True Stories On Screen: Anastasia(1956)

Welcome to the first in a new series in which I’ll be writing about true stories that have been adapted for the screen. For this series I will not only write about the film or television series itself, but I will also be taking a look at the real individuals and historical events that they are based upon.

Anatole Litvak’s film Anastasia received its premiere on the 13th of December, 1956, in New York. The film marked the return of actress Ingrid Bergman to Hollywood. It was the first film that she had made in America for some years after becoming a figure of scandal there due to the outcry over her divorce from her husband Petter Lindstrom and her affair with the Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, who she married soon after her divorce in 1950. 

Ingrid Bergman as Anna/Anastasia.

Ingrid’s very moving and powerful performance in Anastasia not only saw Hollywood welcoming her back with open arms, but it also saw her rewarded with a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as an amnesic woman who may or may not be the youngest daughter of the last Tsar of Russia. 

In the early hours of the 17th of July, 1918, a brutal massacre took place in the cellar of the Ipatiev House(known as the House of Special Purpose), which was located in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. As the White Army(anti-Bolshevik forces) were fast approaching, the deposed former Tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife, the Empress Alexandra, were shot to death by the Bolshevik guards who had been holding them prisoner at the house for the past seventy-eight days. 

Murdered alongside Nicholas and Alexandra were their five children – Olga (aged 22), Tatiana (aged 21), Maria (aged 19), Anastasia (aged 17) and the Tsarevich, Alexei (aged 13). Alexei suffered from haemophilia and at the time of the murders couldn’t walk after recently suffering yet another debilitating episode of the disease, and so he had to be carried into the cellar by his father. In the lead up to the murders two of the selected executioners refused to kill the daughters, a decision that led the squads leader, Yakov Yurovsky, to replace them with two others.

The Romanov family. Standing left to right: Grand Duchess Maria and Empress Alexandra. Seated left to right: Grand Duchess Olga, Tsar Nicholas, Grand Duchess Anastasia, Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Tatiana. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

Four members of the Romanov’s 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).  Former sailor Klementy Nagorny, who was the bodyguard and companion of Tsarevich Alexei, had been removed from the house a few days earlier, along with cook and fellow sailor, Ivan Dmitrievich Sednev, and the pair were shot dead. The family and remaining staff never learnt of their fate and kept asking after them. Sednev’s teenage nephew, Leonid, was working as a kitchen boy and would become the only survivor of the household, after he was removed from the house shortly before the cellar massacre.

Anna Demidova. Image source Wikimedia Commons.
Dr. Botkin. Image source Wikimedia Commons.
Alexie Trupp. Image source Wikimedia Commons.
Ivan Kharitonov. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga and the three male members of staff all died fairly quickly. Alexei, the three younger sisters and Anna Demidova were unfortunately not so lucky and survived the initial round of shooting. They were then forced to endure a terrifying, agonising and drawn out end, being repeatedly bayoneted,struck with rifle butts and eventually shot. The executioners were initially mystified as to why bullets kept ricocheting off the Grand Duchesses until examination of their corpses revealed that not only were they wearing their hard corsets, but that they also had some jewels sewn into the lining of their clothes(to be used as currency if they should escape). The massacre in the cellar that night was not only unnecessary but was also unforgivably protracted having lasted around twenty minutes.

The bodies were removed from the house, placed in a truck, and were then taken to a nearby forest and their bodies thrown down a mine shaft. Eight days later the city fell to the White Army and they rushed to the Ipatiev House to find the family. They found the house empty save for Alexei’s beloved pet spaniel Joy. When they went into the cellar they found bloodstains, a bullet riddled wall and scratches and dents on the floor from bayonets and bullets. Although there was evidence of the floor having been mopped and scrubbed the evidence of what had happened there that night couldn’t be obliterated.

An immediate search for the family and staff led nowhere. Six months later, Nicholas Sokolov, a professional legal investigator, was assigned to find out what had happened to the family and staff. He found cart and truck marks in the nearby forest and eventually came upon the Four Brothers mine. There was evidence there of two bonfires and the mine shaft showed evidence of grenade explosions. His team pumped out the pit and began to excavate. Sokolov and his team began to find items and fragments which meant nothing to them but meant everything to the Romanov children’s beloved tutors, Pierre Gillard(who taught French) and Charles Sydney Gibbes(who taught English),who had come to help with the excavation.

