Monday, 12 September 2011

"The greatest director you've never heard of..." Yevgeni Bauer. After Death (1915)

Silent film never ceases to astound and, having watched a clip on Mark Cousins’ – perfectly pitched and precisely passionate - Story of Film, I was genuinely knocked out (and thoroughly entertained!) when watching After Death.

After Death (Posle Smerti) was produced in 1915 by the Russian director Yevgeni Bauer. It is nominally a romance and is concerned with the morbid fascination its central character has for the dead woman he loves.

So far so gothic but…the story’s just the framework for a series of genuinely astonishing cinematic set pieces that were, at the very least, on a par with DW Griffith and certainly way ahead of the vast majority of contemporary cinema.

The film begins in Andrei’s study which is lit in gloriously tinted yellow. This is a real room full of detail and solid furniture, not the flimsy and sparse sets of Griffith’s epics but a believable somewhere.

The lighting is adventurous as Andrei is pictured behind a bright red light box centre screen and different tints are used throughout to indicate different moods and environments The framing is also daring. Shots don't show all of the space as more literal directors of the time tended to do. Parts of objects and rooms show us enough and the focus is always on the characters. We first enter Andrei’s room through a half-open door and the majority of the screen is in darkness. “It looks like a Vermeer…” sai
d my wife and there we're shown a room flushed with bright yellow light and shadow.

The next surprise comes at the party when Andrei meets Zoya. The camera pulls back from Andrei and his friend in a smooth dolly shot that slowly reveals the social gathering then, astonishingly, it begins to pan from one social situation to another. All this is one long continuous take that Robert Altman would have been proud of. And yet, here it is, in Russia in 1915!

The surprises keep on coming at Zoya’s performance, with Bauer intercuting long-shots of the theatre with close-ups of both Zoya and Andrei, including a huge close-up of the former’s face filling the entire screen (and no doubt his heart).

Such technical skill is reinforced by the quality of this print (much cleaner than parts of Birth of a Nation for example) and it is also underpinned by an excellent and haunting new score written by Nicholas Brown and performed by an ensemble called Triptych.

Not for nothing did LA film critic Kenneth Turan descibe Yevgeni Bauer, as “the greatest director you’ve never heard of.” It's one of the most affecting and absorbing films I've seen from this period and seems ahead of its time.

Sadly Yevgeni Bauer succumbed to pneumonia in 1917 following an accident. He was just 52 and had made some 80 films of which less than half survive. He would have gone on to make many great movies in the soviet era but what remains is fascinating enough and evidence of a great visionary talent.

The most excellent BFI have this film on DVD (plus Twilight of a Woman's Soul (1913) & The Dying Swan (1916) ). Great value for a genuine classic and the chance to properly evaluate Bauer's place as a progressive film maker.

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