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...|
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|
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...|
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...|