(Air Date: Week Of 04/02/97)
Even without Ingrid Bergman adding her allure to it, the story of what happened to Tsar Nicholas and his family would be the stuff of modern legend. In 1914, they were, in the minds of their subjects, all but interchangeable with God Almighty. Four years later, they were executed by those same subjects. That they were out of touch with the times is a given, but there's more to it than just that.
Director Victoria Lewis' compelling and unexpectedly moving documentary, "Mystery of the Last Tsar", unfolds like a classic detective story as it sorts through the facts, both official and actual, to discover what happened and why. The film is given added depth by the use of documents, among them actual eyewitness accounts, that until recently were kept buried by the KGB. Lewis blends footage of Nicholas and his family, historically accurate re-enactments, and a lively mix of experts, including a former KGB insider, to consider the evidence. And of course, Anna Anderson's claim to being the Tsar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, is duly considered. The film may not change your opinion about her true identity, but it will make you wonder. Moreover, she's not the only putative heir presented. The remaining Romanovs are shown squabbling over who the head of the family is and discussing how Russia needs them, even if Russia doesn't seem to realize it. Could being out of touch with the times run in the Romanov family the same way that hemophilia does?
The documentary offers some new facts that you haven't seen before, settling, for example, the question of Lenin's complicity in the assasination once and for all. But more, it goes beyond the iconography of martyrdom or politics to humanize the victims. The film's most haunting image is a slow pan over a photograph of the Tsar's older daughters that slowly dissolves into a picture of their skulls, followed by a wholly dispassionate forensic expert describing the trajectory of the bullet that killed daughter Olga. He uses her skull to demonstrate.
"Mystery of the Last Tsar" pulls off a neat trick. It takes a well-known story, done to death by Hollywood, and makes it intriguing in a whole new way.
Copyright 1997 Andrea Chase
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