“I am not in a position to sacrifice the necessary in the hope of gaining the superfluous.”
The Queen of Spades (Pikovaya Dama) directed by Igor Maslennikov is an exquisite Soviet made-for-television film amazingly faithful to the Pushkin short story, and for those of us who love Russian or Soviet period pieces, it’s a joy to watch.
The film begins with a present day narrator, an elegant woman, the great actress Alla Demidova, who’s walking in the streets of St Petersburg as she tells the long-ago story of gamblers who play cards late at night. The narrator opens the door to a room in which the 19th century characters are assembled playing cards, and this is the seamless transition to the Pushkin story. One of the men, a German, a young engineer named Hermann (Viktor Proskurin) is not a gambler, but nonetheless rather strangely, he chooses the company of gamblers, and is intent on their game and their talk.
As the night wears on, and the officers sprawl around the card table, one of the officers, Count Tomsky (Vitaly Solomin) tells the story of his grandmother, who in her youth lost heavily at cards and wheedled the secret of a particularly winning combination of cards from Count Saint-Germain. Tomsky admits his frustration that his grandmother, now a frail, elderly woman on the brink of death, refuses to pass on the secret in spite of the fact that her sons have begged her to do so numerous times. Hermann listens closely to the tale–but not so closely that he picks up on its more fantastical aspects. For example Tomsky brags that Richelieu was in love with his grandmother, yet Richelieu was a 17th century figure who died in 1642. And again, the officer mentions Saint Germain a character whose murky origins are tied to the occult, and who pops up periodically in the midst of fantastic tales. His part in the tale should ring alarm bells for Hermann. But Hermann, so obsessed with the notion that this old lady may hold the key to a fortune, hears what he wants to hear and begins to plan….
In the home of the old lady is a young, impoverished relative named Lizaveta Ivanovna (Irina Dymchenko) and Hermann begins to woo her in order to gain access to the house and to the elderly wilful and cantankerous old grandmother (Elena Gogoleva)….
This version of The Queen of Spades, the classic tale of obsession, is incredibly faithful to the Pushkin story and watching it creates an almost uncanny feeling that someone is reading the book while the scenes play out before our eyes. There are scenes with the narrator that segue into the past, and there are other points at which both the 19th and 20th century share the stage. This merging of past and present creates a sense of delicate timelessness. The film Russian Ark used a similar method of merging past and present, but whereas in the Russian Ark this dream-like technique serves to underscore the notion of the proximity and influence of past events, in The Queen of Spades, the physical addition of the narrator into the 19th century scenes reinforces the storytelling element. And at the same time this deliberate merging of storytelling with the visual elements of film creates a perfect version of this Pushkin story that seems to unfold from our own imaginations.