|LA NUITS DE
Also known as “L’Ultimo Zar” (Italy), “The Nights of Rasputin” and “The Night They Killed Rasputin” (UK and US). Italy/ France, 1960. Drama. Color (most video releases are in black and white); Italian language (dubbed into English for US and UK releases); Running time: 87 minutes; Directed by Pierre Chenal; Screenplay by Pierre Chenal. Starring Edmund Purdom as Rasputin, Gianna Maria Canale as Empress Alexandra, John Drew Barrymore as Prince Felix Yusupov, Jany Clair as Princess Irina Yusupov, and Ugo Sasso as Nicholas II.
This film was unique for several reasons, among them the casting of John Drew Barrymore, whose father John had played Prince Chegodieff-the thinly veiled character based on Felix Yusupov-in “Rasputin and the Empress,” in the same role thirty years later. This time, however, Barrymore’s character is called Prince Felix Yusupov. The film opens on a snowy scene in Siberia. A title card reads: “The Man known as Rasputin, and often referred to as Father Gregory, was not a priest, but a pseudo-monk. He possessed extraordinary powers to hypnotize and through hypnosis he appeared to effect miraculous cures.” Thus the perimeters are set: Rasputin is a charlatan. But this film is quite unique amongst most Rasputin films, in that it includes a wide cast of authentic historical characters whose presence lends it an air of authenticity.
The action begins with the arrival of the Personal Confessor the Imperial Family in Pokrovskoye in 1908. Asking where he can find Rasputin, he is casually told that he will have to wait along with the others. “But I am not like the others,” he declares, and is eventually directed to a tavern, where he finds Rasputin drinking and dancing. Before he has a chance to approach the peasant, however, the police arrive to arrest Rasputin for a stack of unpaid fines. The Confessor bursts through their ranks, demanding that Rasputin immediately accompany him to St. Petersburg. Rasputin begins to argue, but the man admits, “This is an order of the Tsar!”
On the train ride back to the Imperial capital, Rasputin heals the Confessor’s paralyzed right hand before making his first appearance at Tsarskoye Selo (though the film uses archival footage of the interior of the Terem Palace in the Moscow Kremlin to set the scene). Here he finds Nicholas and Alexandra and a host of doctors, all crowded round Tsesarevich Alexei’s bed. After greeting the Imperial couple, Rasputin tells the Empress, “I’m going to cure your son,” and proceeds to do just that, to the astonishment of the gathered doctors. Overwhelmed, Nicholas turns to his wife and declares melodramatically, “Dearest, I’ve begun to hope again.” Rasputin tells the Empress: “There is nothing to worry about, Little Mother, I am here, and as long as I am with you, no harm will come to Alexei Nikolaievich.” A grateful Nicholas II tells the peasant that, henceforth, he is to consider himself “a part of our family.”
The film then cuts to a gathering at Rasputin’s apartment. Here, a dozen fashionable women sit round a table drinking tea as the peasant circles then, expounding on his philosophy. The dialogue here, at least, is fairly faithful to history, as Rasputin declares, “People must sin then seek confession,” that true believers must “accept their faults courageously,” and adds, “Never let it occur to you that when you are old, you can reproach yourself that you have never sinned enough. It is by the way of sinning that one is redeemed. God’s greatest joy lies in forgiveness.”
A young woman, Tonya, is seen lingering outside of Rasputin’s apartment. Finally, the doorman asks if she wants to go in, but she explains that she has no money to give the peasant. “Ah, don’t mind that,” the man assures her, “you have pretty eyes and a nice figure.” When she finally comes face-to-face with Rasputin, she immediately begins to undress, but the peasant stops her, saying, “Do you think that’s the usual things with me?” In tears, she explains that her husband Ivan has deserted the army to see her, and has been sentenced to twenty years in prison as a result. Rasputin tells her not to worry and asks an aide to ring an official and obtain the man’s release. This is done, but Ivan soon appears at the apartment brandishing a gun. “You forced my wife to give herself to you as payment for your services! She denies it, but I know!” Rasputin manages to overpower him, throws the soldier back his gun, and tells him to get out; in shame, Ivan slinks away and shoots himself in the flat’s foyer.
The focus then shifts to the Emperor’s study, where Chief of St. Petersburg Police Beletsky is delivering a report on Rasputin’s activities, including Ivan’s suicide. Nicholas, however, rejects the criticism, saying, “I know more about it than you.” Rasputin himself, called in to explain his behavior, tells the Emperor that if Beletsky remains in power, he will be forced to return to Pokrovskoe. Beletsky, meanwhile, had cornered Tonya and is threatening to incarcerate her and her parents in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul if she does not sign a statement declaring that Rasputin raped her and killed her husband. At that moment, however, Prime Minister Peter Stolypin telephones with the Emperor’s orders that Beletsky be reassigned to Vladivostok.
Komissarov is appointed Chief of Police in Beletsky’s place, and he promises to treat Rasputin fairly. Beletsky, however, has not given up hope, and hires a young woman to lure Rasputin into a trap; during a carriage ride, she stabs him, and Rasputin barely survives. When the Empress visits him in his hospital room, he warns against Russia’s mobilization against Germany, saying, “I see rivers of blood.”
