by William M. Drew
| A titan of the early Russian cinema, Evgenii
Bauer was born in Russia in 1865. His father was a renowned zither-player,
while his sisters became actresses. Bauer graduated from the Moscow Institute
of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Over the years, he was an amateur
actor, a caricaturist for magazines, a newspaper satirist, a theatrical
impresario, and an artistic photographer. He was especially recognized
for designing sets for theatrical productions, a talent that eventually
brought him into the cinema when he designed the sets for Drankov and Taldykin’s
commemorative historical film, Trekhsotletie Tsarstvovaniya Doma Romanovykh
Tercentenary of the Rule of the Romanov Dynasty), released in 1913. Encouraged
by Drankov and
Taldykin, Bauer, then 48 years of age, graduated to directing for their
company. After making four films for them, he went over to Pathé's
Star Film Factory for whom he made an additional four films. Then in late
1913, he moved to the Khanzhonkov company where he remained for the rest
of his career. As an artist, he quickly came to the fore, with his films
proving very successful with Russian audiences and critics. He worked in
a variety of genres including comedies, patriotic subjects, social dramas,
and tragedies of psychological obsession.
Among his comedies were several starring his wife Lina Ancharova, whom he had met when she was a dancer in one of the theatre groups that employed him. She demonstrated genuine talent as a comedienne in her films for Bauer. In Tysiacha v toraia khitrost’ (The 1002nd Ruse), filmed in 1915, she plays a flirtatious wife who successfully outwits her husband’s attempts to thwart her infidelities by hiding her lover in the closet. Lina Bauer’s delightful facial expressions and roguish, knowing manner perfectly matched the mood of this well-crafted bedroom farce.
Bauer’s series of patriotic war pictures were made in response to the conflict with Germany and included Slava Nam, Smert’ Vagram (Glory to Us, Death to the Enemy), produced in 1914 with the great star of the early Russian cinema, Ivan Mosjoukin, in the lead. Perhaps the most outstanding of these topical films is Revoliutsioner (The Revolutionary), made in 1917 just after the February Revolution overthrew the Tsarist regime. It deals with a revolutionary who is sent into Siberian exile in 1907 and is liberated a decade later with the fall of the Romanov dynasty. He returns to a hero’s welcome but finds himself at odds with his son, a Bolshevik who opposes Russia’s involvement in World War I. Eventually, the father is able to persuade him that a successful prosecution of the war will aid the revolution and the two enlist. The film was ground-breaking because it was the first Russian production to dramatize the tyranny of the Tsarist secret police and the harshness of Siberian prison life. It also demonstrated Bauer’s technical virtuosity, as in the interior scenes between father and son in a darkened room with chiaroscuro lighting illuminating their faces, or the shots of the two in Moscow on a parapet looking out over the city.
However, it is in the fields of social dramas and tragedies involving psychological obsessions that Bauer reached his peak. These brooding works seemed to strike deep chords in Russian culture and offer penetrating insights into the mood of late imperial Russia. One of the earliest of these films, Sumyerki Zhyentsina Dusha (Twilight of a Woman’s Soul), made in 1913, straddled these genres and is permeated with the melancholy despair of the time. It concerns a noblewoman who tries to break from her idle class by helping the poor and unfortunate. She is attracted to a handsome laborer who rapes her when she visits his slum dwelling. Defending herself, she kills him but is rejected by her fiancé, a prince, when she tells him of the incident. Later, she becomes an opera star but refuses to reconcile with the prince. Experimenting with lighting and design to develop his narrative, Bauer uses this film to comment on the gulf between the classes while exploring the psychology of his tormented heroine.
Bauer’s dramas of social realism include Ditya Bol’shogo Goroda (A Child of the Big City) (1914), Nemye Svideteli (Silent Witnesses) (1914), and Leon Drey (1915). Ditya Bol’shogo Goroda’s female protagonist is a young woman whose soul has been tainted by grinding poverty. Orphaned from birth and toiling in a sweatshop, she escapes when a wealthy young man falls in love with her and makes her his mistress. But once his money runs out, she leaves him, spurning his suggestion that they live a modest life together. In the end, she has climbed her way to the top. When her former lover shoots himself on the doorstep of her mansion, she steps over him on her way to a fashionable restaurant, the final shot being a close-up of his body. In Nemye Svideteli, it is the callousness of the aristocracy that is exposed. The story relates the seduction of a maid by a wealthy idler in an upper class household who abandons her when he renews his relationship with a society woman. Leon Drey is concerned with an attractive Jewish man who uses his charms to advance in society.
