Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Qq

Queen of Spades (1916)

About a year ago, I reviewed a 1910 Russian film of the same name by Pyotr Chardynin. This movie is surprisingly different, although that may result from the sources: this movie is based directly on the novel by Pushkin, while the earlier one is an adaptation of the opera by Tchaikovsky (itself based on the novel). Apart from that, the greater length of this version allows for a more complete telling of the story, which is more lightly sketched in the other version.

Queen_of_Spades_(1916_film)Ivan Mosjoukine is German, a young soldier from a good family with little money. Each night, while his comrades stay up and gamble, he watches them play cards, fascinated. When asked why he doesn’t join their games, he replies “I am not in a position to risk the essential in the hope of acquiring the superfluous.” At dinner, his friend tells him about his Aunt, the Countess (played in flashback by Tamara Duvan), who also does not play cards. When she was a young woman, she went to Paris and lost a great deal of money to the Duc d’Orleans. He insisted upon her paying up, although she couldn’t afford it. In desperation, she turned to the Count Saint-Germain (played by Nikolai Panov), the famed occultist and alchemist. He assured her that she didn’t need money, she just needed the secret to winning at cards, which he gave to her. She then asked for a return match and won all she had lost back and more. Her nephew cannot understand why she refuses to use her power still.

Queen of Spades1916German becomes obsessed with the idea of learning the Countess’s secret. He cannot sleep, so he walks the streets of St. Petersburg, eventually coming across the Countess’s house and seeing her going out for the evening with her young ward, Lizaveta (played by Vera Orlova). An idea strikes him: he spends his days hanging around outside the house, apparently mooning over Lizaveta. He passes her love notes whenever she comes outside of the house. She is smitten by the handsome and earnest young man, and eventually lets him know how he can sneak into the house while the two ladies are out at a ball. When they get home, Lizaveta waits eagerly in her room, but German goes to the old woman and demands her secret. She won’t speak, so he pulls out a revolver. On seeing it, the Countess promptly dies. Finally, German goes to Lizaveta and tells her the Countess is dead. That’s the last we see of Lizaveta in this version. Now German goes home and broods, when he is visited by a vision of the Countess. She tells him a sequence of three cards that always wins: three, seven, ace. Now he knows the secret! He arranges for his friend to get him into a gambling night run by “Chekalinskii,” a Moscow high-roller. He arrives and makes his bet on the three, winning a substantial amount from the house. The next night, he come in and bets on the seven, winning again. When he comes in for the third night, he is sure he has won, until Chekalinskii says “my ace beats your queen.” German looks at the Queen of Spades in his hand and sees the face of the Countess. He has lost, and he goes mad, winding up in a lunatic asylum, hallucinating about cards.

Whoa! Got enough Maybelline on there, Ivan?

Whoa! Got enough Maybelline on there, Ivan?

The direction of this by Yakov Protazanov is more stylized and varied in technique than the 1910 version, though in the end the pacing doesn’t work as well for me as the original. We get Ivan Mozzhukine’s tormented performance, which is good, as all his work is, but frankly it doesn’t have enough of an arc to hold my interest: he’s obsessed by cards at the beginning, and he’s still obsessed in the end. It doesn’t help that for some reason he wears heavy eye-liner that makes him look like an early Goth or Bowie fan. The most obvious difference in plot is the lack of a scene where Lizaveta kills herself when she realizes that German never loved her, but just used her to get to the Countess. That may be an addition Tchaikovsky threw in – it does seem quite operatic. In any case, that made the 1910 version seem like more of a tragic romance to me – perhaps German does love her but thinks he needs the money in order to “deserve” her. Here, German’s just a jerk, even if he is a driven, intense and at times fascinating jerk. Mozzhukine’s intensity in this film reminds me of Conrad Veidt in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or of Lon Chaney as the armless man in “The Unknown.” I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that this ends with an identical scene to “Natural Born Gambler” in which a person plays cards with himself in prison.

Queen of Spades 1916 1Protazanov seems to have had a bigger budget for extras, sets, and costumes, but not really enough imagination to keep the story moving forward as easily as the shorter film. What really stood out for me was the clear delineation between the main story in post-Napoleonic Russia and the flashback to pre-Revolutionary France. The accuracy in costumes is vital to this division, as well as some wise elements of set design (lots of mirrors to represent Versailles, for example). Some elements of the production could be said to prefigure Expressionism, as the set design and use of backlighting comments to some degree on the subjective state of the characters. The best camera move comes at the end, a long backward tracking shot as German approaches the gambling table for the final time. That said, Protazanov sticks mostly to square-shaped sets with exits and entrances, and minimal camera movement in very long takes.

Director: Yakov Protazanov

Camera: Evegni Slavinsky

Cast: Ivan Mosjoukine, Vera Orlova, Tamara Duvan, Nikolai Panov, Pavel Pavlov, Yelizaveta Shebueva

Run Time: 1 hr, 3 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.