At the same time that D.W. Griffith was making The Escape (1914) and Home, Sweet Home (1914) in America and Louis Feuillade was making Les Vampires (1915-16) in France, Evgeni Bauer was crafting short, poetic, and elegant features on the nature of human frailty in Russia. Bauer’s output was tremendous in the years 1913 to 1917, with 76 films to his name, making him the most important Russian filmmaker of the Tsarist period. Bauer’s surviving films, 26 in total, have subsequently been restored and three of them have been released through the BFI.
Aesthetically, Bauer’s importance to the development of the cinema is equal to that of D.W. Griffith and Louis Feuillade. But where Griffith and Feuillade represent developments in montage and visual effects, Bauer’s contribution was far more subtle and nuanced. Bauer took as his narrative subjects stories concerned with memory, loss and mortality. These philosophically minded tropes would be ill suited to the morality narratives and adventure narratives of Griffith and Feuillade. Bauer’s film After Death (1915), based on a novel by Ivan Turgenev, epitomizes the filmmaker’s aesthetic approach to cinema as well as his recurring narrative concerns.
After Death tells the story of Andrei (Vitold Polonsky), a reclusive young man mourning the death of his mother, and a singer/actress named Zoya (Vera Karalli). They meet at a party where each becomes entranced by the other. After recognizing Andrei in attendance at one of her recitals, Zoya arranges a rendezvous with Andrei. Here Andrei rejects her love. Three months later, Zoya has committed suicide, having suffered a broken heart. At this point, Andrei becomes obsessed with Zoya, collecting her possessions and having visions of her.
This rather melodramatic “ghost story” attains its urgency and potency from Bauer’s handling of the story visually. One of the most striking, if not remarkable, sequences in After Death comes at the party where Andrei meets Zoya. This three minute tracking shot follows Andrei as he is introduced to the other guests of the party. Bauer’s camera hovering around Andrei, slowly capturing the details of the party in a sustained wide shot. There isn’t a cut till Andrei has seated himself near Zoya. Here, Bauer cuts to a close-up of Andrei, then of Zoya. Before the moment that Andrei and Zoya lock eyes, Bauer’s long tracking shot establishes Andrei’s isolation, his unease, and his apprehension. With the cut to the close-up, Bauer interrupts these tense emotions with a sudden shift toward romantic and sexual longing.
A second sequence that is remarkable in After Death comes later, once Zoya has died. Bauer constructs a dream sequence on a small soundstage where Andrei and Zoya meet in a field of wheat. The theatricality of the set and the mechanical nature of the blocking give this recurring dream sequence a sense of frightening other-worldliness. The style in this sequence is so at odds with the rest of After Death that it manages to imbue the emotional content of the scenes where Zoya appears to Andrei in his sick bed, which bookend this sequence, with a sense of the threatening nature of death. Bauer goes further in demonstrating a contrast between the dream world of the dead and that of the living with his choices of tinting the film; color coding it based upon its narrative sections.
Bauer’s cinematic explorations of Russian Romantic Idealism yielded some of the great innovations of the early cinema. The two sequences from his film After Death discussed above offer only a small sampling. The fact that Bauer’s films have an intrinsically ethereal quality to them is what I believe has largely sustained them; allowing an audience 100 years later to access them on their own aesthetic terms.