This beautiful depiction of ill-fated love set in a Europe shaken by World War II is both haunted and haunting. It is not necessary to be familiar with the historical background to fall into rhythm with the story and become invested in the characters’ tragic paths. A classically villainous antagonist, memorable lead performance by Leonid Bichevin, and richly detailed melancholic interiors make the story a compelling vision of unfulfilled love with a touch of ghostly atmosphere.
The film begins with Russian doctor Nicolai looking back his time spent in Germany starting with his arrival at a stoic hotel. There he encounters a somewhat comical motley crew of regulars, but he is love struck when he first gazes upon Elise, a pale young woman with a restrained beauty, long residing in the hotel. Although Nicolai would like to act on his impulses to court the seemingly distant woman, there is a devilish catch. Elise comes from an awful upbringing, raised in destitution by parents who abused her, and stricken with a fragile institution, the signs of grave illness merely waiting to germinate. She was taken from that horror and placed in this position of comfort and luxury by a wealthy Count at the cost of her complete subservience to him.
Elise cannot help but yield to young Nicolai’s advances. Their youth and spiritedness reveals an obvious chemistry between them. Yet, The Count’s reaction is unsympathetic, doing his best to banish Nicolai from their presence and lashing out physically on the shrinking Elise.
A struggle ensues on an uneven playing field, as the wealth and influence that the Count commands is determined to keep Elise and Nicolai apart. Even in the Count’s seeming defeat, his stature commands a grasp over the hotel and those in its employ, making Elise a helpless prisoner there. The couple struggle over staying together or forcing about a separation, each for the sake of the wellbeing of the other.
Nuanced mannerisms give characters a fairy tale-ish flair. There is Nicolai’s constant shrinking behind doorways that suggest he is a hero that has not fully realized his confidence, who may suffer insecurities despite his bravado. The Count is presented grotesquely, often making grand displays of his power.
There would appear to be a theme of true countenances being
hidden under different guises. There is The Count’s pretense of kindness in
taking Elise in when his actions really show a desire to dominate another’s
will. Elise too tries to hide her decaying beauty, as we see her insisting on being
made up as her illness worsens, hoping to maintain the allure that attracted
Nicolai to her. A climactic scene even takes place amidst a masquerade. It is
an opulently detailed confrontation in which the Count has organized a high
stakes game of cards, and the guests are adorned in monstrous costume. The Count
himself appears here as a character out of a Poe story, caked in an obscene
amount of white makeup. The frivolity is interrupted by Nicolai who, having taken
on a macabre likeness, sets about a fiendish game of intimidation and slight of
hand. This is a magnificent sequence filled with darkly lit lurid colors. The
masked guests in the background are like a Greek chorus of demonic figures
waiting in judgment. It fits very much with the theme of unmasking the true
nature of those hiding behind a façade.
The hotel in which so much of the film takes place is of great import, and Jos Stelling makes wondrous use of it. We are moved from one room to the next til its structure is firmly entrenched in our minds. Truly it is a prison for Elise, one from which she cannot escape despite its lack of physical restraints. When we see the structure of the past juxtaposed with its dilapidated transformation some 50 years later, it is again as though pleasantries existing on the surface are chipped away to uncover a sinister veneer underneath.
Everything is tinged with moroseness. Even a desperate love scene between Nicolai and Elise that would be passionate is staged in a gauzy blur, their movements something of a mechanical dance as a slow creeping carnival-esque melody churns in the background. There is a delicate beauty to this. As there is to many moments of the film that are touched by sadness. Even as the fragile flame of romance between Nicolai and Elise seems doomed to be extinguished it is hard not to be held rapt by its faint glow amid the darkness.
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