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Mozhukhin: The Paths of Exile

These are David Robinson’s catalogue notes from the 2003 Giornate del Cinema Muto.
The original version can be found

Astonishingly, this appears to be the first attempt at a broad (though, from pressures of programme time, far from complete) appraisal of one of the unassailable giants of silent cinema. Ivan Mozhukhin’s image as the quintessential, unrepressed romantic hero brought him to dominate the pre revolutionary Russian cinema, and to ensure for it a rich foreign market. As an émigré, in France and Germany, he triumphantly renewed his image and career, at least for a while.

Behind the screen image, though, was an artist of high intelligence, taste, and critical detachment. He scripted some of his own best films, and proved himself an able‹and in the case of Le Brasier ardent (1923), highly innovative‹director. Although Mozhukhin is often associated with the flamboyant gestures and burning, mesmeric eyes of the heroes of Russian "Decadent" melodrama, he was an actor of admirable subtlety, always insisting that cinema needs at once great expressiveness and great restraint. The rapidity with which he is able to shift mood still astonishes, as does the gift identified by his contemporaries as "expression in two tones"‹the ability to show the feelings hidden by the expression of an apparently different emotion (little wonder that Chaplin was one of the actors he most admired). Incidental to these gifts was his skill in make up‹notable in films as different as Otets Sergeii / Father Sergius (1918) and La Maison du Mystère (1922)‹which his contemporaries compared to Lon Chaney.

Ivan Ilich Mozhukhin was born in Penza, central Russia, on 26 September 1889, the third son of Ilya Mozhukhin, a prosperous patrician landowner. His eldest brother, Alexander, was to become a celebrated operatic bass; a second brother, Constantin, was an officer in the Tsarist navy. The three boys were educated in Moscow, where for two years Ivan studied law. During this time however he fell under the spell of the theatre, and returned home to Penza to announce that he wanted to go on the stage. His father protested, and put him back on the train to Moscow. Ivan skipped from the train at the first station, and went to Kiev, where he joined a travelling theatre troupe. After two years’ touring experience, he arrived in Moscow, where he soon achieved celebrity both in the classical and modern repertory.

Mozhukhin was fascinated by the new possibilities of cinema when he saw the Danish films of Waldemar Psilander and Asta Nielsen. As it happened, his first work in cinema was doubling for Psilander in the apocryphal tragic endings concocted by Russian distributors to replace dénouements which were insufficiently lachrymose for the taste of Russian movie-goers.

In 1911 he was recruited to the Khanzhonkov studios, where his first appearances were as Trukhachevski in Piotr Chardynin’s version of Tolstoi’s Kreitserova Sonata / The Kreutzer Sonata, with Chardynin in the leading male role; and as Napoleon III in Vasili Goncharov and Alexander Khanzhonkov’s Oborona Sevastopolya / The Defence of Sebastopol. Chardynin was to remain his most frequent and most productive director at Khanzhonkov: together they made 19 films, ranging from the endearing early comedies, Domik v Kolomne / The Little House at Colomna (1913) and Dyadyushkina Kvartira / Uncle’s Apartment (1913), to the proto-feminist Zhenshchina Zavtrashnego Dnya / A Woman of Tomorrow (1914), classical adaptations like Natasha Rostova / Voina i Mir / War and Peace (1915), realist drama (Petersburgskie Trushchoby / The Lower Depths of St. Petersburg, 1915; Obryv / The Precipice, 1913), and popular sentimental melodrama (Ty Pomnish’ Li? / Do You Remember? and Khrizantemy / Chrysanthemums, both 1914). Wladyslaw Starewicz was obviously fascinated by Mozhukhin’s distinctive persona, and directed him in 4 pictures, including adaptations from Gogol (Strashnaya Mest’ / A Terrible Vengeance; Noch Pered Rozhdestvom / Christmas Eve / The Night Before Christmas, both 1913) and Pushkin (Ruslan i Ludmila / Ruslan and Ludmilla, 1915). Khanzhonkov’s star director from 1914, Yevgeni Bauer, directed him in only 6 films, most notably Zhizn b Smerti / Life in Death (1914).

In April 1915 Mozhukhin left Khanzhonkov for Yermoliev, apparently as a result of some dispute. Unfortunately very little of Mozhukhin’s work at the Yermoliev studios has survived. His principal directors there were Czeslaw Sabinski, with whom he made 12 films, and Yakov Protazanov, who directed him in 20. Sabinski (1885-1941), originally trained as a designer, was mostly responsible for the contemporary melodramas. With Protazanov, Mozhukhin experimented in a much wider range of genres, and the partnership was clearly very fruitful: Mozhukhin was an ideal collaborator and interpreter for Protazanov’s exploration of psychological realism; and both strove for literary adaptation that would go further and deeper than the simple illustrations of the earlier cinema. Mozhukhin’s performances in Protazanov’s Pikovaya Dama / The Queen of Spades (1916) and Otets Sergii / Father Sergius (1918) (neither ever previously seen at the Giornate del Cinema Muto) remain among the finest interpretations in silent cinema.

