Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Russia

The Dying Swan (1917)

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

A Life for a Life (1916)

Alternate Titles: Zhiznt zo zhizn, A Tear for Every Drop of Blood, Za kozhduiu slezu po kople krovi, The Rival Sisters, Sestry sopernitsy.

Once again I return to Russian filmmaker Evgeni Bauer, and again I find his work masterful and fascinating. This film also established one of Russia’s most important film stars, Vera Kholodaia, as a major artistic phenomenon.

Life for a LifeThe story is of two sisters, one adopted, who are raised by their very successful single mother. She runs a factory, spending most of her waking hours working, in order to secure the family’s fortune. The adopted daughter, Nata (memorably played by Vera Kholodnaia, who was in “Children of the Age” and a 1914 version of “Anna Karenina”) is a little older, and quite beautiful, but it’s understood that she will not inherit, the money will go to Musia, the younger, less attractive natural daughter of the capitalist mom (Lidiia Koreneva). The young girls are social butterflies, going to dances, parties, and other events, where the men of course regard them as possible prey. Enter Prince Bartinskii (Vitol’d Polonskii), a scoundrel who gambles heavily and has enormous debts. He starts hanging around Nata and they fall in love. He confers with a friend (Ivan Perestiani, who became a director after the revolution, making “The Suram Fortress” and “Three Lives”) about his financial situation, and the friend points out that he needs a rich wife to help him get out of debt and continue his extravagant lifestyle. Nata is not the girl for him, whatever his feelings. But the friend suggests a solution, he is willing to make the sacrifice and marry the lovely Nata for him, if he will marry Musia. Then, the affair can continue, and the Prince will have the money he needs. And so it is done, and the setup for a multi-way tragedy is established.

Life for a Life3This may have been one of the first attempts in Russia to make a “blockbuster” big-budget hit movie, and it was apparently successful with audiences and critics. Based on a French novel by Georges Ohnet, it was not a nationalist epic, along the lines of “The Birth of a Nation” or “Defense of Savastapol.” Instead, it is a romantic story of bourgeois relationships being fouled by aristocratic greed and corruption, an interesting theme for pre-revolutionary Russia. Bauer took advantage of his increased budget by hiring extras and building large, ornate sets. Apparently his use of columns in the background was mocked in the press at the time and seen as an attempt to imitate “foreign” influences. I would agree that there are a lot of them – one in almost every shot, and in one scene a mirror serves to double one of them in case actors should happen to step in front of it. But, I don’t know why this would be seen as “foreign.” Bauer’s set designs generally tended to be busy, and he liked to give the eye more to look at than people; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen columns in other movies by him, I just wasn’t looking for them at the time. Furthermore, I can’t think of a foreign director of the time who used them so much.

Uh oh, columns!

Uh oh, columns!

This movie apparently made Kholodnaia into a major Russian star, earning her the title of “Queen of the Screen,” and she is certainly the one to watch in this movie. She expresses love, joy, guilt, shame, horror, and terrible sadness, sometimes within just a few minutes of each other, but without over-acting, and all the while remaining the focal point of the film. The mom is actually pretty good too – in many ways she’s the real victim here – as is Perestiani. Polonskii and Koreneva have less to do – he mostly looks shifty and smarmy and she just looks stupidly injured. The scene where her mother advises her not to marry the prince is the height of melodramatic pantomime.

Life for a Life2

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavlev

Starring: Ol’ga Rakhmanova, Lidiia Koreneva, Vera Kholodnaia, Vitol’d Polonskii, Ivan Perestiani

Run Time: 1hr 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here (42 Min version)

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).

Departure of a Grand Old Man (1912)

Departure of a Grand Old Man

This Russian movie by Yakov Protazanov is more famous for the controversy it provoked than for its content. Leo Tolstoy’s widow sued the company for libel, and was successful in getting its screenings suppressed in Russia, although it was still distributed internationally. She is depicted in the film as being domineering and greedy, and ultimately as causing her husband’s death – surely grounds for a libel suit if I’ve ever heard one! This narrative is not unusual, however. She has often been accused of preventing Tolstoy from giving land and money to peasants and worthwhile causes, and the story, depicted here, of Tolstoy saying “I’m not the boss, check with my wife” had been told anecdotally long before this movie was made, whether it was true or not. It may well be that Tolstoy himself hid behind her as a kind of excuse for his own moral weaknesses, and the movie certainly fails to show the hard work she put into editing his novels.

