Virginie over at The Wonderful World Of Cinema is hosting this fourth annual blogathon celebrating Ingrid Bergman and her films. Be sure to visit Virginie’s site to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself.
I’m writing about Ingrid’s performance as a woman who believes she is the daughter of the last Russian Tsar. Before discussing Ingrid’s performance in this film, I want to first take a look at the real people and events that inspired this film.
In the early hours of the 17th of July, 1918, a brutal massacre took place in the basement of the Ipatiev House, which was located in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, the Empress Alexandra, were shot to death by the Bolshevik guards holding them prisoner at the house.
Also murdered with Nicholas and Alexandra were their five children: compassionate Olga (aged 22), dutiful Tatiana (aged 21), gentle Maria (aged 19), fun-loving Anastasia (aged 17) and affectionate Alexei (aged 13).
Four loyal members of the Romanov household staff were also murdered alongside the family that night: Anna Demidova (Alexandra’s maid), Eugene Botkin (the family doctor), Alexei Trupp (footman)and Ivan Kharitonov (cook). Klementy Nagorny, who was the bodyguard of the hemophiliac Tsarevich Alexei, had been removed from the house a few days earlier and shot to death. The family and remaining staff were never told that Nagorny had been killed.
The Romanov Family. Standing left to right: Maria and Alexandra. Seated left to right: Olga, Nicholas, Anastasia, Alexei and Tatiana. Image source Wikimedia Commons.
Nicholas, Alexandra and the three male members of staff all died fairly quickly. The children and Anna Demidova were unfortunately not so lucky, they all survived the initial round of shooting and were bayoneted and shot to death.
The bodies were removed from the house, placed in a truck, and they were then taken to be buried in a nearby forest. Most of the remains were discovered and exhumed in 1991. Two bodies were missing from the gravesite though, and it would not be until 2007 that the bodies of Alexei and one of his sisters (believed to be Maria) were discovered in a pit not that far from the main gravesite. For most of the 20th century there were persistent rumours that one or more of the Romanov children had escaped the massacre that night. I believe that these rumours were inspired by reports from the executioners that one of the daughters suddenly moved and started screaming as the bodies were being put in the truck. She was killed when they realised she was still alive.
The name that kept coming up most often as a possible Romanov survivor was Anastasia.
Grand Duchess Anastasia was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on the 18th of June, 1901. She was the youngest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra. She was the wild child of the imperial family. Anastasia was an adventurous, fearless, stubborn and mischievous girl. She also had a natural gift for mimicry and comedy; her family, friends and the household staff couldn’t help but be amused by her antics. Anastasia was also a skilled photographer and she was always snapping pictures of her family and their activities.
While there were a few people over the years who claimed they were some of Anastasia’s siblings, it is the story of the Anastasia claims that became the most famous and captured the public imagination.
Anna Anderson. Image source Wikimedia Commons.
There were several women who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Of these imposters only Eugenia Smith and Anna Anderson ever gained large numbers of supporters.
Anna Anderson remains the most famous of all the Romanov imposters. It was also her case that inspired this 1956 film. Anna Anderson attempted suicide in 1920. She was taken to a mental hospital in Berlin. Anna told the staff working there that she was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II.
Anna’s story went public and led to some surviving members of the Romanov entourage, including the Romanov children’s beloved French tutor, Pierre Gilliard, coming to visit Anna in hospital. Anastasia’s aunt, Grand Duchess Olga, who was the youngest sister of Tsar Nicholas II, also visited Anna.
Some people believed Anna’s story, but many who had actually known the real Grand Duchess and been in regular contact with her for much of her life, didn’t believe her claims at all. Never the less, without the dead bodies of the Romanov family to prove otherwise, and with Anna sticking to her story, there was always the possibility that her claims might well be true.
Anna died in 1984. Her DNA was later matched against samples taken from living royalty who were related to the Romanov family. The test results proved that Anna Anderson was not the Grand Duchess. Anna was really a Polish factory worker with a long history of mental illness. Her name wasn’t even Anna Anderson, it was actually Franziska Schanzkowska. Her story was a sad one.
