Grief and Angst
The fact that Russian filmmaker Evgeni Bauer (1865-1917) died the year of the Russian cultural revolution seems symbolic. This in the sense that the dramatic, frilly type of film he made (80 in a career that spanned only 1914 to 1917) died with him, and the era of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov was about to start. Bauer’s imagination wandered through a world of theatrical sets, of dancing heroines and tortured men, a world at odds with Russia’s coming realist, proletarian ethos. His death (following a broken leg and consequent pneumonia) coincides with the demise of the bourgeoisie, as far as the arts were concerned, though his films are hardly odes to the elites.
The new regime buried his “decadent” films in Soviet archives. Last year, the British Film Institute (BFI) released a DVD pack called Mad Love: The Films of Evgene Bauer that includes three films, plus an essay by Russian film scholar Yuri Tsivian. The same package is now available in America.
Restored by the Russian state archive Gosfilmofond and featuring new soundtracks specially commissioned by the BFI, Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913), After Death (1915), and The Dying Swan (1916) are among the 20 films that survived the Soviet vaults. Each runs 45-50 minutes, divided into clear-cut segments. Purists who only like to think of Russian cinema in terms of Formalism may find these film novellas affected exercises in style, but those who can see through the opulent décor, costumes, and chiaroscuro lighting will find some film-buffy delights. Unfortunately, the soundtrack, save for Laura Rossi’s music for Twilight, is often out of synch with the imagery.
All three films display an obsession with death similar to Edgar Allan Poe’s feverish descriptions of the mind on the brink on insanity. Twilight Of A Woman’s Soul is Bauer’s earliest film and the one in which his background as a stage set designer is most obvious. It follows Vera (Nina Chernova), an unhappy aristocrat who turns her attention to helping the poor. An eerie dream sequence—tinted in blue, shot through a veil—foretells her eventual fate, and when a tramp climbs through her window and drops a letter on the armchair, the gloomy imagery anticipates German expressionism. He rapes Vera (a scene rendered in a series of jump cuts), then she kills him when he falls asleep. Cut to Vera’s engagement to a prince (Vitol’d Polonskii), who leaves her once she confesses her past. One year later, the remorseful prince seeks her forgiveness, she refuses, and he kills himself.
Much as in Twilight, the characters in After Death are sensitive souls who carry existentialist burdens. Adapted from a story by Ivan Turgenev, it focuses on a man’s obsession with his dead mother. An actress, Zoia (played by the Bolshoi Ballet star of the time, Vera Karalli), falls in love with him, then kills herself when he rejects her. This leads to his haunting by her image (or is it a ghost?) in catatonic poses and extravagant costumes, her huge eyes and expressionist movements creating a luminous screen presence. Her performance, combined with an almost ethereal cinematography, creates a powerful visual description of grief and angst.
Alexander Gorsky choreographed Karalli’s movements here and in The Dying Swan, in which she also stars, as a dancer named Gizaella. A painter obsessed with capturing death on canvas becomes obsessed with her. When she finally agrees to sit for him, he believes that she exudes too much happiness; her eyes are too “alive.” His solution is to strangle her so that she can freeze in a perfectly gorgeous pose, like a swan with its neck turned toward its body.
All three films’ interest in death as it relates to obsession, desire, and sex, combines 19th-century romanticism with a sort of general Freudianism. Death is not a mere plot device, triggering a chain of events. Rather, it is the primary narrative event, its center. Death is not a tragedy, but a sign of nobility and grandeur. Even aside from his thematic concerns, Bauer created poetic film imagery, using careful lighting composition to construct meaning, camera movement and image manipulation to allude to characters’ interior states.
A superb storyteller, Bauer was also a pioneer of deep focus photography, made famous by later U.S. filmmakers like William Wyler and Orson Welles, both of whom worked with the great Gregg Toland for their 1941 masterpieces, The Little Foxes and Citizen Kane. History is full of uncredited trailblazers who worked in the wrong place at the wrong time. As Bauer’s work begins to get the exposure it certainly deserves, we can be grateful at last for its rich cinematographic textures, imaginative mise-en-scène, and hypnotising narratives.