Early Russian Cinema, Volume 6: Class Distinctions
A contemporary review acclaimed The Peasants’ Lot as a fine picture on a subject “close to the heart of every Russian.” As well as applauding the “well-considered and excellent performances” by Goncharova and Mozzhukhin, the reviewer enthused over its choice of scenes from peasant life: “the scene at the races is wonderfully presented, the fire in the village vividly depicted, the pictures of rural life alternate successfully, hopeless poverty contrasting with the existence of a rich family in the capital.” Here was a ‘balanced’ view of the country, as seen from the city, which followed Goncharov’s solidly traditional approach, echoing the view of rural life familiar from Russian 19th-century literature. A film that clearly answered the urgent demand for “national” images that confirmed the increasingly unstable status quo.
It is impossible for us to see Silent Witnesses today without some degree of hindsight. For this “upstairs-downstairs” drama of life below stairs shows a world that, unwittingly, stood on the brink of extinction. Fascinating also to compare the figure of the porter with Emil Jannings’ famous doorman over a decade later in The Last Laugh. But the film has an undeniable edge to its portrayal of the upper classes and — is this hindsight? — a marked sympathy for its servant class. It also shows Bauer’s virtuoso visual style at its most ornate, using split-screen and subjective shots, as well as the very architecture of the house, to evoke the social structure that is its subject.
A contemporary review noted: “Running through the film is the idea that people have still not shed their prejudices over white skin and blue blood. It is impossible not to single out the weak-willed, characterless whimperer exclusively preoccupied with his own pitiful ‘me’: he sees himself as the only thing of value in the world. The vitality of the idea, challenging bourgeois morality, is highly characteristic of both Russian and foreign dramas, and increases considerably the undoubted value of the film.” [Silent Witnesses, ed. Tsivian et al, London/Pordenone: 1989]
THE PEASANTS’ LOT (Krest’ianskaia dolia). Director: Vasilii Goncharov. Screenplay: Arsenii Bibikov. Photography: Louis Forestier. Production Company: Khanzhonkov. Released November 13, 1912. Cast: Aleksandra Goncharova (Masha). Ivan Mozzhukhin (Petr). Petr Chardynin (Petr’s father). Arsenii Bibikov, Lidiia Tridenskaia (Maksim).
SILENT WITNESSES (Nemye svideteli). Director: Evgeni Bauer. Screenplay: Aleksandr Voznesenskii. Production Company: Khanzhonkov. Released April 29, 1914. Cast: Dora Chitorina (Nastia, a maid). Aleksandr Kheruvimov (A porter, her grandfather). Aleksandr Chargonin (Pavel Kostritsyn). El’sa Kriuger (Ellen, his bride). Andrei Gromov (Nastia’s fiancé, the neighbor’s lackey). Viktor Petipa (Baron von Rehren).This DVD is also available for Institutional Purchase, which includes public performance rights and a 3-year streaming license. Please click on the “Format” button and select “DVD Institutional Rate.”
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