"Why speak like this? Oh, I am mad! I was mistaken about you, your face…"—Zoia (Vera Karalli), After Death
His cinema career only lasted five years, during which he may have made as many as eighty films. They were tumultuous years in Russia, as the constitutional monarchy formed only a few years before struggled to survive. In 1917, the same year he died, Russia itself collapsed into revolution. His films, the last vestiges of a decadent time, were locked up. Other, more politically relevant artists, because famous as the voices of the new Soviet art. He was forgotten, his artistry whispered about only in history books.
His name was Evgeni Bauer. Long before George Cukor, Bauer was famous as a "woman's director," crafting clever portraits of gender roles in Russian society. Before Von Stroheim, he was criticizing the hypocrisy of class. But Bauer was a victim of history: his short melodramas did not fit the new ideology of Soviet Russia. So filmmakers like Eisenstein and Vertov supplanted him. Only 26 Evgeni Bauer films are known to survive today.
Mad Love, another fine effort by the Milestone Collection to preserve the forgotten classics of silent cinema, reintroduces audiences to three surviving films by Bauer. While I wish the disc provided more historical background on Bauer's life and work (the only substantial extras are a slow and dry "film essay" by scholar Yuri Tsivian using clips from the three films to explain Bauer's style, and a highly-detailed PDF-format press kit that requires a DVD-ROM to access), the films themselves show Bauer's intimate understanding of the potential of film to create vivid characters.
All three films run just under 50 minutes apiece, narratively tight, more like short stories than novels. In Twilight of a Woman's Soul (1913), Vera Dubovskaia (Vera Chernova) lives surrounded by wealth and luxury. Yet, she feels a terrible emptiness. Her mother turns her toward charity work, and Vera suddenly feels emboldened by her new liberalism. But Maxim (V. Demert), a poverty stricken apprentice, decides to take advantage of her—in the worst possible way. He rapes her (the only intertitle during the sequence announces, "Fate"), after which she stabs him.
Later, Vera meets the pompous playboy, Prince Dol'skii (A. Ugrjumov), who proposes marriage. Fate again intervenes: when she tells him of her sordid past after their wedding, he explodes at her. Expressing pity for him, she leaves. Bauer then switches to Dol'skii's perspective for the last act, in which her newfound strength clashes with the usual demands of melodrama for a romantic reunion.
Although Twilight of a Woman's Soul suffers from rather undercooked characters (their behavior turns on a dime, suggesting a lack of coherent motivation), Bauer shows that he understands to potential of silent cinema more than most of his contemporaries: he uses few intertitles (and almost none for dialogue), allowing movement and expression to convey the story; his portrait of social class and gender is striking for its time, more reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser than the theatrical melodramas that formed the basis of most early films; he creates a remarkable depth in the visual field which suggests that he understands that cinema is more than simply a filmed stage production.
All these characteristics are in full flower in his 1915 film After Death. Andrei Bagrov (Vitold Polonsky) is so wrapped up in his studies and the memory of his dead mother (unearth Freud and get ready to spin him like a bottle) to pay much attention to the outside world. When a friend drags him to a party, the smoldering actress Zoia Kadmina (Vera Karalli, Bauer's real life muse) falls for Andrei, in spite of his creepy stare. He rejects her advances, and she commits suicide.
Now the fun begins: Andrei is immediately haunted by the memory of Zoia, an eternally unfulfilled desire. He interviews her mother, studies her diaries, and suffers almost non-stop hallucinations. Worn down, he finally surrenders and dies. Adapted from a Turgenev story, After Death is meticulously paced and full of psychological chills. Bauer takes his time setting up Andrei and his world (follow the long, slow tracking shot at the party, a marvelous technical accomplishment for 1915) so that we see how such a repressed character could break down when confronted with a mystery he cannot fathom through academic study.
We can only imagine what Bauer would have done with an adaptation of Poe, or the more psychosexual horror of Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo. Hints are there in The Dying Swan from 1916. Vera Karalli stars again, this time as Gizella, a mute ballerina. The real Karalli was an international ballet sensation, a student of Diaghilev, and allegedly the woman who helped lure Rasputin to his death. Gizella draws almost as much admiration in Bauer's film. Or at least she draws obsessive weirdoes trying to understand the beauty of death. Count Glinskii (Andrej Gromov), a crazed artist, falls for the image of Gizella as "the dying swan." Depressed, she welcomes his attentions and agrees to pose for him. But when her old boyfriend appears and proposes, she perks up. Glinskii prefers her sad and dying—so he uses a little, ahem artistic license with his beloved model.
The Dying Swan may be, in some ways, a comment on cinema itself, and Bauer's sense of impending doom for his own life and career. Gizella, pure movement without speech, is the embodiment of silent film itself. The plot, thick with gothic melodrama, cannot be taken too seriously. It is apparent that Glinskii really is less of a talented artist (his paintings are obviously awful) than a perverse nut. A bad artist conquers a great artist; a willful but mad man uses then destroys a talented woman in a clearly eroticized manner. Death proves more powerful than art.
Perhaps Bauer saw it coming: within a year of making The Dying Swan, the February Revolution began the process of overthrowing Tsarist Russia. Bauer, always a critique of bourgeois hypocrisy, would probably have fit well into the new ideology. Instead, he died suddenly in June, 1917. Fortunately, like Gizella, Evgeni Bauer left a legacy of masterful silent art. Check out Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer for its creepy atmosphere, and learn to appreciate a forgotten cinema pioneer.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Milestone Films
• Audio Essay by Yuri Tsivian
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