Bright Lights Film Journal

Bright Sights: Recent DVDs: Tabu; French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris, 1923-1928

An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases

Tabu, a Story of the South Seas (F. W. Murnau, 1931)

Had F. W. Murnau not died in a car accident in 1931 at the age of 42, there’s no doubt that his filmmaking career would’ve continued far into the sound era, and most likely back in Hollywood. Murnau was no Luddite concerning sound; while he doubted that they were ready for it, he knew what the new technology meant for the future of motion pictures. And despite his bumpy experiences at the Fox studio, where his contract had expired, he was on the verge of signing with Paramount when his rented, chauffeur-driven Packard careened off-road in order to avoid a truck. The independently financed Tabu, his very last film, would open eight days later in New York, on March 18th.

Master of Cinema’s Blu-ray upgrade of Tabu predictably takes the quality of the film’s visuals several notches higher, but the real surprise of this release is the notable improvement in the sonics of the vintage soundtrack, which features the original score by Hugo Riesenfeld. By 1930, when production halted on Tabu, Hollywood was committed to talkies — Murnau’s last picture for Fox, City Girl (1930), had been retrofitted, without his participation, with newly shot talking sequences — but the director’s final film was a silent that, like many pictures in the late twenties, was accompanied by a music track.

As Murnau himself had pointed out, recorded sound for the movies in the late twenties was no match for the technical — and aesthetic — sophistication of the visuals of feature films. On home video, early music soundtracks like Riesenfeld’s have always sounded distant and thin. Most lovers of silent film, I would guess, prefer the retention of the original tracks, but, given the distractions of poor acoustics, I’ve preferred re-recordings to take their place. In addition, I’ve never been a fan of Riesenfeld’s scores, but, more meaningfully, Murnau was a fan, and not only personally selected the composer to underscore Tabu but collaborated with Riesenfeld in the scoring process.

The new high-def transfer of the film makes Riesenfeld’s score sound, if still having nowhere near the clarity or depth of a modern recording, more than just tolerable. Visually, Tabu has always proceeded swiftly, effortlessly, with nary a frame wasted, but now the music not only never gets in the way, it enhances it, as Murnau undoubtedly hoped it would.

Murnau’s tale is a parable of young love, doomed by the rigid demands of a religious tradition that darkens the sexual innocence of a sun-drenched, pre-civilized South Sea paradise. Reri, the young island maiden played by 16-year-old Anne Chevalier,1 is tagged by the tribe’s chief to be the islanders’ one-and-only “sacred virgin,” just as the girl’s hormones get stirred up by the attentions of a strapping pearl diver, Matahi.

The bearer of the news, “the old warrior,” Hitu, intends to take Reri off the island as soon as some ritual dances conclude. Although these festive line dances are gaily erotic in a way that seems odd for the farewell send-off of a sacred virgin, they’re the stage upon which the lovers discover the mutual chemistry that will destroy them. This sequence is no sensitized National Geographic document; with lots of hip shakin’ and with one girl casually baring her breasts, all the beautiful young bodies are feverishly, joyfully, into it. This feeling of spontaneous, gleeful sexed-up teen spirit — especially when Matahi joins Reri on the platform for a spot of dirty, albeit non-touching, dancing — dispels any notion of a dry re-enactment, the only kind of thing Robert Flaherty, Murnau’s erstwhile partner on this project, would have been able to deliver if he’d had control of this sequence2 Riesenfeld provides wonderful support here, a rather authentic-sounding, percussive underscore that ups the excitement of the most openly erotic sequence Murnau ever filmed.

Observing boy and girl at the very moment they fall in love, Hitu can smell the pheromones, and, realizing a tabu is about to be broken, halts the dance, grabs Reri, and escorts her to the outrigger that will take her to her sexless fate. The rest of the film, after Matahi connives to abscond with Reri, forms a brief idyll as the lovers unrealistically attempt a life together on another island. Just by yielding to adolescent lust, they’ve become criminals guilty of a capital crime in the eyes of their society, and Hitu must pursue them relentlessly or face death himself.

