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Psycho Pompous: Early Imperial Russian and Soviet Influences

Matthew Roe
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Psycho Pompous: Early Imperial Russian and Soviet Influences

Georges Méliès’ Le Manoir Du Diable signified the dawn of the horror film. A lost film, Esmeralda (1905), the first adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, is the offical second installment in the genre. It was created by founding French director Alice Guy-Blaché at the dawn of the 20th Century, who would aid in revolutionizing the art as Gaumont's leading director, and one of the first experimenters with color and special effects in the medium. Her work was succeeded by another adaptation of Hugo's novel in 1911, with an ambitious version by Albert Capellani, another lost film. Though such powerful filmmakers were behind the first explorations into the horror genre on screen (followed by J. Searle Dawley's Frankenstein), it would not be until the early 1920s that horror would even be considered a viable part of film; we’ll get there, I promise.

However, before the rousing success of the horror genre in German expressionism, and the necessary indroduction of French and Italian impressionism (we'll get there), the origins of techniques that were to be hallmarks of the style and finesse that would distinguish the genre have great contributions from innovators of Imperial Russia (and later the Soviet Union). The most notable of the Russian filmmakers in this early period of film with an essential impact on horror were Yakov Protazanov and Yevgeni Bauer.

Yakov Protazanov graduated from the Imperial Commercial School in Moscow with a career emphasis on engineering, bookkeeping, and accounting when his passions suddenly shifted to that of the motion picture. Initially being employed at what would become one of the premiere film production companies in Russia in 1905 (Thiemann & Reinhardt, then Gloria Studios), he made a living writing scenarios for silent films, as well as acting in several of those scenarios.

Protazanov didn't become a director until roughly 1909, creating the film Bakchisarayskiy fontan, based off the work The Fountain of Bakhchisaray by legendary Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. As Protazanov continued his career, Pushkin was quite possibly the largest influence on all of his subsequent work, which included several more adaptations of his work.

However, though Protazanov would come to establish Russian cinema as one of the great powerhouses of the Silent Era, he would explore many genres before breaking into horror, and it wasn't as black and white as all that. It is debatable whether or not Protazanov made any films with the determination to horrify an audience, mainly being noted for his numerous comedies, psychological dramas and his achievement as the first science fiction director of the Soviet Union. However, his 1916 film The Queen of Spades had strong, viable elements that poked at the raw nerve of humanity in a way that directly influenced the first true wave of horror filmmakers around the world. Some from within the very borders of what was to become the Soviet Union.

The Queen of Spades was adapted from Pushkin's short story of the same name. It was the second adaptation of the work, as founding Russian filmmaker Pyotr Chardynin had created his version six years prior. However, that earlier cut was more directly inspired by the Tchaikovsky opera, than the original story. The Queen of Spades centered on a military officer named German (also called Hermann) who becomes bewitched by the serendipitous story of one Countess Fedotovna’s claim to fortune. In a high-risk attempt to achieve great wealth easily and quickly, he propels himself down a path that would conclude in the loosing of his mind. The Queen of Spades was one of the last films to be made in Imperial Russia. And the ending twenty minutes of the film established the benchmark for disturbing cinema.

As German drives himself to various extremes to mollify his greed, he scares Countess Fedotovna to death. Driven by his guilt and also his continued obsession with uncovering her secret, his mind begins to unravel. He is visited by the ghost of Fedotovna in the midst of a dream, and she gloatingly tells him to gamble on a series of three cards, each one a different night; these three cards were the secret combination to her winning her great fortune. The design chosen for the scene shows great understanding of depth, mystery and fear. The background and foregrounds are punctuated by large windows. As a result, the mid-ground is deep in shadow. The immediate foreground is awash in harsh light, spotlighting German as he is haunted by the specter. German is dressed in faded and muted colors, appearing quite grey next to Fedotovna, who is dressed completely in white, almost glaring off the screen.