One night, enjoying the gypsies at Villa Rode, Rasputin is entranced by singing from a distant room; he enters to find Prince Felix Yusupov playing his guitar and singing Russian folk songs. Felix has just dismissed a courtesan who has unsuccessfully tried to seduce him; she runs away, declaring, “You should at least try to make an effort!” Rasputin asks about this, and Felix tells him he is in love with a particular woman but that he is too shy to act. Rasputin attempts to bolster his courage, adding, “Don’t ever forget that the real Tsar is me!”
Only later, in a scene in the basement of the Moika Palace, do we learn that Felix had gone to Villa Rode as part of a plot arranged by Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich to kill Rasputin. The group consists of not only Felix and Dimitri, but also Vladimir Purishkevich, Lieutenant Sukhotin, and Dr. Lazovert. All agree that they must continue on with their plan to murder the peasant. To this end, they send Vera Koralli to Rasputin’s flat; she plants some damning, forged documents in a wardrobe, but Rasputin quickly discovers them and throws her out.
Rasputin returns to Villa Rode, where Felix and his new wife Irina are enjoying the music. The peasant boldly walks up to the Princess, raises his glass, and toasts her as possessing “the most beautiful eyes in Russia.” On learning of this, a jealous Empress summons Rasputin to the palace, condemning his behavior and calling Irina “a silly young girl who spends all day in front of a mirror making herself up for men!” She adds, “I insist that you do not see her again!” Rasputin reluctantly agrees, but tells Alexandra, “Remember, if you get rid of me, the Romanovs within a year will forfeit their throne and their lives.”
Rasputin, restored to favor, is taken to see the Tsesarevich, who jumps up and asks the peasant, whom he calls, “Novy,” to tell him a story. As Alexandra looks on, Rasputin talks of “a mighty Tsar, who entrusted the command of his armies to his uncle, who was fit to order nothing more than a bottle of champagne.” But when the Emperor himself took command of the army, Russia triumphed. “The Tsar shall hear of this story,” the Empress tells Rasputin, “and I’ve no doubt it shall inspire him.”
The film cuts to a crowded church, where a priest is offering thanks to God for giving Russia Rasputin’s great wisdom in urging the Emperor to assume Supreme Command of the Armies. Rasputin is in the congregation, listening; at his side is Princess Irina, who flirts with him throughout the service and asks to meet him privately at her palace, where, “when we are alone, I will tell you something I will never tell anyone else.”
Irina has lured Rasputin to the Moika Palace at the request of her husband, who-with the other conspirators-plans to kill him. They prepare poisoned wine and cakes, and when a nervous Rasputin duly arrives, Felix promises he has “nothing to worry about while under my roof.” Felix explains that Irina is upstairs dressing and will join them shortly, and bids Rasputin to eat and drink, while he himself plays the guitar and sings to him. Eventually, Rasputin falls asleep, and a nervous Felix rushes upstairs to tell the others that the poison has not worked; Dimitri pulls out a revolver and starts down the staircase to the cellar, but Felix grabs it from him, saying, “It’s for me to do. It’s my destiny.”
When Felix re-enters the cellar, Rasputin awakes and sleepily moves to a prominent photograph of Irina; at this moment, with his back turned to Felix, the Prince shoots him. When Felix bends over and examines him, however, Rasputin opens his eyes and jumps up, chasing Felix round the room. Terrified, the Prince fires at him five more times, until Rasputin collapses to the floor. When the other conspirators rush down the stairs, they found Felix hysterically attempting to push Rasputin into the roaring fire, screaming, “Die! Die! Die! In the name of God, why won’t you die!” The film ends as Alexandra learns of Rasputin’s murder; in a voice-over, we hear his words echo in her mind: “If you get rid of me the Romanovs within a year will forfeit their throne and their lives.”
“La Nuits de Raspoutine” is a difficult film to access. It mixes genuine people and incidents, carefully portrayed and incorporated, with fictionalized scenes that undermine its historical accuracy. It is one of the only Rasputin films, for example, to include such genuine, important characters as Beletsky and Komissarov. At the same time, the mingling of fictitious scenes with these real incidents and people does nothing to help raise the storyline above melodrama.
Purdom’s Rasputin is a convincing one. He plays the peasant as a man of conflicted spirituality, someone who can easily move from religious discussions to drinking binges, who is attracted to his female disciples while at the same time, in refusing the advances made by Tonya, someone who is not completely consumed with sex. In his makeup, Purdom bears a striking resemblance to Rasputin; he is far more effective than many others who have taken on the role.
The film is interesting in its depiction of Felix Yusupov’s sexuality. Here, the Prince is presented as somewhat sexually ambivalent. His indifference to the attempted seduction at Villa Rode, and the courtesan’s complaint that he could “at least try to make an effort,” broaden the script to hint at the genuine questions that surrounded the real Prince’s sexuality. In another scene, Rasputin directly confronts the Prince over Irina, saying, “You don’t love her.” All Felix can offer in response is, “I do…in my own way.”
Aesthetically, the film is much less successful. Although the director cut in newsreel footage of the Kremlin and the interiors of its Terem and Grand Palaces, the studio sets bear no resemblance to any genuine Russian interiors; Nicholas II’s study, for example, is a baroque monstrosity replete with gilded cherubs on the walls and an immense, glittering crystal chandelier hovering over his desk. The costumes, too, are a mixed bag; the clothing worn by the men, including the uniforms, are good period replicas, but the gowns worn by the women carry a definite 1950s feel, despite attempts to design them after high society fashions of the years before World War I. Empress Alexandra, for example, spends most of the film in diaphanous, off-the-shoulder, tightly-fitted gowns with plunging necklines. The hairstyles and makeup are particularly redolent of the time at which the film was made.