In Murnau’s hands, the old, nameless man playing Hitu, without ever changing his dour expression (or perhaps because he never changes it), manages to become an increasingly scary presence. In a scene late in the film, Hitu’s shadow, like Nosferatu’s, appears before Reri like a bad dream; when she looks for the shadow’s source, it’s gone. Like Ellen Hutter as she anticipates the vampire in Murnau’s 1922 film, Reri knows she is helpless; Hitu, bringer of death, is her destiny.

Reri, Hitu, and Matahi are all played by indigenous island people — non-actors — and yet, unlike other early experiments involving native, non-actors (like Flaherty’s), Murnau’s performers are credible and moving. Reri and Matahi are quite convincing when called upon to grin at each other, but in moments of pathos requiring greater thespian chops, the director troubleshoots his actors’ inexperience by using expressive poses that he and his cinematographer for Tabu, Floyd Crosby, place meaningfully in the frame. Murnau labeled this technique “architectural dancing.” When Reri is suddenly in anguish or fear, she runs and buries her face in Matahi’s chest, pictorially projecting star-crossed love. Matahi’s initial despair at losing Reri translates into the actor assuming a moribund pose much like the figure in Hippolyte Flandrin’s 1836 painting Young Male Nude Seated beside the Sea. In his films Murnau’s wide-ranging knowledge of the visual arts is constantly in evidence, yet these applications don’t result in a precious mimicking of this painting or that sculpture but instead are brilliantly contained in a stream of pure modernist filmmaking.

USA/1931/83 min./B&W/Silent, with original recorded underscore/OAR 1.37:1. Released on Blu-ray (Region B, locked) by Masters of Cinema (Eureka) in 2013.

French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris, 1923-1928: The Burning Crucible (Ivan Mosjoukine, 1923), Kean (Alexandre Volkoff, 1923), The Late Mathias Pascal (Marcel L’Herbier, 1925), Gribiche (Jacques Feyder, 1925), The New Gentlemen (Jacques Feyder, 1928)

What links all five films in Flicker Alley’s joyous new collection of silent French cinema is the studio, Films Albatros, founded in 1923 by Russian émigré producers Josef Ermolieff and Noë Bloch. The complex backstory to this highly successful venture, responsible for a remarkable string of varied cinema, begins in Czarist Russia, escapes through Constantinople and lands in France, all of which is expertly summarized in a dense essay by Lenny Borger, included in the release’s booklet.

The films themselves invite you to just dive in, but once you do and then emerge, you thirst for more info about the immense range of talent, both Russian and French, you’ve just experienced. Of all of the personalities in front of and behind the camera in these films, the most imposing and provocative to me is the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine, who deserves to be much better known. His presence in the set’s first three films nearly overwhelms one’s appreciation of the substantial, if more subdued, qualities of the last two.

In 1923’s The Burning Crucible, which he also wrote and directed, Mosjoukine plays a mercurial creature, whose character begins in a phantasmal haze of mannerist cinema before he settles down, for the greater part of the show, as a self-mocking Cary Grant-like figure out of the kind of screwball comedy that’s yet to be invented. Initially, though, it appears he’s merely an erotic fantasy figure dreamed up by a sexually frustrated woman (Nathalie Lissenko) trapped in a marriage of convenience to a rich, much older Parisian (Nicolas Koline). Her dream sequence, which opens the picture in the form of a series of flashed vignettes, is actually more of a nightmare; here Mosjoukine appears as a bizarre array of “types,” such as a beggar, a religious martyr, a sensualist aristocrat, and, more to the point, a detective.

When she’s not having sexually aberrant dreams, the woman, who the film never names, puts on the dog and disappears into Parisian nightlife, leaving her husband wondering to what extent he’s being cuckolded. To get some answers he hires a mysteriously disguised detective, Z, who finally emerges from his outré makeup as the suavely handsome Mosjoukine, the man who’s been energetically playing charades in her dreams. In the midst of his investigations, Z and the woman fall in love, and the fun begins.