Franziska worked in a munitions factory. Her fiance was killed during WW1. Not that long after her fiance had died, a grenade fell out of her hand at the factory, it exploded and killed the factory foreman in front of her. She was seriously injured in the explosion and was taken to a sanitarium.
This stranger than fiction story proved too good for stage and screen writers to ignore. In 1952, French playwright Marcelle Maurette wrote a stage play based on the Anna Anderson story. The play became a big hit. 20th Century Fox bought the rights to the play and turned it into this film starring Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner and Helen Hayes. The film was directed by Anatole Litvak.
The film would be a comeback for Ingrid Bergman, as it was the first film that she had made for Hollywood for some years. She had become a figure of scandal due to her divorce from her husband Petter Lindstrom, and her affair with the Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, who she married soon after her divorce.
Ingrid’s very moving and powerful performance in Anastasia saw Hollywood welcoming her back with open arms. She was rewarded with a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in this film.
This film is all about resurrection. I think that it is very appropriate that the film begins on a dark Easter night. The film opens in Paris, it is 1928, ten years after the Russian revolution and the murder of the Romanov family. Members of the Russian community, who now live in exile in France, are attending various church services being held in the city to mark the start of Easter.
An amnesic, physically ill, suicidal young woman, called Anna Koreff(Ingrid Bergman)is being followed through the city streets on this night. She is being followed by former Russian General, Bounine(Yul Brynner).
Anna and Bounine meet. Image source IMDb
Bounine has set up a scheme to pass off a woman as being the real Grand Duchess Anastasia, who according to circulating rumours, actually survived the massacre that killed the rest of her family. Bounine intends to convince the surviving members of the royal family and their staff of the validity of his claim. He then intends to get his hands on some of the ten million pound inheritance left by the Tsar for his daughter in a British bank.
As he studies Anna, he actually becomes convinced that she is the real Grand Duchess Anastasia. She is the same height as Anastasia, is the same age as she would be now, looks like her and has some of her characteristics. Anna also has a fear of cellars(the royal family were killed in a cellar)and bears injuries that could be bullet wounds. Anna also says things and has memories about the royal family that she could only know about if she had been with them at some point. We later learn that there is a strong possibility that Anna’s injuries were actually received in an explosion aboard a train that she was a passenger on.
Bounine takes her in and helps her to regain her memory. He teaches her royal etiquette, royal traditions and facts about the royal family. Anna is confused, upset and frustrated because she has no clear memories of her past, she has been in and out of asylums for years(it is while she was in one asylum that she claimed to be the Grand Duchess, and this is how Bounine first heard of her) and she has horrible nightmares about death and violence.
Ingrid does such an excellent job of conveying to us just how vulnerable, traumatised and angry Anna is. It’s not hard to see why Ingrid won an Academy Award for her performance here. She is so convincing and moving as this damaged woman searching for answers.
Is Anna really the Grand Duchess? Image source IMDb.
Ingrid plays Anna as childlike and vulnerable for much of the film, and she also gives us glimpses of this woman’s inner strength and passionate nature.Ingrid also does a wonderful job of convincing us that Anna is becoming emotionally stronger, more regal, more confident, and that she is regaining some happiness and control over herself and her life as the film goes on.
Eventually Anna is ready to face some former royal staff and members of Russian society who knew the royal family. Bounine arranges a reception to introduce her to them, and many attending this event believe she is the Grand Duchess. The real test will now be to see if Anna can convince Anastasia’s grandmother(mother of Tsar Nicholas), the Dowager Empress Marie(Helen Hayes)of her identity. The reclusive Dowager Empress of Russia now lives in Denmark (her birth place). The Dowager refuses to see anyone claiming to be one of grandchildren, this is because she has seen some imposters before and been left devastated by their deception.
