The Queen of Spades (Pikovaya Dama) 1916

Director: Iakov Protazanov
"And then he told her a secret . . . for which each of us would pay dearly . . ."
Za Vas! Join me in a toast to the dear old Countess Fedotovna, long gone but not forgotten, at least not by your friends at the Devil's Manor... This supernatural tale by Aleksandr Pushkin becomes one of the most celebrated Russian films of the silent era. The secret of winning a fortune at cards is revealed to an obsessive army officer by the ghost of the woman he killed...

German, an officer in the Horse Guards, is at the house of his friend Narumov where his fellow officers are playing cards. German watches them intently, yet never gambles himself. He professes to be unwilling to 'sacrifice the necessary in the hope of gaining the superfluous'.

His interest is piqued by a story that Narumov relates about his grandmother, the Countess Fedolovna. Sixty years before, the young Countess had been the toast of Paris. A losing streak at the faro tables left her penniless, and when her fuming husband refused to pay off her debt, she sought the counsel of the alchemist and mystic Count Saint-Germain. "You don't actually need any money", the Count advised. "Listen to me...", and revealed the secret that allowed her to regain her wealth, a secret she has kept to herself for the past six decades.

German (Ivan Mozzhukhin) evokes the ghost
of the Countess (Yelisaveta Shebneva)
German is fascinated by Narumov's story. Chance brings him to the Countess' home in St Petersburg, and over time persuades her ward Liza to allow him inside. Begging the Countess for her sixty-year-old secret gets him nowhere, but a desperate threat makes his unloaded pistol a murder weapon when the old lady dies of a heart attack. That night, her ghost appears to German. Compelled by some supernatural law, she tells him simply that he must play the three, the seven and the ace in succession. Then she is gone.

German visits a gambling club in Moscow, staking his entire fortune of 47,000 roubles on the turn of a single card; he plays the three, and wins. He returns the next night to play the seven, and is successful once again. On the third night, a crowd gathers to watch as he plays his final card. The dealer cries "The ace wins!", but the outcome is not what German expects...

The Queen of Spades is widely regarded by those who know about such things as one of the finest examples of Tsarist Russian cinema. This brief but fruitful period lasted for just under a decade; Svetna Lanzy, Russia's first home-grown narrative film, appeared in 1908 while Iakov Protazanov's Father Sergius was the last to be completed before the October Revolution in 1917.

Although basically a tale of revenge from beyond the grave, TQOS is not usually considered as part of the horror genre. This is perhaps not all that surprising if you bear in mind that it was based on an acknowledged literary classic. 'Serious' critics are usually reluctant to tarnish their pet subjects with such disreputable associations, which is why you'll rarely find the many screen versions of Shakespeare's The Tempest or Dickens' A Christmas Carol in genre surveys, despite their authentically supernatural themes. 

In addition, The Queen of Spades features an intriguing guest appearance from the mysterious Count Saint-Germaine, a real-life historical figure who claimed, amongst other things, to be over three hundred years old, to possess the Philosopher's Stone and the Elixir of Life, and to be able to liquefy diamonds. A darling of the court of Louis XV, later writers and commentators have variously depicted him as a vampire, a charlatan, a mystical High Adept and the legendary Wandering Jew.

But despite all the paranormal trappings, it doesn't seem as though The Queen Of Spades was ever intended to frighten. Its author Pushkin enjoyed a reputation as Russia's greatest, and so his work was approached by the indigenous film industry with a suitable amount of reverence. The Russians were quick to embrace the movie camera as an instrument for genuine artistic expression, and had set their sights high from the beginning. There's a fitting quote credited to film expert Yuri Tsivian; "in constructing the edifice of their own cinema, the Russians, as usual, had begun with the roof."

German (Ivan Mozzhukhin) trapped in
a web of deceit
Any chills that the film might provide come from director Protazanov's aim to reveal his characters' psychological states in purely visual terms - states that just happen to be thrown dramatically off-balance as the film progresses. Protazanov's imaginative but carefully contrived images take a turn for the strange in the film's final reel; German becoming tangled in an outsize spider's web, or clutching wildly at imaginary playing cards that tauntingly drift past. It should come as no surprise that things end badly for the hopelessly obsessed officer.

There was an earlier version of The Queen of Spades, made in 1910 by director Piotr Chardynin and based on the libretto of Thaikovsky's 1890 opera rather than Pushkin's 1834 short story. While Protazanov returned to the original text for this version, the musical analogy is still appropriate. New theories of acting were being discussed at the time in Russia that attempted to codify an actor's movements and expressions in a manner similar to musical notation, something which later developed through the montage experiments of director Lev Kuleshov with the aid of his 'model actor' Ivan Mozzhukhin.

As German, the elegant Mozzhukhin is a model of restraint. He was admired as much by the public as by intellectuals like Kuleshov, and was later compared to Valentino for his intense gaze and sombre good looks. Describing his controlled, economical performance as 'choreographed' seems fair when not a glance or gesture is wasted. He and Protazanov made several films together (including Satan Triumphant in 1917) and we can assume that Protazanov was also musically inclined from his occasional habit of directing the action with a conductor's baton.

...And the last words, of course, go to Mozzhukhin's German, a decidedly non-musical refrain he was probably still chanting on his death bed: "...Three, seven, ace... Three, seven, queen... Three, seven, ace..."

End Credits:
Ivan Mozzhukhin (German), Vera Orlova (Liza Ivanova), Yelisaveta Shebneva (Countess Anna Fedotovna as old woman), Tamara Durvan (Countess as a young woman), Polikarp Pavlov (Countess' husband), Nikolai Panov (Count Saint-Germain).
Producer: Josev Ermolieff, Scenario: Iakov Protazanov and Fyodor Otsep, based on the short story by Alexandr Pushkin, Camera: Eugenii Slavinskii, Art Directors: Vladimir Balliuzek, S. Lilienberg and W. Przybytniewski, Asst. Director: Georg Asayaroff.
Ermolieff Films, Russia
Running Time 63 mins. 

Early Russian Cinema Vol. 8: Iakov Protazanov (Milestone Films)

1 comment:

  1. "The Horror Blogger Alliance" is having a "Give Blood [Money]" Drive,
    March 10th to April 1st 2012, for
    more details:

    Thank You,
    Jeremy [Retro-Zombie]
    HBA Curator