The Artistry of Russian Silent Cinema

6 Apr

Ivan Mozzhukhin in 'The Queen of Spades'

Daydreams (Bauer, 1915), The Queen of Spades (Protazanov, 1916),  The Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925)are all featured here in a comparative essay examining typical features of Russian silent cinema, and how effective it is. Originally written October 2009.

In an era of Hollywood blockbusters and million-dollar budgets, it would be easy to write-off and marginalise silent cinema as unwatchable moments of cinematography in its infancy. However, in doing this we negate the overwhelming contribution that this early medium has made to directors and films alike, and the groundbreaking techniques that were mastered during this age. None more so than the cinema of Russia in the period prior to 1929, which saw numerous pieces maximise this format to its full potential, and by doing so gives a fascinating insight into Russian society and culture of this time.

This essay will attempt to identify the typical features and cinematographic techniques of three silent Russian films, namely Bauer’s Daydreams (1915), Protazanov’s The Queen of Spades (1916), and Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925); as well as analysing the effectiveness of their usage and the role they played in communicating various situations and emotions to the viewer. It will primarily evaluate the use of contrast, symbolism and the style of acting in the earlier pre-1917 films, and how these were developed further in the Soviet cinematic period of which Eisenstein was a part of.

Daydreams, directed by Evgenii Bauer, is based on the novel Bruges la Morte by Belgian surrealist author Georges Rodenbach; and is a gripping tale of love and a man’s psychological torment. Still grieving from the death of his wife Elena, protagonist Sergei Nedelin falls in love with opera singer Tina who is her exact resemblance. Regarded as “one of the best of the many films of that age inspired by mystical, decadent, and even necrophilic themes” (Stites 1994:293) Nedelin’s obsession over his deceased wife accumulates in confrontation with the provocative Lena and her murder, being strangled to death by a lock of Elena’s hair. Psychological and mystical themes are similarly replicated in Iakov Protazanov’s adaptation of Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades. In this piece, card player Hermann becomes fixated on an anecdote concerning a Countess and her secret method of winning the game of Faro, and endeavours to uncover the secret at any cost. By manipulating one of the Countess’ wards, he gains access to their home and frightens the elderly Countess to death by drawing his pistol. The mystical connotations to the film are emphasised by Hermann being visited by the Countess in a dream, and her revealing the winning cards to play in order. After taking his life savings to the Faro game, the protagonist (played by noted silent actor Ivan Mozzhukhin) wins on the first two cards he plays. However, on the final game he plays the Queen of Spades instead of an Ace, and sees the vision of the Countess on the card, winking up at him. After losing everything, Hermann degenerates further into insanity, and spends the rest of his days in an asylum.

Many of the films which came out of Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution were naturally of a political nature, and Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, said by Youngblood to be “arguably the most brilliant achievement of silent cinema” (1985:83) was no exception. A propaganda film which revolutionised various techniques such as montage, it deals with the 1905 mutiny of sailors on the warship of the same name, albeit in a semi-factual and politically loaded manner. After successfully overthrowing their superior officers over harsh treatment and unfit conditions, the crew sail to Odessa where they are greeted by the population, and turn the funeral of their dead comrade Vakulinchuk into a mass rally. The red flag is raised and revolutionary slogans are chanted, until a violent suppression by Cossack soldiers that causes the ship to retreat. Out in open water, they encounter another vessel from the fleet presumably there to attack, and successfully persuade the crew not to open fire, but to join them in their revolt.

One of the most notable features that are prominent in these three films is the use of symbolism, most often to communicate emotions (due to a lack of dialogue) and to suggest character traits. Tsivian notes that the decade from 1900 to 1910 “were the years when Russian culture was dominated by symbolist images” (1994:172) and that such conditions “made the cinema a particularly interesting medium for the symbolists” (150). It can be argued that symbolist experimentations in early cinema lasted throughout this decade and continued to be employed very effectively. The lock of Elena’s hair in Daydreams is the perfect example of this: not only does it emphasise the fixation and grief that Nedelin goes through following her death (this can be seen by the sheer size of the lock itself), but also enforces the chilling and mystical conclusions that can be drawn from the ending: when a part of the dead wife becomes the murder weapon for her likeness. Similarly, the “blood-sucking spiders and serpents of symbolist and decadent imagery” (Stites 1994:291) used in The Queen of Spades helps to  create the chilling, supernatural atmosphere that permeates the entire piece. As the film bases itself around gambling and card-playing, it is of course the use of cards that make such mysticism truly overt; be it when the Countess as the Queen winks up at Hermann, or the picture on his wall transforming itself into the Ace card. Double exposure techniques in the film’s closing scenes show cards dancing around the tortured Hermann’s head, a compelling image and one recognisable to audiences without the need of intertitles.  In particular, these scenes are aided by the excellent acting of Mozzhukhin, the “intense stare” which serves the purpose of “offering a window into the protagonist’s (usually) tortured psyche” (Christie 2005, at, accessed 27/10/09).

The importance of symbolism in plot development and audience awareness is recognised by Eisenstein, who uses them to carry his political message further. Development of the storyline through symbols is clever here: the rotten meat combined with the plate and its inscription of “give us this day our daily bread” acts almost directly the catalyst for the initial dissidence and eventual revolt of the sailors. A cartoonist as well as a filmmaker, the red flag hand-painted onto the film reel serves as the striking, emotionally-charged cause of which the crew and the people of Odessa rally behind. It is worth noting that there is no leading figure during these scenes as “the hero of the film is the Battleship” (Kenez 1992:61), in turn representing a society in which the Soviet Union is supposed to be a mirror of.

