Friday, October 12, 2012

Provokator / [Agent Provocateur] (2012 restoration in 2K)

Провокатор / Его карьера / В паутине / Ego kariera / V pautine [Provocatore; Informatore; La sua carriera; Nella tela del ragno / Stool Pigeon; His Career; In the Spider’s Web] (VUFKU, Yalta, SU 1928). D: Viktor Turin; SC: Aleksandr [Oles’] Dosvitnyi; DP: Mikhail Belskii; AD: Abram Goncharskii; ass D: G.F. Zosimov, Anna Levodarova, Sergei Skriabin; ED: David Volzhin; C: Anna Sten (Lipa Khromova, a student), Vladimir Kriger (Borovsky, a prosperous landowner), Nina Tairova (his wife), Nikolai Kutuzov (Viktor Borovsky, their son, a student), Anna Dodonova (Lidia Ziger, his fiancée), Anna Agramova (Lidia’s mother), G.F. Zosimov (student Zubenko, a revolutionary), Larisa Liliyeva (Nina Bakhmetieva), V. Komar (Ivanov, a student), Nikolai Panov (Bakhmin, police colonel), M. Arbenin (Struzky, police captain), Lev Konstantinovskii, Leonid Danilov (student), Karl Tomskii, Vladimir Uralskii (conservative); filmed: 1927; rel: 16.10.1928 (Russia); orig. l: 2315 m; incomplete, 2K DCP, 77' (transferred at  17 fps); print source: Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev. Russian intertitles. Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone (Anna Sten), e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Gabriel Thibaudeau, 12 Oct 2012.

Natalia Nussinova: "The student Lipa in Agent provocateur seems to have been Anna Sten’s first role in the cinema. It was probably in 1926 that Viktor Turin offered to the very pretty beginner the part of a character who seems marginal to the story, and does not even figure in the synopsis of the film that he had been shooting since 1923. Lipa, the girlfriend of the revolutionary terrorist, is a little student, a young girl from a good, honest but not rich family, a delicate young lady in the old style, who blushes and faints, and whose character bears the surname Khromova, like the heroines played by Vera Kholodnaya and Lidia Koreneva, rival sisters in the famous melodrama Zhizn’ za Zhizn’ (A Life for a Life)."

"Bauer’s 1916 masterpiece could surely not have been unknown in the VUFKU studios, established in the Ukraine in 1922 on the basis of the old pre-revolutionary studios of Khanzhonkov, Ermoliev, Kharitonov, etc., and giving shelter to such directors from the Tsarist cinema as Vladimir Gardin and subsequently Piotr Tchardynin."

"But the marginal character played by Sten comes out of the shadows to assume an important place in the structure of the film. The police arrest the girl, using blackmail, aggression, and even money to try to make her become an agent provocatrice. Fragile though she seems, she nevertheless finds the strength to refuse, and it is thus that she becomes the antithesis of the agent provocateur Viktor, the main hero, a student from a well-off family, inspired by the romantic and clandestine, who readily cracks under police pressure and becomes a traitor and informer, resulting in the death of his friends. It is in this counterpoint of characters that Sten found the opportunity to show the evolution of her heroine, who passes from timidity to extreme courage, to the point of throwing an inkwell in the face of the policeman and threatening him with a pistol. And of course her courage costs her dear: three days later the newspapers tell us that the body of Miss Khromova has been fished out of the river. The official explanation of the “suicide” is quite in keeping with the traditions of Russian melodrama of the 1910s – a case of unhappy love."

"Work on the film lasted 4 years, owing to conflicts between the director and the management of VUFKU studios. For Viktor Turin (1895-1945) this marked his debut as a director, following his return to the USSR; he had lived in the United States (1912-22), been educated at M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and had worked in Hollywood as an actor and synopsis writer. But he took the liberty of criticizing the scenario by Oles’ Dosvitnyi (Aleksandr Skripal-Mischenko, 1891-1934), a Ukrainian writer who was editor-inchief at VUFKU and one of the founders of the Yalta studios where the film was made. Turin blamed the scenario for many ideological errors, but the VUFKU bosses insisted on the production. Turin delayed the shooting on the pretext that the facilities given him were unsatisfactory. Accused in his turn of ideological errors, he called for a control commission at which he offered his justification. But finally, just as the film was finished, the presidential council of VUFKU was renewed, and the new heads criticized him, demanding re-editing involving serious cuts which affected the very heart of the story. For Turin this was not very worrying, because he had meanwhile made another film, Struggle of Giants (1926), also for VUFKU, and then acheived fame thanks to the documentary Turksib (1929), with its scenario by Yakov Aron and Viktor Shklovsky."