After he wins at cards the first two nights as Fedotovna had foretold, he loses his entire fortune at the last attempt. As a result, his mind becomes completely unhinged and he is committed to a mental hospital. Before being hospitalized, the scene in which the audience is privy to his mental collapse is rather disturbing for a film released in 1916. Either supernaturally or (more likely) mentally, German becomes entangled in a thick webbing, as if covered in cobwebs made of wool. On screen it appears far more realistic and unnerving than anything achieved in similar spider web-drenched scenes later on, like Tod Browning’s Dracula or Karl Freund’s The Mummy. Trying to break the web, German panics and loses his nerve, almost screaming as he fights to get free. This scene and the next, his mind is constantly taunted and ravaged by combinations of cards playing about in his mind before, yet again, Fedotovna’s presence disturbs and scares him, thus ending the film. Both of these latter scenes are shot from one angle with many overlays and transitions in the image, it is hard to understand where reality and his madness separate, as this scene seems to culminate in the deteriorating state of his mind hinted throughout the movie.

This type of approach to cinematically depicting abstractions representing the evolving derangement of one's mind would be copied and adapted in many prominent early movies such as John Robertson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (1922), Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou (1929), and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930). Even more modern work such as Ingmar Bergman's Through A Glass Darkly (1961), Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965), Artie & Jim Mitchells' Behind the Green Door (1972), Anthony Page's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977) and Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000) utilize filmmaking techniques that have roots in Protazanov and his innovations. Though one of the reasons his innovations might not have been felt worldwide is because this was the same year DW Griffith's Intolerance was released, changing the dynamic of film language even more from his breakthroughs in Birth of a Nation the year prior.

If you were to read the short story from which this is based, or watch Protazanov's adaptation, you would say equally that neither version was intended to horrify an audience. It is built as a rather simple drama commenting on the extent of human avarice. Due to the innovative work of the filmmakers, it not only stands as the foundation of Russian horror, but also provide clear links between Russian cinema and the impressionist and expressionist horror that was about to arrive in film. Russian horror films would not really start until Konstantin Ershov & Georgi Kropachyov’s Viy in 1967; and wouldn’t come about as a legitimate genre until the 1990s with Mariano Baino (with his film Caruncula and more prominently Dark Waters) and Anthony Waller (though being from Beirut, his film Mute Witness was a collaboration between Russian, English and Italian producers).

Such a long period of time between eras was due to the rise of the Soviet Union. As early as 1917, films made during the Soviet period in Russia were bound to strict state-issued production codes far more stringent than the Hayes Code in America. But as part of these codes, horror was considered beyond the bounds of predefined ‘socialist realism’ by which all Soviet films had to be made.

Though Yakov Protazanov would widely nurture the outstanding Russian influence in horror by way of The Queen of Spades (and later by his techniques used in his famously influential films Aelita and Father Sergius, which would quite evidently instruct Fritz Lang in the making of The Weary Death, as well as his masterwork Metropolis), the seed was not planted by him. It really began a year prior with the films Daydreams and After Death, made by Yevgeni Bauer.

Now, where Yakov Protazanov is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of Russian cinema, Yevgeni Bauer’s work has been pushed more under the rug and as a result, his accomplishments in service of the art form have gone, in personal opinion, widely unnoticed or forgotten. Even Kenneth Turan, a film critic for the Los Angeles Times, called Bauer “the greatest director you've never heard of.” Also, in addition to this, the majority of Bauer’s movies have never been seen by most audiences of today due to near two-thirds of his filmography being lost. This is in the same vein of most Silent Era films, whereas probably 75-90% of all silent movies have been lost or inadvertently destroyed.

Though constantly Protazanov, Aleksandr Khanzhonkov (Russia’s first movie producer), and Sergei Eisenstein are considered to be the three most important figures in early Russian cinema, this critic would consider Yevgeni Bauer to be one of the most important innovators in the history of movies, who also had a profound influence on the creation of horror film genre.

Firstly, Russian performance would come to be characterized by its profound exploration of psychological realism. This realm of art was first explored by Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol through their novels and short stories, breaking away from the romanticism that made them famous. But it was through the influence, philosophy, and performances of renowned Russian actor Mikhail Shchepkin, and the thorough reexamination of all three by Konstantin Stanislavsky in 1911 that would birth a system what would eventually become Method Acting (called so after Lee Strasberg’s introduction of Stanislavsky’s system to American actors and audiences). Not only would this alter the way acting was handled by cast and crew, but also how movies were to be approached in general, regardless of the genre. This effect was compounded (though distorted), as was aforementioned, during the Soviet Union as psychological realism was replaced by government-approved socialist realism. Bauer’s work had the blessing to come before the fall of the Russian Empire, and thus his movies are seemingly devoid of most forms of censorship.

