Performance of Emotion in Russian Cinema of the 1910’s

1/2009

Lauri Piispa

In late imperial Russia acting was considered the most central aspect of film art. This article focuses on the expression of emotions in pre-revolutionary film acting from three perspectives: technique and style, contemporary ideas of performance, and everyday realities of film making.

Acting styles in Russian cinema varied. The article takes two leading roles in Evgenii Bauer’s film Life for a Life (1916) as examples of two opposite styles: the highly pictorial style of film star Vera Kholodnaia against the realistic style of Moscow Art Theatre actress Lidia Koreneva. However, most film acting settled somewhere between these two extremities, and often the style of acting varied even inside one role.

In the contemporary discourse the ideal of film acting was negotiated between the inside and outside of performance – psychological experience and its bodily expression. According to critics and film makers who commented on the issue, acting in silent film required somewhat different technique from the stage: actors were expected to express emotion with bare movement, gesture, and mime, since they were deprived of words and speech that are central in a theatrical performance. The article argues, however, that the ideal of acting as psychological truth found its way from the Moscow Art Theatre and Konstantin Stanislavski’s actor training to the cinema by the mid 1910’s.

Psychological acting technique was not easy to fit into the practices of the new medium. For many theatrical actors, the fragmentary nature of film making and shooting scenes in inconsistent order caused problems. Realities of film production set their challenges as well: films were shot in a hurry, rehearsals were few and screenplays were sometimes concealed from the actors. Descriptions of what actually took place on the set reveal that emotional expression carried a more spontaneous and improvised character than on the stage. It came close to the kind of ”instictive acting” that Stanislavski was suspicious of.