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Comparable to Abel Gance's Napoleon in its scale and stylistic bravura, this romantic epic about the Polish nobility's 1776 uprising against Catherine the Great differs from the more famous film in its lack of nationalist fervour and Tricolour bombast. Its one 'rousing battle scene' is a pure fantasy, a daydream of its naive heroine as she thumps out a patriotic hymn on her piano. This dream sequence is daringly intercut with the actual battle - a fiasco whose leaders are killed and maimed, bringing no glory to either Russian imperialists or Polish rebels.
In place of Boys Own heroics, director Raymond Bernard conjures up an eerily perverse atmosphere of ETA Hoffman-style Gothic Expressionism. The young hero's 'protector', the Baron von Kempelen, is based on a real-life inventor who stunned the courts of Europe with his life-size mechanical dolls. On the run after his abortive revolution, young Boleslav is disguised by the Baron as a chess-playing robot - not a man, but a mechanical image of one. He finds his true self, not on the battlefield, but in the wholly unreal world of chess. His sister Sophie becomes an icon of Polish liberation, not in person, but as a woven banner. Her forbidden love for a Russian officer is consummated, not in the flesh, but in a portrait he paints of her.
In short, Bernard is a film-maker in thrall to illusion - and to the inherently unreal nature of the cinematic image. At the film's climax, not one but two artificial worlds fight it out for control of the screen. A sumptuous masked ball at the Imperial Court, and the villain's showdown with Baron von Kempelen's army of automatons. History, or so Bernard seems to be saying, is not a fact but an illusion, a masquerade, a war of manufactured images that its leaders manipulate for their own ends. Heroism has nothing to do with it.
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