TWILIGHT OF A WOMAN'S SOUL
(Yevgeni Bauer, 1913, Russia, 48m, BW)
Twilight of a Woman's Soul (1913)
Sumerki zhenskoi dushi (original title)
26 November 1913 (Russia)
Director: Yevgeni Bauer
Writer: V. Demert
Stars: Nina Chernova, A. Ugrjumov, V. Demert
Despite living in luxury, Vera is lonely and discontented. When she accompanies her mother, the Countess, on a charity visit to the poor, she is troubled by what she sees, and she resolves to do whatever she can to help them. But one man takes advantage of her innocence, and he lures her into a trap so that he can assault her. The dreadful results of this attack will affect Vera's life long afterward.
In an effort to pretend Soviet cinema began with Vladimir Lenin, the couple thousand films made under Tsar Nicholas II were vaulted. In order to be considered a pioneer, people have to actually have access to your work, which excluded the innovative and brilliant career of Yevgeni Bauer out of the cinematic history books. Far funnier than the Reds denying their country who knows how much credit is that Bauer was reportedly sympathetic to the communist cause. And even if he wasn’t, since he died prematurely they certainly could have claimed him.
Indeed there was a Russian film industry before Sergei Eisenstein, and in fact some pretty good work was done during the Russian Empire before the Revolution(s) that would bring us “Battleship Potemkin” and other memorable silents. The genius of this period was Evgeni Bauer, whose career only lasted from 1913 until his untimely death in June, 1917 (between the February and October revolutions). This movie probably wouldn’t have been approved under either the Leninist or Stalinist regimes, as it tells the story of an innocent young noblewoman whose virtue is endangered by a shifty and deceitful working man, to whom she attempts to provide charity. After she murders him to avenge her honor, she is haunted by his image and unable to relate normally to her handsome suitor, a prince. She tries to tell him but he assures her he doesn’t care about the past, and they are married. When he finally finds out, he shows little sympathy for her situation (much less for the poor dead prole), but appears to regard himself as the true victim. The story may be a bit odd, but the photography is among the best
About a quarter century before the widely praised use of deep focus in William Wyler’s films, Bauer was not only utilizing the technique in his films, but even doing so to better effect. Bauer’s background as an artistic photographer and production designer led him to juxtapose decor laden dark foreground and alternately well lit background. His careful placement of objects added dimensionality, while under exposing the foreground called our attention to the existence of the further more illuminated areas our eye naturally tends to ignore. By moving the actors through the sets rather than keeping them largely stationary, cutting, or moving the camera with them (extremely difficult at the time), the actors walking through the lights and past the props gives the film a seeming three dimensional depth. But the shadows and precisely cast lights did a lot more than simply eliminating the flatness of the screen, they spoke of the characters mood and mental state. This allows the acting to be restrained. As Bauer almost never comes closer than a mid shot, the actors are never enticed to mug and thus must do much of their work through poses.
Twilight is about the plight of a wealthy girl Vera (Vera Chernova) who is shunned by high society, though the feeling is mutual as she knows nothing fruitful comes from aristocratic charades. Hoping to give her life some purpose, she decides to help the poor. I found it quite lame that the first person the naive woman helps gives her a rude introduction to life outside the protection of money, raping her. It’s less than a 50 minute film, and exploring the effects the rape and her subsequent killing of the sleeping man have on her life as well as others is the purpose. Prince Dolskij (A. Agrujumov) is told the shocking truth after their marriage, but in typical Bauer fashion, displeased with the man (he’s horrified) the heroine leaves him and becomes successful in show business. The result is the weak man once again suffers for mistreating the stronger modern woman.
Perhaps Bauer’s first surviving film pales in comparison to some of his films from a few years later (due to an unfortunate accident his career only lasted from 1913-1917), but it’s hard to not be amazed by the technique. In addition to the deep focus photography there’s a brief tracking shot and even an early dream sequence - the idea so fresh it’s actually labeled “a dream” - utilizing superimposition and shot through a veil. It’s easy to see After Death is quite a step forward since it follows Twilight on the Milestone DVD, but Twilight is technically and thematically far more advanced than almost anything from its era. Perhaps more importantly, it’s compulsively watchable. Even at the end of the silent era drama tends to be hard to watch unless delivered by a real master, but Bauer predates most of the directors that are remembered today.
Very few directors strike gold with their first effort. The subtle nuances, finding what the camera is capable of, dealing with actors, scripts, and so forth, can make for a hell of a time finding yourself. Yevgeni Bauer is no different. And if you watch his works backwards, as I did, you find out that the man is human after all. On a career built on working with lighting, shadows, tracking, and the morbid netherworld, Bauer's first effort, "Sumerki Zhenskoi Dushi," does see him hint at these elements but he is a bit away from anything close to the genius of his later works. Believe it or not, this is a simple love story about a prince, a high society girl, and the secret that threatens to end their marriage. At times it seems nearly Shakespearean. The two leads, Vera Chernova and A. Ugrjumov, certainly don't damage the picture in any way and V. Demert as the villainous Maksim plays his bit quite well. But the story line is surprisingly bland, drawing little emotion from the viewer and is exceptionally unclimactic.
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