Mad Love: Three Films by Evgenii Bauer Review

Silent Russian cinema is estimated to amount to over 2000 films - at least three quarters of these pre-revolutionary - yet only 300 or so are believed to have survived. Evgenii Bauer, perhaps the pre-Soviet filmmaker owing to the fact that he died mere months after the abdication of Tsar Nichols II, is in a similar situation as only a quarter of his prolific output (80 plus films in only four years) is known to exist. Whilst some of his films have been previously available on VHS courtesy of the BFI’s Early Russian Cinema range, the Mad Love compilation marks the UK debut of his work on DVD.

Twilight of a Woman’s Soul

Bauer’s earliest surviving film, Twilight of a Woman’s Soul from 1913, concerns Vera, the daughter of a countess. Alienated from the society within which she lives, she decides to help Maxim, a man struggling with poverty. However, one of her visits culminates in an attempted rape and she kills him in self-defence, only for the guilt of his death to continually haunt her.

Faced with this decidedly melodramatic narrative, Bauer eschews the opportunities to produce something akin to the overwrought entertainments present in Indian (Pakeezah, say, or the films of Ritwik Ghatak) and American (Douglas Sirk, John Waters’ delirious Polyester) cinemas and instead offers a wonderfully resonant and subtle work. Indeed, this subtlety is the film’s prime element. Despite being concerned with rape, marriage and death, Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is surprisingly subdued. Bauer uses very precise camera set-ups to underscore the dramatic moments, isolating his actors within the tightly composed frames rather than allowing for any overly-physical - and hence melodramatic - acting styles. Moreover, despite spanning a number of years over its 50 minute running time, the pace is decidedly deliberate. Everything appears to be slowed down thereby allowing the audience to pore over the frames and thus pick up every detail. (Indeed, the deep focus photography prefigures Gregg Toland’s work by a quarter of a century.)

The most surprising aspect, however, it the fittingness of the silence. Allowing his remarkably assured technical expertise to do the talking as it were, Bauer manages to escape all that could go wrong in such a venture, and as such produces one of cinema’s earliest masterpieces.

After Death

Despite a gap of only two years, After Death marks a huge development on Twilights’s themes and techniques. The bleakness present in this earlier work has given way to sheer morbidity as After Death’s protagonist transfers his obsession with the death of the mother to that of the suicide of a young woman following only the briefest of encounters. Similarly, there’s a progression in the technique as Bauer’s assuredness becomes mastery in his ability to utilise long takes and cheaply improvised dolly shots (apparently the result of slightly modified bicycles). Yet After Death never feels like a mere exercise in style - as per Hitchcock’s Rope or Under Capricorn, say - rather, as with Twilight, the camerawork and storyline are intrinsically liked. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the film having the same effect had it been flatly staged. Moreover, this newfound expertise allows for a greater confidence elsewhere. After Death toys with elements of the horror film, and seems more cryptic than the relatively straightforward Twilight of a Woman’s Soul in its use of dream sequences and visions of the dead.

Once again, however, Bauer is able to escape the obviously melodramatic by making these moments stark and especially haunting (in which respect a David Lynch comparison would perhaps be justified). Moreover, as with all great horror films from Nosferatu to Cat People, there is a wonderful erotic charge running throughout After Death making it all the more fascinating, especially to a modern audience.

The Dying Swan

Many of the themes present in After Death are revisited for The Dying Swan albeit in a less diluted form. Intriguingly, the leads from the earlier work reappear making the opportunities for comparison unavoidable. Vera Karalli plays a young mute who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, a goal achieved following an ill-fated tryst. Whilst touring with her troupe she encounters an artist obsessed with capturing death on canvas, an opportunity allowed - or so he believes - by her performances of The Dying Swan.

What’s especially interesting about this piece in comparison to the other titles is how Bauer’s technical skill becomes almost invisible by this point. His style is by now so firmly established that we cease to notice it, although there is a particularly dazzling jump cut (all the more remarkable for the time) and it is possible to get distracted by the way in which the Russian countryside has been so ably captured by the deep focus photography. Rather we are able to concentrate solely on the narrative, one which – as the brief synopsis suggests – toys once again with love and death.

Given the deliberation with which Bauer films his narratives, we are able to truly get under the skins of its characters. As Karalli discovers she is being cheated by her young love, the director holds on her for what seems like minutes, allowing us to revel in every downbeat, downtrodden moment. Moreover, in serving as two separate love stories (one obviously more twisted that the other), The Dying Swan only serves to enhance this aspect. After all, if the first – decidedly conventional – romance can end so badly, then what does that say about the second, involving a death-obsessed artist?

Indeed, in being a film about obsession (interestingly, the one dream sequence shares an unexpected kinship with the final scene from Vertigo), murder and perhaps even necrophilia, The Dying Swan also stands out as a decidedly modern work. Certainly, this and the other titles on the disc are unmistakably examples of early cinema, but then Bauer marks himself as a modern filmmaker nonetheless.

The Disc

Understandably the three films are not in the greatest of conditions given their age and all suffer from some very prominent damage. That said, they do remain watchable and maintain a clarity which allows for an appreciation of Bauer’s extraordinary use of light, whilst they also appear to have been projected at the correct speed. As for the soundtracks, however, each is absolutely superb having been especially commissioned for this release. Despite their minimal instrumentation (piano, violin and cello) each makes full use of the speakers (After Life even being treated to a DD5.1 mix) and offer perfect accompaniment to their respective films, being as aware as Bauer was of not over-emphasising the melodrama.

The principle extra is a 37-minute video commentary by Russian film scholar Yuri Tsivian. As anyone who has heard his accompaniment to Man With a Movie Camera will be aware, he is a truly excellent commentator and here discusses Bauer’s technical skill at great length and with great intelligence. There is some slight disappointment inasmuch as he hasn’t recorded tracks for each of the films individually, but then in its current form the commentary does allow him to replay or slow down certain moments and thereby discuss them more fully.

As for the other special features, these amount to the standard BFI extras of a weblink to their site, sleeve notes (again by Tsivian) and a biography for Bauer.

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Last updated: 15/07/2018 09:39:43

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