirely too faint in my praise of Evgeni Bauer in my review of “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul.” He was not simply a genius of Russian cinema, but of world cinema. His movies are technically years ahead of anyone else working at the time, including D..W. Griffith – watching them I feel like I’ve skipped ahead to the early 1920s. In this one, he not only uses pans and simple tracking shots, but close-ups, reversals, and edits to suggest the broader world the characters move in. Nothing feels like it is confined to a “stage” by the camera, and the angles and compositions he chooses prevents this even more by giving depth to every scene. The story is an improvement, it is based on a Turgenev story of unrequited love and tragic suicide, and the main character, an introverted young man, made me think of the heroes of Poe or even Lovecraft. Ultimately, it is his inability to express emotions or connect with other people that leads to the horror of this story, and I would argue that it is a horror movie, even though nothing more supernatural than dreams and hallucinations takes place. Years before “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” madness was used to chilling effect in this movie, happily still viewable a century later.

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavelev

Cast: Vitold Polonsky, Vera Karalli

Run Time: 46 Mins

You can watch it for free: here.