Thursday, October 11, 2012

Belyi oriol / [The White Eagle]

Белый орёл / Gubernator [L’aquila bianca; Il governatore / The Governor] (The Lash of the Czar) (Mezhrabpomfilm, SU 1928). D: Yakov Protazanov; SC: Oleg Leonidov, Yakov Urinov, Yakov Protazanov, based on the story “The Governor” by Leonid Andreev; DP: Piotr Ermolov; AD: Isaak Rabinovich; ass D: Yakov Urinov; asst: Aleksandr Popov, Yakov Zvonkov; C: Vasilii Kachalov (Governor), Anna Sten (Governess), Vsevolod Meyerhold (Dignitary), Ivan Chuveliov (Agent provocateur), Andrei Petrovskii (Chief of city police), Piotr Repnin (Bishop), E. Volkonskaya (Governor’s wife), Mikhail Zharov, Yuri Vasilchikov (Officials), Aleksandr Gromov (a revolutionary), Mikhail Narokov (Dignitary’s assistant), Mikhail Komarov (a worker), Aleksandr Chistiakov (a convict); rel: 9.10.1928; orig. l: 1850 m; DVD, 71' (24 fps); print source: Gosfilmofond of Russia. Russian intertitles. Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone (Anna Sten), e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Günter A. Buchwald, 11 Oct 2012.

Peter Bagrov: "A promotional campaign almost unprecedented for the Soviet trade press unfolded from the very first days of The White Eagle’s production. This picture was clearly destined for a place in the annals due to the presence in the cast of two theatrical legends, Vasilii Kachalov and Vsevolod Meyerhold. Since Kachalov never got another full-fledged film part and Meyerhold’s pre-revolutionary films are lost, today the film stands as a unique document in the history of Russian theatre."

"Yet in 1928 not only did The White Eagle get scornful reviews (which was quite natural for a Yakov Protazanov film), but the audience, too, received it rather coldly (which was not). For the openly commercially oriented Protazanov this turned out to be one of his most experimental and least successful works. Not to mention its improbable ideological inconsistency. For while in the U.S. (where it was released under the title The Lash of the Czar) the film was interpreted as a “Bolshevik preachment”, the Soviet critics were shrewder in viewing it as a piece of bourgeois and almost counter-revolutionary film work."

"Adapted from a story by Leonid Andreev, set in 1905, its central figure of a tsarist provincial governor who, having given the order to shoot at a workers’ demonstration, is tormented by remorse and seeks his own death, could have drawn nothing but sympathy. Besides, the charming and lordly Kachalov was a profoundly safe choice for the role."

"A tsarist governor was a risky protagonist, nevertheless; and Protazanov and the co-writer Oleg Leonidov were obliged to invent other characters to “shield” him. But this technical necessity to evade censorship turned into an original dramatic solution. All the characters – the dignitary preoccupied by his own physical condition, the stoolpigeon worn out with fears, the amorous governess – play their stories brilliantly but independently, responding in their own way to the protagonist, who, it seems, is no longer capable of responding to anything."

"Undoubtedly the most successful pre-revolutionary filmmaker who resumed work in Soviet cinema, Protazanov was an actor’s director. Returning from his short-term emigration, seeing how the land lay, he assembled a spectacular but fancifully motley cast for his first Soviet picture Aelita (1924): members of the Moscow Art Theatre, Meyerhold’s disciples, former “Actors of the Imperial Theatres”, vaudeville stars… Thereafter Protazanov was always to merge specimens of various theatre and film trends – diversely and unexpectedly – each time creating a surprisingly solid ensemble."

"Generally his films are firmly constructed, regardless of genre or material. But here, having chosen such an uncharacteristic genre as a “psychological study” (the director’s own definition), he ended up with a shaggy plot and motley acting – in short, Protazanov made a most loosely structured and imperfect picture. But it is precisely this loose structure that makes The White Eagle so unique among Mezhrabpom’s commercial productions. “For this effect defective comes by cause.” There is no ensemble this time, but an ensemble would hardly be appropriate."

