Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Louis Forestier

The Peasants’ Lot (1912)

Making hay while the sun shines.

Making hay while the sun shines.

While American film makers like D.W. Griffith were making “progressive” films about the hardships of working people in the USA, Russian film innovator Vasily Goncharov did something similar with this movie. It might also be seen as a more sophisticated version of his “16th Century Russian Wedding,” except that there’s no surviving wedding, just a melodramatic story of young Russians in love. This movie once again illustrates the superior artistry and emotional power of Russian film in the pre-revolutionary period.

What's that behind your back, Ivan?

What’s that behind your back, Ivan?

Here, young Petr (Ivan Mosjoukine, who we’ve seen in “Christmas Eve” and “House in Kolomna”) is in love with Masha (Aleksandra Goncharova, from “16th Century Russian Wedding” and “The Brigand Brothers”). They make time together in a haystack, to the approval of his father, and convince her father that they should be wed. While they are planning, a fire destroys the house of Masha’s family, and they sink into poverty as they are forced to sell off their most important possessions, including the cow that brought in most of the family income. Masha goes to the city in search of labor, as many young peasant people did in Russia during the Czarist period. Just as with an American film in which a healthy, honest young woman from the farm seeks her fortune in the city, Masha soon falls into a dangerous and corrupting situation. She becomes a serving-girl to a wealthy man with an automobile and ulterior motives. Back on the farm, her father becomes ill and the family dispatches a letter asking her to send money quickly. She gets it the only way she can see how – by asking the master for it and doing what he asks in return. She delivers the money, and confesses how she got it, and she and her father commiserate over their unfortunate lot. Petr is now married, and Masha turns to another suitor, but they seem to be mooning over one another as they work together in the fields once more. The version I saw ends suddenly with a shot of Masha’s wedding, she not looking happy at all in her finery.

Take that, Murnau!

Take that, Murnau!

As the fortunes of film preservation would have it, that’s all we have of this movie, because the last reel was lost at some point when the Soviets were “preserving” all Czarist-approved movies. It’s hard to imagine a happy ending, but there might have been a clearer lesson. As it is, we get enough of the flavor, at least to see what Goncharov was doing in trying to make a film about the Russian people (idealized though his view of them seemed to be), rather than Russian high culture like Pushkin and Tolstoy. Especially noteworthy here was the camerawork of Louis Forestier, the Paris-born cinematographer (he also shot “The Brigand Brothers” and “Queen of Spades”). He’s very interested in what the camera shows, what it does not, and when and how to reveal things. In one shot, a critical feature is blocked by Ivan Mosjoukine’s gangly frame in the middle of the shot, until he turns and sees it in the distance, and suddenly that becomes the center-point of the action. In another, a pan begins with two characters seemingly in a harsh street environment, then slowly revealing another direction for them to walk off towards the front plaza of the rich man’s house. The scene where Masha first arrives in the city is highly reminiscent of the farmer couple’s entrance to the city in “Sunrise,” except where F.W. Murnau had to build an elaborate crane and expensive street-set, Forestier gets the same effect with real streets and streetcars, without even needing a close up to achieve it.

Speaking of which, Fritzi Kramer, over at “Movies Silently,” says that this movie “aches for close-ups.” There aren’t any. There aren’t any Intertitles either, and although I had to watch it twice to be sure I caught everything, I don’t regard either of these as weaknesses. We maintain a distance from our subjects in part because they are more archetypes than individuals, but more importantly because it seems like the respectful distance they would ask of us. They are not prudes, these Russian peasants, but they don’t just let any stranger into their intimate worlds. The lack of Intertitles in a semi-literate world also seems highly appropriate. Each outdoor shot takes beautiful advantage of the countryside, and the indoor spaces are always at a pleasing angle, rather than the square “stages” of a Biograph production of the time. Overall, I found it as affecting as the best of Griffith’s melodramas, and better shot than any of them.

Alternate Titles: Krest’ianskaia Dolia, Крестьянская доля

Director: Vasily Goncharov

Camera: Louis Forestier

Starring: Ivan Mosjoukine, Alexandra Goncharova, Pyotr Chardinin, Lidiya Tridenskaya

Run Time: 35 Min (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

Brigand Brothers (1912)

Brigand Brothers

Once again, early Russian filmmakers turn to Pushkin for source material. Here, Vasily Goncharov attempts to interpret the an epic poem of two poor orphans who love the same woman and turn to a life on the run after murdering her father. This movie remains technically unimpressive, especially when we recall that one year later Evgeni Bauer would give us “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul.” Goncharov never seems to have gotten past the limitations of stationary camera and pantomime, which is probably why his career with Khanzhonkov didn’t last long after Bauer and Ladislas Starevich came on the scene. Still, this one does have the benefit of being shot outdoors, in the Russian countryside, and having that rustic, almost-Western look I mentioned in “Drama in a Gypsy Camp.” It’s certainly a much more complex storyline, with a lot of action and love scenes thrown in as the brothers find romance and adventure in their wayward existences, one of them finally dying while escaping from prison. The camera remains at a discreet distance from the action, however, and the production remains a set of scenic vignettes, with little cleverness to the editing technique, except for an occasional cutaway to allow us to see from a character’s point of view.

Director: Vasily Goncharov

Camera: Louis Forestier

Starring: Arsenii Bibikorand, Ivan Mosjoukine, Alexandra Goncharova, Vasily Stepanov

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Queen of Spades (1910)

Queen of Spades1

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.

 Queen of Spades

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.

 Queen of Spades2

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

Cast: Pavel Biryukov, Alexandra Goncharova, Andrej Gromov

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.