Milestone Films

Early Russian Cinema, Volume 8: Iakov Protazanov


Nothing in Protazanov’s career before his 1912 Tolstoy film would have hinted at its provocative originality. For this dramatized account of the great writer’s last days, despite its interpolation of documentary footage of the real locations and considerable efforts at authenticity, did not cast his widow in a flattering light. As a result, the Tolstoy family took successful legal action to have it banned. Undaunted, the producers decided to add an even more controversial “apotheosis” for the export market, which shows the heretic Tolstoy being received into heaven. By 1916, Protazanov had become one of the most commercially successful of Russia’s “kings of the screen,” particularly after The Keys to Happiness (1913), co-directed with Gardin. He was also a leader of what was ironically termed the “braking school” of directors, controlling his actors’ stylized rhythm with a conductor’s baton. Backed by Ermal’ev, and with Mozzhukhin as his regular star, he ranged across all the genres, including literary classics.For his adaptation of Pushkin’s novella, The Queen of Spades, already adapted as an opera by Tchaikovsky and filmed five years earlier by Chardynin (see Vol. 5), Protazanov used all the expressive devices at his disposal. To Mozzhukhin’s intense central performance as the callous young officer, he added novel tracking shots, telling superimpositions, and studio-built exteriors; all intended to create the subjective world of German’s obsession with the secret of the cards. Years later, his collaborators recalled how he “demanded unity between the visual and artistic design work and the film’s overall conception” and how everything was bent towards “revealing the characters’ psychological essence by visual means.” In this “good story faithfully rendered” (Jay Leyda), Protazanov demonstrated the sophistication and strength that Russian cinema had achieved only eight years since its inception.

THE DEPARTURE OF A GREAT OLD MAN (Ukhod velikago startso). Alternate title: The Life of L. N. Tolstoy (Zhizn’ L N Tolstogo). Directors: Iakov Protazanov and Elizaveta Thiemann. Screenplay: Isaak Teneromo. Photography: George Meyer and Aleksandr Levitskii. Art Director: Ivan Kavaleridze. Production Company: Thiemann & Reinhardt. Released Overseas: 1912. Cast: Vladimir Shaternikov (Lev Tolstoy). O. Petrova (Sof’ia Andreevna). Mikhail Tamarov (Vladimir Cherikov). Elizaveta Thiemann (Aleksandra L’vovna). Documentary footage, including some shots of the town of Astapovo where he died, was used in the film. As a result of a petition from Sof’ia Tolstoya and Vladimir Chertkov, the film was banned from distribution and shown only abroad.
THE QUEEN OF SPADES (Pikovaia dama). Director/Screenplay: Iakov Protazanov. Assistant Director: Georgii Azagarov. Photography: Evgenii Slavinskii. Art Directors: Vladimir Balliazek, S. Lilienberg, W. Przybytniewski. Screen version of the story by Aleksandr Pushkin. Production Company: Ermoltev. Released April 19, 1916. Cast: Ivan Mozzhukhin (German). Vera Orlava (Liza). Elizaveta Shebueva (The Countess as an old woman). T. Duvan (The Countess as a young woman). Polikarp Paviov (Her husband). Nikolai Panov (Count Saint-Germain).
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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