As they negotiate each other’s peculiarities, it turns out he loves Paris and she hates it; but then she discovers he likes to goof around and have fun. At the same time, he’s something of a mama’s boy who, when he realizes he’s attained his heart’s desire, regresses to an adolescent, jumping up and down on his mother’s sofa like Tom Cruise did in that appalling Oprah incident. In a flurry of juvenile gesturing, Mosjoukine does everything but fist pump, but, however much this kind of thing made us dislike Cruise even more than we already did, it endears us to the Russian star, who with unnerving skill goes in a flash from cool and urbane hipster to lovable nutcase. Mosjoukine proves himself effortlessly, authentically funny in ways we ordinarily only attribute to the registered immortals of silent film comedy like Chaplin and Keaton.

Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that The Burning Crucible was a flop in its day (Mosjoukine never directed again). Even today it takes a while to catch on that the film is having fun with all the dark, portentous — even Kafkaesque — imagery of its first half before it swerves suddenly into madcap comedy (there’s even a car chase down the Champs-Élysées). But here we may be witnessing a sense of humor that’s specifically post-revolution Russian, a possibility that can be tentatively confirmed by watching the early Soviet-era comedy/thriller serial, Miss Mend (1926) (another Flicker Alley release), which is similarly playful and variegated in tone and, like Mosjoukine’s picture, enormously entertaining.

Then, just as we think we’ve got some grip on Ivan Mosjoukine’s film persona, we wander into the set’s second film, an earnest and very long biopic of the 19th-century English Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean. Entitled simply Kean, the film gives Mosjoukine the kind of straightforward but monumental and dangerously florid part that decades later might have been taken up by Richard Burton or Christopher Plummer (think of Burton as Edwin Booth in Prince of Players (1955) or Plummer in his 1997 impersonation of John Barrymore on Broadway). To project the larger-than-life presence of legendary stage performers, these classically trained actors both had magnificent voices at their disposal. In this silent film Mosjoukine had only his eyes and body.

After the fast-paced high-jinks of The Burning Crucible, the vaunted seriousness and slow pulse of Kean may be off-putting, but the film is an expertly made period piece, and Mosjoukine, who is in nearly every scene, seizes the show and plants the spark of genius in it.

Kean‘s storyline is every bit as Romantic as the theatrical and literary period in which it takes place, the 1830s, which, three years after the death the famous actor in 1833, yielded the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas père, upon which the film is based. The storyline presents a late-career, profligate Kean desperately, seemingly hopelessly, in love with the married Countess of Koefeld (Nathalie Lissenko), who is so far above the actor socially that she’s having an affair with the Prince of Wales (Otto Detlesfen). The Countess, her husband, and the Prince occupy a box in Drury Lane that’s roughly in the same spot as the one held by the Lincolns at Ford Theater. From the boards, Kean is close enough to the box that, while performing Hamlet, he can hurl passionate soliloquies right into her face. During sequences like these, Mosjoukine’s eyes flash with an urgent eroticism, to which the unhappy Countess, fortified behind an icy hauteur, must necessarily yield.

In his downtime, when he’s not packing flowers off to the object of his amour fou, Kean parties down hard. A key set piece of the film takes place in a smoky tavern where the actor binge-drinks himself into performing a delirious jig that escalates, as a motley group of demimonde revelers join in, to a fiercely edited, diabolic intensity that in purely visual terms expresses Kean’s desire to simply burn himself out. The dance scene’s jump cuts — a technique all the rage those days in French cinema — are ably assisted by Robert Israel’s piquant score, which elsewhere, appropriately enough, filches motifs from Richard Strauss’s tone poem A Hero’s Life.

His love for Shakespeare and his dedication to the art of performing aren’t enough; Kean is the perfect image of the actor maudit. The film climaxes with a protracted death scene that gives Violetta’s, in the third act of La Traviata, a run for its money. Having lost everything to scandal and reckless behavior, Kean is dying slowly and with exquisite grace, accompanied in lonely destitution by his faithful manservant/prompter, Salomen (Nicolas Koline), who is tearfully reading Shakespeare to the failing actor when the Countess shows up, ready now to surrender her life to him.

