Formative coursework

Sequence Analysis: Nikolai Larin, The Merchant Bashkirov’s Daughter (Doch´ kuptsa Bashkirova, 1913)

In this post, you will read an analysis of a key sequence from Nikolai Larin’s film The Merchant Bashkirov’s Daughter (Doch´ kuptsa Bashkirova, 1913). The aim of this post is to examine how Larin creates meaning by using the cinematic techniques and technology available to him at the time. Relevant context will also be touched on. The word limit is 750-1000 words. The post’s author is Katya Brodie (BA Russian with Ukrainian).

The Merchant Bashkirov’s Daughter (1913)

Sequence Analysis

The Merchant Bashkirov’s Daughter, more commonly known as Drama on the Volga, was directed in 1913 by Nikolai Larin, an almost-unknown film director.  The film is allegedly based on a real case that formed the subject of a stage play in 1894.   A melodrama that achieved its success through the depiction of sensational events (accidental death, blackmail, rape and arson), the film provides the viewer with an insight into the socio-historical situation in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

The sequence under examination forms part of the film’s exposition, where we are introduced to the Bashkirov family, who belong to the merchant class.  The main purpose of this scene is to establish the generational, class and gender conflict that lie at the heart of the drama and to foreshadow subsequent developments.  We learn that Bashkirov wants his daughter Nadia to marry a middle-aged merchant, notwithstanding the fact that she loves a younger man, the clerk Egorov and longs to escape the constrictions of her domestic life.

Formally, the film deploys a linear narrative technique that betrays its theatrical origins.  Stylistically, the action is presented as on a stage: the audience has privileged, unrestricted knowledge of the action, which helps to engender suspense through the inexorable working out of foreshadowed events, like a Greek tragedy.  The action is mainly presented in long take, with sparing use of cutting (for example, the cut from the merchants’ departure to Nadia standing by her window).  The long take further gives us the sense of watching a play.  Normally, we might anticipate a mobile frame to take the role of editing, but here the camera is mostly static.  The use of the panning shot, for example when the camera moves from the merchant’s table to Nadia’s room, merely reinforces the theatricality of the mise-en-scene.  There is, however, a contrast in style between the interior and exterior scenes, which are filmed more naturalistically.   In this way, the narrative style itself draws a distinction between the traditional conventions of bourgeois society inside the house and the dynamic world outside.

The sequence is divided into four major sub-scenes: (1) the interior and steps of the merchants house; (2) Egorov‘s office; (3) the garden; (4) the river.  In the first sub-scene, the merchant Bashkirov welcomes his fellow merchant and they drink wine and discuss the marriage.  Nadia withdraws to her own room.  The merchants (and the framed portrait on the wall) wear traditional caftans and beards and remain seated, while Bashkirov’s wife stands subserviently in the background.  The latter is distraught to hear of the marriage plans, and wrings her hands in consternation1 before slipping away to tell Nadia the bad news. The composition of the scene and the behaviour of the protagonists epitomizes the traditional, patriarchal structure of the society, in which women are seen as objects to be traded with no voice of their own.  Nadia feels oppressed by her domineering father and the clutter in her home symbolises her lack of freedom and inability to breathe.  She feels suffocated.  In a later scene, perhaps stretching the symbolism a little too far, Egorov will be literally suffocated.

The theme of oppression is emphasised in the scene where Nadia is shown in medium shot in her room.  The composition of this scene draws our attention to the window, which symbolizes freedom and escape.  Nadia looks outside with longing, dreaming of a future where she and Egorov could be together: at this point she resolves to tell him what has happened.  One can draw a parallel between this scene and another in Evgenii Bauer’s Child of the Big City (1914), where the main protagonist Man’ka is shown daydreaming, looking out onto the city below.  This recurring theme is important, as it highlights that many women at this time felt trapped by society: by choosing to use this symbolism, Larin and Bauer contributed to the sense of social foment prevalent in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

After the brief scene in the office, the scene in the garden opens with a wide-angle shot of Nadia waiting for Egorov among the tall blackcurrants and raspberries.  Although the scene symbolizes the innocence of the couples’ love, the dense vegetation conveys the idea that their love is forbidden, something that has to be kept secret.  In this way, and others, Larin engenders sympathy for the young couple.  For example, Egorov’s youth (side parting, moustache, and modern dress) is emphasised throughout the film, in contrast to the merchants and peasants, who symbolize the old regime.

The final scene by the river is highly symbolic.  The couple are backlit, in silhouette, a technique frequently used to convey purity by creating a halo-like effect.  In the background, brightly lit and in deep focus is the Volga, with a church on the opposite bank.  The church and the light symbolize the couple’s dreams of a happy future, while the river presents an obstacle which they must cross, or perhaps serves as a metaphor for progress.    We are invited to participate in the scene, not merely as a spectator, but to pass under the arch from the darkness of the present into a lighter world in the future.  To one side, ominously, a gate with bars hangs askew, hinting that the couple may remain trapped in their current situation.  The river is a recurring theme, later serving as a grave for Egorov and the couple’s dreams.  The possibility of personal salvation appears to be denied, for as long as society remains the same.  In this way, the film’s symbolism saves it from being merely a sensational melodrama.

 

  • Although the ‘language’ of silent films is sometimes held to be universal, some of the parents’ gestures in this scene strike me as quintessentially Russian – for example, the father’s contemptuous dismissal of his wife, palm forwards, wrist rotating downwards. One is reminded of Timofey Pnin’s catalogue of Russian hand gestures in Nabokov’s (1957) novel.

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