Mr. Gibbes photographed with Anastasia in the schoolroom. Image source Wikimedia Commons.
Pierre Gilliard photographed on the roof of the summer palace at Livadia during a lesson with Olga and Tatiana. Romanov Collection, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

They identified the belt buckles of the Tsar and his son, some jewellery belonging to Alexandra, six women’s corsets and Dr. Botkin’s glasses. There was also a small collection of items such as coins and tinfoil which Gilliard identified as belonging to a random collection of items that Alexei collected and always carried around in his pocket. They also found the body of Anastasia’s pet spaniel, Jemmy. There were also a small number of human bones found. Sokolov concluded that the bodies had been burnt in the bonfires and completely destroyed. The team didn’t know it but the remains were actually so close to them and awaiting discovery.

The remains were discovered in the 1970’s, but most of the remains were not discovered, exhumed and examined until 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 much of the 20th century there were persistent rumours and false claims that one or more of the Romanovs had escaped the massacre that night. I believe these falsehoods were born out of reports from the executioners that one of the daughters suddenly moved and started screaming as the bodies were being put in the back of the truck. The group killed her when they realised she was still alive.

The rumours which lasted the longest were those involving the survival of one of the children. Several people came forward over the years claiming to be one of the Tsar’s children. Most notably the case of Marga Boodts, who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Olga. Here in Britain there was the intriguing case of Larissa Feodorovna Tudor, the mysterious young wife of British Army officer, Owen Frederick Morton Tudor, who died in her twenties and was believed by many who knew her to have been the Grand Duchess Tatiana.

The name that kept coming up most often as the sole 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 and was the wild-child of the imperial family. Anastasia was a force of nature – adventurous, courageous, fearless, stubborn and at times quite a mischievous girl. She also had a natural gift for mimicry and comedy, something that her family, friends and the household staff couldn’t help but be amused by. Anastasia was also a keen photographer and was always snapping pictures of her family and their activities.

Grand Duchess Anastasia. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

It is the story of the Anastasia claimants that became the most famous and captured the public imagination.  There were several women who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia and 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 to this day, and it was her case that inspired this 1956 film. Anna Anderson attempted suicide in 1920 and was taken to a mental hospital in Berlin. Fellow patient Clara Peuthert claimed after she was released from the hospital that Anna was the Tsar’s second eldest daughter Tatiana. Word of this story spread and Anna was visited by Baroness Sophie Buxhoevden, a former lady-in-waiting to Tsarina Alexandra. Upon seeing Anna the Baroness declared “She is too short for Tatiana.” Anna noted a few days later “I never said I was Tatiana.” The story later spread that she claimed to be Anastasia.

Anna Anderson photographed in 1922.

Anna’s story led to some surviving members of the Romanov entourage, including the Romanov children’s French tutor, Pierre Gilliard, coming to visit Anna in hospital. Anastasia’s aunt, Grand Duchess Olga(the youngest sister of Tsar Nicholas II) also visited Anna. 

While some who visited believed Anna’s story, most of those who had actually known the real girl and been in regular contact with her for much of her life, didn’t believe Anna Anderson’s 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 relatives of the Romanovs as well as from the remains of the imperial family. The test results proved she was not a Romanov.

In reality Anna Anderson was actually a Polish factory worker with a long history of mental illness. Her name wasn’t even Anna Anderson, it was Franziska Schanzkowska, and her story was absolutely heartbreaking. Franziska worked in a munitions factory and her fiance was killed during WW1. Not long after her fiance had died, a grenade accidentally fell out of her hand at the factory and exploded, killing 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, the French playwright Marcelle Maurette, wrote a stage play based on Anna Anderson’s story. The play became a big hit and would go on to be performed on stage in several other countries as well. 20th Century Fox bought the rights to the play and it wasn’t long before it was adapted for the screen.

Considering that this story is all about resurrection, I think it is very appropriate that the film begins on a dark Easter night. The film opens in Paris in 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). 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 immediate imperial 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.

Bounine and Anna.

As he studies Anna he slowly becomes convinced that she is the real Grand Duchess after all. 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(not surprising if she had witnessed and survived the murders)and bears some 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 some years previously.  

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 she won an Academy Award. She is so convincing and moving as this damaged woman searching for answers.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. 

Ingrid Bergman delivers one of her best performances as the damaged Anna.

Eventually Anna is ready to face some former royal staff and members of Russian aristocracy 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.

After escaping Russia during the revolution, the reclusive Dowager Empress of Russia now lives in Denmark (her birth place). The Dowager refuses to see anyone claiming to be one of her grandchildren because she has seen some imposters before and been left devastated by their deceptions. 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.

Bounine speaks to the grieving Dowager Empress.