"Two diametrically opposed schools of acting met here: Kachalov was a leading figure at the Moscow Art Theatre, a true follower of Stanislavsky; Meyerhold founded and propagated biomechanics. Protazanov patently engineered a confrontation of the “psychological” and the “physiological” systems, which was immediately noted by some critics, to Meyerhold’s joy. A joy all the more explicable because 30 years earlier Meyerhold himself had been one of the first members of the Moscow Art Theatre; only decades later did he nurture his own Method, as if overstepping that of Stanislavsky. Besides, by 1928 he had given up acting completely."

"But Protazanov did not limit himself to employing just two acting styles. The plastic image of Meyerhold’s dignitary is a hybrid of two theatrical creations of the great Michael Chekhov (with whom Protazanov had worked on The Man from a Restaurant the previous year). Meyerhold used to say that “a nice, shiny bald spot” is very appealing on stage. In The White Eagle Meyerhold’s “walrus” baldness contrasts with the “canine” baldness of the Police Chief, played by Andrei Petrovskii, who was himself involved with various theatrical enterprises, as well as teaching acting. Ivan Chuveliov worked for a succession of avant-garde theatres, but paradoxically became famous for an almost typecast part in Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg: this typecast stupor was exactly what Protazanov wanted for his film."

"Strange as it may seem, Anna Sten progressed to this film directly from her comedy debut in Barnet’s The Girl with the Hatbox, rather than Otsep’s or Cherviakov’s melodramas. Barnet and Protazanov watched each other’s work closely (and later even embarked on a co-production, which had to be abandoned after Protazanov’s death). Directors of essentially different generations, temperaments, and reputations, they demonstrated a striking solidarity where casting was concerned. As a rule, actors discovered by Protazanov immediately found themselves in Barnet’s pictures (this happened with Igor Iliinskii, Ivan Koval-Samborskii, Vera Maretskaya, Serafima Birman, Ada Voitsik, and many others). Anna Sten is probably the only one who took the opposite route, from Barnet to Protazanov."

"Decades later, looking back at her Soviet work with Kuleshov, Barnet, Cherviakov, Otsep, and others, Sten said in an interview that Protazanov’s methods were the closest to her own. Alas, their sole collaboration did not turn out to be a significant acting achievement for Sten, even though on the crest of the success of The Girl with the Hatbox and Earth in Chains she was one of Mezhrabpom’s most popular stars, and on some of the posters for The White Eagle was even billed above Kachalov and Meyerhold."

"And yet, for Protazanov, actors like Sten, Chuveliov, and even Meyerhold were just “attractions”, in Eisenstein’s sense. As were the obvious quotations from Eisenstein himself (and also Pudovkin) in all the mob scenes and revolutionary episodes. These attractions, each in its own way, masked the film’s principal idea. Protazanov had foreseen the critics’ reaction and was ready to face it. In a rather odd promotional article he wrote: “In the past few years my fate as a director has ebbed and flowed, like rising and falling tides… I am scarcely accepted as one of the promising Soviet directors when, judging my next picture, I am excluded from that number… I am sure that my new work, The White Eagle, will be regarded as a low tide.”" PETER BAGROV

AA: The early turning-point in the story is the revelation that there were children among the victims as soldiers broke up a demonstration of workers by gunpoint. The little daughter of the governor witnesses it and becomes literally ill of nausea. Also the maid (Anna Sten) turns against her master, even almost shooting him with a pistol in a scene where the governor tries to force himself on her DSK style. On the other hand, such firmness by the governor becomes the ground for a promotion to the knighthood of the White Eagle. Underground revolutionaries mask their activities in weekend holiday boat trips of an orchestra. They oppose terrorism. The opening disturbances are revealed to have been incited by provocators paid for by the secret police. These elements would have made The White Eagle a strong film, but it is watered down by overdone caricatures and unconvincing parody (such as the fear of bombs; I would guess that the imperial authorities were pretty hard-boiled figures). The Eisenstein and Pudovkin hommages are actually quite interesting. Anna Sten is very good in this movie as the voice of social conscience. Mysteriously, the movie was screened from a dvd, although film prints exist, for instance in our archive in Helsinki. The dvd, however, has been produced from a nice source.

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