Lithuanian Poland, 1776; patriots rise up against Russian occupiers and are crushed by Catherine II’s tsarist forces. Boleslaw Vorowski, the rebels’ young leader, is in love with teenaged Sofia Novinska, who is being courted by Prince Serge Oblomov, a Russian officer. Sofia is slow to realize her passion for the grievously wounded Boleslaw because their guardian, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, has raised them as sister and brother. Kempelen has also invented automatons—mechanical humans, one of whom he has invented in his own image. At the last, an army of his mechanical soldiers, in spurts of dreadful synchronized movement, descend upon a Russian villain as the Empress proceeds with what she believes is Boleslaw’s execution.
Kempelen actually did tour Europe and the U.S. with “The Turk,” a seeming automaton that beat opponents at chess, a board game based on war. Six years after Czech author Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. introduced the word, Raymond Bernard’s Le joueur d’échecs, based on Henry Dupuis-Mazuel’s novel, dazzled with its robots. Visually, the film blurs the difference between its human characters and Kempelen’s robots: Sofia, sitting for a portrait; musicians, absolutely still before they begin playing; Wanda, strikingly posed before she starts to dance; the jerky, “unreal” movements of soldiers in combat.
Marshaling cross-cutting, expressionistic shadows and superimpositions, and cinema’s most sumptuous masked ball (with get-ups exemplifying both gender and racial crossovers), Bernard explores both machines as humans and—this was a prevalent eighteenth-century idea—humans as machines; this, combined with the many chess plays, suggests the idea of people as history’s pawns. But for all the fascination of all this, the nobility of this electrifying silent film derives from its consideration of free will. Ultimately, at least three major characters commit themselves to actions that shine with distinctive humanity.
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