"But Dosvitnyi’s ending was to be much different. The Party Congress on Cinema in March 1928 accused the heads of VUFKU of nostalgia for Tsarist cinema and of having employed “old reactionary directors”. As a result of the purges that followed, Dosvitnyi lost his post as chief editor at VUFKU in 1929; four years later he was accused of counterrevolutionary activity, arrested, and shot.""

"Since the distribution of Ukrainian films in the Soviet Union took time, Agent provocateur was not released in Russia until October 1928, when it provoked very opposing reviews. The Moscow newspaper Kino reproached this “screen novelty” for being banal, old-fashioned, and naïve, and using the images to illustrate the intertitles. Kino’s critic went on to complain of the uninteresting interiors: “It is very badly staged, and so badly lit that it takes some effort to recognize the actors at the start of every shot.” The critic of the revue Zhizn Iskusstva was much more tolerant, especially with regard to the scenario – in his view, it was an important story from the “psychological” viewpoint, demonstrating the transformation of the revolutionary student into an agent provocateur for the police, with a precise and original representation of “details of the period”. However, he was more sceneptical regarding Turin’s direction, which he considered reproduced the tradition of the “German psychological genre” (we can assume that the reason for this was the scene in the prison where the student Viktor is obsessed by visions of himself, as he is now, as a future prisoner, and as an old convict, all three images appearing in split-screen and making him so fearful that he agrees to collaborate with the police)."

"It is notable that though neither critic is very satisfied with the acting, both appreciate Anna Sten. The author of the article in Zhizn Iskusstva writes: “And yet Anna Sten is magnificent. She has succeeded in creating a remarkable image, sweet and touching, for the quite small role as the student, which is, it appears, the first part she has played.” The severe critic of Kino goes even further: “The actors in the film are very different; here is the respectable Panov, the eternal scoundrel Kutuzov, and finally Anna Sten, who is very young, but already very amusing and piquant in her movements. But this actress is only one very small bright spot, lost in the gray background of the film. … This is why the calculation of VUFKU’s distributors, to launch an old film taking advantage of the name of Sten, which is now in vogue, has little chance of succeeding.”"

"Thus it was that the first small role of the young novice Anna Sten, making her film debut, became a trump card for Sten the Star, which was to attract Russian spectators to the premiere of a Ukrainian film, made by a Soviet director formed in Hollywood and imitating German films." – NATALIA NUSSINOVA

AA: Yet another remarkable Anna Sten discovery, even the title of the movie missing from standard sources, although the talents involved are no less than Viktor Turin, creator of the masterful Turksib, and Anna Sten in her debut role. Like Belyi oriol / The White Eagle, this is an account of police oppression and the use of stool pigeons and provocators to demoralize and destroy opposition. And like in The White Eagle, Anna portrays an innocent, good-hearted woman who is caught in the web. Provokator is a tragedy where all the rebels are murdered or executed, the self-respect of the attorney Borovsky, turned stool pigeon, is crushed, and Lipa (Anna Sten) is "found dead in the river having committed suicide due to unrequited love" = killed in prison because of her refusal to betray fellow students. The most impressive feature of the movie is the sense of demoralization in circumstances where anyone can be a traitor. Memorable features: - Lipa's soul fight when she has inadvertently betrayed her fellow student - action scenes from the underground resistance - the secret police (the okhrana) softening and bullying Borovsky to collaboration - a view of rebels being "exiled" = sentenced to hard labour in a quarry, perhaps in Siberia, often a slow version of a death sentence - Borovsky's stream of consciousness montage before he informs on all the members of the opposition - Lipa's encounter with Borovsky: innocently, unknowing that he is a traitor, she repents her act of treason - she cries loudly, attracting everyone's attention - Borovsky's ballerina wife does not respect her husband's weakness - back at the okhrana's office the colonel offers Lipa a good compensation: nikogda! - like in The White Eagle, she receives a pistol but does not shoot - she sees Borovsky and realizes everything: predatel! - soon she is found dead in the river - there is a final act of terror, a minister is assassinated by the rebels - the final images are of the hanging of the rebels, the body bags, and the noose. The Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre has performed the digital restoration from sometimes difficult sources (sometimes marks of nitrate / water damage, low contrast, variable visual quality), but there are often enough passages of fine visual quality in the 2K DCP.

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