Thursday, 21 June 2012

Vera Kholodnaya ‘The Queen of Screen’ … A Life for a Life (1916)

Yevgeni Bauer was the leading film director in pre-revolutionary Russia and it’s a joy to uncover more of his work. He operated on a similar level to the Scandinavians and Americans of this period in terms of setting out and defining film language with increasing depth and sophistication.

Watching A Life for a Life ( Zhizn za zhizn) from 1916 it doesn’t appear initially to be that ground-breaking or much different from many melodramas from the period but… the more you watch the clearer it becomes that Bauer is controlling almost every aspect of what you see with vision and verve.

Now this sounds obvious (and maybe it is) but I’ve rarely been as conscious of the actors acting when not centre stage - or of their movement and positioning indicating important issues of character or plot. The spaces they are in seem to be indicators both of emotion as well as circumstance.

As with the earlier After Death Bauer builds real spaces in which to act his dramas – they are spacious sets and built to the very edge of his relatively fixed camera frame and filled to brimming with flowers and ornaments. The actors use every inch of the stage and move around each other to be revealed in different parts of the set – reinforcing the impression of depth, solidity and the “real”.

The actors are in nearly constant motion and move back and forth and across the screen to signify different moods or developments in their relationships… I suppose you could call Bauer economical: no space goes unfilled and the actors’ movements not only tell the story they also create its rhythm.

Based on the novel by French writer, Georges Ohnet, Bauer sets the story in the Russian upper class set. Mrs Khromova (Olga Rakhmanova) is a wealthy industrialist who runs her factory very effectively – a strong female character and one you might not find in some other cultures at this time? She has a birth-daughter, the winsome but naive Musya (Lydia Koreneva) and another she has adopted, the beauteous Nata (played by Vera Kholodnaya famously Russia’s first film star ) .

Both girls are of marrying age and, whilst Nata has attracted the attention of the wealthy merchant Zhurov, (Ivane Perestiani) she does not love him. Into their lives comes the wastrel Prince Vladimir Bartinsky (Vitold Polonsky looking a little like an over made up Peter Capaldi…), who has no money and plenty of debts. He woos Musya as she is the only daughter who will inherit from their mother, yet, he has lost his heart to Nata who has no money nor, being adopted, the rights to any.

A bargain is struck between the two men and Zhurov offers to help the Prince marry Musya in return for having a free run at Nata… thus do both men abuse the trust of the family. Zhurov makes the Prince’s case to Madame Khromova but she is only finally swayed by the affection her daughter shows for this dubious character. Musya hardly knows what she’s getting into and her mother warily takes the chance.

There’s a superb set piece at the wedding when Bauer swoops the camera towards the wedding banquet and then out again after the speech: this is the heart of the story and we can only guess how things will now unfold. The omens are not good as Nata breaks down and confesses her true love to her mother who asks her to never put Musya’s happiness under threat.

These scenes are well worked with the characters moving on and off the dance floor and a breeze gently blowing Nata’s wedding viel across her face… ‘tis and ill wind…

The Prince and Musya go off on an extended honeymoon and on their return it is clear that the Prince has continued his wayward lifestyle and is gambling his wife’s dowry away. To make matters worse, the Prince is soon reunited with Nata in spite of her protestations that she now hates him. She can’t resist him and begins to help him defraud her husband. This Prince is something like the male version of a “vamp” bringing destruction to all those he touches…

There’s an horrific moment in which he re-encounters Nata and she gives in once again to his advances. Musya opens a curtain to recoil in horror as the two make love. It’s a great reaction from Lydia Koreneva.

Spoilers ahead: Zhurov uncovers the fraud and quickly sees the truth of his wife’s relationship with the Prince. He and Madame Khromova agonise over what course of action to take. She wants the Prince disposed of and he wants to tell the police but this course will only bring shame on them all.

No one seems capable of resolving the situation and the Prince prepares to brazen his way out by saying that there is no way to prove his guilt. But he reckons without the superior moral courage of Madame Khromova who taking the gun intended for his suicide, shoots him dead from across the room and then has the presence of mind to plant the weapon in his dead hands.

My teenage daughter and I were high-fiving at this point, possibly inappropriately, but in recognition of Khromova’s strength of character and willingness to act. Her daughters are both distraught but the evil in their lives has been removed. Not such a morally-questionable resolution in Russia in 1916...and it's difficult to not see political overtones.

It is also really striking to find such a strong female character in a story from this period and to find none of the men heroic.

The five leads all play well, especially Olga Rakhmanova as the matriarch, whilst Vitold Polonsky is wonderfully weasily as the pointless Prince.

The stand out though has to be the powerfully-enigmatic Vera Kholodnaya who is remarkably beautiful and also a fine naturalistic actor. Her expressive face – huge illuminated eyes – is matched by a dancer’s poise (she had classical ballet training at the Bolshoi Theatre no less) which suited Bauer’s mobile agenda, and an expressive physicality. At one point she almost shivers with disgust – a violent shake of her shoulders – whilst at other times she is more understated than you’d expect: carrying a lot within even though in torment.

A Life for a Life was the film which inspired the actor/singer Alexander Vertinsky to dub her ‘the Queen of Screen’ – he was besotted along with many of his countrymen, and she went from strength to strength as world war gave way to revolution in Russia.

Kholodyana made over 50 films but sadly only five remain. She died in the spanish flu pandemic in early 1919 and the Milestone DVD I watched has footage from her funeral in Odessa; a sad coda to a film that shows her in such vibrancy. The attendance at her passing was huge and she was much loved yet by the mid-twenties the communist regime had ordered the destruction of most of her films. We are lucky that enough remains to show us her talent and to enable her to live on as an artist.

Vera’s other extant work is difficult to find but there are reasonable copies of the following on youtube…it may be a good time to learn Russian though…
Children of the Age - Deti Veka (1915)
Be Silent, My Sorrow, Be Silent - Molchi, grust... molchi (1918)
The other titles¸ The Mirages - Mirazhi (1915) and A Corpse Living - Zhivoy trup (1918), are proving harder to track down!

A Life for a Life is available direct from Milestone as Volume 9: High Society of their Early Russian Film collection. It is based on the BFI restoration from the early 1990s and features a stirring piano accompaniment from Neil Brand. In addition to the main feature there’s also a winsome short comedy, Autosha Ruined by a Corset … proof that the Russians were equally capable of laughing as crying.

Immensely spirited, Bauer and Kholodyana are deserved of more attention. Overcome by events and ill-health they were major figures of world cinema at a time of great advances as well as social and political instability.

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