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Milestone Film & Video presents
Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer (1913-1916)

"All my life I have been searching for death, and I have found it in your dance."
- Count Valerian Glinskii (Andrei Gromov) in The Dying Swan

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: January 06, 2004

Stars: Nina Chernova, A. Ugriomov, Vitold Polanskii, Vera Karalli, Andrei Gromov
Other Stars: V. Demert, Olga Rakhamanova, M. Khalatova, Tamara Gedevanova, Aleksander Khervinov, Ivan Perestiani
Director: Evgeni Bauer

Manufacturer: Deluxe
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, suicide, implied rape)
Run Time: 02h:23m:52s
Release Date: December 09, 2003
UPC: 014381198324
Genre: foreign


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- A-BA B+

DVD Review

When one thinks of Russian silent cinema, the name Sergei Eisenstein pops to mind, and then, well, there's a big void in the consciousness. Milestone Film & Video attempts to remedy that with this collection of films by a little-known writer/director, Evgeni Bauer. He had the double misfortune of dying in 1917, after he had only been in the film business five years (but Bauer nonetheless managed to make 82 features, about 26 of which are known to exist), and to have his work be targeted by the Bolsheviks. As will be seen, Bauer's work would have been none too popular with the Soviet regime, and it was accordingly suppressed to the point that few have heard of him. But the Russian film archive, Gosfilmfond, nonetheless preserved Bauer's work, and with the fall of the USSR these pictures are finally seeing the light of day. And they are indeed a revelation. Milestone bills Bauer as "(probably) the greatest director you've never heard of," and they may not be far wrong with that assessment.

The disc collects three of Bauer's short features (each around 48 minutes in length) sprinkled across Bauer's brief career. The first, Twilight of a Woman's Soul (Sumerki zheskoi dushi, 1913) is the earliest Bauer picture known to exist. In this frequently shocking drama, a bored noblewoman, Vera Dubovskaia (Nina Chernova), decides to find meaning in her life by helping the underprivileged. Unfortunately for her, one of the underprivileged, apprentice Maxim Petrov (V. Demert) has designs on her, lures her to his attic and rapes her. When the opportunity comes she murders him with his own tools and flees home. When she marries Prince Dol'skii (A. Ugriomov), she feels compelled to come clean about her past, with shocking results. It's hard to tell from the intertitles whether he's more appalled at the fact she's a killer or that she is not a virgin, but I'm guessing it's the latter. Although the photography is mostly static, with primitive medium shots and lengthy takes in basic tableau style, there is some camera movement, most notably a short tracking shot that indicates where Bauer is heading in his innovations.

After Death (Posle Smerti, 1915) shows a tremendous development in Bauer's technique. The camera is active, with a number of striking tracking shots and a series of vivid closeups used to good effect. This film, based on Turgeniev's story Klara Milich, delves into Freudian psychodrama as Andrei Bagrov (Vitold Polonskii) stars as a scholar in seclusion who is lured out to a party. There he catches the eye of Zoia (Vera Karalli), a striking actress. He later receives a note from her asking to meet with him, and when he does so she confesses her love for him. Bagrov thinks this outlandish and rejects her, but is shocked to find that her response is to take poison onstage. He starts to delve into her history and becomes increasingly obsessed with the dead woman.

Death obsession is again the order of the day in The Dying Swan (Umirayuschil Lebed, 1916). After mute ballerina Giselle (Karalli again, who was in real life a ballerina with the Bolshoi and Ballet Russe) is rejected by her lover Viktor (Polonskii), she meets the artist Valerian Glinskii (Andrei Gromov), who has been searching for the perfect representation of death. He sees it in Giselle's Dying Swan dance and demands that she sit for him. But his obsession extends far beyond art, as Giselle learns to her chagrin. All of the films included here feature striking dream sequences, a characteristic for which Bauer was particularly noted, but this contains the most chilling of the three as Giselle finds herself entombed in a cell while groping hands reach for her. Oddly enough, the music score eschews the proper music from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, relying instead on Saint-Saens' poignant The Swan for its primary motif. The scores are otherwise appropriate, with a slightly experimental and off-kilter feeling that suits the pictures well.

The casting is of particular interest. Bauer had an affinity for using dancers (such as Karalli), and they paid ample dividends, since they not only had good stage presence but were well used to conveying complex meaning wordlessly through simple gestures onstage. Karalli in particular is very effective, with haunting eyes that Bauer uses to excellent effect. While I can't speak to the other films of Bauer, he seems to be firmly in the Russian literary tradition of bleakness; there are no D.W. Griffith last-minute rescues in his world. Life is complex, and often bleak for Bauer's characters, a condition instantly recognizable by readers of Dostoevsky and Turgeniev.

The technical strides made by Bauer were enormous over the space of three years, and it's interesting to speculate what he might have done had his career not been abruptly ended by a bout of pneumonia. But given his unsympathetic characterizations of proletarians, he probably would not have been allowed to continue to make films in any event. The collection here does go a long ways towards restoring Bauer to his proper position in film history, and Milestone is to be commended for this presentation.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The aspect ratio is roughly 1.33:1, though the films are presented windowboxed and I observed significantly larger black bars at the top and bottom than on the sides. The films have the significant scratches and damage you'd anticipate for 90-year-old pictures, but there's no major decomposition visible. On occasion minor PAL-NTSC ghosting is present, but it's seldom visible at speed. Twilight has fairly weak black levels, but the other two are much improved in this respect. There are some occasions of blown-out whites, but since these mostly happen in dream sequences they very well may be so intentionally. It's hard to expect these to look much better than they do.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no


Audio Transfer Review: The soundtracks are scores for piano trio by Laura Rossi, Nicholas Brown, and Joby Talbot, respectively. The soundstage is very broad with excellent instrument placement. The sound quality is immaculate, without noise or hiss of any kind. Bass from the cello and lower piano spectrum is solid without being obtrusive.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 42 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Stills gallery
Extras Review: The principal extra is an extended film essay by Yuri Tsivian that takes clips from the three features and analyzes them both from a technical and thematic standpoint, often in slow motion. Tsivian's comments are knowledgeable and perceptive and I highly recommend his analysis of the films as he traces the evolution of Bauer's style. The still gallery is an accumulation of about 50 stills, postcards, and frame blowups from a variety of Bauer's films, including the three presented here.

Hidden away in a .pdf file is the electronic press kit from Milestone, which incorporates production notes, bios, and filmographies in a printable format. While there are some advantages to having these items be accessible onscreen, the .pdf document allow, which allows printing is probably preferable for such text-heavy materials. The intertitles appear to be the original Russian titles; they are translated with burned-in English subtitles.

Extras Grade: B+

 

Final Comments

Milestone's disc helps bring a lost master to light again. With very good transfers and some useful extras, this DVD should be in the collection of anyone interested in the history of early film.

 


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