Sunday, March 8, 2015

Departure of a Grand Old Man -- March 8, 2015

This post is part of  the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently.  Congratulations to Fritzi for getting this blogathon sponsored by Flicker Alley.  Tomorrow's post for the blogathon will be about the 1926 Soviet serial Miss Mend

Be sure to click on most images to see larger versions.  

Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born on his family's estate, Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula in 1828.  He grew up hearing his father's stories about the Napoleonic Wars.  After failing at college and accumulating large gambling debts, Tolstoy joined the army.  While serving in the army, he began to write and published his first novels.  He served in the Crimean War and developed a hatred of war and violence.  His novels, including Anna Karenina, War and Peace and Resurrection, are still widely read. 

Tolstoy's Christian pacifist ideas were developed in works like The Kingdom of God is Within You.  These works were often banned in Russia and Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox church.  His pacifist ideas directly influenced Mohandas K Gandhi, with whom he corresponded, and, through Gandhi's writings, influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The three reel movie "Departure of a Grand Old Man" was co-directed by Yakov Protazanov and Elizaveta Thiman.  I don't know much about Elizaveta Thiman except that she also appeared in the film.  Protazanov was a pioneer of Russian cinema. He made many films before the Revolution.  Protazanov left the USSR and spend some years in Europe, but returned in 1923.  In 1924, Protazanov directed Aelita, Queen of Mars, an influential science fiction movie.  He went on to make talkies and continued directing until 1943. 

"Departure of a Grand Old Man" dramatizes the end of Tolstoy's life.  It begins with actuality footage of Tolstoy walking the grounds of his estate.  In one shot, he walks towards the camera and in another he walks away.  He carries a walking stick that can open into a stool. 

Another actuality shot has Tolstoy walking with Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov, described in a subtitle as "'chief' Tolstoyan."  The Tolstoyans attempted to practice Tolstoy's religious and social ideas. 

The fiction film begins with a title: "The peasants come with a request that they be given some land." 

We see a servant lounging outside of a home, having a smoke.  This scene looks as if it was shot indoors.  Three peasants approach and bow to the servant. They make a request with vigorous gestures.  He goes inside and they wait. 

The next shot is set in Tolstoy's sitting room.  In a balanced composition, we see a couple on the left, a young woman and a balding man. I think the young woman represents Tolstoy's daughter and secretary, Alexandra Lvovna, played by co-director Elizaveta Thiman. Tolstoy's wife, Countess Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya, played by Olga Petrova, is in the center. Tolstoy with a younger man is on the right. Tolstoy is played by Vladimir Shaternikov. The servant appears on the left and states the request of the peasants.  Sophia Tolstaya instructs the servant to tell the peasants to get lost.  Some people say that they see her counting money in this scene, but I can't tell.  Tolstoy and the young man, Chertkov, played by Mikhail Tamarov, discuss a book and a manuscript. 

Alexandra Lvovna argues with Sophia Tolstaya.  Sophia Tolstaya stands up and faces Tolstoy, who is also standing.  This forms a new composition, with Chertkov standing in the middle.  "I cannot permit my family to be ruined," says Sophia Tolstaya before she stalks off, walking between the two men, and exits.  Alexandra Lvovna steps forward to recreate the composition.  Both she and Chertkov talk to Tolstoy, who nods, gestures with his hands, and exits to the left. 

The three peasants are still waiting outside when Tolstoy appears on the porch.  The peasants bow to him and state their case.  He walks down the stairs and joins them. 

The peasants plead with Tolstoy and he listens, but then he says "I'm not the boss...The land belongs to the Countess..."  The peasants continue to plead, but Tolstoy shrugs and exits to the right.  The peasants look after him, express their disgust, and exit to the left. 

The next scene appears to be an interior.  There are a stairway and a cabinet in the background.  The same three peasants bow to Tolstoy.  I think this is meant to be at a later date or time, but there is no transition.  All four men are dressed as they were before.  One unwraps a handkerchief and produces some money.  "Master, give this money to the Countess..."  Tolstoy takes the money and counts it.  He gestures upstairs and exits up the stairway.  He looks back as the peasants huddle to talk.  "When you ask for concessions, he's not the boss...but he's quick to take money..."  Tolstoy lingers at the top of the stairs and watches as they exit to the right.  The poor print and the weight of his beard make it impossible to see his expression, but his gestures indicate that he feels guilty.  He appears to cry and exits. 

