Evgeni Bauer (aka Evgenii, Yevgeni)
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto is the largest silent film festival in the world. It’s been held each year since 1981 in the northeastern Italian town of Pordenone, population 5,155. In 1989, the cinephiles, critics, and academics who attended this week-long event were privileged to be the first non-Russians since 1917 to see the films of director Evgeni Bauer. According to Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, “It’s not easy to shock and awe the international authorities who attend Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, but it happened in 1989 as it never has before or since when the films of this Russian director were screened.” For their technical innovation and “remarkable psychological sophistication,” Turan later wrote, “Bauer’s films have justly been called the work of the greatest director you’ve never heard of.”
Turan’s statement isn’t just the effusiveness of an idiosyncratic film critic. Bauer is “one of the unknown greats of the era,” The Village Voice critic J. Hoberman has written, a director whose “lush morbid melodramas are distinguished by a feverish psychological intensity.” In his essay “Notes on Evgeni Bauer,” film historian and critic Philip Kemp places Bauer in the vanguard of the film directors of his time. “Bauer had a sense of cinematic space, an insight into the creative use of light and an audacity in the handling of the camera that set him far ahead of more celebrated innovators of the period such as DW Griffith or Victor Sjostrom.”
Nor was Bauer unrecognized by his peers. As Yuri Tsivian, one of the foremost experts on Bauer’s work, writes in his biographical sketch of Yevgeny Bauer in The Oxford History of World Cinema, “Bauer’s unique directorial achievements were singled out as early as 1913, as ‘being above praise in their artistic taste and intuition—something rarely found in cinema’.” Iran Perestriani, an actor who worked with Bauer, recalled that “his scenery was alive, mixing the monumental with the intimate. Next to a massive and heavy column—a transparent web of tulle sheeting; the light plays over a brocade coverlet under the dark arches of a low flat, over flowers, furs, crystal. A beam of light in his hands was an artist’s brush.” What’s more, Bauer was also known as a “woman’s director,” and displayed a perspective of gender issues that was unusually complex and contemporary, at least for his time.
Still from Evgeni Bauer’s Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913)
So with credentials like these, why isn’t Evgeni Bauer as well known as early Russian filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov?
The foremost reason is unquestionably Bauer’s early death. Evgeni Franzevich Bauer was born on January 20, 1867 (though most Bauer bios say 1865), to a famous zither-playing father and opera-singing mother. He studied at, but did not graduate from, the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture before working as a caricaturist, satirical journalist, and photographer.
As Tsivian details in Bauer’s Oxford History bio, it was as a set designer for operetta and musical comedies that Bauer would first make his name. He was hired in 1912 as a contract set designer for the Pathé Frères Moscow Department. In 1913, after designing sets for Alexander Drankov and Aleksei Taldykin’s The Tercentenary of the Rule of the House of Romanov, Bauer directed four films for Pathé’s and another four films for Drankov and Taldykin’s studio. He joined the Khanzhonkov company in January 1914.
Over the next 3 ½ years Bauer built an oeuvre of more than 80 films. It’s an impressive number, but it could have been much higher. In 1917, while working in Crimea, Bauer fell over a cliff and broke his leg. He was able to continue working from a wheelchair, but complications ensued that would leave him bedridden, and he eventually died of pneumonia on June 9, 1917.
Of course the other reason for Bauer’s obscurity is the political revolution that was taking place in Russia the year of his death. Bauer’s films and their lush aestheticism would be condemned by the Soviet government as decadent escapism epitomizing the values of the bourgeoisie, despite the fact that the February Revolution had allowed Bauer to more explicitly criticize Tsarist society. As Kerr writes, “In both The Revolutionary and The Alarm, the last films he was able to complete, he showed his sympathy for the revolutionary cause, and, had he survived, Bauer would surely have become a major figure in Soviet cinema.” Tsivian suggests a more enigmatic outcome. “There is no way to tell what [Bauer] would have achieved had he lived into the 1920s.”
The Obscure Films of Evgenii Bauer
Only 26 of Bauer’s 82 films are known to be extant, and of these 26 only three are currently available on DVD (though if you want to go the VHS route, the British Film Institute’s Early Russian Cinema series contains more of Bauer’s films). Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, After Death, and The Dying Swan were released together by Milestone Film & Video on a disc titled Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer. The films were restored by Gosfilmfond, the Russian film archive, and feature new scores that were commissioned by the British Film Institute.
Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913)
Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is Bauer’s earliest surviving film, and though it’s less cinematically advanced in some ways than either After Death or The Dying Swan, it features some remarkable lighting and intriguing camerawork. Above all, it brilliantly exemplifies what Russian film scholar Rachel Morley wrote in her essay for the Milestone DVD: “Bauer’s female characters are consistently shown to be emotionally stronger and more engaging than their male counterparts.”
A viewer wouldn’t exactly guess this from the film’s initial scenes. “Vera feels lonely in her luxurious surroundings” is the intertitle that introduces its heroine. As the picture below illustrates, Bauer uses lighting and deep focus to create a sense of isolation. Later, after being summoned from her room to attend the party that’s being thrown by her wealthy mother, Vera slips away, and the camera follows her solitary pacing with a brief but important tracking shot which Yuri Tsivian praises in his visual essay that appears as a special feature on the Milestone DVD. As Tsivian wrote in his Oxford bio of Bauer, “His tracking shots display a sympathy towards the ‘inner life’ of the characters rather than merely stressing the vastness of the décor”—an innovative technique in Bauer’s time.
The next day, Vera accompanies her mother on a philanthropic visit to the homes of the poor while wearing a fur hand muff the size of a large dog. This comic innocence becomes tragic when a workman whose arm she’s bandaged turns Vera’s naivete against her. That night, the worker, Maksim, sneaks through her window to deliver a letter begging for her to visit and tend to his injury. Meanwhile, Vera has had a dream that prompts a decision to dedicate her life to the poor (unlike the elaborate dream sequences in Bauer’s later films, the dream is a simple bit of double exposure). Alone, she goes to visit Maksim, and Bauer further signals the workman’s malignant intentions with a hawkish point-of-view shot as Maksim peers down at her from his garret window.
Maksim rapes her, but then the film takes a surprising twist: after he falls asleep, Vera kills him with one of his own tools. She returns home and broods over the event, but tells no one. Shortly thereafter she meets Prince Dol’skii, a somewhat pompous figure who wins her heart with a display of martial skill. Fencing and pistol shooting with his peers while Vera looks on, he fires each of his three shots into the bullseye. The Prince and Vera are soon engaged.
Vera makes multiple failed attempts to tell the Prince of the rape and subsequent murder, and succeeds in doing so only after the wedding has taken place. The Prince is unable to accept her “shame,” and Vera leaves him. Regretting his reaction, the Prince attempts to find Vera, but she’s left the country.
Two years later, the prince returns from his search. Attending a performance of La Traviata, he recognizes the lead actress as Vera, only now she’s going by the stage name of Ellen Kay. (I’ve not seen any comments on this by Bauer scholars, but I strongly suspect that Vera’s stage name was inspired by the Swedish feminist and suffragette Ellen Key, whose book The Woman Movement was published in 1912, just a year before Twilight of a Woman’s Soul was released. If so, it adds an entirely new layer of commentary to the film’s gender dynamics.)
The Prince visits Vera after the performance and declares his love, but the now worldly and experienced Vera rejects him. The Prince returns home, pulls out a pistol, and shoots himself through the heart—an unexpected coda in which his masculine martial prowess is ironically turned against him. “There are no clear winners in Bauer’s battle of the sexes,” Morley has written, but in this case the winner is indeed clear. The film ends abruptly, without even a glimpse of the dead man’s face.
After Death (1915)
After Death is essentially a tale of impotent, outdated masculinity confronted by the boldness of a modern woman. Based on Ivan Turgenev’s 1882 short story “Klara Milich,” After Death is about a reclusive photographer (in Turgenev’s story he was a scientist), Andrei Bagrov, pure in mind and body as the film’s intertitles relate, who reveres and idealizes the memory of his dead mother.
Zoia stares at the seated Andrei, who has just endured a momentous tracking shot.
Though the opening of the film features an unmoving shot through a half-closed doorway that uses distance, lighting, and staging to suggest an isolation similar to Vera’s in Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, by 1915 Bauer had learned some much more exciting tricks that display his directorial prowess while also revealing something about his characters. Dragged to a social event by a friend, the reclusive Andrei travels down a long hallway, a social gauntlet of sorts, and is introduced by his friend to small bodies of people on both his left and right. Bauer shoots the entire affair in one astonishing three-minute tracking shot that is the silent film-era equivalent of the tracking shot of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco walking into the Copacabana in Goodfellas. The camera moves slowly backwards the entire time, dollying out with brief left and right pans, a shot that required Bauer to rig up a two-bicycle platform with which to move the camera.
