Early & Silent Film

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The Adjutant of the Czar / Der Adjutant des Zaren, Hungary 1919

Posted by keith1942 on July 31, 2017

This film appeared in a programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto for ‘The Danish Film Institute: A 75th Anniversary Tribute’. The film was actually a Hungarian Production, filmed in Berlin with the surviving print held in the Archive. These varied credits are appropriate as this was one of the titles made by the peripatetic ‘white Russian’ filmmakers after they chose exile over helping to build the new Soviet Union.

Whilst the film is set in pre-revolutionary Russia the anti-socialist values are clearly apparent. Casper Tybjerg [of the Danish Archive] writes in the Festival Catalogue:

“The figure of the Czar is treated with almost mystical reverence …; like Christ in Ben-Hur, the Czar is conspicuously placed just outside of the frame or with his back turned.”

The hero of the film, Prince Boris Kurbsky is played by the great Russian star Ivan Mozhukhin. Returning to Czarist Russia after a failed romance and engagement Boris meets and assist a mysterious lady at the border, Helena di Armore (Carmen Boni). She has lost her passport so Boris passes her off as his wife. This not only throws them together on the remaining train ride but sets up gossip amongst Boris’s fellow Officers. On his return Boris is assigned to the personal guard of the Czar: he also discover love and marries Helena.

However, Helena is not only mysterious but she has a secret. She has lost a family member to the Czarist secret police and has now joined band of secret revolutionaries. Boris is caught between his duty and his love for Helena. Helena, who now reciprocates, is caught between her love and her commitment. The film clearly comes down on the side of Boris and the aristocratic class. The revolutionary are stereotypical subversives and there is no attempt to define their politics apart from their hatred of the Czar whom they plan to assassinate. When we do meet them they are hidden in a cellar in a dark and disused buildings, full of shadows and far from the light.

If the film in anti-revolution it is critical of the now defunct Czarist regime. Helena and others are victims of the hated and brutal secret police. And whilst Boris is able to thwart the plot it is at the cost of his love.

“Even so, the politics of Czarist Russia are ultimately destructive of true love, and the loyalty of Mozhukhin’s character leaves him stranded on a darkened railway platform, staring tearfully after a disappearing train, billowing black smoke as it carries his wife away into the night.” (Casper Tybjerg in the Festival Catalogue).

The film is very much constructed around the persona of Mozhukhin. The early part of the film play like a romantic comedy as Boris begins his involvement with Helena. Casper Tybjerg describes one fine scene where romantic love is recognised:

“his boyish elation when Boni agrees to marry him is particularly endearing; he sweeps her up in his arms and whirls around like a dervish, ending up in a pratfall with her on his lap.”

As the plot darkens the mood shifts, the film turns to melodrama, and here Mozhukhin demonstrates his powerful expressive style;

“later, during the grand ball, he thwarts the assassination attempt through the power of his piercing stare alone: after a tight close-up of Muzhukhin’s eyes, Helena is unable to pull out the pistol in her handbag.”

This sequence is constructed around a number of close-ups, including the purse carried by Helena. Whilst the film moves between fairly conventional set-ups, as in the palace, at times it makes good use of camera and editing. A number of sequences enjoy rapid dolly shots, as at the Imperial Ball. There are short effective tracks when Boris investigates the next of revolutionaries, and at one point what seems to be a hand-held camera. And the sequences with chiaroscuro, such as the revolutionary hide-out or the final railway station, are well presented.

The director was Vladimir Strizhevsky and he also wrote the scenario. He carried on directing films in the bourgeois west until the 1940s. The excellent cinematography was by Nikolai Toporkov and the design by Hans Sohnle and Otto Erdmann. I did not find a credit for editing.

The film was screened from the Archive’s 35mm print, with Danish title cards and a translation provided. John Sweeney accompanied the film at the piano with a predominantly melodramatic score.

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