Even so, this is not quite the complete disaster that critics have termed it. By incorporating historical characters and actual incidents, as well as focusing the last half of the movie largely on Felix Yusupov and his relationship with the peasant, it manages to achieve a verisimilitude that is often missing in other Rasputin films.
I COSACCHI 1960
Also known as “Les Cosaques” and “The Cossacks.” Italy/France/Spain, 1960. Drama. Color; Italian language; Running time: 100 minutes; Directed by Giorgio Rivalta and Viktor Tourjansky; Screenplay by Damiano Damiani. Starring Edmund Purdom as Shamil, John Drew Barrymore as Giamal, Giorgia Moll as Tatiana, Pierre Brice as Boris, Elena Zareschi as Patimat, Erno Crisa as Casi, Massimo Girotti as Alexander II, and Mario Pisu as Vorontzov.
A chronicle of a mid-19th Century war between Russia and Chechnaya, draped round a fictitious love story. This was the second pairing of Purdom and Barrymore in a Romanov-related movie in 1960.
CATERINA DI RUSSIA 1962
Also known as “Catherine of Russia” (US and UK releases), and “Catherine de Russie” (France). Italy/France, 1962. Drama. Color; Italian language (dubbed into English for US and UK release, and French for French release); Running time 92 minutes (original running time 105 minutes); Directed by Umberto Lenzi; Screenplay by Umberto Lenzi and Guido Malatesta. Starring Hildegard Knef as Catherine the Great, Sergio Fantoni as Alexei Orlov, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart as Count Poniatowski, Raul Grassilli as Peter III, Leonardo Botta as Serge Saltykov, and Tina Lattanzi as Empress Elizabeth.
Hildegard Knef tackled the role of Catherine the Great in this production with great vigor and unrestrained bawdiness, bringing at least a sense of some of the Empress’s legendary appeal to the film. The story itself, directed and written by Umberto Lenzi, who later achieved a fair amount of success (and notoriety) as one of Italy’s most prolific and graphic directors of horror movies, managed to encompass many of the elements in the Empress’s story, including her uneasy marriage and relationship with her husband Peter, the dominance of Empress Elizabeth, the mercenary coup that placed her on the throne, and her romantic adventures. The latter aspect, in fact, constitute most of the film’s last half, which is set against lavishly decorated sets and utilizes extravagant costumes to give a hint of the grandeur of the Imperial court. As such, the film managed to juggle both the historical incidents that brought Catherine to power, and the romantic adventures that dominated her reign.
RASPUTIN, THE MAD MONK 1966
UK, 1966. Drama. Color; English language; Running time: 91 minutes; Directed by Don Sharp; Screenplay by Anthony Hinds; Cinematography by Michael Reed; Production Design by Bernard Robinson; Art Direction by Don Mingaye; Costume Design by Rosemary Burrows. Starring Christopher Lee as Rasputin, Barbara Shelley as Countess Sonia, Richard Pasco as Dr. Zargo, Francis Matthews as Ivan, Suzan Farmer as Vanessa, Renée Asherson as Empress Alexandra, Robert Duncan as Tsesarevich Alexei, and Dinsdale Landen as Peter.
In 1966, Hammer Studios turned their attention to the story of Rasputin. Best known for their string of stylized and popular horror movies, the studio had just wrapped production on the film “Dracula, Prince of Darkness,” starring Christopher Lee as the imposing count. The film marked Lee’s return to the role he had originated with Hammer in 1958’s “Horror of Dracula” (for some time he refused to again play the part, leading to a number of Hammer vampire films such as “Kiss of the Vampire” and “The Brides of Dracula” in which the count was only mentioned, if at all, and the role of chief villain handed off to different actors).
When shooting on “Dracula, Prince of Darkness” wrapped, the studio immediately launched into their production of “Rasputin, the Mad Monk,” utilizing much the same cast, and many of the same sets before they were pulled down. Although Lee was always ambivalent about taking on the role of the count in future Hammer films (he shot another four Dracula films for the studio altogether), he was enthused about the Rasputin project, in which he would star as the infamous peasant. Lee had previously met Prince Felix Yusupov and discussed Rasputin with him, and thus felt a connection to the story. The role also offered him a chance not only to break away from his usual portrayals of monsters in Hammer films (Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy had all been prominent roles) but also to launch upon a deliriously unstable portrayal that would allow him to overact to the hilt.
The story, as written by Anthony Hinds, contained only the barest hints of historical truth; “Rasputin” was an unusual picture for Hammer, and they were determined to model it along the lines of their financially successful horror films to attract the biggest possible audience. The result doesn’t really work on either level: “Rasputin, the Mad Monk” is so historically inaccurate as to be fiction, while the horrific elements introduced compromised any last vestige of historical subtly.