The movie itself is fairly unimaginative hagiography. Nearly every shot is the same, they are all static, and at fairly long distance from the characters. There is some interesting documentary footage of a train station near the end, but the vast majority of the film takes place inside of small, square-shaped sets with characters entering and exiting as from a stage. The scenes are not inter-cut and do not interact with one another; each is a discreet unit that plays out until the end. A final effect shot was added for the foreign audiences: Tolstoy is welcomed into Heaven by Jesus Christ. Not really what one hopes for from Russian silent cinema.

Directed by: Yakov Protazanov, Eliziveta Thiemann

Camera: George Meyer, Aleksandr Levitskii

Starring: Vladimir Shaternikov, Olga Petrova, Mikhail Tamarov, Elizaveta Thiemann

Run time: 31 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

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.

Merchant Bashkirov’s Daughter (1913)

I’m not even sure where to begin with this Russian film from the Volga region. It’s certainly not like anything else I’ve seen from Russia up to this point, or from anywhere else, for that matter, although there are echoes of “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul,” perhaps, but in a more flamboyantly sensationalistic manner. The story begins prosaically enough: the young daughter of a prominent merchant is in love with a young man below her station. One day Papa comes home and announces that he has found a good husband for her – one who looks pretty much just like him, in age and demeanor. She, and the mother, are horrified, but powerless to do anything about it. When she brings the young man over to break the news, Papa returns home unexpectedly, and in trying to hide him in her room, she accidentally kills him! Now the whole family is caught in a downward spiral of shame, cover-ups, and blackmail. The girl has to prostitute herself, until, at the end, she takes revenge on the men who have exploited her in a most violent manner.

 Merchant Bashkirov

To make this strange film even stranger, the liner notes claim that it was shot with the intention of blackmailing a real family named Bashkirov which had undergone a similar scandal. That’s all the more bizarre, considering the punishment meted out to the on-screen blackmailers, but it’s certainly possible. When the movie was released in Russia, apparently, the name was changed, “because the heroine’s surname is identical to that of some well-known merchants in a certain town on the Volga — by sheer coincidence of course.” But surely the details of the story were similar enough to the real-world scandal that all news-sensitive viewers must have known about it.

Gentlemen, I'm afraid your beard must wait outside.

Gentlemen, I’m afraid your beards must wait outside.

Technically, this film is about equal to movies made in the USA at the time, but not comparable to the work of Evgeni Bauer. There are close-ups to emphasize emotion, the camera pans (at one point passing through a false wall from one room into another) and there are some interesting compositions and one good use of a silhouette, but on the whole it’s your standard staged performance. The plot is easy enough to follow, although apparently there is missing footage, and one lengthy scene where the father talks to a man in uniform is difficult to interpret. The other thing I wanted to mention is the extreme facial hair on pretty much every male in the movie except for the young victim. Now, most of the Russian movies I’ve seen so far have featured beards (in fact, “The Brigand Brothers” used the length of the brothers’ beards as a narrative device to let you know where in the flashback a given scene fit), but this is a whole new level of beardedness. The beards in this movie at times threaten to take over the screen, leaving no room for the actors. This is definitely a movie for facial hair aficionados.

Director: Nikolai Larin

Camera: I. Dored

Run Time: 42 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Wedding Day (1912)

Wedding Day

Alternate Titles: Den’venchaniia, Yom Hakhupe

This somewhat mystifying short appears to be incomplete in its present form, although it could be that Russian/Eastern audiences would have known how to interpret it. It is included with the “Early Russian Cinema” DVD set, but was actually made in Poland and stars “a troupe of travelling Jewish players.” It does include a wedding scene, but this actually follows a scene showing the death of (what looks like) the bride, attended by her husband, a rabbi, and a random drunk whose relationship to the others is obscure. The final scene shows the bereaved husband, looking worse for wear and laughing at another drunk, who seems to be engaged in a conversation with a tree stump. Throughout, there are flashes of a flooded village, which may or may not be from another film altogether. The wedding scene looks quite authentic as an Eastern Jewish wedding, and may have had elements of the “exotic” for the largely urban Russian audiences it presumably targeted. A child in this scene frequently looks at the camera. There are two uses of close-ups, which come across as jump-cuts, in part because the angle of the camera shifts slightly between shots, and the camera pans slightly to track some characters as they move across the screen. There is also a brief sequence in which the dead woman appears in the room, apparently in ghostly form, although the special effect is very simplistically done. Unfortunately, I could find little about it, and the effect of it without more context is thoroughly surreal.

Director: Evgeni Slavinski

Camera: Evgeni Slavinski

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch this for free: here. Thanks to commenter Muller Natacha for the link!