Bounine enlists the help of the Dowager’s flirtatious lady in waiting(a scene stealing Martita Hunt) to get them in to see the Empress. Eventually the Dowager agrees to meet with Anna.
Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman. Image source IMDb.
Whenever I watch this film I always feel so sorry for the Dowager Empress. I can’t begin to imagine the pain that the real Dowager must have suffered. Not only did she lose Nicholas and her grandchildren, but she also lost her youngest son Michael too. Michael was also murdered during the revolution, he was killed along with his secretary, Nicholas Johnson. The only survivors of the immediate royal family were Marie and her two daughters, Xenia and Olga.
Will the Dowager accept this woman as her grandchild? Will we learn for certain if Anna is Anastasia or not? Watch the film and find out. Obviously if you watch this now you know full well that the Anastasia claims are complete fiction, but the film still manages to work very well despite the truth now being known.
I think the strength of the film is that it plays on the hope that one or more of the children could have survived that night. We want Ingrid’s character to be the real Anastasia, we want a happy ending and so we keep watching because of that. The film also works because it offers the viewer balanced amounts of evidence to both prove and disprove Anna’s claim to be Anastasia. We can make up our own minds as to the truth of her identity.
As much as I love the film for the its story and performances, I have to say that my absolute favourite thing about this film is the slowly changing and developing relationship between Bounine and Anna.
Bounine serenades Anna. Image source IMDb.
I love how Bounine begins to find himself falling in love with Anna, and how he also becomes more convinced that she is the real Grand Duchess after all. I like how Anna starts off not trusting him, feeling resentful for his pushing her in lessons, and yet she slowly begins to like and trust him. Bounine also undergoes a real character change and he becomes less stern, and turns more tender and gentle. Bounine also starts to care more about looking after Anna and helping her instead of using her to get money.
Yul does such a good job of conveying that change and his growing bond with Anna. He also manages to convince as both commanding and strong military man, and as the softer and kinder man he becomes as the film goes on. Yul has lovely chemistry with Ingrid and I think it’s a real shame that they never worked together again.
Ingrid delivers the standout performance of the film in my opinion. Her performance here is one of my favourites from out of all her screen work. She really manages to get across how confused and damaged Anna is, and also conveys to us just how desperate for happiness and answers she is. Ingrid glows in the scenes where Anna is having a good time, and she makes you want to put your arms around her whenever Anna is sad and scared.
Ingrid delivers one of her best performances. Image source IMDb.
Helen Hayes is excellent as the dignified and strong woman who is trying so hard to keep her grief in check, while she also tentatively dares to hope that Anna may well be her granddaughter. I think that Helen does a terrific job in the scenes where you can see the Dowager really struggling to hold back her tears. Helen and Ingrid work very well together too.
The performances, costumes, sets and cinematography are all very good. I think that Alfred Newman’s beautiful score adds a great deal of emotion and atmosphere to the proceedings. I consider his score for this to be among his most underrated work.
My favourite scenes are the following. Bounine questioning and studying Anna for the first time. Bounine serenading Anna. Anna looking across the theatre to try and see the Dowager. Anna waking up from a nightmare and Bounine trying to comfort her. Anna meeting the Dowager. Anna meeting a cousin of Anastasia’s at the theatre. Anna learning how to dance with Bounine.
The 1997 animated film Anastasia borrowed much from this 1956 film, the two films have near identical plots and characters. The animated film is not remotely accurate in its depiction of the revolution or of the Anna Anderson story, but for all its flaws it might be a better one to watch with younger children. Do show older children the 1956 film though.
The animated film was my introduction to the Anastasia legend and it was watching that film that also got me interested in the real Romanov family, so I will always have a soft spot for that film because of that. I then discovered the film Nicholas and Alexandra,then I came across this 1956 film. I am so happy that I found this film because it features Ingrid delivering one of her finest performances.
This is a very enjoyable and moving film inspired by a fascinating and sad true story. Highly recommended for fans of Ingrid Bergman. What are your thoughts on this film and Ingrid’s performance?