I sometimes discover films in a very roundabout way. This one, for example.
Those who’ve explored this blog probably know that I also do travel writing, and that I recently went to Switzerland. While doing background research on the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Geneva (which was constructed from funds donated by a Russian Grand Duchess, Anna Feodorovna), I read again about the Romanovs—and inevitably, about Anna Anderson, the woman who emerged in Western Europe in the 1920’s, claiming to be Czar Nikolai’s youngest daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolayevna. Some more research, and I ended up at this film, starring one of my favourite actresses.
After a preliminary note on how Czar Nikolai and his family were killed during the Russian Revolution in 1918, the film goes on to say that as the years passed, rumours started surfacing that one, perhaps, of the Czar’s offspring was still alive.
The scene then shifts to Paris in 1928, on a cold night that happens to be the Russian Orthodox Easter. In a churchyard filled with a congregation dispersing after mass, a haggard young woman (Ingrid Bergman) dressed in shapeless clothes and looking ill, is accosted by a stranger.
The man, General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine (Yul Brynner) asks her if she’s Anna Koreff, the woman who had been in an asylum in St Cloud—the woman who had told a nun at the asylum that she was Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Czar Nikolai. The woman is bitter and disinterested. She leaves, but Bounine’s associate Stepan (Gregoire Gromoff) confirms that this was the woman he’d seen at the asylum. Bounine and Stepan follow the woman and stop her just as she’s getting ready to jump into the Seine.
Bounine, it emerges, has created a corporate house in alliance with Boris Chernov (Akim Tamiroff) and Piotr Petrovin (Sacha Pitoeff). All three men were in some way or the other connected to the Russian Imperial family, and the aim of their corporation is to find the legal heir of the £10 million that were deposited by the Czar in a British bank. Over the years the men have unearthed various women whom they’ve tutored well and tried to pass off as Anastasia, but to no avail.
This time, Bounine is certain they can do it, though Chernov and Petrovin are sceptical. The woman, though she bears a remarkable resemblance to old photos of Anastasia and is the right height, is extremely confused, has huge gaps in her memory, and is very reluctant. However, as the minutes tick by and the bullet wounds on the woman’s hands—and a wound on her scalp—are revealed (along with chance memories she’s able to dredge up), the men start believing that she will make a convincing Anastasia.
Unfortunately, they only have eight days before the stockholders’ committee of their corporation will examine the proposed heir to the millions. The committee consists of various distant relatives of the Romanovs, as well as some dependants, and it is these people who will meet the woman and decide whether she actually is Anastasia or not.
So, with some cajolery, some emotional blackmail and lots of downright bulldozing, the three men persuade Anna Koreff to agree to their plan. Over the next week, they spend every waking moment tutoring her.
They teach her everything about the Romanovs: their relatives, their likes and dislikes, their pets, their servants, their residences and favourite holidays… everything.
On the eighth day, Bounine and Co. make the excuse—a valid one—that since `Anastasia’ is unwell, only six members of the committee may come to visit her, not the entire crowd. At the meeting, Anna, to everybody’s surprise (including Bounine’s and perhaps her own) identifies a former lady-in-waiting of the Czarina’s—and that too by the pet name the Czarina used.
The six are convinced, but there are more hurdles to cross. The next one is some weeks away, but it’s far more daunting, for it will be attended by many more people, all of them once close to the Czar. Each one of them will vote.
To convince those people, Bounine, Chernov and Petrovin begin the next stage of their protégé’s tutoring. They teach her to be the Grand Duchess: to walk like a princess:
To dance like a princess:
To play the piano, to talk the way Anastasia would have talked…
On the big day, a nervous Anna is presented to the gathered crowd, which consists almost equally of those who want to believe she’s Anastasia, to those who don’t, and to those who couldn’t care less. Anna does manage to pull off a bit of a coup, but there are obviously plenty who aren’t convinced of her identity. Of the 51 persons present, only 18 sign testimonials that she is Anastasia.
Bounine, however, knows that there is only one person whose word is going to be final: the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Helen Hayes), mother of the Czar and Anastasia’s grandmother. The embittered and disillusioned old lady is now more or less a recluse who lives in Copenhagen with her memories for company. With some trepidation, Anna—now with a passport made out in the name of Anna Anderson—accompanies Bounine to Copenhagen on a two-week visa to face the old lady.
Also part of Maria Feodorovna’s entourage are the flighty Baroness von Livenbaum (Martita Hunt) and Prince Paul von Haraldberg (Ivan Desny), a second cousin to whom Anastasia had been engaged at the age of 16. Today, Paul is in an unenviable position: the Dowager Empress controls all his funds, and knowing his propensity for women and extravagance, keeps a tight hold on his finances.
Bounine comes up with a devious strategy. He spends a little while sweetening up the Baroness von Livenbaum and discovers that the Dowager Empress, along with Paul and Baroness von Livenbaum, will be attending a Tchaikovsky concert shortly.
And guess who has the luck to be sitting in the box opposite the Dowager Empress’s? Guess who Paul is introduced to during the intermission, and whom he obviously finds enchanting?
But will Bounine be able to get Maria Feodorovna to grant an audience to Anna? More importantly, will Anna be able to convince the old lady that she is, indeed, her granddaughter? Will Bounine’s increasing irritation at the closeness between Paul and Anna be revealed for something deeper than what he imagines it is?
Who really is Anastasia? Is she really the princess who escaped miraculously, or is she a befuddled lunatic whom Bounine has successfully managed to convince that she is Anastasia? Does Anna finally discover her own identity?
What I liked about this film:
Ingrid Bergman. How couldn’t I—she’s such a good actress (she won the Oscar for this role). She’s superb as the despairing woman, ill and poor and fumbling for her own identity; and she’s fascinatingly queenly as the woman so many believe to be Anastasia.
And I really like the glimpses of the chemistry between Anna and Bounine: Bergman and Brynner are great together.
What I didn’t like:
The end. Oh, how utterly irritating and abrupt. I love the premise of the end, but its execution had me gaping and thinking something was wrong: how could they?!
If you can forgive the lapse in good screenplay right at the end, this is a film to be seen. Bergman is regal as Anastasia, heartbreakingly piteous as the suicidal Anna Koreff; and excellent all through—and so is Brynner, hard as nails when it comes to moulding Anna into what he wants her to be, but also surprisingly sympathetic at times. And more than merely sympathetic. And yes, he looks good too!
Little bit of trivia:
Interestingly enough (and I didn’t know this), Brynner was born in Vladivostok in 1920, so wasn’t as far removed from the actual action as most of Hollywood’s leading men of the 50’s would have been!