Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Pyotr Chardynin

Funeral of Vera Kholodnaia (1919)

This Soviet-era newsreel footage is something of the “end of an era” in Russian filmmaking. Evgeni Bauer had died between the revolutions, and most of his important colleagues would soon flee Russia for Paris. The great, innovative movies of the Tsarist period were quickly forgotten as new experimental styles were developed by Vertov, Eisenstein, and others. But now, Vera Kholodnaia, known as the “Queen of the Screen,” succumbed to the flu epidemic that killed millions of Europeans in the year following the First World War. There were immediate speculations about poisoning and Bolshevik plots, with nothing ever proven. Despite the deliberate destruction of many of her films by the State, she had been rehabilitated as a kind of revolutionary heroine, and a large ceremonial funeral was authorized in Odessa. Thousands attended, and the Soviet newsreel footage of her coffin being taken to its final resting place may be the best-known movie of her today. It begins with a title card with her name, followed by seemingly random clips from her movies, then an image of her lying in state with the date of her death superimposed. Then the funeral procession is shown, with the streets of Odessa filled with mourners, and an ornate white coffin lifted by six pallbearers.

Director: Peter Chardynin

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Vera Kholodnaya

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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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)

I have not found this for free on the Internet. If you do, please say so in the comments.

House in Kolomna (1913)

Alternate Titles: Little House in Kolomna, Domik v Kolomne

 House in Kolomna1

Ivan Mosjoukine is rightly known for the diversity of the roles he’s played: I’ve now seen him both as the Devil and as a transvestite soldier! In this light romp based on a poem by Pushkin, the young daughter of a widow is carrying on an affair with Ivan, during the occasional breaks she gets from Mama’s watchful eye. When Mama asks her to go out and find a “cheap cook,” she seizes her chance and goes straight to her soldier. He agrees to dress up as a woman and goes home with her. Of course, the new cook proves to be incompetent at cooking and other womanly duties like sewing, giving the widow massages, or leaving the house (since he’s afraid he’ll be recognized). That’s OK, though, because the daughter is always there to bail her/him out of trouble, and they get to carry on their lovemaking in her room whenever Mama’s not around. One day, the cook fakes sick to get out of going to Mass, but Mama thinks maybe “she’s” planning to rob the joint, so sneaks back and catches “her” shaving, which practically gives her an apoplexy. The movie ends with a comedic moral about cheap cooks and men wearing skirts.

 House in Kolomna

I found this to be a pretty effective “situational comedy,” not so different to gender-bending comedies from the US of the time, but possibly a bit more feminist. Why feminist? Well, the person in control of this whole situation is the daughter, not the man, and even in the bedroom scene, she clearly places herself in the dominant position. Mosjoukine gets into his role and exaggerates both feminine and masculine body language for comedic effect. The liner notes claim that he enjoyed himself so much that during outdoor scenes he attracted crowds of astonished people. The movie was also shot by Ladislaw Starevich, better known for his animated movies, and directed by Pyotr Chardynin, of “The Queen of Spades.” Once again, I would assume that the targeted audience was probably familiar with the source material, but here we see an unusual number of intertitles to clarify, and also to slip in some sly jokes here and there. Probably these are lines from Pushkin that the audience would have expected to see; even with my severely flawed Russian I caught that some of the intertitles rhymed, or made plays on language.

 House in Kolomna2

Incidentally, Fritzi Kramer, over at Movies Silently, also recently reviewed this film. Check out her thoughts here.

Director: Pyotr Chardynin

Camera: Ladislaw Starevich

Starring: Ivan Mosjoukine, Sofia Golovskaya, Praskovya Maksimova

Run Time: 30 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Sixteenth-Century Russian Wedding (1909)

16th Century Russian Wedding

Alternate Titles: Русская свадьба XVI столетия, Russkaya svadba XVI stoletiya

This short film is a simple historical reenactment. It was produced, as was “Drama in a Gypsy Camp,” by the up-and-coming Alexander Khanzhonkov, who seems to have had a taste in Russian-national themed movies. He retained Vladimir Siversen, the director/cameraman, to shoot this picture, but handed the reins of directing over to Vasily Goncharov. This was probably wise, Siversen seemed to find both directing and cranking the film a bit overwhelming in the last outing, but here the camerawork is consistent and Goncharov seems to have been comfortable keeping the actors in line (liner notes tell us he relied on assistance from Pyotr Chardynin, who plays the father of the groom, in this). The entire movie is shot on the same stage, with only slight changes in decoration and costume to signal the difference between the bride’s room and the groom’s. The wedding hall is decorated with an elaborately-painted backdrop like something out of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but for the most part the art is fairly restrained. All of the actors are shown full-frame, nobody’s feet are cut off, and with considerable headroom, making them appear quite small and indistinguishable on the screen. You’d never recognize any of these actors if you saw them in a different costume. The costumes emphasize the fact that this is an upper-class wedding, not a peasant affair, although some of the dancers at the wedding have more austere clothes, once again a comment on the presumed class of movie-goers in Czarist Russia.

Director: Vasily Goncharov

Camera: Vladimir Siversen

Starring: Alexandra Goncharova, Andrej Gromov, Pyotr Chardynin, Pavel Biryukov, Vasili Stepanov, Lidiya Tridenskaya

Run Time: 8 Min, 25 seconds

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.