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
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.
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not