Symbolism in The Battleship Potemkin goes hand in hand with Eisenstein’s use of contrasts and similarities, a technique “which came to be the most significant aspect of his montage” (Kenez 1992:61); and something which Bauer and Protazanov employed in their films. His choice of repeating “Brothers!” first when the marines refuse to fire on the other sailors, and again when the crew of the other ship withholds attacking and joins the revolt is an attempt to “facilitate the creation of an organic whole” (Eisenstein 1986:80) which underlines the common bond between fellow workers. The class divisions between the leftist sailors and their naval superiors is enforced by the choice of clothing attributed to them – the officers uniforms are all in black which suggests brutality and coldness, the exact opposite of the majority of the crew wearing white. The same effect is used in The Queen of Spades, contrasting Hermann’s dark regal uniform and look of devilish menace with the Countess as an elderly figure with sunken eyes. Her white dress not only serves as distinguishing her from Hermann in a ‘good versus bad’ comparison, but adds to an eerie supernatural appearance which is then replicated when she visits the protagonist as a ghost.

Bauer’s take on contrast in Daydreams is also a variation on this theme, but an interesting one nonetheless. Like the elderly countess, Elena’s white clothing on her deathbed can also be interpreted as enforcing mystical and spiritualist qualities, but also as a symbol of innocence which distinguishes her from Tina. This serves to mark out the fundamental difference between the two, their characteristics, yet both look the same in physical appearance. The sexual suggestiveness of Tina is reflected in her choice of elaborate clothing and hats, as well as her mannerisms. Morley points out that Tina “asserts her right to be the woman she chooses, constructing her own erotic identity and refusing to conform to Nedelin’s fantasies of ideal femininity” (2003:50), and this offers a realistic and gripping contrast.

The style of acting itself is remarkably different from what viewers are used to in films with sound as dialogue itself is non-existent, save for the sparing use of intertitles to communicate important points. Therefore much of the on-screen acting at this time is “pure “delsartism”, a code of gestures, staggers and lurches created in French theater (sic) to signify specific emotions through visual means” (Stites 1994:288). Such acting is a frequent occurrence in films by Bauer, and in Daydreams lead actor Alexander Vyrubov staggers and gestures wildly for the viewer to realise the true extent of his trauma. Actors such as Vyrubov would often react to music played on set during filming, and the musical accompaniments – when played well in the cinema halls – would recreate and contribute to the dramatic effects. Whereas Rozmus’ score to The Queen of Spades is characterised by the use of minor chords to create suspense, Mozzhukhin’s acting is minimal, with much of his work concentrated on raw emotion and gaze. The crowded scenes at the card table, where secondary actors react in the typical delsartist style, now show the acting itself as one of contrast where Mozzhukhin’s subtleties are emphasised by the departure from this. What this achieves is the “choreographing of a near-static intensity” (Christie 2005, at, accessed 27/10/09).

Such crowded scenes, however, pale in comparison to the number of extras involved in The Battleship Potemkin. A number of shots, especially those involving the docking at Odessa, feature hundreds of people, orchestrated into a fluid movement which fits in perfectly with the score. The music becomes more aggressive and omnipotent during the famous scene on the Odessa steps, where the traditional method of silent acting is employed alongside close-up shots to capture individual reactions, deviating from older silent films where characters appear as whole figures in shots. Rapid alternating of these angles serves to highlight the panic and confusion amongst the people, and is montage work at its finest. By doing this Eisenstein effectively takes a combination of traditional and experimental approaches to acting and uses Potemkin as a canvas for their expansion and development.

To conclude, it is apparent that a wide range of attributes are employed in the three films analysed: the clever uses of symbolism to carry points when faced with a lack of dialogue, and the contrasts and similarities within the pictures which provoke emotion and deepen suspense. Often these ideas are replicated, such as in the use of light and dark clothing, repetitive elements and the interpretative weight assigned to objects. Nevertheless, what makes these films stand out as landmarks in Russian silent cinema is the way in which these techniques are expanded beyond the conventional for the time, leading the way for directors and artists to be bolder in their experimentation and delivery. The radical plot turns and disturbing ending in Daydreams still has weight and effect to this day. The Queen of Spades sees Protazanov set the stylistic acting of Ivan Mozzhukhin against the conventional, aided with the repeating visions of playing cards and ghosts. Finally, Sergei Eisenstein succeeds in his explorations of shots alongside unusual imagery in a radical manner to convey his revolutionary message. It is factors such as these that provide a valuable contribution to the art of cinematography, and ensures the longevity of classic films which can be enjoyed again and again.


Books (Authored)

  • Eisenstein, S. (1986) The Film Sense (Faber and Faber)
  • Kenez, P. (1992) Cinema and Soviet Society 1917-1953 (Cambridge University Press)
  • Tsivian, Y. (1994) Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception (Routledge)
  • Youngblood, D. (1985) Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era, 1918-1935 (Ann Arbor, UMI Press)

Journal Articles

  • Morley, R (2003) “Gender Relations in the Films of Evgenii Bauer”, Slavonic and East European Review 81:1 pp.32-69
  • Stites, R. (1994)  “Dusky Images of Tsarist Russia: Prerevolutionary Cinema”, The Russian Review 53:2 pp.285-295

Website Articles


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