This vein of social comment also appears in Bauer’s lavish 1916 drama of high life, Zhizn’ za Zhizn’ (A Life for a Life). Although based on a French novel by Georges Ohnet, the film, adapted to a Russian setting, perfectly conveys the decadence of the late Tsarist era. A fortune-hunting prince marries the wealthy daughter of a female industrialist while carrying on an affair with his wife’s foster sister who is married to a businessman she does not love. After spending much of his wife’s money, he forges promissory notes and is about to be arrested when his mother-in-law shoots him.
Bauer’s films on psychological themes brought a new maturity to the cinema and anticipated such later developments as German expressionism. At the same time, they have a uniquely Russian flavor, a brooding attitude linking sex and death. David Robinson, in his article on Bauer for Sight and Sound, points out it should not be assumed that these films with themes including necrophilia are projections of Bauer’s personal character. But they clearly reflect the Symbolist "Decadence" of Russia’s "Silver Age" of literature in the early 20th century, a time when, under the banner of sensualism, Russian artists sought to immerse themselves in describing any kind of thought or activity, no matter how shocking, as a means of liberating the individual from convention. Thus, in Bauer’s adaptation of a Symbolist story, Smert’ na Zhizn’ (Life in Death), released in 1914, a man (played by Ivan Mosjoukin) is so obsessed with the beauty of his wife that he murders her and keeps her embalmed body in his cellar. Grezy (Daydreams) (1915), one of Bauer’s finest works, relates the story of a widower who searches for a substitute for his beloved late wife. He finds an opera singer who resembles his spouse and marries her. But the singer becomes jealous of his insane worship of his first wife and begins taunting him. When she dares to desecrate his beloved’s braids he reverently keeps in a box, he strangles her with the sacred hair. Posle Smerti (After Death), also produced in 1915, was adapted from Turgenev’s story, "Klara Milich." It deals with a man who becomes obsessed with an actress he casually meets several times. When she commits suicide during a performance, he travels to her town to learn from family members the details of what had happened and to obtain her photograph. Returning to his home, he spends a terrifying night repeatedly dreaming of her and seeing her apparition before the shock finally kills him. Umirdyushchi Lyebyed’ (The Dying Swan), released in 1917, relates the story of a ballerina and her crazed admirer, an artist who keeps a human skeleton in his studio. He wishes to paint her in the role of the Dying Swan and, to achieve the perfect pose, he ends up strangling her.
To develop his narratives, Bauer created a specific visual style that paid careful attention to scenic design and lighting effects while employing camera movement and dramatic close-ups. The sets he designed, famous for their columns, were spacious but freed from the overly ostentatious decorations of earlier Russian films. Ivan Perestiani, who played leading roles in many of Bauer’s films, said that "A beam of light in his hands was an artist’s brush." In film after film, the director demonstrated his innovative mastery of lighting for dramatic effect, as in the opening shot of Posle Smerti with light illuminating the face of the brooding hero sitting alone in his parlor reading a book. Bauer continually used gauzes and curtains to alter the image on the screen. Appearing in a number of his films is what could be termed a signature shot with dark curtains on both sides of the frame and, in the center, a glimpse of the actors and scenery in the background. In Nemye Svideteli, he uses the split screen to show the society girl and her clandestine lover, a baron, talking on the telephone, while the scene depicting the girl’s engagement party is taken entirely from a high angle shot looking down on the throng of guests below.
Bauer also made effective use of the moving camera and close-ups throughout his work. In Nemye Svideteli, when the maid is humiliated by the society girl having her remove her boots in the presence of her seducer, the camera intensifies the mood by tilting down to reveal this action. In Posle Smerti, Bauer continually tracks with the camera to depict the crowded reception in which the hero first meets the female protagonist. Later, when he attends her dramatic recital, Bauer intercuts long-shots of the theatre with close-ups of the hero and heroine, including a huge close-up of her face filling the entire screen. In Umirdyushchi Lyebyed’, he uses the moving camera for a remarkable psychological effect, tracking back from the heroine sleeping restlessly on her bed during a storm as flashes of lightning plunge the image into alternating lightness and darkness. This shot then cuts to a dream sequence in which her own death is anticipated by her encounter with a spectral figure, and she is seen in a close shot being menaced by many outstretched human hands.