Whenever I watch this film my heart breaks for the real Dowager Empress. I can’t begin to imagine the pain that she 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, shot along with his friend and secretary, Nicholas Johnson. The only survivors of the immediate imperial 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 that.

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 so she can have 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.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 as well as his ever 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.  

The Dowager finally agrees to meet Anna.

Helen Hayes is excellent as the dignified and strong woman who is trying so hard to keep her all encompassing grief in check, while also tentatively daring to hope that she could well be reunited with her granddaughter after all. It’s a deeply touching performance that serves to remind us of the pain and heartbreak of the real Dowager.

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 amongst 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 and 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.

The animated film was my introduction to the Anastasia legend and it was that film(despite its myriad of factual inaccuracies) that got me interested in the real Romanov family and Russian history in general, so I will always have a soft spot for that film because of that. I then discovered the film Nicholas and Alexandra which is far more accurate but would undoubtedly have worked better as a miniseries, and then I came across this 1956 film.

This is a very moving film inspired by a fascinating true story. Highly recommended for fans of Ingrid Bergman. What are your thoughts on this film and Ingrid’s performance? 


The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert K. Massie

Four Sisters by Helen Rappaport


9 thoughts on “True Stories On Screen: Anastasia(1956)

  1. Very well crafted piece, Maddy. Fine film: glad you mentioned Newman’s score. Per mentioning Massie, have you read “Nicholas and Alexandra”? Marvelous book. Cheers, Mark

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve wanted to see this for years, mainly because of Brynner, but it has yet to cross my path. I may have to just buy a copy one of these days! Especially since you’ve just enlightened me about Brynner’s role — for some reason, I had it in my head that he was a villain in this, and that kind of stopped me from seeking it out, because… I like him, and I don’t like villains. But I see that I may be all wrong about that! So now I really must see it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve had this post saved to read for almost as long as we’ve been following each other. I nearly dove into it last weekend, but just as I started reading, it inspired me to quickly search for this classic version of Anastasia one more time (which I’ve wished for even longer), and lo and behold, there it was on YouTube! 😀 So, I put this post off yet again until I could finally watch the film for myself.

    The animated Anastasia came out when I was about 11, and I loved it instantly. But when I watched it again after many years, this time with adult eyes, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much because I wondered if it made “vulgar and sentimental use of an episode which is a great personal sorrow” (as Helen Hayes’ Dowager so succinctly and powerfully says). It felt exploitative.

    But since I have this one to compare it to, which I feel actually struck a respectful balance by leaving everything so ambiguously up to interpretation (especially since there were no hard and fast conclusions available at the time), to my surprise, I must admit I prefer the animated version, simply because it is a full-blown fairytale. Regardless of whether it’s exactly moral to fictionalize this tragedy in the first place, there is something undeniably romantic about this story that keeps bringing me back.

    And now that I’ve seen both movies at last, it was even more fascinating to read all the details of the true story, which you laid out brilliantly here. The one that struck me most was that a KITCHEN BOY did in fact survive, as that is a key element of the animated version. 😮 I can tell you put a lot of time and research into this, and it really was such an interesting read that caps off my Anastasia experience perfectly. ❤

    Switching subjects here to another film you inspired me to seek out, I’m so excited to report The Searchers finally came my way! 😀 It took me a while to get into it, but it eventually grew on me. And I’ve got to say, Ethan Edwards may have been one of John Wayne’s favorite and most well-known roles, but Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin Pawley is the picture’s true hero! 🙂

    Also, speaking of my beloved Jeffrey Hunter and movies you’ve recommended, this feels like forever ago, but did you see where I replied to your comment when I watched No Down Payment? Since I went into a bit of detail with my thoughts, I won’t copy it here, but it’s the last comment on my In Praise of Leading Men post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jillian. I’m so happy to hear how much you enjoyed reading my article. Thank you so much. The plots between this and the animated one are very similar and I get what you mean about the animated version having more of a fairytale element and being more enjoyable because of that. It is interesting that that version included the kitchen boy.

      So glad to hear you checked out some more of Jeffery Hunter’s films and that you enjoyed The Searchers so much. A very powerful film with some incredibly complex characters.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Also, I meant to tell you I caught that Anastasia began on Easter night, but I missed the significance. 😮 Mind blown. 😉 The animated version points out the name Anastasia means “she will rise again,” but I don’t know if that’s true. (Actually, I just took a second to do a quick search, and Google results seem to agree it does indeed mean “resurrection.” That is wild! 😀)

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s