The Chess Player (Le Joueur d’echecs) (1927)

[3 July 2003]

By John G. Nettles

Gambits and Endgames

In the 1770s, an Austrian courtier and diplomat named Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen stunned the Western world with his singular creation, a chess-playing automaton called the Turk. Animated mannequins were something of a fad among European royalty and aristocracy of the period, but most of these were clockwork musicians or limited performers who did the same things over and over, with varying degrees of sophistication. Kempelen’s device, however, appeared capable of independent and logical thought, able to form strategy and detect illegal moves.

It is estimated that the Turk defeated 98% of its opponents, who included such luminaries as Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin during Kempelen’s lifetime. After the Baron’s death, a successor continued to exhibit the Turk, who faced off against Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Babbage, the man who attempted to create the first computer, the “difference engine,” partly inspired by his encounter with Kempelen’s marvelous machine.

The story of the Turk, which turned out to be one of the most successful hoaxes ever pulled off, is fascinating in itself, but as the basis for Raymond Bernard’s 1927 silent film, The Chess Player, it is nothing short of stunning. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Henri Dupuy-Mazuel, who placed Kempelen and his device in the middle of a Polish revolution and carried them into the Winter Palace of Catherine II of Russia. The result is at once bold, emotional, eerie, and beautiful.

Rather than the dabbling aristocrat he was in real life, Kempelen (Charles Dullin) is here an eccentric inventor of automata, living alone in a bizarre mechanical house on the outskirts of Vilnius, Lithuania—one is immediately reminded of Vincent Price’s pad in Edward Scissorhands—surrounded by his whimsical creations. Kempelen appears to have little interest in the outside world, which is just as well, as it’s gotten messy out there. Polish Lithuania in 1776 is chafing under the iron rule of Russia, and tensions between the Russian occupiers and the Poles are dangerously high.

Unfortunately for Kempelen, however, he has a pair of troublemakers in his care. He serves as an avuncular mentor to a headstrong soldier, Boleslas Vorowski (Pierre Blanchar), and his idealistic foster sister Sophie Novinska (Edith Jehanne), who are leaders of the Polish resistance in Vilnius—Sophie’s portrait adorns the rallying banner for the movement. Only Boleslas’ abiding friendship with a Russian lieutenant, Prince Serge Oblomoff (Pierre Batcheff), and ongoing chess rivalry with a certain Major Nicolaieff (Camille Bert), keep him and his partisans in check.

But as Boleslas is about to go home to celebrate Sophie’s birthday, one of Nicolaieff’s men attempts to rape a Polish dancer named Wanda (Jacky Monnier). Boleslas kills Wanda’s assailant, inciting a full-on brawl between Poles and Russians, which in turn triggers a peasant uprising. Boleslas races home to tell Sophie the war’s on, only to find her in Oblomoff’s arms. Forced to choose between her lover and her people, Sophie lets Oblomoff go.

Bernard’s depiction of the Polish uprising is nothing short of epic. The hopelessly outmanned and outgunned Poles crash like waves on the shore against the Russian forces; and panoramic battlefield scenes give way to breathtaking fantasy, as a despairing Sophie imagines Boleslas on horseback routing the Russians, a scene incorporating thousands of actual Polish cavalry thundering across a field (reminiscent of D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille’s grand action scenes). But a fantasy is all it is, and the revolt fails, leaving Boleslas crippled and hunted, an Imperial bounty on his head and on the head of anyone who shields him. Kempelen takes Boleslas and Sophie in, but it is only a matter of time before they are all discovered. The only hope for Boleslas is to sneak into Germany and safety—but how?

Enter the Turk. Kempelen takes his newest creation, a chess-playing mechanical marvel, on tour, inching his way across Poland with Sophie and Wanda in tow. The automaton is a boffo success, and as they move ever closer toward Germany, it would seem Kempelen’s clever plan is working, until Major Nicolaieff shows up in Warsaw and finds the Turk’s game very familiar… Suddenly the troupe is summoned to St. Petersburg, the lion’s den where the Polish rebellion will come face to face with the Empress of All the Russias.

The plot and scope of The Chess Player are sprawling, as is the running time of 140 minutes, but the film is as engrossing a spectacle as one will see, even with the modern moviegoer’s typical resistance to silent film conventions (I’ll plead guilty to that, having recently tried to watch the original version of Ben-Hur, and giving up after half an hour of Ramon Navarro’s histrionics). The cast is composed primarily of accomplished stage actors: Dullin was the director of France’s famed Theatre de l’Atelier. Title cards are kept at a minimum, such that the wonderfully textured performances drive the action. And a new performance of the original score by Henri Rabaud complements Bernard’s range of moods, the battlefield excesses, the pomp of Catherine’s palace, and the flat-out creepiness of Kempelen’s clockwork museum, all beautifully restored for the DVD release.

In real life, the Turk remained a popular phenomenon for 85 years, until its owner deliberately revealed how the trick was done and mothballed the gadget. Tom Standage, author of The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine (Walker & Co. 2002), speculates that the reason no cynic ever outed the illusion was because the trick was so nifty that it encouraged the willing suspension of disbelief even in such skeptical minds as Ben Franklin’s. When the show’s that good, just go with it. Kempelen’s show was that good, and so is Bernard’s.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/chess-player/