One of the most intriguing rediscoveries to arrive on DVD is the 1927 silent French epic “The Chess Player.” Unavailable in an extant state for too many years, this beautiful restoration brings this stylish and often bizarre beauty into the 21st century, offering more proof that the silent cinema was anything but primitive.
“The Chess Player” takes place in Poland of 1776, which had been partitioned by stronger European kingdoms. Russian-occupied Poland is ruled with a brutal military force and a liberation movement under the command of the dashing Count Boleslas Vorowski. When the count is injured in battle, he is rescued by the wacky inventor Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, whose hobby is building life-sized automatons dressed in extravagant human costumes. As the Russians try to locate the count, the baron builds a huge chess-playing automaton dressed like a Turkish sultan and hides the wounded nobleman inside it.
Now here is where the film gets funky: the baron begins to travel across Poland with the Turkish automaton in which the count is hiding. As luck would have it, the count is also a grand chess master and he winds up beating everyone who takes up the challenge to play what is assumed to be an elaborate mechanical creation. But when the Russian Major Nicolaieff catches on to the scam, he has the automaton (along with the wacky baron who built it) to the imperial court of Catherine the Great, who has been told about the automaton and who is eager to match chessboard wits.
Believe it or else, this film (and the Henri Dupuy-Mazuel novel on which it based) was inspired by a real story in which a man inside an automaton fooled some notable 18th chess fiends, including Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. But for this film, the mix of chess and machinery and 18th century Polish nationalism makes for a giddy and frequently mind-blowing adventure.
Filmmaker Raymond Bernard, whose work is curiously ill-considered at this late date, spun a lavish epic that encompassed opulent sets, scores of extras wearing highly detailed costumes, and vigorous location photography in Poland and Switzerland. Spanning the battlefield, royal courts, and even a mad scientist workshop where the automatons are created, “The Chess Player” is a visually striking and deeply imaginative work of art.
If there is a fault, it would be in Bernard’s inability to get his large cast into a cohesive ensemble. Much of the acting (especially Pierre Blanchar as the count) is surprisingly timid, while other performances (most notably Edith Jehanne as the count’s love interest) are too theatrical for their own good. But “The Chess Player” is clearly not a human drama but an epic feast, so there is more than enough gilded trappings to divert attention from some cardboard acting.
Even more fascinating than the film is the story on how it was restored. Very briefly: Kevin Brownlow (the man behind the restoration of “Napoleon,” among many classics) first saw “The Chess Player” as a youth in the 1950s in an abridged version that played on his 9.5mm home movie projector (the 9.5mm format was popular in Europe during that time). In the 1960s, he interviewed Raymond Bernard in Paris, but the filmmaker did not have a 35mm print. A 35mm print was located in an East Berlin archive in 1980, albeit without the first reel. A complete print turned up shortly afterwards in the collection of a Dutch collector, but the elusive first reel had severe water damage. Work on a restored version mixing the German and Dutch prints began in London when another print, this time from the Cinematheque Municipale in Luxembourg, emerged–with the first reel in pristine condition. As luck would have it, the three surviving prints were not identical (missing scenes, different editing, etc.). In time, the differences between the prints were settled to match Bernard’s vision and “The Chess Player” can finally make its move back into classic status.