J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Girl and Death: A Colleague for Zhivago

Love rarely works out for early Twentieth Century Russian doctors with a taste for lyric poetry. Sadly, Nicolai Borodinski will be no exception. Geography, corruption, and consumption will all conspire against him in Jos Stelling’s awkwardly titled The Girl and Death (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

En route to medical school in Paris, Borodinski stops at a Leipzig country inn of questionable repute. Everyone seems to work for the dodgy “Count” who leads the nightly hedonism, especially the mysterious woman living in the top room. That would be Elise, the Count’s kept woman and most exclusive “working girl.” According to her procuress, Elise’s childhood was so abusive her life with the Count is considerably more pleasant in comparison. Despite the Count’s possessive jealousy, Borodinski and Elise fall madly in love, but it is not to be.

Initially, the Count’s wealth and hired thugs are sufficient to foil Borodinski, but the doctor in training keeps coming back for more. Eventually, his idealism inspires false hope in Elise, but her mounting debts and failing health will sabotage their attempt to be together. As misunderstandings compound, their great love will obviously follow the course of all Russian tragedies.

It is probably impossible for a film to be anymore elegiac than G&D. Although Stelling’s deliberate pace can be lulling at times, there is something intoxicating about the film’s aching romanticism. A lush period production, G&D is defined by its decadent and decaying mise-en-scène. However, when revisited in a cold post-screening light, it seems rather hard to believe a well-to-do doctor with bourgeoisie interests and a history of frequenting German brothels would weather the Stalinist era so easily (even if Leipzig was unfortunate enough to fall under Soviet domination in the GDR).

In truth, G&D is not meant to be analyzed for socio-political implications. It is all about taking in the rich visuals and the delicate classical soundtrack, largely consisting of Chopin, with a dash of Satie and Gounod thrown in (but no Für Elise—that would be too literal and too obvious). Best scene on a real screen, The Girl and Death is recommended for those who appreciate the look and feel of grand historicals when it opens this Friday (4/25) in New York and the Cinema Village.

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