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FC Discover is a new series about obscure and exciting films we unearth from the weird and wonderful world of online viewing.  

Movie: Chess Fever

Streaming on: Mubi, YouTube

In the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, the finale shifts to where else, but Russia, where the chess prodigy Beth Harmon takes on the mighty Borgov in the world chess championship. For a large part of the final episode, we get a glimpse of just how chess-crazy the Soviets were. 

Even in the 60s, when the show is set, fans would mob a winner outside chess halls where a tournament is being played, and the chess halls themselves, high ceilinged and formidable, are out of league for their American counterparts. The episode — and the show — ends with Beth walking into a park to join a large group of old men who sit on benches in pairs across tables from each other, to play chess, a scene typical of Soviet Russia. 

The 27 minute silent comedy Chess Fever (1925), in a way, begins where The Queen’s Gambit ends, bang in the middle of a championship, the Moscow chess tournament, back to a time in Russia when the chess craze there was even crazier. Also known as the first film directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin, one of the masters of the Soviet montage, on one level it’s a love story. 

The central narrative revolves around a couple about to get married — but there’s a problem: The Hero (Vladimir Fogel) is obsessed with chess — that’s how the credits describe the lead characters — and this makes The Heroine (Anna Zemtsova, Pudovkin’s wife) hate chess. It’s the bane of of her existence. Wherever she goes, it seems to follow her. On the other hand, no matter how hard he tries to forget about chess, anything and everything will remind him of it, from the black and white tiles of a floor to a chessboard on display at a shop window. At one point the inter-title reads ‘Can love be stronger than chess?’ 

One of the fascinating things about Chess Fever is how it weaves in newsreel style footage from the tournament into the dramatic story at its centre. Cuban grandmaster Jose Raul Capablanca gets top billing

One of the fascinating things about Chess Fever (titled Shakhmatnaya Goryachka in Russian, written and co-directed by Nikolai Shpikovsky) is how it weaves in newsreel style footage from the tournament into the dramatic story at its centre. Cuban grandmaster Jose Raul Capablanca, who gets top billing, not only makes a guest appearance but plays a pivotal role in the narrative, with brief cameos from other stars of the time like Carlos Torre Repetto, Frank James Marshall and Solomon Gotthilf. 

The making-of story is that Pudovkin and his crew pretended to be filming a documentary in front of the players and only later combined that footage with shots of other actors’ hands and other objects on the editing table to make it seamless, therefore giving us an early example of how skilful Pudovkin was to become in terms of juxtaposing images (notably in his most famous work Mother, that released a year later). 

chess fever on muni

The narrative spills from the personal, to the public, and back. The chess fever that grips the Hero grips all of Moscow, where a national pastime is elevated to a feel-good festivity ushered in by the tournament. A wildly entertaining sequence has the Heroine, in a fit of rage, throw the Hero’s chessboard out of the window, which then punctuates public life with brief spells of chess even as it changes hands of people in the streets, from carriage puller to beggar: a glimpse of everyday life. A traffic policeman in charge of penalising people hanging along bus doors forgets his job and enters a game of chess with one of the passengers he’s caught. 

These are not shown in a way that suggest public disorder, but as something that brings harmony and good cheer to the society. Chess was a part of the state machinery — the government subsidised the game, that took it to the masses, the effects of which were felt in the Soviet domination in the world of chess — and so was cinema. What makes Chess Fever a rarity is that it’s a comedy, a genre more associated with American films, rather than Soviet silent cinema. 

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