But as Violetta says in that third act, it’s too late. As in a well-staged and well-sung Traviata,there’s nothing maudlin here because it’s carried out with such conviction by the filmmakers and especially by Mosjoukine’s utter believability as a man hollowed out by the demands of popular myth-making and his own unquenchable desires, but who at the end, attended by the two people who love him, finds peace. The film’s final conceit — that the action has all along been taking place on a theater’s stage — brilliantly frames the kind of heightened pathos, from 19th-century literature, music, and dramatic arts, that few want to experience anymore, but when done with this kind of panache, can still pack an emotional wallop.

Mosjoukine’s film from 1925, The Late Mathias Pascal, is the jewel in the set’s crown. Directed by Marcel Herbier and adapted from a novel by Luigi Pirandello, the title role allows the actor to display the full range of his dramatic and comedic virtuosity. Mathias Pascal begins the film as the eccentric, last scion of a now destitute aristocratic Italian family that was clearly once a prominent force in an old medieval town, which, with its spectacular towers, looks suspiciously like San Gimignano in Tuscany. While his widowed mother is busy selling the decaying estate to an unscrupulous businessman, we find Mathias laboring over a mysterious manuscript entitled Histoire de la Liberté. The rather slippery, free-floating idea of achieving freedom — from money, from a bad marriage, and ultimately from identity itself — is the young Mathias’s over-arching obsessive goal.

Romantically waylaid by Romilde, a winsome village maiden (the very pretty, willowy Marcelle Pradot), the guileless Mathias finds himself in a loveless marriage dominated by a nightmarish mother-in-law. A child has been born to the couple, but when the infant suddenly takes sick and dies, Mathias, in a spasm of grief that’s only exacerbated by his complete alienation from Romilde, leaves town and, indifferent to destination, lands in Monte Carlo. Here he finds miraculous luck at the roulette wheel, which provides him with a considerable fortune and illusory independence.

Traveling back to Italy, he learns that a decaying corpse has been identified as his own, and, “suddenly,” a title announces, “a thought strikes Mathias.” Allowing his family to believe the corpse’s false attribution will mean the death of his old self, which will allow him to achieve true freedom — or so he thinks. When he sets down in Rome, a new love appears, and the late Mathias suddenly needs to be a fully functioning, living somebody who can assume responsibilities and forget once and for all youthful follies, like the grand notion of La Liberté.

“Suddenly a thought strikes Mathias” might as well be the motto for the entire film. Mosjoukine’s face, often filmed in close-up, can appear impassive, but his eyes are always quicksilver in expression. The hyper-aware Mathias is constantly processing the events in front of him, and the actor lets us see that process emanating from his eyes, which dart hither and yon with an astonishing array of expressive tics and gestures. These emotive indicators are always perfectly judged in intensity, so as to be read by the camera, not projected at it. In all three films, Mosjoukine’s performances represent the zenith of silent film acting.

Clocking in at nearly three hours, The Late Mathias Pascal is the longest film in the set, but as a comedic character study of epic proportions, it moves at a sprint, showering the narrative with startling little nuggets of wit, many of which are visual tropes, often captured in long shot, as in a spectacular and very funny sequence shot at the Spanish Steps in Rome, where Mathias tries unsuccessfully to stalk a pretty girl without being obvious about it. Some bits are near throwaways but stick in the mind, as when Mathias, discarding his old identity, realizes he must rid his hat of some sewn-on, tell-tale initials, an M and a P. Tearing them off the hat’s inside, he looks around and inserts the two letters stealthily into a slot on a mailbox emblazoned with the word Lettres. You wonder: who is in control of scenes like these, director Herbier or Mosjoukine?

