Sumerki zhenskoi dushi

(Twilight of a Woman's Soul, Russia - 1913)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Vera Chernova, A. Ugrjumov, V. Demert, V. Brianski
Genre: Drama
Director: Yevgeni Bauer
Screenplay: V. Demert
Cinematography: Nikolai Kozlovsky
Composer: -
Runtime: 48 minutes

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.

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. Cecile B. DeMille’s corny hokem is impossible for me to sit through without forcing myself, and even if they have more artistic merit the over the top lavishness and extravagance of Bauer’s peers Giovanni Pastrone and D.W. Griffith have me balking almost as often.

I appreciate Bauer because he shows everything, usually rather than stating it. Sometimes he practically refuses to do either, but I’d always rather be unsure of details like whether Vera was deflowered for several minutes, hell even forever, than have everything confirmed and reconfirmed for those who were dozing the first three times.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *