The Chess Player
review by Gregory Avery, 8 August 2003

In one of the opening scenes of The Chess Player, a group of Polish Lithuanians secretly gather at a house outside of the town of Vilnius, where, at the stroke of midnight, they sing their country's national anthem, something which has been strictly forbidden: it is the year 1776, and that part of Poland has become occupied by troops of the Russian empress Catharine II, troops that patrol every road and byway every night. At one point, someone signals the approach of soldiers on horseback, and the singers grow silent as they wait for the patrol to pass. What makes this scene remarkable is that "The Chess Player" is a silent film, made in France in 1927, before the advent of sound, but when you recall the sequence afterwards you remember it as if you heard the sound of the horses' hoofbeats on the road outside.

To see a French silent film today is one thing; to see it presented with its original music (and conducted by Carl Davis) is something else. (The 1923 film L'Inhumaine survives, but its original score, by the composer Darius Milhaud, is lost.) The Chess Player -- which is premiering on U.S. video in a splendidly restored print -- starts out as a somewhat conventional, if colorful, historical melodrama. There's Boleslas (Pierre Blanchar, who would later go on to play Raskolnikov opposite Harry Baur's Inspector Porfiry in the 1935 version of Crime and Punishment) and Sophie (Edith Jehanne, who has a genuinely stellar beauty before the camera), who have been raised as brother-and-sister by the mysterious Baron von Kempelen (Charles Dullin). Sophie falls for a Russian, Serge (Camille Bert), while Boleslas, an officer in a joint "Russo-Polish regiment" stationed in Vilnius, ends up leading an uprising against the occupiers. Defeated, he ends up being sheltered by von Kempelen, while the Russians put a price on his head. 

And then von Kempelen gets an idea -- which is where the film turns very unusual indeed. Inspired by Boleslas' natural genius at chess, von Kempelen creates an automaton chess player, which is capable at besting any challenger -- able to analyze moves and make decisions, it functions as a sort of 18th-century computer. The device --topped by a huge turban, and with a long curving mustache and big eyebrows that raise sardonically -- amazes everyone wherever it is shown, allowing for von Kempelen to travel with it closer and closer to the Polish border, where Boleslas could escape to safety. The automaton device is a carapace within which Boleslas is able to elude capture and detection, but he must hide in it for long, long periods of time -- one of the most peculiarly masochistic feats since Lon Chaney got both of his arms cut off to please Joan Crawford in The Unknown (1927).

Aside from the story, the film has a number of other accomplishments. It makes effective use of montage, a year after Eisenstein first employed it in Potemkin. Parts of a battle scene are filmed with almost abstract visuals, with the combatants racing past the camera so that they are turned into semi-transparent blurs, and some of the other action and fight scenes look like they were filmed, in part, using a hand-held camera. A climatic scene where one character is surrounded by automatons advancing on all sides, wielding swords, recalls the climax to Karel Capek's play, R.U.R., which first coined the term "robot" and had just premiered on the stage in 1920.

The Chess Player concludes with one of those classic, harrowing twists-of-fate story turns in which von Kempelen is asked, i.e. commanded, to present his fantastic automaton, with Boleslas inside it, at the court of Catherine II (Marcelle Charles-Dullin, who makes a splendid empress) -- it turns out that she considers herself to be an expert chess player, as well as ruler of All the Russias. Stranger still is that the film's story turns out to be based on fact: there really was a chess-playing machine, named "the Turk", which fascinated Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, in part because nobody could really figure out how it worked. The name of the inventor of such a machine? One Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen.

Directed by:
Raymond Bernard

Starring:
Charles Dullin
Pierre Blanchar
Edith Jehanne
Camille Bert
Pierre Batcheff
Jacky Monnier 
Marcelle Charles-Dullin

Written by:
Raymond Bernard
Jean-Josť Frappa

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.

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