Child of the Big City

Elena Smirnova in Child of the Big City, Evgeny Bauer 1914.

The cinema of Evgeny Bauer is a world of ghosts. As he set a course to explore the possibilities for psychological and emotional depth in early 20th century Russian film, he tore a path that is still to this day unique in the way it ties the melodramatic aches and longings of his characters to the brutal and devastating realities at their core. His films are careful and sustained narratives of feeling, drawing you in from the first frames to these tiny, hidden worlds of love, loss, and painful regret. The ghosts onscreen take many forms. Sometimes bombastically theatrical, but more often mere wisps flickering on the periphery of the characters’ imaginations. They appear in dreams, or as visions, or maddening hallucinations, but they all point to a place of understanding. The ghosts are the bursts of enlightenment, fooling or cajoling characters into action. All houses in Buaer’s cinema are haunted by the past.

One need only watch a handful of his films to get to the core of the old screenwriting question, “What does each character want?” These characters simply want. They want what they don’t have, they want what once was, they want escape, stability, action, stasis, whatever it might take in each moment to appease their lonely hearts. It’s a miserable, unfair universe we inhabit, and Bauer was tuned into this fact on an elemental level. His characters may cheat or scheme to get what small prize they think awaits them just down the road, but so might they simply stumble onto what they see as the answer to all their prayers. And at the end of all roads is death, portrayed both literally and figuratively (sometimes downright elliptically) throughout his films. His is a world that seems only to ask, If the answers are never satisfying, were all the prayers truly worth it? In truth, his almost uniform endings suggest this is simply what life is, and to question any of it much further is to miss out on each individual moment we might otherwise spend questioning it all in the first place. Life is unruly and tiresome, a grind, but the small comforts and loves and ghosts and charms can at least provide the illusion of safety from it all. It’s the illusion that makes it all worth it. Until it doesn’t.

Child of the Big City is the story of Marya and Victor, whose names alone betray a broadly cynical sense of humor on Bauer’s part that I’m not sure he’s ever given enough credit for. Marya, the orphan resigned to life at a sewing machine in a dirty basement laundry, dreams only of a moment’s peace, while rich Victor’s ego sends him looking for an “unspoilt” woman. And so they meet, and see in each other their dreams come true. Immediately, both fantasies can be seen for their obvious faults, but like so much of what we hope for in our own lives, the realities only gradually consume the initial rose-tinted desires. They get what they want and are never the same.

This is visible from the start. As Marya joins Victor and his assistant at dinner in Victor’s mansion, she scarfs down food, jumps for the piano and starts pounding away, goes for more wine, and is completely smitten with his lifestyle. He, meanwhile, is smitten with her, but even in this first encounter he can tell something isn’t quite right. As she reaches higher and higher levels of exuberance he looks annoyed, like he’s made a huge mistake, but soothes himself by (purposefully, I assume) mistaking her enthusiasm for a sexual advance. As he strokes and kisses her, she pushes him away. Then, realizing this new world is the out she’s been looking for, eventually relents. But they are vessels for each other’s ends.

It’s important to note that Bauer isn’t judging one or the other for doing what they do to get what they want. If anything, he loves these characters and feels for them. While we get a brief but thorough introduction to Marya and her world, we know very little about Victor other than that he’s rich and bored. His assistant shows him photos of different single women, all with little love notes attached, each one seeking the attention of the lonely bachelor. It’s in his decision to not fall victim to that type of life, of elite socialization and seclusion among his own rank, that he imagines that the world could be very different than what he’s grown to expect. So it may be easy to imagine that had he had the exact same date we see, but with one of these other rich women trying to catch his eye, he may well have reacted differently. Maybe he’d have shown his disdain more clearly, been more rude or simply dismissed them. He’s already in that headspace, annoyed mostly with himself for the position he occupies in his society. So Marya is a mystery to him, something to be solved and eventually loved, not won. He’s seeing more clearly now. More than the mystery or challenge that women in his life might have seemed in the past, Marya is her own woman in a way that is impossible for him to miss. His is a story of evolution.

Marya has no such expectations from Victor. She simply sees her new situation for exactly what it is, an opportunity dropped down in front of her to jump from the basement to the penthouse. And we don’t blame her. Through her we see the magic of being suddenly lavished with attention and affection. Marya could once only dream of the boredom Victor takes for granted. So she takes the chance. One thing Bauer’s films will always teach you is that, in matters of love, the risk is always worth taking, no matter how great or how small. But that if that risk leads to a broken heart (or two, or three, whether yours or someone else’s), then that heartbreak will be felt onscreen just as strongly.

As a title card tells us, “In the elegant Mary nobody would have recognized a former seamstress.” This, again, is Mary’s distinction, not Bauer’s. She’s achieved her ends and we see both her and Victor at breakfast so at ease with each other and their new life together that it feels a million miles away from the previous shot. Now she’s in a fur shawl and diamond hair clips, looking frustrated with a servant while Victor ignores her and laughs at the newspaper. For Victor nothing has changed other than now he’s got someone to eat breakfast with. Marya has taken so completely to her new lifestyle that she’s back to looking off in the distance the way she used to down in the basement, dreaming of something else.

