Saturday, November 12, 2011

Romantic Russia

"Can this be the same Gizella? Where are those joyless, sad, exhausted eyes?"

"All my life I have been searching for death and I have found it in your dance."

"The most sublime peace is death."

Although most of Evgeni Bauer's silent films precede the Russian Revolution, they shed some light on Russian film aesthetics during the First World War. They may also shed some light on the essence of romanticism and its impact on a generation of political revolutionaries. Bauer's films--which are filled with ghostly apparitions and feverish dreams--are powerfully romantic representations of love, but Bauer's idea of love is never very far removed from unhappiness, pain, and even death.

Evgeni's film, Twilight of a Woman's Soul, tells the haunting tale of a lovely but lonely woman, Vera, who cannot seem to find meaning in a life of luxury. That life of luxury is depicted by the backdrop of fashionable outfits and richly decorated homes. The heroine's natural habitat is filled with furs, hats, flowers, rugs, lampshades, well-dressed suitors, recitals, social engagements, elaborate window treatments, and comfortable furniture. Yet luxury does nothing to ease the existential pain of this particular woman. And this existential pain is made worse when she is deceived by one of her philanthropic projects, a shiftless conman named Maxim whose natural habit is the opposite of everything to which Bauer's heroine is accustomed.

The con man's milieu involves cards, alcohol, bad eating habits, and crowded, dilapidated housing. In the end, the forlorn heroine is deceived by this man she is trying to help, even raped for her trouble. This brutality devastates Bauer's already tortured soul, but she is alive enough to fall in love with a wealthy, titled suitor. The tragedy, of course, is that she is too ashamed to reveal her status as a victim. After marrying her true love, she confesses, revealing her dark past. Her new husband is appalled, and refuses to be reconciled to her.

The protagonist does the only thing that is left to be done: she becomes a famous actress and tours Europe to wild applause, still perhaps troubled by her failure to find happiness in the arms of a man. Meanwhile, her husband responds to the disaster as any man would: he lives a profligate life, entertaining women of ill repute.

In the end, the man comes to understand that only true love can cure his malaise and he searches Europe for two years to find his lost love. In the final scene, the heroine--now using a theatrical pseudonym--makes a triumphant return to perform for her native country. By some romantic fate, the deeply depressed husband finds himself at the theater. Seeing his beloved, he makes his way into her dressing room but is, alas, spurned by the great love of his life. For although she continues to hold his memory sacred, she has her pride: it's too late, she tells her husband. "I loved you once. I don't anymore."

The plot of Twilight of a Woman's Soul seems anachronistic, irrelevant to the cynical modern era, but even out of place in the traumatized world that succeeded the First World War. So is another of Bauer's films, Dying Swan. In this darkly erotic film, a speechless ballerina falls for a man who betrays her love by meeting a second woman for a romantic tryst. Devastated, the heroine turns toward her art, winning over her audiences with a hauntingly depressing rendition of, presumably, Tchaikovsky dying swan.

At the same time, an equally morose gentleman, a count no less, is relentlessly pursuing some kind of aesthetic rendition of death itself, painting skeletons to pass the time. When he sees the heroine's perfectly morbid representation of a dying bird, he is smitten, wanting only to capture this incarnation of death on a canvas. Alas, the ballerina's perpetual state of sadness--the inspiration for her art--is broken by a happy reconciliation with her original, and now repentant, suitor. The count, displeased with his model's new-found joie de vivre, kills the ballerina in order to preserve some semblance of her psychological attachment to the netherworld. For the director at least, love is a supremely serious matter: in fact, it's a matter of life and death.

A similar plot structures the Bauer film, After Death. Here, a solitary, bookish man named Andres emerges from his seclusion only to fall immediately and completely in love with an emerging actress named Zoia. The man and woman meet briefly at a park but somehow fail to unite. This, of course, plunges the actress into a deep and unbreakable downward spiral. Notwithstanding her success as an actress, the woman despairs and takes poison right before going on stage. Her death is undoubtedly her most spectacularly successful performance to date. She swoons, and then retreats from stage before being carried to a dressing room sofa where she expires, surrounded by adoring (and Roman garb-clad) actors, who would of course have appreciated the performance more than anybody.

But of course Bauer's romantic theatricality does not rest there. Like a scene from Wuthering Heights, the actress relentlessly haunts her suitor even in death. The hero cannot rest but seeks out his beloved's family to retrieve two mementos of his lover, a diary and a framed picture. Possessing these two reminders of the departed does nothing to help his obsession. His lover beckons him from the grave, and in a recurring dream sequence his lover, clothed in a long white dress and standing in an endless wheat field, calls him to her. Naturally, he doesn't try to resist, knowing that true love demands that he follow his lover to the grave.

It's interesting to analyze the Russian Revolution in the light of this type of unadulterated romanticism. Was the Russian Revolution, or at least its destructive aftermath, a repudiation of this kind of soulful earnestness? Or, on the contrary, did revolutionaries create an unprecedentedly complete social upheaval precisely because they expected their dreams to be tinged with tragedy? Whatever the answer, one suspects that Bauer's brand of dark Romanticism somehow shares some affinity with Russia's revolutionary utopianism.

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