Ognisko Polskie, Kensington, London
17 March 2018
(Warning: Contains spoilers throughout)
There is always that little extra frisson of excitement when setting off to see a silent film when it is being screened in a venue you have not previously visited. And so it was tonight as we headed off to the Ognisko Polskie Club in Kensington to see a film being screened as part of the 2018 Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. The film in question was Bestia, made in 1917 and the earliest surviving film starring the legendary Polish film diva Pola Negri.
But before the film itself we not only got a complimentary cocktail but also an informative introduction to the film and the life of Negri from Pamela Hutchinson, film reviewer, author and writer of the silent film website, silentlondon.co.uk.
Bestia opens in a small town close to the Polish/Russian border. Pola Basznikow (Negri) lives with her parents who are becoming increasingly worried about her behaviour, spending too much time out late with her friends. Coming home late once again she is confronted by her father and decides to run away, convincing her lover Dimitri (Jan Pawlowski) to go with her. Staying at a nearby hotel Pola soon becomes disenchanted with Dimitri. She gets him drunk, takes his money and departs, leaving a note promising to repay him. But the cheated Dimitri pledges to track her down.
Setting out on her own, Pola looks for work and finds herself a job as a model. Invited to the theatre by a colleague she is captivated by the dancer she watches and embarks upon dancing lessons herself, with her instructor predicting great success for her. Separately, businessman Alexi Wilineffo (Witold Kuncewicz) is happily married to Sonya (Maria Duleba) and father of a small daughter but unbeknownst to his wife he is also a man for the nightlife. Invited out one evening to discuss business he is also promised an introduction to the mysterious new dancer, Pola. Meanwhile Dimitri, now broke, has taken a job as a waiter at the Cafe de Paris.
At the Cabaret Ardent, Alexi is captivated by Pola’s performance. As he flirts with her after the show Pola believes she has found her true love, unaware that Alexi is already married, and they spend the night together. Alexi’s wife becomes increasingly distressed at her husband’s repeated absences but he lacks the courage to tell her the truth. However, as Pola takes over his life and, still unaware he is married, talks increasingly of marriage he eventually reveals the affair to his wife and asks for a divorce. Sonya is left distraught while Alexi feels freed to move on with his own life. To celebrate he takes Pola to the Cafe de Paris while Sonya and her daughter move back to her mother’s house.
At the Cafe de Paris, Pola recognises waiter Dimitri but he fails to recognise the newly famous and glamorous Pola. Departing, Pola leaves the money she owes Dimitri with a note requesting his forgiveness. On finding the money Dimitri is even more determined upon revenge.
The next day Pola is visited by her agent, seeking to arrange more appearances but it is from him that she learns that Alexi is married. Pola informs Alexi that their relationship is at an end and that she never wants to see him again. Alexi writes to Sonya attempting to restore their relationship but it is too late as she has died of grief. Meanwhile, Dimitri has brought a pistol and plots his revenge. Tracking Pola down, he fatally shoots her before running off. Alexi with his daughter grieves at his wife’s graveside.
Bestia is an historically significant film in that, apart from a small fragment of Arabella (Dir. Aleksander Hertz, Pol, 1917), it is the earliest surviving Pola Negri film and the only one of her Polish made films known to have survived. However, it remains unclear just how true this print is to the original film. It is a version of the film released in America, probably some time in the early 1920s, intended mainly to cash in on Negri’s growing popularity there as a result of her success in German productions and her soon to be signed contract with Paramount.. It can not be discounted that the original Polish film was shortened and/or the story changed through re-editing for American audiences.
As it stands, the film is something of an oddity. It starts out with Negri the centre of attention but gradually as Alexi appears the focus shifts to him, with the two women, Negri and Duleba, becoming lesser characters. Indeed, the film’s original Polish title Beast is surely intended to focus our attention on Alexi and his morally dubious behaviour. And as for the final inter-title, “It is a story of passion and love, ending in tragedy for all the lovers.” Well no, not really, its more a tragedy for the female characters alone. Pola is shot dead and Sonya dies of a broken heart but Dimitri seems to get away with murder and while Alexi appears grief stricken at his wife’s graveside, with his morals he’ll surely live to love another day. Any man who can begin a letter to the wife he has just dumped with the words “Its all been a mistake….” really knows no shame…‘Beast’ indeed.
