Audrey Kupferberg: Russian Emigres In Paris and Wagner & Me
Two new DVD releases make for worthwhile viewing. The first is a packaged set of five incredible silent films from Flicker Alley. It’s called FRENCH MASTERWORKS: RUSSIAN EMIGRES IN PARIS 1923-1929, and features 5 films on 5 discs. THE BURNING CRUCIBLE and THE LATE MATHIAS PASCAL are genuine masterpieces featuring one of the cinema’s most talented but forgotten stars, Ivan Mosjoukine.
Mosjoukine was a popular film star of Czarist Russia who fled his homeland a year or so after the Communists rose to power. He landed in Paris, along with many other emigres from Russian cinema, and made several brilliant films which gave him the status of international star. In 1922 and 1923, he wrote, directed, and starred in THE BURNING CRUCIBLE. This is a film that has been practically unknown in the United States, and it is an important rediscovery for art film enthusiasts everywhere. Mosjoukine gives us an urbane, witty, and sometimes avant-garde piece. It’s a comedy-drama about a rich, aging husband whose young wife is more drawn to living in the exciting world of 1920s Paris than moving to South America with him. To keep her love, he hires an eccentric psychologist/detective to help him.
In 1926, Mosjoukine starred in THE LATE MATHIAS PASCAL, a 3-hour epic drama based on a novel by Pirandello and focusing on a man torn apart by tragedy. Mosjoukine also stars in a third film in the set-- a drama called KEAN about the 19th-century stage actor Edmund Kean. This production constitutes the peak of Mosjoukine’s career and also is considered one of the most exciting examples of fast-paced cutting in French cinema of the period.
What makes Mosjoukine a fine silent film actor is his face. It is one of the most expressive faces in film history—not a conventionally handsome face but more on the order of William Powell. Mosjoukine became so highly regarded that Hollywood came calling in 1927. There, he agreed to a nose job to make him look more like a Hollywood leading man. The plastic surgery was less than a success, and then, with the coming of sound, his career faded.
Another recent release is WAGNER & ME, a 2010 British documentary from First Run Features. Here, renowned British intellectual and wit Stephen Fry reveals very personal views of culture and history by taking his audience to Bayreuth and Nuremburg to ponder whether a Jew should love the music of anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner. In the mid-19th century, Wagner, a highly political man in his time, actually published an anti-Semitic article. From 1923 through World War II, Wagner’s descendants embraced Hitler-- and Hitler, of course, took great inspiration from Wagner’s operas. So, as a Jew who lost family members in the Holocaust, Fry grapples with a decision to accept the music as a separate entity from its creator, or forego his fawning devotion to Wagner’s music. It’s a tough decision, and frankly Fry’s fawning fandom is “pathetic,” to quote Fry’s own judgment of himself.
I recently told someone that I would watch Stephen Fry even if he were just reading the phone book. I know now that I was wrong. This is an intelligent and interesting documentary but it proves that even the finest talents can appear sophomoric at times.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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