The film appears to be remembered, if at all, by a few fantasy sequences in its second half, which employ superimpositions, slow motion, and some vivid jump cuts, but I found the filmmaking more remarkable for how it places its characters in superbly photographed locations, such as Mathias’s Tuscan hometown, with its serpentine, medieval stone streets and massive shadows cast by monolithic early Renaissance towers. In Rome, we see Mathias and his soon-to-be sweetheart Adrienne melding with sights familiar — the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum — and unfamiliar — like the narrow, crowded, poorer street where Mathias finds room and board and his new love.

Interiors are even more important. The villa in Tuscany and the pension in Rome both feature long hallways with multiple doors, shadows, and mysteries behind them. In Rome, as Adrienne and Mathias navigate their feelings, Herbier uses his long shots to establish their figures spatially in airy, light-filled rooms, managing more deep-focus shots than Welles did in Kane before he moves in for the close-ups featuring the delicate, nuanced flirting between the hero and Adrienne, played by the diminutive actress, Loïs Moran (above), who ably partners with Mosjoukine in her nonverbal, erotic signaling, like Ginger Rogers did dancing with Astaire.

Featuring, like all the films in the set, a recent restoration by the Cinémathèque française, The Late Mathias Pascal looks spectacular, with its original tinting often going past its normal function of signaling day/night or outside/inside to express mental or emotional states.3 The orchestral score by Timothy Brock, which was recorded in 2009 and seems to have marshaled larger forces than usual, is one of the best for a silent film that I’ve ever heard.4 When Mathias enters the casino in Monte Carlo, it’s seething with activity, and Brock adds to the scene’s exhilaration with a rather savage galop, thunderously played by massed strings. The short-phrased, oft-repeated leitmotif for the titular hero is never tiring, and the rest of score is melodically varied and very well orchestrated. Whether Brock is pulling and arranging music from vintage sources or composing it himself (I couldn’t tell), his score is a wonder.

If watched following the bravura heights of the Mosjoukine films, the compact, well-made melodrama Gribiche, from 1925, might underwhelm. Helmed by a master director, Jacques Feyder, the picture must have proved a highly successful weeper in its post-WWI day. The highly capable child star, Jean Forest (right) takes the title role — he’d given a moving performance in Feyder’s preceding film, Les Visages d’enfants (1925) — and is convincing as he can be as a stalwart man-child, who is sensitive and self-sacrificing beyond his tender years.

The boy’s mother (Cécile Guyon) is a war widow who depends far too much on her safe and happy relationship with her frisky, enterprising son. Wherever he goes, it seems Gribiche can’t help but perform good deeds. When Gribiche realizes he’s providing an emotional crutch for his mother in place of a healthy marriage to her good, steady suitor, Phillipe (Rolla Norman), he allows himself to be adopted by a rich, reformist socialite (Françoise Rosay), ostensibly so that he can receive a better education than his working-class mom can afford, but actually so that his absence may provide his mother the emotional space to get on with her life. Gosh, what a good boy he is! Gribiche is solid, out-of-the-box filmmaking, but it operates from a none-too-believable premise, featuring a main character — Forest must carry the film — who is a bit too much of the good scout for us to swallow nowadays.

It’s in the set’s last picture, The New Gentlemen, that Feyder shows his real chops. Feyder, who was also a skilled screenwriter, adapted (along with Charles Spaak) a play, but opened it up considerably, with location work all over Paris. Released in 1928, the film is uncompromisingly cynical, and I mean that in a good way. A vivacious Gaby Morlay plays Suzanne Verrier, a not particularly talented dancer, who becomes the Paris Opera’s prima ballerina only because she’s the kept mistress of a wealthy, conservative minister of the Chamber of Deputies, the Count of Montoire-Grandpré (Henri Roussell), and enjoys her lover’s ability to pull strings.

Vivienne looks to be a good 40 years younger than her patron and bustles about with an excess of, if not talent, youthful high spirits. All the while she snuggles with her sugar daddy, she’s got a wandering eye for good-looking men closer to her own age. Soon enough she makes a connection with a handsome, virile electrician working at the Opera, Jacques Gaillac (Albert Préjean), and becomes smitten when she accompanies him to a tense meeting of unhappy transit workers, who are planning an illegal strike. Jacques, in spite of his lowly position at the Opera, is something of a mover and shaker in the transit workers’ union,5 and when he manages to placate the angry crowd with some inspiring rhetoric, Vivienne finds his dynamic charisma uncontrollably sexy.

