The Dying Swan (1917) A Silent Film Review

A brokenhearted dancer and an artist desperate for inspiration form a strange collaboration in Russian director Yevgeni Bauer’s psychological drama. Morbid in the best possible way.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

That Goth Phase…

If someone wants to discuss Russian silent film, it’s almost certain that they mean the output of Soviet masters like Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov or Vsevolod Pudovkin. And while these directors are indeed well worth discussion, there was a whole world of cinema in pre-revolution Russia that deserves more attention.

Okay, yeah, sometimes death too.

I like to remind American viewers that Russians have a terrific sense of humor and many Russian films are hardly the dour tragedies of stereotypes. A great many of my favorite comedies and romances are Russian and it’s worth your time to seek out the lighter side of the culture.

All that being said… Director Yevgeni Bauer liked three things: death, ballerinas and death. And, also, death.

A shadowy dream sequence.

Bauer probably enjoys the most modern name recognition of any pre-revolution Russian director and for good reason. His films are stylish to look at his almost cheerful embrace of the morbid is nothing short of hypnotic. The Dying Swan was one of the last films he completed before his death in 1917.

The film centers on Gizella (Vera Karalli, ballerina, choreographer, possible participant in the murder of Rasputin, she was probably in the palace during the incident), a young Italian woman who is unable to speak. She lives with her doting and protective father (Aleksandr Kheruvimov) and falls in love with Viktor (Vitold Polonsky, matinee idol and, along with Ivan Mosjoukine, the subject of Kuleshov’s editing experiment).

Gizella betrayed.

Viktor woos Gizella but then she sees him romancing another woman and asks her father to take her away. She wants to dance away her sorrows and joins a ballet company. (Joining a ballet company was the silent film actress equivalent of men joining the French Foreign Legion.) She pours her sorrows into her performance of the solo dance, the Dying Swan.

Meanwhile, Valery Glinsky (Andrey Gromov) is an aristocrat with his own artistic ambitions. He dreams of capturing the essence of death on canvas but his private studio is filled with crude sketches of skeletons. Glinsky’s friend tries to distract him with a night at the ballet, the popular Gizella is on tour with her signature Dying Swan act. Glinsky isn’t interested so much in the dance as the death and quickly becomes obsessed with the performance. This is, at last, the portrayal of death he was seeking.

Guess what he has on his mind.

Gizella and her father have reservations about the eccentric Glinsky but she relents and agrees to pose for a portrait as the dying swan. Glinsky, feeling that he has found his muse, paints enthusiastically even as his friend tells him that his talents do not match his ambition.

Meanwhile, Viktor has tracked down Gizella and begs her to take him back. He even proposes marriage to show that he is serious. Gizella agrees and her father gives his blessing to the union, likely because it means she will put distance between herself and the creepy Glinsky. Gizella has been having nightmare about her own death in his home but she goes to pose for him one last time.

A happy model ain’t it for Glinsky.

Unfortunately, the happy, affianced Gizella is not the embodiment of death that Glinsky wants. Could her dreams of peril have been prophetic? See The Dying Swan to find out.

So, as you can probably tell, this is quite a dramatic picture, full of betrayal and emotional turmoil. However, Bauer’s deliberate pace keeps things under control and allows the dueling neuroses of the main cast to simmer to a tender turn before finally boiling over.

Gizella wearing Viktor’s gift.

When historians discuss Bauer, they often talk about his careful planning, the way he put thought into each scene and every shot, his theater-infused compositions, his moody lighting. Yes, that’s all true but the main appeal of Bauer for me is something extremely subjective. I like his attitude and the way his personality comes through in his films. In short, his voice.

Bauer’s death obsession does not come across as twisted but rather innocent and almost sweet, if that makes any sense. His treatment of the character of Glinsky is sympathetic and gentle. Remember, during this period, characters struggling with mental illness were regularly used as punchlines or one-note villains. Glinsky is obsessed and dangerous but Bauer shows the combination of indulgence and neglect that got him to that point. He’s viewed as a rich eccentric and nothing more. The moment when Glinsky’s friend describes his artwork as amateurish is a gut punch and drives his character to drastic acts. However, there are no real villains in the picture, not even the caddish Viktor. The cast is simply on a collision course with death itself.

Glinsky has found death.

The Dying Swan is, of course, a familiar performance piece for fans of ballet. Choreographed in 1905 by Michel Fokine for the legendary Anna Pavlova, the short solo became her signature. Set to Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Swan from The Carnival of the Animals, it emphasized Pavlova’s (criticized at the time) delicate build as she mimicked the last attempts of a dying swan to take to the air.

The Dying Swan remains wildly popular, to the point of now being considered a cliché. Pavlova herself was recorded performing the dance in 1925 but two decades had passed since her first performance and questions of authenticity have been raging ever since. (I highly recommend reading Helen Thomas’s Reconstruction and Dance as Embodied Textual Practice from Rethinking Dance History: A Reader, which delves into the question of which modern Dying Swan is closest to the original.)

The dance.

Vera Karalli’s Dying Swan performance is of interest because, of course, it’s seven years closer to the original than the Pavlova recording. However, it was Pavlova’s signature dance and Karalli would have had her own style and a more robust build. It’s also worth nothing that at this time, Pavlova had signed a lucrative American film contract and had made her debut in The Dumb Girl of Portici, in which she plays a beautiful and tragic mute dancer. Given the Russian love of Hollywood fare and Pavlova, it’s highly unlikely that Bauer was unaware of these facts in 1917 when he made The Dying Swan. In fact, I think it’s highly likely that the Gizella’s muteness was yet another reference to Pavlova in a very Pavlova-centric film.

A little light death.

The Dying Swan is definitely a movie you have to be in the mood to see but it perfectly hits all my morbid buttons, so I enjoyed it immensely. It’s an excellent, if stereotypical, introduction to Russian cinema before the Soviets and you might just find yourself the latest member of the Bauer fan club.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD as part of Milestone’s Bauer collection Mad Love. It features a score by Joby Talbot performed by a small ensemble. With all Bauer films, I recommend seeing them in as high resolution as possible and I am hoping to one day see this film either on the big screen or at least on Bluray.


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  1. Tom Fitzpatrick

    I LOVE this site! I read every new post immediately and so appreciate it. Keep ‘em coming! Thank you!

  2. Antony

    Yes, a complete blu-ray set of his films is long overdue. I haven’t bought ‘Mad Love’ just for that reason. ‘A Life for a Life’ is a favourite of mine but they all great films! I know that there are so many missing but the ones we do have left need to be put together soon!
    Great review!

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