Anastasia (1956)

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.

Ingrid Bergman in and as Anastasia

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.

A stranger approaches Anna Koreff

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.

Anna contemplates suicide

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.

Boubine and his associates

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.

Chernov & Co. decide Anna just might do

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.

Anna is given lessons

They teach her everything about the Romanovs: their relatives, their likes and dislikes, their pets, their servants, their residences and favourite holidays… everything.

...on everything pertaining to the Romanovs

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.

Some members of the committee visit Anna

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:

Anna does a walking lesson

To dance like a princess:

...and dances with the dashing Bounine

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.

The testimonials are counted

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.

Bounine and Anna go to Copenhagen

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.

The Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna

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.

The Baroness von Livenbaum meets Bounine

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?

Paul meets Anna

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.

Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia

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!

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11 thoughts on “Anastasia (1956)

  1. I remember coming across this in the public library while looking for something else. One look at the cast (love Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner) and I grabbed it. It helped that I was very fond of the story from having seen a TV miniseries (also Anastasia) way back on DoorDarshan. I do remember the end being a tad abrupt but have forgotten what it was. Guess I should re-watch (or you could tell me the end)!

    Yul Brynner doesnt look very Russian, does he? I saw him in The Journey (his only “Russian” role that I have seen) and have loved him ever since!

  2. I remember the version they showed on Doordarshan too – especially that scene in the asylum where she looks very imperiously at the doctor (Edward Fox) and says “I am Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Anastasia.” I haven’t seen much of Yul Brynner otherwise – offhand I can only recall Catlow and The Magnificent Seven, so this one was even more welcome! And he was so fabulous. :-)

    As for the end,

    Spoiler follows:

    The Empress accepts that Anna is Anastasia, and there’s a huge ball organised for the formal presentation, to be followed by the announcement of Paul and Anna’s engagement. The Empress, however, realises that Anna actually loves Bounine (and he her), so encourages Anna to go with him. In the last scene, Chernov etc are escorting the Empress towards the ballroom, asking her how she’ll account for Anna’s disappearance, and she says she’ll manage.
    I loved the basis of the end – so romantic – but where was the romance? I thought the Anna-Bounine love story was too understated all through so came as a bit of a surprise. Which I wouldn’t have minded, if only they’d actually shown their acceptance of each other’s love and their `coming together’, so to speak. The romantic end gets to be more a `told in second person’ type, which I hated.

    Spoiler ends

  3. I remember the film also from the Doordarshan days!
    Have fond memories of it, although I can’t remember much!
    Ingrid BErgman is one hell of an actress! I just love her smile!

  4. Thanks for writing up the end. I really dont remember it – and I just saw it last year! Will get it from the library again.

    As to Yul Brynner, you should definitely watch The Journey and The King And I – both costarring Deborah Kerr. They are really good. Sadly, he doesnt have too many other movies (he seems to have spent most of his time playing the lead in Broadway’s The King And I!).

  5. harvey: Yes, isn’t Ingrid Bergman lovely? In this, she looks definitely older and thinner than she was in (say) Casablanca, but still beautiful.

    bollyviewer: You’re welcome! And I can understand: anybody who watches as many films as us, is bound to forget certain bits. I for one am not the type to remember each scene vividly (I had a friend who could do that for literally dozens of films – I recall her telling me scene-by-scene stories of Sadma, Satyakam and other films!)

    I have The King and I on my must-see list, and after your last comment, I also added The Journey. Brynner is so good, I want to see more of him!

  6. I dont think the doordarshan miniseries starred Ingrid. That was a good series though and more or less followed the story in the same way. The girl there was very beautiful too.

  7. No, I didn’t mean the series on Doordarshan starred Ingrid – only that it was the story of the same woman, Anna Anderson. That was good too, though. The only person I remember vividly, other than the lead actress, was Edward Fox, who acted as the doctor.

  8. I remember liking the TV Anastasia too, but I havent seen it in years. The actress who plays Anna Anderson there – Amy Irving – was annoyingly wooden (plus brownfaced) in The Far Pavilions. Wonder if she’d learned how to act by the time she starred in Anastasia.

  9. Ah, I didn’t realise it was the same actress from The Far Pavilions. I have very dim recollections of that film too, but I remember her being most unconvincing.

  10. This is the first Ingrid Bergman film I’ve seen, just last summer. (The other one is Casablanca, which is so far, my most favorite. XD) I really have to agree with what you said about the ending. How abrupt it was! One moment, there was Bounine and Anna, and the next moment, they’re gone… as in GONE?!???

    Oh my! I found it hard to breathe, with dismay, as I have realized that it was already the end for the movie. Haha! It was rather disappointing; I was waiting for more happenings between Bounine and Anna, but as we know nothing else happened right after they’d disappear. The film could have turned out much, much better if it was not only for the utterly abrupt conclusion. Sigh.

  11. Yes, the end is the one thing that really disappointed me in this film! Even if they’d only spent a further 10 minutes on at least how Bounine and Anna get together, I’d have been happy. Such a disappointment!

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