“Rasputin” opens in Siberia, where we first encounter Lee’s peasant. This Rasputin is not a meditative, spiritual man, or even a quiet charlatan, but rather a loud, brazen letch, a drunkard who likes nothing better than to dance to loud music, make blatant passes at anything in a dress, and end the evening with a good brawl before passing out in a stupor. Rasputin is all wild grimaces and stares, leering looks and grabbing hands. He finds time to heal the innkeeper’s wife before seducing the poor man’s daughter in a barn. When the girl’s fiancé appears, a fight erupts, during which Rasputin rather nonchalantly grabs an axe and chops the interloper’s hand off before returning to the heaving bosom of his intended conquest.
The peasants of his village, not surprisingly, are less sympathetic to Rasputin, and he decides to flee before they have a chance to exact any revenge. His journey takes him to St. Petersburg, where he is sure he can earn a good living healing the rich and bilking them out of their money. At first, Rasputin finds himself a true fish out of water, and naturally enough is drawn to the city’s bars, where he makes the most of a chance encounter with Dr. Boris Zargo. The good doctor, it seems, has fallen into disrepute because of his alcoholism, and Rasputin bets that he can drink him under the table-which is precisely what he proceeds to do. In celebration, Rasputin erupts into a wild Siberian dance, which naturally enough draws the attention of the remaining patrons. This bar is unique in that not only does it appear to be a real dive but also one that attracts the highest elements of society, in this case Countess Sonia, one of the Empress’s ladies-in-waiting, who cannot conceal her mirth at the spectacle. Rasputin, however, is not amused. He promptly marches over to the table she is sharing with some equally aristocratic friends and tells her that she will apologize to him. Her friends whisk her away, but on the following day she duly arrives, as if in a trance, to Rasputin’s apartment (which he is conveniently sharing with his drinking chum from the previous evening, Dr. Zargo) and begs for his forgiveness. Being Rasputin, it isn’t more than a few minutes until Sonia is subjected to a few slaps, followed by a bout of lovemaking. Sonia is clearly under some kind of hypnotic spell, for she divulges the secret of Tsesarevich Alexei’s illness, and is easily talked into arranging an “accident” so that Rasputin might be summoned for a miraculous cure. Sonia duly does as asked: while watching Alexei at play, she encourages him to run along the top of a railing and pushes him off to the frozen river below. While the Empress is hysterical with worry, Sonia suggests she summon Rasputin, who strides in with a flourish and hypnotizes the boy back into good health.
The incident cements Rasputin’s position at court, and he is rewarded with a sprawling gothic mansion atop a hill that resembles Dracula’s lair. Empress Alexandra visits, forcing the peasant to quickly conceal his drunken friends in hidden rooms. Rasputin is unrepentant about his manner of life: “When I go to confession,” he declares in once scene, “I don’t offer God small sins, petty squabbles, jealousies. I offer him sins worth forgiving!” By this time, Countess Sonia, who is constantly fawning over Rasputin, has become an annoyance-he no longer needs her now that he is in power-and so after he suggests that she “destroy” herself the Countess runs off and slits her wrists. Rasputin’s eye is now set on Sonia’s friend Vanessa, but the Countess’s brother Peter is determined to avenge his sister, and embarks on a conspiracy with Vanessa’s brother Ivan and with Dr. Zargo, who has himself had enough of Rasputin. Ivan lures Rasputin to his house by using the promise of a meeting with Vanessa as bait, but when the peasant arrives he finds himself in a struggle for his life. Ivan attempts to kill him, but Rasputin grabs a conveniently situated container of acid and throws it into his face.
Zargo is determined to get revenge, and feeds Rasputin poisoned cakes and wine. Rasputin succumbs to their influence, and Zargo is sure he is dead, but suddenly the peasant jumps up and tries to strangle his former comrade. By this time, Ivan has recovered from his acid wounds and manages to throw Rasputin out of a window and threw the ice of an adjacent frozen river, where he finally drowns.
Lee has said that his role as Rasputin was one of his favorite performances, and his sheer enjoyment comes across quite clearly as he overplays every scene. Unlike most of his other Hammer roles, here Lee had an opportunity to dig in and dominate every scene with not only his imposing presence but also with the absurd action and hysterical dialogue. Despite the character’s one-dimensionality, his enthusiasm for the role carries much of the film and lends it a kind of peculiar charm that, despite its nearly complete lack of historical authenticity, makes it one of the most enjoyable and entertaining of all Rasputin films.
The film does benefit-as do many Hammer productions-from the careful set design of Bernard Robinson, who was forced to recycle the sets from “Dracula, Prince of Darkness.” Viewings of the two films reveal the similar set decorations, the same architectural elements, and the same furnishings utilized by the ever-frugal studio. Nevertheless, the look is rich, and the color cinematography exquisite.
Several scenes were shot that were ultimately truncated or eliminated altogether from the final cut, including a much longer fight sequence between Ivan and Rasputin that had taken a week to choreograph; in the print released, this is dispensed with rather quickly, and the appearance of Francis Matthews’ Ivan, with a bloody lip, near the end of the film thus remains an anomaly. There was also a final shot that depicted Rasputin’s hand raised above his head in benediction as he slipped beneath the ice, which was cut when British censors suggested it smacked of blasphemy.
When the film premiered, Hammer flooded the market with lurid posters, and theater patrons were even given free Rasputin beards-blue for boys and red for girls-that remain highly sought after by collectors.
