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Strangely modern - Symbolist cinema in unlikely places

If your image of early Russian cinema is fixed on the revolutionary work of the 1920s, such as The Battleship Potemkin or The End of St Petersburg, you may be in for a shock. It was in 1989, at the annual silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy, that received ideas about Russian cinema received a mortal blow. What unspooled over a week in this quiet Friulian town was a cache of films dating from the decade before the 1917 October revolution, which few historians had any idea existed. These were films that reflected the last years of Imperial Russia, in all its opulence and decadence, with elegantly dressed men and women sauntering through highly decorated salons. Glaring class differences and unhealthy emotions were everywhere on display.

Yevgeni Bauer – An image from After Death

Had these films only been liberated from the Russian archive on account of Gorbachev’s glasnost policy of openness? Not at all, the bewildered audience was told. They’d always been in the archive, but no-one had asked to see them, until the winds of political change began to blow. Didn’t we know that Soviet cinema was created by Eisenstein’s and Pudovkin’s generation amid the virtual desert that preceded them? Or so these pioneers assured us. But on the evidence first seen in Pordenone, there had been a thriving cinema of a very different character, with at least one outstanding artist that no-one had ever heard mentioned.

A video collection of early Russian cinema

The revelation of that year, and of the retrospectives that followed as the USSR itself was collapsing, was Yevgeni Bauer. Director of some eighty films, all made during five hectic years, it almost seemed that Bauer had synchronised his own death in mid-1917 with the end of the era that he portrayed. In fact, the leading companies of the Russian film industry had started to move south, to the Crimea, after the February Revolution. And it was in Yalta that Bauer broke his leg while making what would be his last film, The King of Paris, and died of pneumonia, leaving one of his actresses to complete the film, as many of his colleagues headed into exile… in Paris.

A poster for Yevgeni Bauer’s To Happiness

One of Bauer’s young proteges, Lev Kuleshov, would become a key architect of the new Soviet cinema, indeed the pioneer of its ‘montage’ technique, demonstrated in his brilliant early comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924). But the cinema of Bauer and his fellow stylists of the ‘teens was largely forgotten, as the few surviving prints of its films fell apart. An early Soviet novel, The Naked Year by Boris Pilnyak, describes a courting couple going to a small-town cinema to watch a film starring Vera Kholodnaya, the greatest star of the pre-revolutionary period, who had appeared in several Bauer films. Kholodnaya’s funeral in Odessa in 1919 attracted thousands of mourners and also seemed to mark the end of an era.

Fernand Khnopff’s original cover image for Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-morte

A marked feature of the rediscovered films by Bauer his colleagues soon became apparent. Russian audiences had a strong preference for tragic endings; so much so that some films were made with alternative endings, for the home and foreign markets, while imported films might be re-edited to deliver the requisite body count. In such a cultural climate, the appeal of Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel Bruges-la-morte was obvious. And indeed its first screen adaptation would be for a version by Bauer, Daydreams (Grezy, 1915), which fortunately survives as one of the very best of some twenty existing titles by him.

Scenes from Bauer's Daydreams

Rodenbach’s hero has moved to Bruges after the death of his wife, taking morbid comfort from the city’s sepulchral atmosphere, which was conveyed in the original novel by the inclusion of atmospheric photographs. He sees a woman who closely resembles his dead wife and becomes obsessed with the idea of reliving his love, with tragic results. Daydreams is faithful to this scenario, although set in Moscow. And interestingly, the absence of the original setting doesn’t lessen the intensity of the hero’s longing. In one extraordinary scene, which riveted viewers in Pordenone, the camera tracks along a deserted street with him, stops, and then tracks back as he retraces his steps. It’s an eerie cinematic effect that almost anticipates the Antonioni of The Eclipse or Blow Up. Yet, incredibly, it’s being staged in a strangely opulent, if deserted Moscow in 1915.

Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe watch Vertigo in Gilliam’s film Twelve Monkeys

Other Bauer films, such as After Death (1915), The Dying Swan (1917) and To Happiness (1917), celebrate typically Decadent themes, but perhaps none seem as modern as Daydreams. Could this be because Rodenbach’s morbid obsession has already reached us by other cinematic routes? It’s hard not to be reminded of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with James Stewart reliving his obsession with Madeleine/Carlotta via Kim Novak’s stand-in. Or even Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, in which Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe recapitulate both Vertigo and Chris Marker’s La jetée. None of these would have known Bauer’s Daydreams, of course, but it seems possible that the authors of the original French novel that Vertigo is based on, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s 1954 D’entre les morts, might have been familiar with Bruges-la-morte, considering how their title, 'From the Dead' seems to echo Rodenbach's. On the other hand, Narcejac maintained that the idea for the novel came to him while watching a film in which he thought he saw someone he had once known.

The cover of Boileau and Narcejac’s novel D’entre les morts

We may not think of mainstream cinema as a vehicle for perpetuating fin-de-siècle Symbolist art. Yet the examples I have linked here, and many others too numerous to mention, do point to a deep-seated web of connection. Yes, Symbolism lives on the silver screen!


Ian Christie

Ian Christie is Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck, University of London


Ian Christie, ‘From the Kingdom of the Shadows’, in Michael Raeburn, ed. The Twilight of the Tsars, catalogue of the 1991 Hayward Gallery exhibition. Bauer’s and other pre-1917 Russian films were first seen in Britain in this exhibition. A video anthology Early Russian Cinema was subsequently published by the British Film Institute and by Milestone in the USA.

Posted on:Tuesday 22nd June, 2021