An affair begins, the kind of fling that includes a spontaneous dip in the Seine, and the two terrific-looking young people seem made for each other, especially in swimsuits. But then political machinations intervene. With a stroke, the popular union leader is elected into the Chamber of Deputies, which now is held by the liberal majority; Jacques, with his new palatial minister’s office, seems like the winner in love and politics, but the film doesn’t wrap it up there. Turns out, Jacques is woefully inept on the political playing field, and the Count has some tricks up his sleeve.

Poor Vivienne is caught in the middle of two men who care more about winning (the Count) or serving their fellow man (Jacques) than they do about her, and so the world turns. Thirty years later, Billy Wilder played with this kind of bitterness in The Apartment (1960), in which lowly elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) is the kept woman of executive Jeff Sheldrake, (Fred MacMurray), and C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is the office schlub who attempts to rescue her from degradation and despair. Wilder’s world is the hierarchy of suits over wage grunts, a more simplistic dynamic than the larger political one Feyder presents, and, unlike in his Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder goes soft on his satire (romance wins out), whereas Feyder takes his pessimism to the max in New Gentlemen.

Feyder earns his cynicism through high-toned casting and the leavening of the film’s acridity with the sort of sophisticated, Gallic wit that Hollywood rarely, if ever, could muster (if such films exist, the exceptions only prove the rule). As Vivienne, Morlay plays a smart, attractive, fun-loving woman whose qualities are wasted on the men who only think they need her. Albert Préjean, who delivers a breezy, funny, unaffected performance in René Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat (1928),6 is similarly charming here as Jacques, going from dynamic and confident, to befuddled and confused, and, finally, to cluelessly emasculated. Préjean’s got the best role in the picture but not the most sympathetic; that one goes to Gaby Morlay, who I’d like to see more of.

I’m desperate to catch more of Ivan Mosjoukine’s work, too. Mosjoukine’s 1923, 10-episode serial, The House of Mystery, is rumored to be in Flicker Alley’s pipeline. We can only hope.

The Burning Crucible (Le Brasier Ardent): France/1923/110 min./tinted b&w/silent, with newly recorded musical score by Neil Brand; Kean: France/1923/136 min./b&w/silent, with newly recorded musical score by Robert Israel; The Late Mathias Pascal (Le Feu Mathias Pascal): France/1925/171 min./tinted b&w/silent, with a musical score, recorded in 2009, by Timothy Brock; Gribiche: France/1925/112 min./tinted b&w/silent, with newly recorded musical score by Rodney Sauer, performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; The New Gentlemen (Les Nouveaux Messieurs): France/1928/135 min./tinted b&w/silent, with newly recorded musical score by Antonio Coppola, performed by the Octuor de France. Multi-disc set released on DVD by Flicker Alley in 2013.
  1. Murnau’s credits do not yield the actor’s names, and the lovers, as characters, are listed merely as “the girl” and “the boy,” aiming I suppose at the similar universalizing of “the man” and “the wife” in Sunrise (1927). []
  2. Admiring his films, like Nanook of the North (1922), Murnau had purposefully teamed with Flaherty, and the two had conceived the story, but once photography commenced, Flaherty shot reportedly only a couple of the opening sequences before Murnau seized the direction of the rest of the picture and found another, more capable cinematographer, Floyd Crosby. Disgruntled at being marginalized and disapproving of Murnau’s approach to the film as fable, Flaherty sold his rights to Tabu and departed the set. []
  3. Earlier in 2013 Flicker Alley released The Late Mathias Pascal in a stand-alone blu-ray edition, which I haven’t seen. []
  4. I’ve also admired Brock’s score for F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). []
  5. A union that covers electricians and transit workers? I guess organized labor in 1920s France had a different kind of structure than that of the USA? Whatever… []
  6. Also in a DVD edition released by Flicker Alley. []