Monday 13 February 2023

A Spectre Haunts Europe (1923)

Director: Vladimir Gardin
Writer: Georgei Tasin, based on The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
Stars: Zoya Barantsevich, Oleg Frelikh, Evgeniy Gryaznov

I enjoyed the first two 1923 movies I saw for this project, as flawed as they both were. This one, however, was a little harder to enjoy and there are a number of reasons for that.

For one, it’s a Soviet movie—not Russian, as the revolution remained underway until the final White Army general surrendered in June 1923—and apparently an obscure one, because I couldn’t track down a decent copy. The one I have runs 67m, even though I’ve seen mention that it should be 94m. It’s also entirely silent, both because has no accompanying score and because it’s missing all its intertitles. So I was reliant on various online synopses to work out what was going on.

For another, it’s quite clearly a propaganda film in favour of revolution. The title is taken from the Communist Manifesto, which opens: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” Bizarrely, given that detail, it’s also purportedly based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, The Masque of the Red Death, which is, frankly, nonsense.

There are two themes that survive from the story: a strong and abiding fear by the main character and the presence of a masquerade ball late in the picture. Instead of Poe’s story, this tells the time-honoured tale of revolution, in such a way that you’re going to want to join in on this history-making action.

And, for a third, the acting is pretty awful, even though I’m not entirely sure who’s who.

I believe that’s Oleg Frelikh who takes the lead as someone variously described as king, emperor and despot. Clearly, he’s nobility, a relic of the past in this new Soviet Union, who has run like a rat to the countryside to escape the righteous anger of the workers. He’s holed up in a country estate with his wife, a bevy of ministers and whoever else apparently wants to hang out and have a wonderful time on the country’s dime.

The best aspects of the picture are the ones that take it into horror movie territory, those scenes in which the emperor is plagued by his fears, which manifest as spirits through a use of double exposures. Without the intertitles, I can’t be sure whether he’s afraid of the people coming to get him or guilty of what he’s done to them or both. I realise that it’s probably the former but it often felt, during nightmares, as if it ought to be the latter.

I found Oleg Frelikh overblown as an actor, but probably the best of a sorry bunch. I have to say that I’d like to see a restored version of this with all its footage and those intertitles in play so I can actually follow properly, but the performances as I saw them weren’t strong.

After all, this is silent cinema. It’s often said that film is a universal language and that any silent actor should be able to explain their role through body language. That doesn’t remotely happen here. Case in point: those synopses say that the emperor and a shepherdess meet and fall in love, which certainly isn’t what I saw.

Sure, there’s a young lady who’s frequently seen near the emperor’s mansion, supposedly tending to goats, though they clearly have no intention of doing anything she wants them to do. Sure, the emperor finds a waterfall, spying on her from there through handheld glasses. And sure, he wanders down to her, gets flirted with outrageously and eventually they move to another level, as it were. My interpretation was that the goatherder girl was playing hard to get but was happy to be got, after which the relationship ceased to be of interest to her.

I’m not sure if this young lady with a scary amount of eyeliner and who surely smelled of goats is played by Zoya Barantsevich or Liana Iskritskaya-Gardina. I don’t have credits and I don’t see much to help online, so I’m guessing at the former. Whichever it is, I have little idea why the emperor is interested. There are lots of delightful young ladies hanging around the place who he could conquer without having to look at those scary eyes and wonder if a goat’s going to come up behind him. Maybe it’s just a fresh example of the nobility exploiting one of the working class, but that wouldn’t allow the whole “falling in love” angle I read about.

However consensual the relationship he has with this blatant tease, who also flaunts all her wares to a local simpleton, the empress has a relationship of her own with an advisor, who could well be a minister in exile. They’ve been at it a long while and they’re not particularly secretive about it any more. The emperor still fails to notice.

It’s more understandable that he fails to see the other danger in his relationship with goat girl and that’s that her father happens to be a revolutionary, who I’m assuming got arrested but somehow exiled to this backwater rather than being shot as a traitor. Eventually, when the emperor murders an aviator who brings a message from the capital, hallucinating him to be a revolutionary spirit, and they throw him over a cliff without removing the messages he has secreted in his pocket, all the information the revolutionaries need is in their hands and it’s time to dive into the Poe part of the story.

The best scenes here, outside of the visions the emperor has of his demise at the hands of the rabble, come during the masquerade ball, which happens for no apparent reason. Even here, though, I was far from impressed by the cinematography, something that shone in Mist in the Valley and as brightly, if less frequently, in The Blizzard. Maybe Soviet cinema was still enough in its infancy that the groundbreaking names we all know about hadn’t started to be groundbreaking yet.

Then again, Battleship Potemkin was only two years away and Aelita just one, and I must say that Sergei Eisenstein may well have seen and been inspired by A Spectre Haunts Europe, as the famous Odessa Steps sequence was anticipated in this film by a memorable section late on, as the mansion is attacked and the workers look up from a long section of steps at the rich and powerful leaping out of buildings to escape an inferno that has been set for them.

While I’m well aware that my opinion of this may change if I ever get to see a decent copy, I would be surprised if it improves by much. It’s surprisingly weak for something I was looking forward to, as a rare example of Russian silent horror.

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