Anastasia (1956)

Why would I want to watch a film that is 55 years old? Well maybe one reason for the inspiration to watch Anastasia came from watching Piano in the Factory at the Sarasota Film Festival a few weeks ago. That film was filled with Russian music.

The other reason is that the lead players of this film, Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, and Helen Hayes are all Oscar winners, and the film did garner Oscar nominations. Bergman herself won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress. Anastasia was directed by Anatole Litvak, and was a Cinemascope production, which was state-of-the-art at that time, in 1956.

The film is the tale of an opportunistic Russian emigre living in Paris in 1928. This would be Yul Brynner as General Bounine, a former officer in the White Russian Army. After the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsar of Russia, and he and his family had been shot dead by a firing squad in 1918, many Russians fled from Russia; Bounine included.

He fled to Paris, escaping with his life, and most of his money, and a pair of his longtime associates. They set up a restaurant/night club in Paris so that he and so many other Russian emigres might remember the good times of the past, and still be able to enjoy the food and the music from the old country.

He and his pals played by Akim Tamiroff as Chernov, and Sacha Pitoeff as Petrovin, were also conmen and schemers of the highest order. For nearly a decade they had been trying to locate the one daughter of the Tsar who supposedly had survived or escaped from her family’s execution – or lacking the real woman, who was quite likely dead, a reasonable facsimile, as Bounine put it. They had been given lots of money by the expat Russian community to aid in their efforts – all of which had proven futile to that point. Time was rapidly running out. The financial backers demanded results, or Bounine and company,  would be thrown into jail as frauds. The deadline was a mere 8 days away.

Enter Ingrid Bergman as a desperate and suicidal woman who was ready to give up by throwing herself into the Seine River in the dead of winter. She is saved at  the last moment, at the edge of the river bank just beneath the elegant Alexander III Bridge, by Bounine and his friends.

They take her back to their basement offices beneath the restaurant. She’s a mess with three deadly attributes – she’s homeless, she’s friendless, and she’s also penniless. But she’s the right size and has a resemblance to Anastasia. On the bright side, because she’s an undocumented illegal, no one can prove who she really is.

So they set out to train her – to pass her off as the real thing. She looks at photos, she has her head filled with the Tsar’s family history, she has to learn everything about The Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, and she has to convince the White Russian community that she is indeed Anastasia. A daunting task made even more so by what is at stake.

That would be the ten million British pounds held in a London Bank. Don’t ask me how the money got out of Russia, when the royals themselves did not. I have no answer for that question.

There’s your set up. Bergman, who walked off with the Oscar for this role, was making her return to Hollywood after a five year hiatus. She had been considered  persona non grata by the Hollywood studio chiefs for her illicit affair with Italian film director Roberto Rossellini which resulted in the birth of an illegitimate daughter.

Bergman was masterful in her return to movies. She brought to the screen a wide ranging performance which called for her to be suicidal, desperate, and lost as the film begins. Then she would go through a period of training where she would be unsure of herself, and willing even eager to call the whole thing off.  But she learned her lessons well, and got enough confirmations from a preliminary meet and greet with some important people that she could be presented and therefore able to face the final and last test  –  to win over the approval of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, played by Helen Hayes, who was billed as the Queen of the American Stage. Bergman would have to be regal, royal, and respectful in order to accepted as the real Anastasia by the Dowager Empress who was also her Grandmother, or Grand-mama.

Yul Brynner had his best year in 1956. In fact, it was so good that it was likely as good a year as any actor in history had ever had. In addition to Anastasia, Brynner won the Oscar that year for his role in The King and I, and he starred as The Pharoah in the DeMille Epic – The Ten Commandments  which itself was nominated and won the Best Picture award.

Here, as Bounine, he had to make Bergman’s Anna into Anastasia, he had to fool the Russian Community, he had to be a showman, a conman, and a former general. On top of that, he was going to fall in love with his protege.

The film was shot in Paris, in Copenhagen and in London. Adapted by Arthur Laurents, a twice Oscar nominated screen writer, from a stage play penned by Marcelle Maurette, the on location shooting opened the stage play up into a grander scope. We saw the Seine River, a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris, Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, an opera house, and a huge ballroom all in glorious color.

Many have said that the ending was flawed – because we don’t know what actually happened. To me this was the reason for the film’s success – the open-endness of the film leaves you with many questions:

A) Was Bergman’s Anna really the long missing Anastasia or was she simply a superb actress who played the role of her life for Bounine, for the Dowager Empress, and the Russians who had escaped from the Bolsheviks?

B) Or was she a fraud just like Bounine thought she was at first?

C) By the time she’s ready to be formally presented as Anastasia, instead of a wanna-be or hopeful Anastasia, Bounine himself believes he may have found the actual Anastasia, which leave us with the question of whether we believe it as well.

But the film doesn’t answer this question for us. For me, this ending came as a surprise, and this led me to think that this was simply a marvelous film that ended by leaving us with questions and theories, which made it almost hauntingly excellent.

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