Prerevolutionary Russian Films

Perhaps the most remarkable film-history revaluation currently in progress (highlighted at the Film Center this month) concerns Russian films made during the teens, fascinating today for their highly modern handling of space and decor, their resourceful mise en scene, their unambiguous feminism, and their embrace of tragic endings, among other things. If you assume, like most people, that world cinema has been steadily improving over the past 70-odd years, there’s plenty here to challenge that premise; this work, like the equally neglected work of Louis Feuillade from this period, is arguably in advance in some respects of not only D.W. Griffith’s films but also most contemporary mainstream movies. I’ve seen two of the four films on his program, which seems to be an excellent introduction to this cinema as a whole. Nicolai Larin’s beautifully shot rural thriller The Merchant Bashkirov’s Daughter (1913) belongs to the odd subgenre of “blackmail film” that flourished briefly during this era. (A film company would threaten to recreate a wealthy family’s scandal on film to procure hush money, then make the movie anyway with the significant names changed.) Petr Chardynin’s no less impressive The Wet Nurse (1914) concerns a peasant housekeeper made pregnant by her employer. Frigid Souls, made the same year by Evgenii Bauer, the most prominent auteur of this period, is a sex farce starring the director’s wife; and Andre Maitre and Kai Hansen’s 1910 short L’Haim presents pastoral scenes of Jewish life. David Drazin will provide piano accompaniment. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, January 10, 3:30, 443-3737)

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