Saturday, 18 January 2014

Vera and Yevgeni join the party… Children of the Age (1915)

Vera Kholodnaya
This is the most overtly political of the films I have seen directed by Yevgeni Bauer and clearly shows his involvement in the contemporary Russian discourse on social equality and unprincipled capitalism. Children of the Age (Deti veka) may not be a long film but it packs a lot into its 38 minutes: class conflict, sexual violence, corruption… and the human misery derived from all.

Bauer’s trademark touches are all in evidence with the backdrop to every scene beautifully constructed not just for the interiors but also with locations showing Moscow and its surrounding countryside. Deti veka is a feast for the eyes throughout with perfectly judged camerawork and cutting allowing an expressive cast to flourish.

Vera Kholodnaya and V. Glinskaya
Two old friends run into each other in Moscow’s Gostinnyi Dvor, a chic shopping arcade off Red Square – the Petrovskii Passage. One is the happily married Maria Nikolaevna (panda-eyed Vera Kholodnaya) who lives in a modest apartment with her baby and husband: a junior bank clerk (Ivan Gorskij). The other is Lidija Verkhonskaja (V. Glinskaya) a woman of means who feels that her friend could have done better. She decides to help her and with friends like these, Maria won’t need any enemies…

Members of the revolutionary garden party...
Lidija invites her beautiful friend to meet her wealthy social set and to enjoy their parties and other pleasurable past-times – picnics, boating and gypsy concerts (gypsies were all the rage at the time!). It’s obviously a good time to be young and wealthy in Moscow and the consumption is conspicuous… so far away from the conflict with Germany (Russia's Great Retreat stared in July 1915 and Kholodnaya's husband had been drafted in 1914) and the suffering of large sections of society.

Mr Nikolaevna fits less easily in with his wife’s new associates and after the first garden party in which his ignored whilst Maria attracts all the attention, he leaves her to it. From the first event onwards, she falls under the gaze of the acquisitive and unprincipled industrialist Lebedev (Arseniy Bibilov) who determines to have her for himself… and friend Lidija is all too willing to help matters along: is she also under the rich man’s control?

Bauer's typically lavish set design: Lebedev pursues his prey...
Lidija arranges for Lebedev to be alone with Maria in a park but she evades his leacherous advances, quickly walking back to Lidjia. But this is only a temporary respite as the elder man reaches in to affect Maria’s life in ways she cannot begin to understand, arranging for her husband to lose his job so as to try and persuade him into giving up his wife and child in exchange for money.

Lebedev is not to be denied and pursues Maria at a picnic after getting her drunk: we are left in no doubt as to the outcome as the two are driven back to Moscow in the old letch’s chauffeur-driven limousine.

No escape for Maria...
This sequence is still harrowing and as Lebedev is mauling Maria, she manages to escape but no one will help her especially after his monied molester plays it all down by claiming that she’s “having hysterics…” Thus the word of the rich counts for all and Maria slumps back into the car defeated –  it’s quite genuinely horrible and not something you’d expect to see in an American film perhaps.

Her will is broken and she returns home dishevelled and ashamed. But that’s not the end and she is about to have her last avenue of escape closed off… Her husband is called to a meeting with Lebedev’s attourney, ostensibly to discuss a new job but when he arrives it is only to offered money to leave his wife and child in exchange for a fee. He refuses and rushes to return home…his world closing down on him.

Ivan Gorskij and Vera Kholodnaya
Spoilers: As he heads home in a defeated daze, Bauer intercuts with scenes of Maria taking their baby away to a life with Lebedev and his strange acolyte Lidija… The car stalls but it won’t offer a reprieve… young Nikolaevna arrives home to find everyone gone…with no future left he writes a note and shoots himself…

So complete is Lebedev’s victory that the viewer’s mind inevitably slips forward a couple of years to when Russian society finally snapped. This is not to say that Bauer was a communist sympathiser or any shade of revolutionary, but the revolution had been building for decades and all walks of life had their own sense of injustice, including bourgoise film makers.

That this all plays out against a backdrop of Bauer’s typically opulent stages somehow makes everything worse. Wealth doesn’t bring true class or happiness and Lebedev having everything, simply wants more.

Maria is betrayed by her old friend and swept up into a world of manipulation in which neither she or her husband has a chance: the kind of hopeless, almost casual injustice that drives desperate solutions. She fights all along the way but in the end is sucked in as a means of securing the welfare of her child… and we can only guess at what lies she has been told about her husband’s response to his pay off. Maybe this is the only way she can think of protecting him too?

Arseniy Bibilov plays the villain with aplomb and Ivan Gorskij is good as the hapless husband. But it’s The Queen of Screen you watch, Vera Kholodnaya, who has a very modern beauty as well as a dancer’s grace (she trained as a ballerina) and an acting style perfectly suited to the screen. Her premature death from flu in 1918 rocked Russia and robbed them of one of their greatest actors.

Sadly only one of her films is currently available commercially – A Life for a Life, also directed by Bauer, which is reviewed elsewhere on this blog – it is to be hoped that Deti veka and her other surviving films are given a western release at some point. Only five survive out of at least fifty features...

For the moment, a fair copy of Children of the Age is available on youtube.

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