February 25, 2014 Leave a comment
- directed by V.I. Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky
- starring Vladimir Fogel, Anna Zemtsova, Jose Raul Capablanca
- With an international chess tournament in progress, a young man becomes completely obsessed and frustrated with the game.
“Chess has made me hate the world.”
There’s an old quote of Russian director Vsevolod Pudovkin’s that says that the foundation of film art is in the editing. All throughout Chess Fever, my introduction to his work and appropriately his first to be released, I couldn’t help but see those principles in every frame. Through quick cuts, humor, pacing, and score, it was impossible not to get swept away by the rhythm of it all. Nearly every scene of the comedy short did two things: contribute to the overall story and individually build with their own minor beginnings, middles, and ends. In one scene, the boy retreats to the ledge of a bridge after being dumped because of his chess obsession. Pudovkin’s camera and the character’s behavior–throwing his prized game accessories in the water, removing his shoes—suggest suicide, but there is a slow turn that happens throughout the scene, with signals along the way, that tell us that it will instead be a positive turning point for our hero.
Most of the humor and lightheartedness of Chess Fever came from Vladimir Fogel’s performance which borrowed heavily from Hollywood comedy film stars of the time. He was the doting underdog with eccentric mannerisms and daydreams, or hallucinations, of a world other than his own. Just as funny as our chess-obsessed hero, though, was the director himself. When it comes time for light entertainment, the first place you go to browse for titles may not be the Early Russian Cinema shelf, but in this 28 minutes Pudovkin crams a lot of winks, nods, and all-around cleverness. Notice the checkerboard articles of clothing or the giant chessboard that the boy stumbles through at the height of his mania. The cuts were lightning fast. I would guess that the average shot length was something like four seconds. Pudovkin would show all necessary action yet simultaneously explore elsewhere to show anything—kittens playing, passersby, actual footage of Moscow’s 1925 tournament of chess—that would enhance the narrative and contribute, abstractly or not, to the whole.
One year later Pudovkin began what would be his crowning achievement, his “revolutionary trilogy” of films, consisting of Mother, Storms Over Asia, and The End of St. Petersburg. Those films, of the historical, patriotic, and oftentimes devastating variety, would align a lot closer to the tendencies of Russian film in these years. In 1925 Sergei Eisenstein struck first, utilizing the same lyrical and montage-driven style and putting a deep, dark stamp on the map with Strike and The Battleship Potemkin. For all of its charms, Chess Fever amounts to a minor start to the career of Pudovkin, but still a very valuable one in showcasing the techniques he would soon bring to heftier material.