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Film / First Love

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First Love is a 1970 film from Switzerland directed by and starring Maximilian Schell.

The setting is Russia, spring 1915. The protagonist is Alexander, a 16-year-old boy who goes out to his wealthy family's country estate with his mom and dad (Valentina Cortese and Maximilian Schell). They appear to be wealthy enough to sit around and do nothing all day, which is how Alexander meets the lovely Zinaida (Dominique Sanda). 21-year-old Zinaida lives on the next estate over with her mother, the Princess Zasekina, who despite being a princess is flat broke.

Alexander is immediately infatuated with beautiful Zinaida, who is only five years older than him but seems worlds more mature. He is disconcerted to find out that she is entertaining several older admirers—an army officer, the local doctor, a rather ridiculous poet. Alexander continues mooning around after Zinaida, though, until he learns a terrible secret.


First of eight feature films directed by Maximilian Schell, who had been an international star as an actor since Judgment at Nuremberg. The cinematographer was the legendary Sven Nykvist, best remembered as the long-time creative partner of Ingmar Bergman.


  • Book-Ends: The opening credits play over a closeup of a cherry tree in bloom. The last shot shows what looks like a similar or the same tree, but bare in winter, suggesting Alexander's lost innocence.
  • Creepy Crows: Flocks of crows, cawing in mid-air, are used to suggest vague unease. The first time is at the beginning of the film when Alex, wandering around with a shotgun, shoots at one and misses, then beholds Zinaida's mansion for the first time. Crows are flapping around overhead when Alex's father first sees Zinaida. Then at the end the crows are flapping and cawing overhead again, when Alex observes his father and Zinaida having one last unpleasant meeting.
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  • Death by Childbirth: At the end of the film Alex learns that Zinaida, who has gotten married, died in childbirth.
  • Distant Finale: After most of the film takes place seemingly in a few days or weeks in spring 1915, the setting skips forward to a vague time that has to be pretty close to the revolutions of 1917. Alex, now a student in university, learns that Zinaida got married, had a baby, and died in childbirth. Also Alex's father has died—and since Alex says that his father wrote him a letter on the very day that he died, it's at least implied that Alex's father killed himself.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: Zinaida, The Tease, has all of her men together. She asks Lt. Belovzorov what he would do if he were married. The lieutenant, his face half-framed in shadow, says that he'd tie his wife up at home, and if she was unfaithful he'd kill her. When Zinaida asks what he'd do if he married her, Lt. Belovzorov says he'd kill himself.
  • Feet-First Introduction: Lt. Belovzorov is first introduced with a closeup of his boot heels clicking together, followed by a pan up his body to his face. The lieutenant isn't really that significant to the story, but his appearance is when Alex first finds out that Zinaida has older, more experienced and sophisticated admirers.
  • First Love: How did you guess? Alexander the innocent boy falls into his first adolescent crush with Zinaida, only to learn some hard lessons about human duplicity.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Dialogue between Alex's parents reveals that Zinaida's father was a wealthy man who crapped away his fortune in bad investments. Then he married Zasekina for her Old Money, only to lose all of that too, and then die, leaving Zasekina as a princess who is so broke she barely has enough to eat.
  • Master of the Mixed Message: Zinaida towards Alex, sometimes flirting with him, kissing him at a party, other times holding him at arm's length. In one scene Zinaida spots Alex, who is standing on top of her family's mausoleum, watching her. She spits at him that if he really loved her he should jump. He does, which is incredibly foolish as he looks to be nearly twenty feet high. A horrified Zinaida races over to him as he lies stunned on the ground, apologizes, says that she loves him, and kisses him on the lips. Then, after he kisses her back and touches her breast, she angrily disengages and tells him to leave her alone.
  • Match Cut: A shot of one of the Creepy Crows cawing cuts directly to the stuffed bird that sits atop Princess Zasekina's ridiculous hat.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Zinaida has this reaction when Alex accepts her dare and jumps off the roof of her family mausoleum, which must be nearly twenty feet high.
  • No Name Given: Alexander's parents are never named.
  • One-Eyed Shot: A close-up of Alex's single, staring eye as he watches his father have sex with Zinaida.
  • Setting Update: The Ivan Turgenev novella was published in 1860. The movie moves the setting up to 1915, during World War I when Tsarist Russia was on its deathbed and Red October was right around the corner.
  • The Tease: Zinaida says to the doctor, "I'm a shameless flirt." And she is, juggling a half-dozen suitors, having all of them over for dinner at the same time while she plays coquette and makes suggestive remarks to all of them. It eventually becomes clear that she is trying to coax them into giving her money.

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