Saturday, 15 November 2014

Social disease… Child of the Big City (1914)

It’s Russia in 1914 and you know what’s coming you just don’t know when… then, as the two main characters enjoy a drink in a busy night club it happens:  there’s movement behind a curtain at the far wall revealing a stage, a dancer emerges and as your eyes get drawn to her undulating arms, the camera literally follows your gaze, moving past the couple – who reveal their diverging emotions at the same time – and heading towards the dance.

It’s an expert dolly shot perfected by Yevgeni Bauer and used to give his films an extra depth few contemporaries in World Cinema could rival. He created beautiful sets and moved his actors around them with the same expert precision as his cameras to weave richly-morbid morality tales that may or may not have reflected the turmoil enveloping his country: you know his characters will face life-changing moments and that a happy ending is far from assured.

The camera shows their distance...
But, whatever the trajectory, Bauer will tell his story in a style that avoids the melodramatic through restrained direction and a focus on subtle signifiers rather than grand gestures… well, to a large extent and even when he does use the broader strokes he does so in a way that might confound expectation…

In Child of the Big City we are led immediately in the wrong direction as the story begins showing a poor child Manetschka (Nina Kosljaninowa) watching her mother die of consumption. Six years later and Manetschka has grown up into a striking young woman called Mary (Elena Smirnova) who works as a seamstress while daydreaming of the rich life beyond her… There’s a lovely close up as Mary sits at the window; the outside world going about its business happily without her.

Arseniy Bibikov and Michael Salarow
Meanwhile we meet a young man called Viktor (Michael Salarow) who is looking for a woman with more depth than his well-schooled social circle – here’s a man of integrity in spite of the crude urgings of his extrovert pal Kramskoi (Arseniy Bibikov). He sits disconsolate in his drawing room half-heartedly reviewing snaps of young socialites. Needless to say, this is a Yevgeni Bauer drawing room with many objects positioned to not only illustrate the depths of Viktor’s intellect but also to create superior depth of field as the actors move diagonally through the frame… you’re drawn in (to the drawing room…).

Window shopping
After work Mary tortures herself by window shopping in the more expensive parts of town: we hope she gets what she wants. She encounters Kramskoi outside a jeweller's shop whilst Viktor looks on… and accepts his forward invitation to dine with them at.

Mary steps open-eyed into their bourgeois world only to be repeatedly mauled by Kramskoi she runs to Viktor for protection and succumbs readily to his more whole-hearted embrace. So far, so good… surely Mary has found her fortune in the arms of this serious young man?

But then we see them at the night club and as the camera moves through the scene we can see their relationships fault line all too clearly: Mary smiles to herself as she downs her champagne as Viktor looks on with concern... distanced. Then an overhead shot reveals the bawdy scene in full and Mary accepts an overly-familiar greeting from another man in a top hat.

Viktor is soon driven to financial ruin by Mary’s insatiable requirements for possessions and parties. He sits in his study contemplating the very worst course of action… by the time he gets to Mary’s rooms he finds her in the arms of a servant (Leonid Jost): her passion has run wild. Viktor shoots his pistol in impotent rage and collapses in front of them…

Now, Viktor dreams of winning Mary back from the sparse darkness of his tiny new lodgings whilst Mary carries on living the high life supported by an ever-increasing circle of well-heeled admirers. He pleads for a last chance – one last meeting – will Mary stop to think or has her careless accumulation of wealth and experience inured her to the concerns of common humanity?

Viktor finds Mary in a compromising embrace...
Child of the Big City offers little comfort to those who expect natural justice from their films and as the title makes clear, sees society as the issue and not the individuals. Mary is just as much the victim of consumerist culture as Viktor is of his naive search for pure love: perhaps the need to possess endangers us all?

Elena Smirnova makes for a delightfully flighty Mary, winning our sympathy then throwing it back in our face whilst Michael Salarow’s Viktor begins his fateful tailspin luxuriating in self-indulgent introspection.

There’s a nice cameo from Lidiya Tridenskaya as Mary’s cheeky maid servant whilst Emma Bauer provides the decadent dance in the nightclub.

Viktor's desperate letter is read...
I watched the Milestone Early Russian Cinema Volume 7 DVD which features the BFI restoration from the early 1990s which comes complete with splendid accompaniment from a young Neil Brand: he’ll go far! It’s available direct from Milestone along with the other volumes of their comprehensive overview of Russian cinema.


  1. Very nice review! I really like Bauer, he is probably *the* filmmaker of the teens for me. In his hands what sounds like a basic morality story is told with style and depth.

    1. Thank you! I'd agree - there's always so much controlled detail in his films and nothing is ever rushed.

      Best wishes