West Germany, 1966. Television production. Black and white; German language; Running time: 80 minutes. Directed by Robert A. Stemmle; Screenplay by Robert A. Stemmle. Starring Herbert Stass as Rasputin, Anneliese Römer as Empress Alexandra, Wolfram Schaerf as Nicholas II, Heike Balzer as Anna Vyrubova, Hans Krull as Aron Simanovich, Klaus Miedel as Iliodor, Harry Riebauer as Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaievich, and Erica Schramm as Olga Lotkina.
A television biography of Rasputin.
DER KONGRESS AMUSIERT SICH 1966
Also known as “Congress of Love” and “Le Congrès s’amuse.” Austria/France, 1966. Comedy/musical. Color; German and French language; Running time: 96 minutes; Directed by Géza von Radványi; Screenplay by Fred Denger, based on a story by Hans Habe. Starring Lilli Palmer as Princess Metternich, Curd Jurgens as Alexander I, Paul Meurisse as Count Talleyrand, Walter Slezak as Guide, and Hannes Messemer as Prince Metternich.
“Der Kongreß amüsiert sich” opens in 1965 Vienna. A group of tourists visit a wax museum, and as a fantasy sequence opens, the historical characters involved in Napoleon’s defeat and the subsequent Congress of Vienna in 1815 come to life to play out a series of romantic and musical vignettes.
J’AI TUE RASPOUTINE 1967
Also known as “Addio Lara” (Italy), “I Killed Rasputin” (UK), and “Rasputin ” (US). Drama. Color (Technicolor); French language (dubbed into English for UK and US releases); Running time: 100 minutes; Directed by Robert Hossein; Screenplay by Alain Decaux and Claude Desailly. Starring Patrick Balkany as Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, Geraldine Chaplin as Marie (Munya) Golovine, Sylvie D’Haetze as Maria Rasputin, France Delahalle as Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, Ivan Desny as Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, Gert Fröbe as Rasputin, Robert Hossein as Lieutenant Serge Sukhotin, Peter McEnery as Prince Felix Yusupov, Robert Pigaut as Purishkevich, Nicolas Vogel as Dr. Lazovert, Ira von Fürstenberg as Princess Irina Yusupov, Dorothée Blank as Empress Alexandra, and featuring Prince Felix Yusupov as Himself.
“J’ai tué Raspoutine” is an anomaly, the only Rasputin film made with the blessing and cooperation of Prince Felix Yusupov. In 1965, he sold the cinematic rights to his book “Lost Splendor” to Eclaire Studios in Paris, with the proviso that it would accurately portray his version of events. As such, “J’ai tué Raspoutine” must be considered the definitive screen version of Felix’s relationship with the peasant and his subsequent murder. The film is faithful to a fault, lifting entire stretches of dialogue straight out of Yusupov’s book, and even including several scenes of questionable accuracy (and of Felix’s truthfulness), including Rasputin being visited by those whom Felix termed “green men,” German agents come to bribe the peasant.
The film opens with a scene of Rasputin in a sort of subterranean hall, where he presides over a tea attended by a bevy of black-robed female devotees. They pray and take tea as a voice over narration by Peter McEnery as Yusupov sets the stage for the tale. We then see Yusupov himself; it is the night of December 16, 1916 (although the movie uses the New Style date of December 29), and he is staring at a clock on the wall of the cellar room in which he plans to kill Rasputin in a few hours.
The film fades back in time, to 1909 and Yusupov’s first meeting with Rasputin. Although the French credits list the character names as the historical Golovines, in the edited version released in the UK and US, the surname was inexplicably changed to Sorokhin. Felix has come to visit his friend Marie (Masha) Golovine, who was indeed one of Rasputin’s first and most influential converts in St. Petersburg. Felix makes light of the way in which the Golovines extol Rasputin’s virtues as an incredible healer and, when the peasant duly arrives, the Prince listens politely for a few minutes to his garbled religious talk before excusing himself.
Felix, on vacation from Oxford, hosts a tea for Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich and his family at the Moika Palace. As the Grand Duke’s sons sit playing and young Irina wanders about in the background, Alexander Mikhailovich and his wife Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna both complain to Felix that Russia is being ruined. Revolutionaries are everywhere, demanding concessions; the government is corrupt; Nicholas II, under the pernicious influence of the Empress, has isolated himself in a wing of his palace and sees no one; and Rasputin is rapidly becoming all-powerful within the country.
Irina’s subtle flirting with Felix during this tea quickly gives way to their marriage, for in the very scene, the newlyweds are in the Yusupovs’ private train following their wedding. Felix embraces and kisses Grand Duke Dimitri and, as Felix later wrote in his memoirs, moved to the train window to gaze on him as they steamed slowly away.
The First World War interrupts Felix and Irina’s honeymoon, and they return to Russia, where Felix spends his time supervising a hospital ward in his palace and visiting the fashionable restaurants, where he dresses up in costumes and makeup, singing and dancing to entertain the guests. Very quickly, Rasputin re-enters the picture, and Felix begins to draw in a circle of conspirators with the idea of killing him. He first convinces Grand Duke Dimitri, then Lieutenant Serge Sukhotin, and becomes a regular visitor to the Golovines where he renews his acquaintance with Rasputin and begins to see him regularly under the guise of seeking some unexplained cure. The peasant seems benign enough, though in between prayers he occasionally lets loose with a few damning comments about his power, or his role in dismissing this or that minister.
After a few of these visits, during which Rasputin continues to boast of his power, and discusses the need for an end to the war and the abdication of the Emperor in favor of Tsesarevich Alexei with the Empress as regent, Felix draws in Vladimir Purishkevich, and the men plot out the final details. When Purishkevich suggests that Felix murder Rasputin in the Moika Palace, a horrified Felix gives an answer that rings strikingly true to life: “In my house? But this is preposterous! What of the most elementary laws of hospitality? I cannot ask a man to my house as a friend, and then kill him!” Eventually, however, he is convinced, and the stage is set for the murder, which plays itself out in the cinema’s most faithful depiction of Yusupov’s own version of events that night in 1916.“J’ai tué Raspoutine” is a generally well-shot, well-acted rendering of Yusupov’s account. The score was composed by Hossein’s father André, and lends a suitably lush quality to the film. The sets are quite well done: the exterior courtyard (the wrong one for Rasputin’s death, but few movies get it correct) of the Moika Palace was reconstructed in a slightly smaller form, down to the intricate wrought iron gates, and a matte background depicts the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in the distance. The few rooms of the palace depicted on the screen seem to have been faithfully copied from the actual models, while the basement murder room is recreated down to the last detail from photographs. Indeed, one scene in the film has Felix wandering through its barren expanse, explaining for nearly a full five minutes how he intends to decorate it to deceive Rasputin-“curtains here, vases here, a chest here, chairs here, a table here, some rugs here…” and on he goes, with an eye to the kind of detail that in real life consumed the Prince.
As Rasputin, Frobe is a more genuine character than usually portrayed in motion pictures: this is no insane, drunken charlatan, but a man of deep belief in his own spiritual abilities. Indeed, he is rather a benign devil; very little that he does could actually be counted as evil. He interferes in politics, appears in a few suggestive scenes that hint at his sexual involvement with his devotees, and boasts about his power, but he is not quite the malicious character depicted in Felix’s memoirs. Frobe bears enough of a resemblance to Rasputin to carry the portrayal off, though he is a bit too pudgy to appear quite convincing.
Nicholas and Alexandra appear only once, in a scene in which their family is having a formal portrait taken only to be interrupted by Rasputin’s arrival; there is no dialogue, and rather than providing any insight into the peasant’s relationship with the Imperial couple, it instead interrupts the film’s narrative structure. The character of Grand Duke Dimitri remains undefined, and has few lines, while the role of Irina, played by Princess Ira Von Furstenberg who worked in a number of movies in the 1970s, is more or less ornamental. Geraldine Chaplin, however, manages to convey the naïve and hopeful quality in her portrayal of the historical figure of Maria Golovine.
At the center of the film, however, is Peter McEnery in his role as Felix Yusupov. McEnery does an adequate job, though the script presents few conflicts and ultimately leaves him with little motivation for his assassination of the peasant. Where “J’ai tué Raspoutine” is most interesting, however, is in its treatment of Felix’s sexuality. This was the only film authorized by the Prince, and the director worked closely with him on the script; one can therefore reasonably infer that Yusupov had no objections to what was filmed as he saw the scripts in advance.
“J’ai tué Raspoutine” presents Felix as not only a flamboyant young man, but also as character who is so heavily structured to be understood as homosexual that any other interpretation would be difficult. An early scene shows Felix returning from Oxford and greeting Grand Duke Dimitri, Sukhotin, and another friend, a fictional character called Ovid Tamarin, an actor at St. Petersburg’s Alexandrovsky Theater. Tamarin appears in a loud, multi-colored striped jacket, kissing and embracing the Prince, whom he calls, “My dear” in an exaggerated fashion, and following him round to kiss his hand. During the tea party for Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich and Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, Felix and Tamarin obliviously dance the tango, traipsing about the room before they kiss. In other scene, Felix arrives at the end of a private ballet recital and ignores the onrush of the female dancers to focus his attention and congratulations on the young male dancer, whose cheek he strokes before handing him his half-drunk glass of champagne. Even his visits to Rasputin for a “cure” are coded in this way: Rasputin is attempting not to heal any physical ailment, but the Prince’s “feelings,” and declares, “I shall drive out the evil that is within your heart.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the introduction, in which an elderly Prince Felix Yusupov introduces the story; Felix died within a year of filming his segment, and it remains his last filmed interview on the subject of Rasputin. Unfortunately this scene is sometimes cut from the prints, while the US/UK Paramount release edits it to a mere glimpse of an unidentified, elderly man struggling to dark off his dark glasses.
ANASTASIA HALLMARK 1967
US, 1967. Drama. NBC-Television Production for Hallmark Hall of Fame. Original air date: March 17, 1967. Directed by George Schaeffer. Based on the play by Marcelle Maurette. Starring Julie Harris as Anna, Lynne Fontanne as Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, Brenda Forbes as Baroness von Livenbaum, Charles Gray as General Prince Sergei Bounine, David Hurst as Peter Petrovin, George Irving as Boris Chernov, and Paul Roebling as Prince Paul.
Yet another television production of the Marcelle Maurette play based on the life of Anna Anderson. Julie Harris had previously portrayed Queen Victoria (in 1961) and Florence Nightingale (in 1965) in previous Hallmark Hall of Fame television productions.