In the next shot, Sophia Tolstaya is sitting in a rocking chair reading when Tolstoy enters from the darkness at the left, holding out the money.  She takes it readily.  She counts it while he pleads with her.  The subject is not clear to me.  She puts the money in her purse and argues with him.  He falls to his knees.  She pats the back of his head, but has an exasperated expression on her face. 

The next shot is in an office. Tolstoy sits at a desk and Chertkov sits on a couch.  They talk and then Tolstoy writes.  Tolstoy clutches his forehead and tears up the paper.  Chertkov leans over him.  "It's increasingly unbearable...this mad luxury in the midst of unnecessary need and penury..."  Tolstoy stands and exits to the right. 

In the next shot, which appears to have been filmed outdoors by a stable, a man saddles a white horse.  Another other man holds a lantern, which may indicate that this scene was supposed to take place at night.  The man saddling the horse turns and we see that he is Tolstoy. 

Tolstoy shakes the man's hand and goes to mount the horse, but Sophia Tolstaya runs into the scene from the foreground and stops him.  She pleads with him and they both motion to the other man, who leads the horse away.  Tolstoy has second thoughts, but Sophia Tolstaya leads him away. 

"The making of a will without Sophia Andreyevna's knowledge..."  In this shot, Tolstoy sits at the center, at a tiny table in what may be a garden or a forest.   Chertkov crouches over him on the right.  Another man kneels on the left.  A man in a uniform cap stands in the background with his back to the scene.  Tolstoy reads a document and then signs.  As Chertkov picks up the document, a peasant carrying wood enters in the background.  All the men are startled.  Tolstoy signs more pages, I think, and the man in the background walks forward, then back.  Chertkov picks up the document.  The  other man and the uniformed man sign as witnesses.  Chertkov signs the document and hands it to Tolstoy.  We see that the tiny table was his walking stick with the folding seat.  "Let the income from my books go to the common good.  I name Chertkov editor and publisher of my works."  Tolstoy gives the document to Chertkov, who raises his hat and shakes hands with Tolstoy.  The other man leads Tolstoy away in the background and Chertkov and the uniformed man follow them. 

"Tolstoy hands Chertkov the manuscript of a new work..."  We are back in the office for this shot.  Tolstoy sits at his desk while Chertkov sits in a chair in a three quarter back view.  Tolstoy hands Chertkov a manuscript.  Chertkov turns towards the camera and looks at the pages.  The composition with the two men to one side suggests that someone else will enter the frame.  Sophia Tolstaya enters from the left and stands next to Tolstoy, placing a hand on his shoulder and kissing his forehead.  He stands and they appear to argue about the manuscript.  Chertkov stands and Sophia Tolstaya moves between the two men.  She tries to take the manuscript from Chertkov and Tolstoy moves between them.  Chertkov exits to the left while Tolstoy and Sophia Tolstaya argue.  Alexandra Lvovna enters from the left and stands between them.  Tolstoy slumps in his chair and Alexandra Lvovna comforts him while Sophia Tolstaya stomps out to the right. 

"Tolstoy allows a poor woman to gather brushwood in the woods."  Tolstoy walks along a road dressed as he was in the actuality shots at the beginning of this movie.  He meets a woman who walks with a young child.  The woman bows and turns to walk with Tolstoy.  She picks up a stick to show him what she wants.  He pats the child's head and gives the mother permission.  He exits towards the camera while the woman and the child walk away from it. 

"Men hired by  Sophia Andreyevna to protect the woods."  The child sits playing in the foreground while the mother gathers wood in the middle background.  A man on a horse appears in the distant background.  When he gets closer, we see that he seems to be wearing a Cossack uniform. 

The Cossack gallops towards the mother, who drops the wood and runs to pick up her child.  The man dismounts and beats the woman with a stick.  He grabs her arm and drags her and the child out of the shot to the right. 

We are back to the stable we saw when Tolstoy tried to leave, but the shot is at an angle.  The Cossack drags the mother and child into the frame.  He hands the horse's reins to an attendant and roughly drags his captives.  This is the shortest shot so far in the movie.  It increases the feeling of urgency. 

Outside of the home, the mother struggles with the Cossack.  Tolstoy enters from behind the stairway.  The mother kneels in front of him, begging for protection.  Tolstoy says something to the Cossack, who shrugs and exits to the right.  Tolstoy calls for help.  Alexandra Lvovna enters from the left, sees what is happening and calls for more help.  The balding man from the early scenes enters.  Alexandra Lvovna bandages the mother's head. 

"The writer is sick at heart at the tragedy which has taken place."  The next shot begins with the first fade-in I have noticed in the movie, as Tolstoy enters his office, holding a candle.  He stands by his desk, looking troubled.  "Tolstoy attempts to kill himself."  He exits the shot to the left. 