But the real delight of the film is in Pola Negri’s performance who pretty much lights up the screen with her presence. She’s clearly having fun as the high spirited teenager at the start although her acting ability also quickly shines through, for example in the scene as she leaves her parent’s home, beautifully conveying in a single moment a new found sense of freedom at her escape. While her transformation from rebellious teen to seductive dancer may be disconcertingly rapid her early training as a dancer (curtailed by an outbreak of TB) made for a convincing performance. .
Making only her fifth film appearance, Negri already had a face the camera loved, and if Bestia was something of a disjointed tale, she would certainly go on to much better things. In fact, she was to make only four more films in Poland, all in 1917, before being signed initially by Germany’s Saturn Film Company and then by the major UFA Studios where she was to become a major star, known primarily for a series of films directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Hollywood beckoned in 1923 when she signed for Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount. She successfully made the transfer to talkies although her films became increasingly infrequent. Negri (along with several other silent stars) apparently turned down the role of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) and her last appearance was in Walt Disney’s The Moon-Spinners (1964).
Little is known of the other cast members of Bestia other than Mia Mara, the dancer who so enthused Negri with her performance. Mara would go on to become one of the biggest stars of German silent cinema, perhaps best known for her role in Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925)
But the story of Pola Negri in Polish film is also the story of Aleksander Hertz. Hertz, trained by Pathe in France, established Sphinx Studios, the first major film studio in Poland, in 1910. In 1914 he directed and Negri starred in Slave of Sin, Poland’s first feature length film and he would go on to direct Negri in all nine of her Polish films. Hertz continued directing until the early 1920s although virtually all of these films are lost. A notable exception is the excellent Ludzie bez jutra (aka People With No Tomorrow, 1921) and screened at last year’s Kinoteka Festival.
The only downside to the evening’s screening was the poor quality of the digital projection. Although the film print of Bestia has suffered from some nitrate damage (particularly as Negri watches the dancer in the theatre) the version shown was a very poor film to digital transfer, often blurred, probably transferred at two or three frames per second too quickly making the actors movements too fast and jerky and with occasional film rolling. In a film with virtually no close ups a clearer print was needed to better make out facial expressions, which detracted from the performances, particularly that of Negri herself. In a non tiered auditorium it would also have been better to project the film higher up the screen, even at the cost of a smaller picture area, to avoid the problem of heads in the rows in front obscuring the lower half of the screen.
There was, however, a very enthusiastic audience although there appeared to be few who had much exposure to silent film, prompting some initial amusement at the largely over-theatrical style of film acting prevalent at the time. There was also a lot of interaction between audience and film, some of it annoying, some hilarious (for example, as an inter-title explained that Sonya had fallen prey to the illness of those left despondent, someone called out, ‘yes, gin’!). But overall, the audience certainly appeared to enjoy their evening.
Finally, a word on the live piano accompaniment. Making his debut as a silent film accompanist tonight was Artur Haftman who was clearly an accomplished musician. While his score may have lacked some of the dramatic range of more experienced accompanists, as a first effort it was excellent, nicely complementing the drama of the film.
Overall this was a very pleasant evening. Any opportunity to see a Pola Negri film is to be welcomed and to catch one not previously seen is doubly fortuitous. To see it with an excellent live piano accompaniment and in such pleasant surroundings was an added bonus. Many thanks to the Kinoteka Festival and Ognisko Polskie for making this screening such an event.
(NB Bestia has been is available on disc as part of a boxed set, Pola Negri: Iconic Collection – Early Films, but this seems to be unavailable at present. A poor quality version can be viewed on-line (YouTube) )