GREAT CATHERINE 1968
UK, 1968. Comedy. Color (Technicolor); English language; Running time: 99 minutes; Directed by Gordon Flemyng; Screenplay by Hugh Leonard, adapted from the play by George Bernard Shaw. Starring Jeanne Moreau as Empress Catherine, Peter O’Toole as Captain Charles Edstaton, Zero Mostel as Potemkin, and Jack Hawkins as the British Ambassador Lord Gourse.
“Great Catherine,” a light comedy adapted from the stage play by George Bernard Shaw, remains one of the most peculiar titles in the Romanov film collection. While the stage production was performed rather successfully through the years, it did not quite translate to the screen in previous television productions. Here, however, the formula worked, and worked quite well. The production design by John Bryon, sets by Bill Hutchinson and costumes by Margaret Furse were all quite authentic recreations of the Russian Court and its clothing. In particular, Bryon and Hutchinson created a palace façade that faithfully duplicated, if not one of Rastrelli’s actual buildings, then at least the spirit of his Russian architecture, resembling his Stroganov Palace. Their interiors, however, did not display the same concern for accuracy, with lavish combinations of 18th Century rooms alongside chambers copied from the Terem Palace in the Moscow Kremlin. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is a lush combination of Russian folk melodies combined with the more refined sensibilities of 18th Century classical music.
Filmed at Shepperton Studios outside of London, “Great Catherine” told the fictional story of handsome young British Captain Charles Edstaton who arrives at Catherine’s court only to find himself the unwilling object of her amorous attentions; in this, he is pushed by British Ambassador Gourse, who sees this as an opportunity to cement British and Russian relations. Edstaton, much to the Empress’s despair, is very much a proper young British gentleman, seeped in rather conventional, prim morality, who finds her romantic overtures disturbing, to the point where he unwittingly offends her. Learning of this insult, Potemkin, who remains loyal to his former lover, hatches a plot to kill the young Captain, but in the end Catherine rejects the offer.
The performances in the film are uniformly excellent. French actress Jeanne Moreau was an alluring, mature Catherine, and for once it is nice to see the Empress portrayed as a real woman rather than a naïve, innocent young woman. This Catherine is worldly-wise, risqué, and full of humor. Peter O’Toole conveys the proper aristocratic disdain and an aloof, almost risible horror at anything that smacks of impropriety. But perhaps the most memorable character is Zero Mostel’s comic performance as a perpetually drunken Potemkin, who continually switches the patch he wears from one eye to the other throughout the film.
There are a number of humorous set pieces, including Edstaton’s memorable recreation of the Battle of Bunker Hill in the American Revolutionary War at the Empress’s request. She has had an immense scale model built, complete with streets, houses, landmarks, and soldiers, centered round a stretch of water on which model ships float. Edstaton attempts to re-enact the battle but finds that the miniature cannon fire real ammunition. When he attempts to explain what went wrong, Catherine counters with her own strategy, explaining how she would have planned and fought the battle by taking the side of the Americans and leveling the ranks of model British soldiers. Edstaton protests that she is not playing fair, and the situation devolves to the point where both antagonists, including the Empress, in full court gown and jewels, are standing waist deep in the water, launching frenzied attacks on each other’s model armies until the intricate model is completely destroyed.
VOYNA I MIR 1968
Also known as “War and Peace.” USSR, 1968. Drama. Color; Russian language; Running time: 511 minutes (UK print runs 401 minutes, UK print runs 390 minutes; Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk; Screenplay by Sergei Bondarchuk and Vassili Solovyov, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Starring Lyudmila Savelyeva as Natasha Rostova, Vyacheslav Tikhonov as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Irina Gubanova as Sonya, Antonina Shuranova as Princess Maria, Sergei Bondarchuk as Pierre Bezukhov, Viktor Murganov as Alexander I, Vladislav Strzhelchik as Napoleon, and Oleg Tabakov as Nikolai Rostov.
If any film in this list of Romanov-related movies deserves the appellation “epic,” it is surely Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1968 production “Voyna i Mir” (“War and Peace”). At the time of its production, it had cost an astonishing $100 million, the present-day equivalent of nearly $700 million, making it the most expensive movie ever filmed. It is not the longest movie ever made but, at 511 minutes (nearly nine hours), it is certainly one of the longest films in history. Superlatives and astonishing figures abound: it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film when released theatrically, took a full five years to film, and had a cast of over 100,000 actors.
Attempts to translate Tolstoy’s epic, 1,600 page novel into film have invariably fallen short of expectations and, despite the undisputed grandeur of this film, it, too, is somewhat less than satisfying. One of the principal problems lies with the novel itself. Tolstoy’s book is philosophy masquerading as dramatized and fictionalized history; dozens of pages are devoted to lengthy, often tedious discussion of philosophy, to internal monologues on philosophical issues, to discussions of the human condition. It is a novel that, at its heart, ruminates endlessly about that condition. Translating this sort of thing to the screen almost never works, no matter how masterful the director and screenwriter, no matter how magnificent the settings and costumes, and no matter how convincing the actors. Bondarchuk’s film attempts to be faithful to the novel (though even it leaves out many scenes, including the book’s epilogue), and in the end, this is its undoing. This is a film in which people walk round discussing philosophy; ruminate on passion; and spend hours pondering the meaning of it all. The problem is, they do nothing about it: they are not passionate, they do not act, and their inability to give action to their interior monologues and lengthy notions of philosophy means that the viewer is left with endless hours filled with an almost endless stream of such dialogues that, in the end, lead to nothing. In being so blindly faithful to the book, the film sacrifices the inherent human drama of the story.