Tolstoy enters the room with the cabinet, where he had taken the peasants' money.  He reaches up and takes a belt from the top of the cabinet.  He makes a noose with unsteady hands.  He attaches it to a hook on the wall, then sits at the table on the left to compose a suicide note.  He writes, then crumples and tears the paper and drops it on the floor. 

As Tolstoy sits, despairing, we see a costumed person dissolve into view.  The costume is hard to identify at first because of the dark background, but the person appears to be kneeling and praying.  After she crosses herself, we see that she is a nun.  She turns to Tolstoy, who is looking at her, makes a gesture, and dissolves away.  Tolstoy stands and gestures to his neck.  The nun appears again, dissolving in as she enters from the right.  She appears to plead with Tolstoy against self destruction.  She backs away, dissolving out as she exits to the right.  Tolstoy slumps down at the table. 

We see Alexandra Lvovna sleeping in a bedroom.  She sits up as if she had heard something.  She lies down again, then gets up.  She paces the floor, listens at the door, then exits. 

She enters the room with the cabinet, sees Tolstoy with his head down on the table, and then sees the noose and reacts with horror.  She holds it out and pleads with him. 

They embrace and cry together.  She leads him off to the right. 

"Spititual crisis.  He leaves Yasnaya Polyana."  They enter the office from the left, then stop in the center of the frame.  Tolstoy makes a statement.  Alexandra Lvovna gets him to sit at his desk and gives him pen and paper.  He writes and she exits to the left.  She returns with a heavy suitcase and a hat.  The balding man follows her with Tolstoy's shoes and a coat.  The man helps Tolstoy put on his sweater, and then his coat.  Tolstoy wants to wear the shoes he has on, and then declines to wear a belt around his coat, perhaps because it would remind him of the noose.  The man exits to the right with the shoes and the suitcase, and Tolstoy speaks to Alexandra Lvovna , then exits to the right. 

We see the gates of the estate.  Then we see a horse-drawn carriage approaching straight towards the camera.  When it turns, we see that Tolstoy and a young man are the passengers.  The carriage stops and Tolstoy looks back at the estate.  Then the carriage goes on. 

We see Sophia Tolstaya doing the accounts by the light of a candle.  A servant wearing an apron enters from the left with a note.  She questions the servant, who doesn't know anything, then exits to the left. 

She passes through Tolstoy's office, from right to left, pausing to look around.  She finds something on the floor, perhaps a shoe, then looks through his desk.  She exits to the right. 

Sophia Tolstaya enters Alexandra Lvovna's room and questions her.  Alexandra Lvovna hands her a letter, which she reads.  "I am doing what any man of my age normally does: I am leaving the life of the world to live in solidtude..."  Sophia Tolstaya looks angry, and then argues with Alexandra Lvovna, who tells her off.  Sophia Tolstaya exits to the right. 

"Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya pretends to commit suicide."  She staggers down the stairs, through the room with the cabinet, and exits to the left. 

She leaves the house.  She exits the shot to the left. 

Alexandra Lvovna looks concerned and leaves her room. 

"The Countess, her face changed, rushes to the pond."  She runs down a path towards and past  the camera.  After a moment, in the same shot, we see Alexandra Lvovna and the servant with the apron running after her.  I'm not sure what "her face changed" refers to.  Perhaps it is a translation of a Russian idiom. 

Sophia Tolstaya runs to the edge of a pond, emotes, and then collapses. 

Alexandra Lvovna and the servant run into the shot and comfort her.  They help her to her feet and lead her out of the scene. 

"Lev Tolstoy visits Shamordin Monastery to visit Sister Maria Nikolaevna."  Tolstoy walks away from the camera towards an unusual archway.  His sister was a nun. 

We see Tolstoy talking to his sister, who is the nun who appeared when he tried to hang himself. 

As Tolstoy talks, the scene dissolves to a shot of him with six children in a simple cabin.  I think this shows the simple life to which he aspires. 

We dissolve back to the monastery and they continue to talk.  Then we dissolve to a scene in the same cabin.  Tolstoy repairs a boot while a young man looks on.  It may be Chertkov, but I'm not sure.  When Tolstoy is done with the boot, the young man unwraps a package and appears to hand him a loaf of bread.  The bread may be a symbol. 

We dissolve back to the monastery.  Tolstoy is standing and talking.  His sister picks up a prayer book or Bible.  We dissolve to a scene of Tolstoy standing on a hillside, tending a herd of cows. 