Daydreams was a film that dealt with the complexities of human obsession. True, Protazanov’s German in The Queen of Spades fell to madness over guilt of his crimes mixing with his deep-set greed; which obviously falls into the obsession category. Bauer, however, explores the profound and haunting impact the loss of a loved one can have on our minds. This critic not only considers Daydreams to be far more horrific than most horror attempts in the 1910s (excluding L'Inferno), but considers it one of the most important films ever made due to its impact on the world of cinematic realist horror.

The fear surrounding this story is something that anyone can succumb to, whereas Méliès’ Le Manoir Du Diable and Dawley’s Frankenstein were supernatural tales that held horror at far more than an arm’s length away from the audience.

Daydreams is a story about Sergei, a widower utterly heartbroken and obsessed with his deceased wife. He even cuts her long braid of hair from her head as she lay on her funeral bed, keeping it in a box which he returns to with frequency to smell. Already this movie oozes with distress and unease, only to be increased exponentially as the movie continues as Sergei hallucinates his wife walking down streets, at his home, and mistaking an actress (named Tina) for her during the middle of a performance, embarrassing himself in front of the whole theater. He would begin a relationship with Tina, and due to his continued obsessing over the memory of his dead wife, he drives himself to killing her at the end of the movie. This sort of characterization would come to be repeated in many key films dealing with obsessions such as Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female (1992), and Park Chan-wook’s Stoker (2013).

Daydreams is remarkable for its contributions to the complexities of what helps create a decisive horror story in a movie; adding the methodology of psychological realist acting and romantic posh, to drive its effect home with resounding efficiency in then-contemporary Russia. After Death however is less character-driven horror and more mood and ambiance. In return, the cinematic and design techniques implemented in After Death are so monumentally innovative that, in this critic’s opinion, the movie is on par with Liguoro’s L'Inferno (1911) and Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) as the most important, game-changing movies of the 1910s, and of film entire.

Bauer was one of the very first directors to be defined as a master of mise-en-scene. This was due to his uses of staged lighting, image superimposition, unorthodox camera movement and positioning, and his overly-detailed construction of image composition and character interaction. Having initially come from a theater background, he was a perfect fit for the movies. Along with his production and artistic expertise, Bauer brought the innovations of Pushkin, Gogol, Shchepkin, and Stanislavsky to the screen far better than any of his contemporaries.

This attention to detail and production design would directly influence methodology that Protazanov would use when he would make The Queen of Spades. However, unlike Protazanov, Bauer’s camerawork is not only innovative, but surgically fluid. Every action of the characters are in tune with the camera, in a way that the camera (and thus the audience) becomes an active participant in the story. In After Death, the camera moves in such ways that its style not only would be copied in later films such as Orson Wells’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), but the movie also boasts some of the greatest tracking shots in motion picture history.

Yakov Protazanov and Yevgeni Bauer would contribute in many other ways to the world of cinema, however, to horror filmmaking, these two would directly influence the first wave of Soviet filmmakers that would emerge in a few short years, as well as the Expressionists and Impressionists in Germany and France for many years to come, though not in ways that may seem apparent. This is mainly due to the German borders being shut off to foreign films since their defeat in World War I, and much (especially Bauer) of European filmmakers sentiments of owing their new craft to the French, not the Russians.

However, these directors would influence another pair of Russian filmmakers that would directly shape the addles of horror and suspense in European movies: Dimitri Kirsanoff and Fedor Ozep. But we’ll get to the why and how of this pair next time, when horror movies finally emerge in their first boom in the history of film.

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After LifeDaydreamsHorror FilmHorror Film HistoryImperial RussiaMatthew RoePsycho PompousRussian Film HistorySoviet Film HistorySoviet UnionThe Queen of SpadesYakov ProtazanovYevgeni Bauer

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