Near the end of the shot the camera pans left to a curtained doorway through which a woman appears: Zoia Kadmina, an actress. She immediately commands Andrei’s attention, yet he’s too shy to approach her. Shortly after, he attends a charity event where Zoia gives a performance. Andrei leaves immediately after, rejecting the opportunity to be introduced to Zoia, but her eyes follow him in an eerie closeup.
The bold Zoia writes an anonymous letter to Andrei requesting a meeting in a park. He guesses the letter’s author and keeps the appointment, but her declarations of feeling are too much for his solitary soul. They depart separately, and three months later Andrei reads a notice in the paper that Zoia has poisoned herself, a suicide rumored to be inspired by unrequited love.
Throughout the rest of the film, Andrei is haunted to death via elaborate dreams and visitations by Zoia. Yet her figure and mannerisms are suggestive less of her true self than of what Rachel Morley calls “an out-dated icon of idealized femininity,” perhaps an attempt by Andrei to vicariously fetishize Zoia with some of his late mother’s perfection. In one recurring and visually striking dream, a white-clad Zoia walks through a field of rye, the upper half of her body made blindingly bright via overexposed film.
The Dying Swan (1917)
The character of Zoia in After Death was played by Vera Karalli, formerly a ballet dancer, and so famous as a beautiful queen of the Russian screen that she was used in the plot to lure Rasputin to his death (Morley says “allegedly used,” but other accounts are less equivocal). Karalli also starred in The Dying Swan, this time as a mute ballet dancer named Gizella who becomes the morbid obsession of Count Glinskii, an inept painter. Seeing Gizella perform, Glinskii is convinced that by painting her, he will at last be able to capture “real death” on canvas.
The covert and ambivalent irony of Bauer’s treatment of Andrei in After Death becomes much more overt and sardonic in The Dying Swan, a film which “suggests that Bauer was perhaps growing a little impatient with the dilettantish obsession with morbidity popular at the time,” Morley writes. However, it’s more likely that the mocking tone the film takes toward Glinskii is directed not at others, but at Bauer himself and his obsession with death and the quest for the perfect image. As Tsivian says in his DVD essay, “[Glinskii is] an artist whose interest in death almost parodies Bauer’s own.”
The shot which introduces Glinskii is so replete with skeletons that it can be easy to overlook the fact that Glinskii is trying and failing miserably to sketch a realistic lifelike/deathlike head. Later, after Gizella has consented to a sitting, Glinskii proudly shows his self-professed work of genius to an older friend, who instantly voices his scornful judgment: “But it is untalented—terrible!”
The Dying Swan features an innovative tracking shot that in its subjectivity, if not in its length or technical prowess, is equal to the tracking shot in After Death. Gizella is asleep on a stormy night. Signaling the onset of a dream, the camera begins to move back, revealing flashes of lightning through the bedroom windows: the dream is going to be a nightmare. In fact, the dream foretells Gizella’s death, ending with a frightening shot of many pairs of disembodied hands reaching out to grab her.
“Viktor shall marry me if I’m not devoured by my table setting!”
Unexpected happiness becomes the cause of Gizella’s doom. After accepting a proposal from Viktor, a beau who had betrayed her with another woman in one of the early scenes of the film, Gizella visits Glinskii for a final sitting. The Count is astonished by her transformation. “Can this be the same Gizella? Where are those joyless, sad, exhausted eyes?” The film ends as it must, with a strangled Gizella futilely posed by the murderous painter. “Unlike the outcomes depicted in Soviet films, or, for that matter American films of the time, in the works of Bauer… evil rarely got punished. There was a great deal of suffering in them, but it was usually the innocent victim who suffered rather than the wicked person,” Peter Kenez writes in Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953.
Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer can be purchased through the Milestone website (http://www.milestonefilms.com/movie.php/madl). If you’re interested in reading more about Bauer and his films, I recommend an interesting essay by Galya Diment on the critically overlooked connections between Bauer’s films and the works of Russian novelist and cinephile Vladimir Nabokov.