We dissolve back to the monastery and for a moment we see both Tolstoys.  One is dressed in black and one is in white.  One looks troubled and one looks happy.  Tolstoy talks to his sister and mimes writing. 

We dissolve back to the cabin.  Tolstoy sits at a table writing. 

We dissolve back to the monastery.  Tolstoy paces and looks troubled.  Alexandra Lvovna enters and embraces him.  She greets her aunt and then Tolstoy says "Let us be on our way!"  The women help him with his coat, and then he embraces his sister. 

"On 31-October-1910, the seriously ill Tolstoy found refuge with the manager of the railway station at Astapovo."  We see three people step down from a railroad car and walk towards the camera.  They are one man and two women.  I can't tell who they are.  The man is not Tolstoy. 

We see the three people approach a building.  They may Alexandra Lvovna, Sophia Tolstaya and Chertkov.  They peer in the window. 

There is a very short panning shot of a train station.  Perhaps it is the actual Astapovo station. 

There is a panning high-level view of a train station.  This may also be an actuality shot. 

We see Tolstoy lying on a bed, surrounded by three people, two men and a woman.  One man is a doctor.  The woman and the other man may be Alexandra Lvovna  and the balding man from the early scenes.  "So this is the end!  And there is nothing!"  were Tolstoy's last words.   The doctor listens to his heart.  Chertkov enters, holding a manuscript, and sits down.  The three people gather around the doctor and ask him for reassurance. 

Sophia Tolstaya  rushes into the scene and the others exit.  She kneels by the bed and kisses Tolstoy's hand.  He puts his hand on her head.  They appear to reconcile.  He sits up, then falls back dead.  Sophia Tolstaya weeps.  In real life she was not allowed to see him. 

"Documentary photograph: Leo Tolstoy on this deathbed."  The next shot seems unusual for a 1912 movie.  It is the famous deathbed photograph of the writer.  This is followed by a closer deathbed photograph. 

We see a slow panning shot of dark clouds.  A superimposed shot of Tolstoy and Jesus dissolves in on the clouds.  Tolstoy talks to Jesus.  I wonder what he is saying. 

Jesus opens his arms and embraces Tolstoy, welcoming him to Paradise.  They dissolve away and the movie ends. 

The movie inspired some controversy.  Sophia Tolstaya  sued or threatened to sue the producers because of their harsh depiction of her.  The movie was banned by the censors because the Orthodox Church objected to the excommunicated Tolstoy being welcomed into Heaven by Jesus. 

A 2009 movie, The Last Station, told the story of Tolstoy running away from his wife and dying in a train station. 

The combination of staged and actual shots, especially the still photos, was unusual, not only for a 1912 movie, but for a movie of any period.  It could almost be a show on the History Channel. 

Somehow this film survived censorship, a potential lawsuit, a world war, a revolution, another world war, and the fall of the Soviet Union.  If you'd like to watch it, here is a version on YouTube.  The British Film Institute made a transfer from a print found in the Gosfilmofund archive.  Neil Brand improvised the score. 

This post is part of the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently and sponsored by Flicker Alley.  Thank you to Fritzi for all the hard work.  Thank you to everyone who visited and I encourage you to read as many posts as you can, and leave comments.  Bloggers love comments. 

Tomorrow's post for the blogathon will be about the 1926 Soviet serial Miss Mend


  1. What gems there are to be found from the early years!

  2. Hi Caftan Woman. Thank you for visiting. You are right. And think of all the things that have been lost because of revolution and nitrate deterioration.

  3. This sounds really interesting – both the movie and the history surrounding the movie. How it survived all those tumultuous years is amazing!

  4. I recommend it highly, Silver Screenings. Thank you for visiting.

  5. A very thorough breakdown, helpful since the footage available is such poor quality!

    "Tolstoy talks to Jesus. I wonder what he is saying."
    Me too Joe, me too.

    Regarding Elisaveta Thiemann - she was the wife of Pavel Thiemann, whose production company Thiemann & Reinhardt was for a time one of Russia's foremost. Unfortunately he suffered discrimination for his Germanic name once WWI broke out, and was eventually exiled to the Urals - Elisaveta ran the company in his absence. She was apparently a very capable woman, although the glory days were over after Protazanov's defection from the company in 1915.

  6. Hi silentsplease. I thought it wouldn't hurt to go scene by scene, since so much of the movie is murky. We have to be grateful it has survived 100 years. Thank you for the information about Elisaveta Thiemann. I liked her performance. Thanks for visiting.


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