Following the 1917 Revolution, the Yermoliev troupe followed the Russian cinema’s path of emigration to Yalta and thence via Constantinople to Western Europe. The first release of the émigrés’ newly formed French company, Ermoliev-Cinéma, was L’Angoissante aventure, written by Mozhukhin and directed by Protazanov. This was followed in 1921 by Justice d’abord!, a remake of Protazanov and Mozhukhin’s 1917 success Prokuror / The Prosecutor. The same year, Mozhukhin finally embarked on direction, with L’Enfant du carnaval. Mozhukhin’s final work for Ermoliev-Cinéma before the establishment of Albatros Film was Tempêtes (1922), directed by Robert Boudrioz.

For Albatros, Mozhukhin created his second and most remarkable work as a director, Le Brasier ardent, released in 1923, and, he said, partly inspired by one of the last Russian Protazanov-Mozhukhin films, Satana Likuyushchii / Satan Triumphant (1917). For Albatros, Mozhukhin was directed by Alexander Volkov (Alexandre Volkoff) in the superb serial La Maison du Mystère (1922), in Kean (1923), and in Les Ombres qui passent (1924), written by Mozhukhin and inspired, he said, by Chaplin and Keaton; by Jean Epstein in Le Lion des Mogols (1924); by Marcel L’Herbier in Feu Mathias Pascal (1925); and by Vyacheslav Turzhanski (Victor Tourjansky) in Michel Strogoff. In 1927 he worked again with Volkov on his last and most ambitious French silent picture, Casanova.

Abel Gance wanted him for Napoléon, and made many tests of make-up, costume, wigs, and acting; but in the end, according to his own testimony, Mozhukhin decided that only a Frenchman could or should play the role. He wrote fulsomely to Gance, declaring, "the greatest cinematographer of your land offered the chance of playing the world’s greatest hero, and it is with tormented sorrow that I abandon this dream." Kevin Brownlow however considers that Mozhukhin was reluctant to tie himself up for two years, and so made salary demands which Gance was not willing to meet.

Now at the peak of his world fame, it was inevitable that he should be lured by Hollywood. On 7 December 1926 he embarked for California with a 5-year contract with Universal, and filled with new ambitions and optimism. Universal no doubt saw him as their answer to Warner’s John Barrymore; and chose for him the Valentino-esque leading role in Surrender, an adaptation of Alexander Brody’s play Leah Leon, a Jewish story set in Russia. His co-star was Mary Philbin, and the film was assigned to one of the company’s directors, the English-born Edward Sloman. The reviews were disastrous, and the critics compared Mozhukhin’s looks to the comedian Larry Semon. Universal and Mozhukhin were equally content to abandon the contract; and Mozhukhin returned to Europe to act in some Universal-associated German productions, Gennaro Righelli’s Der Präsident (1928) ) and Der geheime Kurier (from Stendahl’s The Red and the Black; also 1928) and Vladimir Strizhevsky’s Der Adjutant des Zaren (1929). His last silent films though were a noble swan-song. Both had Russian directors: Turzhanski (Tourjansky) for Manolescu (1929), and Volkov for Der Weisse Teufel (1930).

Mozhukhin approached sound films bravely, and his first, Strizhevsky’s Sergeant X (1931), a French production with a German cast in which he played a Legionnaire, was passable. But roles for an actor with a heavy and ineradicable (and, it was sometimes said, unintelligible) Russian accent were clearly limited, whether in German or French films. Back in France, there were to be three more leading roles‹in Volkov’s La Mille et deuxième nuit (1933), René Barberis’s sad Les Amours de Casanova (1933), and Volkov’s 1934 remake of L’Enfant du carnaval‹but then a final, demeaning supporting role in a film ironically titled Nitchevo (1936), directed by Jacques de Baroncelli.

Mozhukhin’s last years were not fortunate. In better days he had been a flamboyant host and big spender: now he seems to have depended on the financial support of his brother Alexander, also living in Paris. He had parted from Natalia (Nathalie) Lissenko‹his companion and co-star both before and after emigration‹and various affairs (most famously, if briefly, with Kiki de Montparnasse) and an apparent marriage seemed not to assuage his alcoholic solitude. He died from tuberculosis on 18 January 1939, in a hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine, at the age of 49. He was buried in a poor grave marked only by a wooden cross. By chance, it was close to the grave of the father of Charles Vanel, who had appeared with Mozhukhin in La Maison du mystère and Tempêtes. After World War II Vanel started a subscription through a French trade journal to pay for a more worthy memorial. However, the Russian community, led by Serge Lifar and Alexander Mosjoukine, raised another subscription, to have Mozhukhin’s remains transferred to the cemetery of Sainte Geneviève-des-Bois. "Thus," comments Lenny Borger, who supplies this information on Mozhukhin’s posthumous peregrinations, "his exile continued even in death."

Kean (1923), with all its longueurs, is indispensable to the understanding of Mozhukhin. He had originally played the title role in Dumas’ play Kean, ou le Désordre et Génie (1836) on stage, and had made it his own, long before it was adapted for the film. Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) had the opportunity to see both Edmund Kean himself on stage and Frédérick Lemaître in the Dumas play; and marvelled at the affinity of the two actors in their ability "through certain sudden movements, through the sound of a strange voice, and a look that is stranger still, to make visible, not the common sentiments of every day, but all that is strange, bizarre and mysterious contained in the heart of a man". Heine would undoubtedly have found the same quality in Mozhukhin, and elevated him to complete the triumvirate of giants of romantic acting.