Tuesday, June 27, 2017

FILMBAY 2000 Greatest Films of All-Time (1888-2016) by Year - 0133 - LIFE FOR A LIFE , A (Yevgeni Bauer, 1916, Russia, 66m, BW)


LIFE FOR A LIFE , A (Yevgeni Bauer, 1916, Russia, 66m, BW)


LIFE FOR A LIFE , A (Yevgeni Bauer, 1916, Russia, 66m, BW)

aka. Her Sister's Rival (1916)

Alternate Titles: Zhiznt zo zhizn, A Tear for Every Drop of Blood, Za kozhduiu slezu po kople krovi, The Rival Sisters, Sestry sopernitsy

Zhizn za zhizn (original title)

1h 6min
9 December 1917 (USA)

Director: Yevgeni Bauer
Writers: Georges Ohnet (novel), Yevgeni Bauer (scenario)
Stars: Olga Rakhmanova, Lidiya Koreneva, Vera Kholodnaya


Wealthy Mrs. Khromova has a natural daughter, Musya, and an adopted daughter, Nata. The merchant Zhurov is in love with Nata, and hopes to marry her, but she is non-committal. When Zhurov introduces his friend Prince Bartinsky to the family, both young women soon fall in love with the dashing but irresponsible prince. The prince is in love with Nata, but because of his enormous debts, he decides to marry Musya to get her dowry, and he allows Nata to marry Zhurov. All the while, Mrs. Khromova remains very uneasy, fearing that marriage is unlikely to cause the self-indulgent prince to change his ways.


Yevgeni Bauer's "Silent Witnesses" (or "Mute Witnesses") (1914) had at the center of its story a love circle, as does this film, "A Life for a Life". The two films also share the same aesthetic, as is visible in much of Bauer's work: that is, the art of mise-en-scène. Supposedly, Bauer was attempting here to make a film that would compete with foreign spectacles. Perhaps, that is why the sets and production values of this film are especially lavish. A fantasy scene resembles an Italian epic, such as "Quo Vadis?" or "Cabiria", and columns are visible throughout the mansion. The melodrama is sensational, and the suspense is befitting of D.W. Griffith. Nonetheless, the picture still mostly resembles Bauer's own oeuvre.

The story will do. The acting isn't that remarkable, although Vera Kholodnaya, apparently a star in her day, is lovely and has a fairly expressive face. Her major gift, however, is the white of her eyes, which the camera can record from quite a distance. The sets are more interesting, their design and the way they are filled to create depth and space. In one scene, a curtain is used to unveil the truth. Bauer used curtains in other films for various reasons, including to reference theatre. Lighting effects also add to the mise-en-scène.

The story is of two sisters, one adopted, who are raised by their very successful single mother. She runs a factory, spending most of her waking hours working, in order to secure the family’s fortune. The adopted daughter, Nata (memorably played by Vera Kholodnaia, who was in “Children of the Age” and a 1914 version of “Anna Karenina”) is a little older, and quite beautiful, but it’s understood that she will not inherit, the money will go to Musia, the younger, less attractive natural daughter of the capitalist mom (Lidiia Koreneva). The young girls are social butterflies, going to dances, parties, and other events, where the men of course regard them as possible prey. Enter Prince Bartinskii (Vitol’d Polonskii), a scoundrel who gambles heavily and has enormous debts. He starts hanging around Nata and they fall in love. He confers with a friend (Ivan Perestiani, who became a director after the revolution, making “The Suram Fortress” and “Three Lives”) about his financial situation, and the friend points out that he needs a rich wife to help him get out of debt and continue his extravagant lifestyle. Nata is not the girl for him, whatever his feelings. But the friend suggests a solution, he is willing to make the sacrifice and marry the lovely Nata for him, if he will marry Musia. Then, the affair can continue, and the Prince will have the money he needs. And so it is done, and the setup for a multi-way tragedy is established.

This may have been one of the first attempts in Russia to make a “blockbuster” big-budget hit movie, and it was apparently successful with audiences and critics. Based on a French novel by Georges Ohnet, it was not a nationalist epic, along the lines of “The Birth of a Nation” or “Defense of Savastapol.” Instead, it is a romantic story of bourgeois relationships being fouled by aristocratic greed and corruption, an interesting theme for pre-revolutionary Russia. Bauer took advantage of his increased budget by hiring extras and building large, ornate sets. Apparently his use of columns in the background was mocked in the press at the time and seen as an attempt to imitate “foreign” influences. I would agree that there are a lot of them – one in almost every shot, and in one scene a mirror serves to double one of them in case actors should happen to step in front of it.

The mise-en-scène is probably better than that in most of Bauer's other works, at least in the lushness of set design, but what makes the most difference as to whether the film works on a whole is what supports the mise-en-scène. And, this is where Bauer has failed before. I don't care much for filmed plays and that's what one could call "Silent Witnesses". By that, I mean a traditional story and plot filmed by a stationary camera from long shots in long takes. In "A Life for a Life", there is some camera movement (slow inward and outward dolly shots, such as in the double wedding scene), and Bauer's usual cinematographer, Boris Savelyev, deserves credit, but it's mostly through editing that Bauer keeps the film moving.

This movie apparently made Kholodnaia into a major Russian star, earning her the title of “Queen of the Screen,” and she is certainly the one to watch in this movie. She expresses love, joy, guilt, shame, horror, and terrible sadness, sometimes within just a few minutes of each other, but without over-acting, and all the while remaining the focal point of the film. The mom is actually pretty good too – in many ways she’s the real victim here – as is Perestiani. Polonskii and Koreneva have less to do – he mostly looks shifty and smarmy and she just looks stupidly injured. The scene where her mother advises her not to marry the prince is the height of melodramatic pantomime.

Some of it is simple (but very important), such as cuts from establishing shots to medium shots and closer looks. There's some mild crosscutting between the five characters. But, Bauer also displays an expert knowledge of continuity editing; for example, when Nata stands up, angry with the prince, the film cuts from the closer look to a long shot. This is common practice nowadays, but not always in 1916, such as in those Italian spectacles, or Pathé film d'art photoplays. Some of the cuts might be too quick, but that's a minor error.

Bauer's most impressive editing in his films is the flow of shots that he sometimes attains. There is a hint of it here, such as in the passionate meeting between Nata and the Prince when her husband catches them. The editing--the way the shots flow into the next--creates the mood. "A Life for a Life" isn't the best film by Bauer that I've seen (see "After Death" (1915) and "The Dying Swan" (1917)), but it's how a film should be at the most basic level, and from there, Bauer fills it with, among other things, interesting mise-en-scène.


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