Sunday, 17 January 2016

Boys keep swinging… Departure of a Great Old Man (1912)

“… this mad luxury in the midst of unnecessary need and penury…”

Leo Tolstoy died on 20th November 1910 at Astapovo train station after fleeing from his family and specifically his controlling wife Sofia. He had renounced his aristocratic privilege and spent his time on the train explaining the principle of Georgism to fellow passengers: the product of the land should be shared by all who lived and worked on it – a utopian hope for a society divided like no other.

The Departure of a Great Old Man (1912) - co-directed with Elizaveta Thiemann – was Yakov Protazanov’s fourth film and rather primitive in comparison with The Queen of Spades (1916) and the spectacular Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924). But this was something different, an attempt at capturing the news, featuring actual locations and, even the subject’s corpse lying in state at the end.

Tolstoy's thoughts are with the rural poor
The film was banned in Russia with Sofia taking exception to her portrayal as a greedy, domineering aristo but it was welcomed elsewhere.  Tolstoy is treated as a man more sinned against than sinning and wandering alone a prophet without honour in his own home, greeted in heaven by Jesus in a most unexpected manner – we’re still a long way from 1917 although Protazanov was one of the few directors to return to films post-revolution.

But what can you make of his motives in producing a film in such haste just a year or so after Tolstoy’s death – a tribute yes, but also an attack against the family that held him back in his radical final months. That said, film historian Ian Christie talks about Protazanov’s “ability to seize on the topical or the scandalous and intensify it to the point where it acquires a real moral significance for the audience."  Best to avoid hindsight as always in Russia but there was clearly a sense of injustice and one that didn’t stand up in court when Sofia’s challenge came.

The peasants ask Tolstoy for land
Tolstoy’s demise overlapped with Russian concerns of inequality and in this film a group of peasants comes to the great man’s house in order to ask for land. He tells them they must speak to his wife “the boss” and she quickly dismisses their claim leaving her husband in impotent despair.

According to Christie, the idea for the film came from a Tolstoy expert who based the story around this sad discord of the author’s final days at home in Iasnaia Poliana and then on his “escape”.

Vladimir Shaternikov was made up very effectively as Leo Tolstoy and this, accompanied by the location shooting added a feel of documentary realism until those closing moment of religious reconciliation for a man who had pushed the Orthodox Church pretty hard.

Domestic disharmony
After arguing with his wife about helping the peasants, Tolstoy makes a will without telling Sophia – “Let the income from my books go to the common good!” – and appoints Vladimir Chertkov (Mikhail Tamarov) as his editor.

He allows a young peasant woman to collect firewood on his land but a man on horseback hired by Sophia beats her and Tolstoy is not able to protect her. In spiritual crisis he sees a vision of a nun praying for him and makes the fateful decision to leave Iasnaia Poliana.

His daughter Sasha aka Alexandra Lvovna Tolstaya (Elizaveta Thiman) tries to persuade him to stay but he is resolved and after she tells her, Sophia pretends to commit suicide by falling down next to some water… (they really don’t like her do they!).

Meanwhile Leo visits Shamordin Monastery to see Sister Maria Nikolaevna – the woman he imagined praying for him – she seems to help as he spends time with peasant children and in the fields. The sister tries to affect reconciliation with his wife.

Tolstoy is taken ill travelling and meets his fate at Astapovo… “So, this is the end! And there is nothing!” But not in this film, as the author is met by Jesus in the clouds.

Some mean souls on the inter-web take issue with the film’s “slowness” its static camera and so on… but this was 1912 and where were you when the badges were handed out for cinematic innovation?! The industry was young in Russia and was to advance quickly with this director being one of the main shakers. He was to conduct his players with a baton – the “braking school” as it was known, in which a unity was attempted between visual design and the narrative conception.

This Old Man was a step on the way and is fascinating for the technique it does contain as well as the very notion of death observed almost in real time. Tolstoy’s body makes an appearance near the end* creating the same morbid frisson as the sight of a smiling David Bowie just days before his demise earlier this week.

For my generation and others there is no one else like David Bowie and for popular culture there has perhaps not been a bigger loss since John Lennon - things will never be quite the same again. Perhaps the same was true in Russian literature, after the loss of one of their greatest writers. To make sense of it all, it helps to reflect, especially with two men who went out still trying to make a difference in their own ways.

End of the road
This is one of the Milestone DVDs produced in the early nineties and features a young Neil Brand providing accompaniment in time-honoured fashion, skipping across the keyboard in fleet-fingered sympathy with his subject as always.

This is Volume 8 of the Early Russian Cinema series and can be ordered direct from Milestone Films here.

*From documentary footage filmed by A. Drankov

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