When I was in junior high school, chess was a massively popular game because of Bobby Fischer’s win against Boris Spassky during the World Chess Championship. Many of my friends learned the game at the time and there was a chess club at my school.
One day I attended the chess club meeting and asked the best player to teach me the game. He was actually quite nice about it and took the time (and lots of patience) to teach me.
After I felt as though I had mastered it, I went home and taught my younger sister to play. She immediately started beating me.
That was the end of chess for me.
But I remember so clearly the excitement people had for the game at the time. Chess wasn’t just for rich and super-smart people! Everyone could enjoy it. For a brief time, it became quite a pop culture phenomenon.
Watching the 1925 Russian short film Chess Fever brought back all these memories.
The movie was directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky during the actual Moscow international tournament of that year. Real-life chess champions of the day appear in the film, including the World Champion José Raúl Capablanca (who has a small but critical role in the story).
The film follows a young man (referred to only as “Hero,” played by Vladimir Fogel) and his fiancée (referred to as “Heroine,” played by Ana Zemtsova). Hero is obsessed with chess and spends most of his time working on various chess strategies. He’s so obssessed, he is late picking up Heroine for their trip to the registry office to get married.
Hero encounters many distractions on his way to make amends with the heartbroken Heroine. They mostly involve chess. It seems everyone, everywhere he goes, is almost as obsessed with chess as he is, even little babies.
Meanwhile, Heroine is so disillusioned she plans to drink poison–only to be thwarted by chemists who are too busy playing chess. She also keeps running into people playing it and seeing items that are a part of the game. She finally encounters the ultimate chess icon of the day, World Champion Capablanca, who takes her to the chess tournament.
All ends well, as Heroine becomes captivated by the game, too. She and Hero reunite and discuss chess playing strategies.
This is a sweetly hilarious little film. If you are under the impression that Russian films are all dour and gloomy, this movie will permanently wipe that assumption away. (Save for the heroine planning to drink poison, of course.) There’s a quality to the physical comedy that’s reminiscent of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton films, though none of it is death-defying. There are many sight gags that involve chess in some way–everything reminds Hero (and other characters) of chess, and this causes many mishaps in his quest to win back his love.
And it has kittens! Lots of kittens!
While the movie seems a bit of fluff, in reality Pudovkin made it partly to illustrate the importance of editing and context when he had some downtime while shooting the documentary Mechanics of the Brain. Pudovkin was a great proponent of montage theory, having studied with Lev Kuleshov, and wrote essays on the subject as well as applied it to his filmmaking. The tournament portions were shot under the pretext that they were for a newsreel. He even gave the film some “star quality” by cutting in the shots of the famous chess players.
I spent a lot of time in college sweating over texts about film theory (including some essays written by Podovkin). Never, ever, would I have imagined back then that it could be applied to something so charming and thoroughly entertaining.
Did I mention the kittens?