Despite Bauer’s incorporation of theatrical techniques into his films, his style and those of other pre-Revolutionary Russian filmmakers like Yakov Protazanov were uniquely cinematic in contrast to such stagy early features as Sarah Bernhardt’s 1912 Queen Elizabeth. At the same time, Bauer’s work was distinctly different in tempo from his American contemporaries. In his Biograph years, Griffith was in the forefront of those who sought to break with the first primitive narrative films by positioning the camera closer to the actors for a new cinematic and naturalistic style of performance. Russia’s pre-Revolutionary filmmakers like Bauer built on Griffith’s early Biograph experiments to create an alternative cinema of their own with a slower pace of acting and editing as they explored in depth the tortured psychology of their characters and the decadent social milieu. Bauer effectively used cutting within scenes and striking close-ups throughout his career but always within the context of a style that placed primary emphasis on detailed mise-en-scène and measured performance rather than the blending of rhythmic, dramatic editing with dynamic acting characteristic of Griffith’s films.
At the beginning of 1917, Bauer was at the top of Russia’s film world. He was earning the extraordinary salary of 40,000 rubles and was a major shareholder in the Khanzhonkov company. In the spring, he went to the Crimea to shoot on location and oversee a new studio planned by his company. Bauer intended to act the part of a lame artist in a forthcoming film--one he was destined never to make. While practicing his limp near Yalta, he slipped and fell from an embankment onto the shore, breaking his leg. Despite being confined to a hospital bed, he was brought out to the set to direct Za Shchast’em (For Happiness), the tragic story of a frail girl who falls in love with an attorney. Unknown to her, the man is courting her widowed mother. When the girl learns the truth about the relationship and that she can never marry him, she is so overcome with despair that she loses her sight. Under Bauer’s sensitive direction, the acting in this scene is heartbreaking in its poignancy. The melancholy beauty of Za Shchast’em seems to convey a foreboding of Bauer’s own imminent fate. After completing the film, he began work on Korol Parizha (The King of Paris), but when his bedridden condition caused him to develop pneumonia, the direction was taken over by the actress Olga Rakhmanova. On June 9, 1917, by the traditional Russian calendar (June 22 in the West), Evgenii Bauer died of his illness at the age of 52.
Upon the news of his passing, the Russian film journals of the period published many tributes to the prolific artist who had directed 82 films in four years, becoming Russia’s most renowned director. But a few months after his death, a second, far more radical revolution began sweeping away the remnants of the old society whose agonizing decline Bauer had so powerfully chronicled in his works. The emerging Soviet cinema sought other cinematic models more in keeping with the revolutionary fervor of the new epoch. Ironically, the films produced by the Soviet Union’s capitalist rival, the United States, with their rapid editing style and usually positive outlook on life, seemed a more appropriate example than the despairing, often mystical filmic narratives made during the old regime. While Bauer’s mastery of cinema left its mark on those of his co-workers, Lev Kuleshov, an actor and art director on Za Shchast’em, and Ivan Perestiani, both of whom continued on as directors in the Soviet era, for the most part, Bauer and the pre-Revolutionary Russian cinema were identified with the former Tsarist period. In the 1920s, with the exciting new Soviet silent montage classics introducing a style that was the diametric opposite of Bauer’s, the earlier artist’s work was largely forgotten. During the succeeding Stalinist era, Bauer’s work was even more out of step with the prevailing trends. His depiction of a societal corruption that warped members of all classes from the highest to the lowest would have been inherently anathema to a regime promulgating the heroic style of "Socialist Realism" celebrating peasants, proletariats, and national leaders as paragons of virtue. Similarly, Bauer’s exploration of disturbed psyches was far removed from an official policy which despised introspection, denounced Freud, and banned the second part of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, the most Baueresque of the later Russian master’s works in its dark mood and emphasis on psychology.
In the late 1980s, with the collapse of the Soviet system, the surviving works of Bauer, carefully preserved in the Soviet archives, emerged from 70 years of obscurity to be shown internationally, becoming at last part of world film culture. Few if any of his films had ever reached the West where he was little more than a name. Seen anew, his works embody the spirit of an age, vividly capturing the twilight of imperial Russia. But beyond the manners and mores of his time, Evgenii Bauer, now recognized as one of the early cinema’s most creative directors, continues to speak to the human condition with his uncompromising dissections of social inequities and haunting portrayals of twisted psyches in masterpieces which helped the young medium develop into a mature art.
REFERENCES: David Robinson, "Evgeni Bauer and the Cinema of Nikolai
II," Sight and Sound, Winter 1989-90; Yuri Tsivian, Silent Witnesses:
Russian Films 1908-1919, British Film Institute; Rob Bridgett, "The
Thematic and Stylistic Unity Inherent in the Films of Evgenii Bauer;" Richard
Stites, "Dusky Images of Tsarist Russia: Prerevolutionary Cinema," The
Russian Review, vol. 53, April 1994.
Milestone Film and Video sells video cassettes of silents by Bauer and
other early Russian filmmakers:
Copyright © 2002 by William M. Drew. All rights reserved.
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