So she goes out dancing, partying, drinking. At one such party, Bauer presents my favorite shot of the film, as the camera seems to float away from Mary at her table and drift over the room towards a dancer onstage. She dances against darkness, her eyes closed, a smile on her lips, in her own world, moving her arms dreamily around her as she sways her hips to music we don’t hear. It’s an abrupt shift from the relative formalism of the rest of the movie, so we can feel just how otherworldly this is all really is for Mary as she navigates her way through these parties full of nice suits and fancy gowns. But on her own, she looks right at home. This is a significant and well-known technique of Bauer’s, to drop these quick, surreal shots and sequences into the middle of a scene to psychologically re-contextualize what we’re being shown. We can read this as Marya still feeling that little bit of desperation, still just trying to fit in, and still very much recognizing the strangeness of her new environment. Just as easily, it could be Bauer himself commenting on the pure weirdness of these people and their extravagance. But the shot cuts just as quickly back to the room as the curtains close and the dancer disappears back into the void behind the stage.

It’s here that we finally see the full picture of what these parties look like for Victor and Mary. As the room is in full swing and people are throwing confetti and pouring champagne and dancing around the tables, they sit bored. They look in opposite directions. Victor looks like he’d pretty much just rather be dead at this point and Mary sits up on the table, sipping her drink. And it’s here that she first sees her ghost.

Victor’s house has been haunted all along, the ghost living (in more ways than one) right under his nose. It’s only when faced with this reality that he has his breakthrough. He really does love Mary, but that love has always been tied to the trappings of what they’ve represented to each other. So his final plea falls on what could generously be called deaf ears. Mary has evolved, too. Or maybe she’s simply come into who she always was. It wasn’t until now that she had the language to admit it to herself. Victor must reckon with this new reality, and it is more than he can take.

When we make promises to each other, when we declare our love to another, there’s a general sense that this is the love that will withstand time and be unending. That this is the love that will see us through the rest of our lives and always be there for us, no matter what. Even a mild flirtation will come with the flash across our brains, “are they The One?” It’s unavoidable, as much as the inevitability of the loss of that love and all it’s represented to us. We can build our lives around other people and position ourselves as unbreakable, but outside forces are always waiting to strike. We can never expect it, and it’s unhealthy to dwell on such things, but the nature of people loving other people can only end in heartbreak, one way or the other.

Bauer is aware of this above all other things. People tend to not drift off peacefully and die of old age in his filmography. He takes this notion of a perfect love, perhaps one of the most primal forces most people might aspire to at one time or another, and turns it inside out, looks at it, analyzes it, and shows it to us in dramatic and unsparing terms. Mary’s reply to Victor’s letter begging her to start over with him, simpler this time, is quick and painful, but truthful. She grew tired of him long ago and he never even noticed. He might have dreamt that she enjoyed the parties a little too much for his liking, drank too many glasses of wine, but that she still loved him. His mistake was in thinking it was ever him she was looking for. She was chasing a ghost all along.

The final section of the film finds Victor in the tiny, modest flat where he’d once asked Mary to join him in a new way of life. He’s alone, smoking, staring at the walls. His sorrow and grief over his lost love eventually succumb to what looks like madness, and he loses what little of himself he has left to paranoia and a deep well of regret. Now, just as we saw Mary earlier in the film act out a version of her idealized life and self, we see Victor playing the ultimate victim of fate. Only here, his pitiful manner only serves to reinforce the depths of loneliness he’s felt all along. Is this always how it was going to end for him?

Bauer shows us tragedies more often than not, but they’re always self-made. These are stories of loves gone wrong, sure, but the director’s take would seem to be that there are no other kinds of love than these. To devote yourself to another person is to risk losing that devotion in return. We become clingy, or distant, or our eyes begin to wander. And just as Mary finds herself awakened to her true being, her final form, in the life Victor has created for her, so too does Victor finally manifest before our eyes as the dark figure he’s always seen himself to be. “They do say that a meeting with the dead brings happiness,” reads one of the final title cards. Here is where Bauer’s actual, final thesis is brought to light.

In finding but ultimately losing those we love, we fear less that they may stop loving us, but that we may disappear. We don’t want to just stop existing, even for a second. In our darkest moments, this may seem seductive, like the feeling of a tingling in the legs when standing over a high ledge. But the truer instinct is to remain in the light of the other person’s eyes. We want to be seen. When those we once loved have finally looked away, towards a new life or a new love, we may find ourselves adrift and lost, all alone on our own little planets, nothing making sense. Bauer is injecting all of this directly into his storytelling, asking what it means to be seen by another person, and allowing us to see what they see in us.

These final moments, as a crowd of people march down the stairs over the scene of a gruesome tragedy, shows us this in great detail. It’s the feeling of attending your own funeral, of knowing what the rest of the people in our lives would really say about you once you’ve been forgotten. We want to know how we will be remembered, and we hope it won’t be simply for our weakest or worst traits. The cruelty that Bauer brings to this scene is only sharpened by his quick cut to black and the end credits. And it’s a cruelty that’s rare for him, lingering as it does past the point where we understand what’s finally happening and forcing us to almost revel in it along with the mindless horde shuffling offscreen. We can try for happiness and love, but we will die alone and, eventually, be forgotten by the world. It’s in the final shots that he adds the rare element, the closer look at just how quickly some of us may jump a few levels and run straight to the part where the world has completely moved on in our absence. And then that hard, harsh cut to black. That’s it. There’s nothing left.

  • FXF

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