|Cast:||Vitold Polonsky, Vera Karalli, Olga Rakhmanova, Mariya Khalatova|
|Screenplay:||Yevgeni Bauer based on Ivan Turgenev's Klara Milich|
A highly psychological Edgar Allen Poe themed exploration of death’s grasp on the living, this morbid and macabre tale of obsession with death that breeds madness originated as a short story by Ivan Turgenev. While it could easily have been made into a bad five minute short, Bauer gets over 45 minutes out of it without it seeming the least bit stretched or padded. After Death is actually far more artistic than his earlier masterpiece Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, but even though every frame is overloaded with artistry, as Bauer progresses the techniques become less apparent because they blend so well with the story. Bauer is remarkably subtle, especially for his time, and considering how much emphasis he put into using all means possibly to render the story.
The main character Andrei Bagrov (Vitold Polonsky) has become reclusive since the death of his mother, but a friend persuades him to attend a social gathering. Bauer depicts the party through a three minute tracking shot, placing the camera on a board rigged between two bicycles. However, we notice the scene not for it’s possibly groundbreaking technique, but rather for the surprised reaction of the many attendees in seeing the reclusive loner and the discomfort and clumsiness of the hero attempting to navigate in society. The initial pans reveal the surprise of the gossipy attendants, who in their own subtle way gape and gawk at the presence of the perpetual mourner. The pauses, hesitations, jerks, and later pans reveal Andrei’s discomfort in being amongst these people who will undoubtedly judge him harshly.
Andrei briefly encounters Zoya (Vera Karalli), a very modern and forward actress, who writes a letter to him requesting his presence and jumps right to declaring her love for the isolated scientist. Andrei is not surprisingly shocked, as Zoya is a virtual stranger to him who has uttered a few words to him, at most. As in Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, the woman leaves the man forever due to not liking his reaction, but this time she does so by killing herself three months later, over Andrei’s unrequited love.
Too deeply immersed in his obsession with his dead mother to reciprocate while she was living, Andrei’s fixation now shifts from one dead woman to another. Both women seem to have made a far greater impression on him post mortem, as they’ve lodged themselves in the forefront of his mind. Andrei is not only a scientist, but also a photographer who is susceptible to dreaming, and it’s those dreams show us why. Bauer’s men tend to be weak, intimidated creatures who want to control and possess women. The Zoya of Andrei’s dreams has none of the independent and forthright qualities of the one we saw in “real life”. Instead she’s an outdated model who would be subservient.
As Andrei increasingly approaches insanity, Bauer mixes flashbacks, dreams, and apparitions, the audience let to determine whether the ghost of the rejected actress is actually pulling him to toward the grave or if her appearances are merely manifestations of his own guilt. The techniques – silhouette, superimposition, tinting, artistic lighting, deep focus photography – and the characterization – a lost lonely man obsessing over the unattainable - work hand in had with the themes and moods to blur life on earth with the after life, reality with dream. Andrei can have Zoya in his hand through her picture or in his mind, but he wants to inhabit the same world as she does, making it a clash between the visible and invisible world. Bauer does use a close-up here, which has a profound effect because it’s so unlike any frame he composes elsewhere in the film.
Bauer is one of cinema’s first great artists, constantly experimenting. What’s important though is he never settled for mere spectacle, his techniques always worked to the advantage of the story he was telling. His spacing and framing were years ahead of his peers, combined with brilliant lighting and well placed decor, he achieved deep focus to get past the flatness of the screen while Gregg Toland was still in elementary school. Certainly more emphasis on the development of cinematic technique needs to be shifted from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Racist Nation to this rather recently “discovered” Russian master.