In broad terms, the film is certainly the closest thing yet to a cinematic representation of the novel. The actors fit their parts quite well (though it is somewhat distracting, in the wake of King Vidor’s equally unsuccessful version, to find that Lyudmila Savelyeva, who plays Natasha, looks enough like Audrey Hepburn to be her twin), but many have a static, almost wooden quality about their performances that makes viewer identification-an essential for any successful film-possible. There is a certain cold grandeur to it all; one watches with the sense that one must be overwhelmed and impressed at the scope and sweep, at the sheer audacity of the production, but in the end there is little that lingers beyond the technical virtuosity. One gets a real sense that not only is this a very Russian film of a very Russian novel, but more to the point, a very Soviet film, a kind of bombastic, heavy-handed bit of cinematic propaganda designed to out-Hollywood Hollywood itself.
On a technical level, the film succeeds at its goal: the sets, costumes, battles-every detail is as correct and precise and mannered as the acting and direction (the aristocratic ball that marks Natasha’s entry into St. Petersburg society is particularly splendid). And this, of course, is the problem: the film is so reverential, so doggedly faithful, that it succeeds in draining the drama right out of the story. That may be a heretical point of view to take with what is largely regarded as one of cinema's greatest achievements; unfortunately, it also happens to be true.
OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR 1969
UK, 1969. Musical-Comedy. Color; English language; Running time: 144 minutes; Directed by Richard Attenborough; Screenplay by Charles Chilton and Len Deighton. Starring Wendy Alnutt as Flo Smith, Colin Farrell as Harry Smith, Malcolm McFee as Freddie Smith, John Rae as Grandpa Smith, Corin Redgrave as Bertie Smith, Maurice Roëves as George Smith, Paul Shelley as Jack Smith, Kim Smith as Dickie Smith, Angela Thorne as Betty Smith, Mary Wimbush as Mary Smith, and Paul Daneman as Nicholas II.
One of the most peculiar movies ever produced, this is a series of vignettes depicting the progress of World War I told through the popular songs of the time. The message is one of pacifism and the futility of war. The character of Nicholas II appears in the brief introductory segment, along with a moving performance by Jack Hawkins as Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, that depicts how the diplomatic negotiations in the summer of 1914 broke down and led to the conflict, but the bulk of the film focuses on the trials of the Smith family from England, who sacrifice and suffer through the war in the name of King and Country. In the process, the hypocrisy of the English establishment is laid bare, as folly follows folly and unwarranted optimism gives way to death and destruction. This is a biting satire against the forces that drove England into war, produced by a highly critical English director, and uses absurd comedy and allegorical sketches to present the story. The film was firmly an artifact of its times, with growing sentiment against the war in Vietnam and an anti-Establishment sentiment pervading every frame. The film might be considered a forerunner to the popular motion picture “Moulin Rouge,” with its absurd dialogue and situations punctuated by songs to convey the story in surrealist terms. It was based on a theatrical comedy written by Joan Plowright, and Attenborough loaded it with wickedly ironic cameo performances by most of Britain’s cinematic luminaries: Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Dirk Bogarde, and John Mills.In this highly stylized film, Brighton Pier and its shooting arcades stand in for the European battlefields of the First World War, with Laurence Olivier’s Sir John French and John Mills’ General Haig manning the turnstiles to collect the tickets of those eager to rush into the conflict. The wave of unquestioning patriotism is recalled in a scene where the young female students at Roedean take the stage, serenading men of recruitment age with “We Don’t Want to Lose You, But We Think You Ought to Go” as Maggie Smith entices them as a trollop who promises sexual adventures for those who sign up by singing, “I’ll Make a Man of You.”
The music in the film is actually quite good, drawing on the songs of the era and, at times, altering the lyrics to drive home the point. Soldiers riding a grim carousel manned with corpses of soldiers at Brighton Pier join in “Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser,” as they circle round and round in an allegory of the futility of their efforts. Then there is a meditative moment sung by soldiers gathered in a bombed church in France, who intone “When This Lousy War Is Over” to the tune of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” When the Americans finally enter the war, their troops enter Europe singing an altered version of the George M. Cohen song “Over There” titled “And We Won’t Come Back, We’ll Be Buried Over There!” Wounded officers are rushed off for treatment in taxis, while ordinary recruits languish in agony; when one wounded soldier reached the hospital in relief at having escaped the battlefield, the nurse cheerfully tells him, “Don’t worry, we’ll soon have you back at the Front.” While the poor and middle-class recruits die, the aristocracy makes its own sacrifices: “I’m not using my German wine,” declares one upper-class twit, “not while the War’s on.”
All of the Smith sons are killed in battle, providing a reminder of the cost of the war. The final scene is one of the most memorable: women and children gathered on a bucolic field, enjoying a picnic. When one of the children asks, “What did Daddy do in the War?” there is no answer, but the camera moves back slowly, revealing a sea of red poppies and endless rows of stark white crosses as the voices of the dead sing “They’ll Never Believe Me.”
“The Romanovs in Film” is copyright 1999-2000, 2006 by Greg King. ISSN 1525-111X. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be produced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including copying, or by any information storage system and retrieval system, or computer system, without permission in writing from the copyright holder.