The Erased Auteur: Rediscovering Fedor Ozep

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The Erased Auteur: Rediscovering Fedor Ozep

PostMon Oct 18, 2010 6:59 am

The Erased Auteur: Rediscovering Fedor Ozep

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"Occasionally over the years, various film-culture quangocrats condescend to pick my brains for free ideas (an article, a booklet, a programme season...). My first suggestion, quick as a flash and regular as clockwork, is always: ‘Fedor Ozep.’ Their eyes go vague, and rather than risk getting clobbered with some second rogue idea, they favour me with detailed accounts of their plans to discover such underappreciated figures as Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Curtiz, Roger Corman..." —Raymond Durgnat, (Film Dope 49), 1992

1: Miss Mend's Missing Man

A project that badly needs to be undertaken is the job of disentangling film history from the Soviet influence that so shaped and distorted it. This is not to suggest an actual Soviet conspiracy here, commies under film history's bed infiltrating the movies with propaganda. The influence of actual Marxist content in that era was fairly minor, all told— the odd bit of collectivist feel-goodism, like in Vidor's Our Daily Bread. But a particular branch of Soviet film got an exalted reputation because left-leaning critics in the West bought into one side of an internal rivalry half a world away— and the result was that other filmmakers were swept out of the narrative of film history to this day.

The mechanism by which this happened is obvious enough. The Soviet system, in the heady days after the fall of the Tsarist regime, was widely assumed by intellectuals to be the inevitable direction of history (as with most religions, largely because it said so itself). Some Soviet film theorists and filmmakers, such as Sergei Eisenstein, constructed elaborate theoretical edifices to demonstrate that their films were built on the same Hegelian principles as Marxism-Leninism. And so if the Soviet system is the one true way history is going, then Eisensteinian ways of making movies must be the one true way film history is going, too.

The problem is less that this inflates the reputation of canny self-promoters (such as Eisenstein, certainly a technical master of enormous influence, but narrow and somewhat soulless as an artist), but that other filmmakers are ignored, their innovations and unique virtues actually dismissed as flaws because they don't match history's one right answer. The vigorous Russian cinema that existed before the revolution (and in France after it) was completely ignored, and so were Soviet-era filmmakers who fell outside a narrow doctrinal zone. A revelation for me about Soviet film was the screening of two Boris Barnet silent comedies at the Telluride Film Festival in 1986. Compared to the didactic canonical classics, here were Soviet films which burst with life and humor and lighthearted filmmaking panache— which seemed to have real people, not ideology, behind them. Yet they came from someone I had never even heard of until that day.

What we know now is that someone like Barnet, who made films contrary to the theoretical and doctrinal official line, lived a nervous life, sometimes protected by his films’ popularity with audiences, but always under a vague cloud of disfavor for failing to underline his ideological points strongly enough or even, it was suspected, subverting them— as in his weird, melancholy early talkie comedy Outskirts, as close to a plea to be let alone by the new Soviet state as you can imagine anyone daring to make.

And then there's one of Barnet's early colleagues, Fyodor Otsep/Fedor Ozep*, who, after contributing to several of the most notable films of the 1920s as a writer, director and performer, defected to Germany during the making of The Living Corpse, and became, as far as film history was concerned, a non-person, systematically written out and obliterated— ironically, the exact film history equivalent of that film’s protagonist.

* * *

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"The Three Schools of Cinematography: 1. Movements: the American School; 2. Forms: the European School; 3. The Psychological: the Russian School." —Fyodor Otsep, Kinematograf [Plan For a Book], 1913

This is an attempt to map out the shape of a forgotten but once celebrated career. Almost completely unknown in America, even though he died here, Ozep has a little more of a reputation in Europe and, oddly enough, Canada, thanks to the fact that he made his last film, or rather two (in French and English with separate casts), in Quebec. Though you wouldn’t call the scholarship on him bountiful, there is at least enough in English** that we can get a sense of his career and the importance he once had. And with help I’ve managed to see four of his films, from distinct phases of his career. It's admittedly less an exercise in actual research (my Russian is a little rusty) than a personal journey into the mists of obscurity to see what we've been missing, and whether there's something there we need to make some effort to finding again.

There was a time when Ozep was quite a celebrated figure: he was described as the first notable writer about film in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and his early screenwriting credits are almost all films that are still vaguely recognizable today: Protazanov’s The Queen of Spades and Polikushka (from Tolstoy, with the Moscow Art Theatre star Ivan Moskvin), Aelita, The Cigarette Girl from Mosselprom and— or so he claimed— Pudovkin’s Mother. That credit is disputed but certainly not implausible, since he was the dramaturge (which I take to mean, Head of the Story Department) for the film collective Mezhrabpomfilm-Rus, which had strong ties to the Moscow Art Theatre and whose other leading figures included Pudovkin and Barnet.

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Ivan Moskvin in Polikushka.

It is probably foolhardy to try to divine the intricacies of studio politics in a world as far away as 1920s Russia, but here goes anyway. One key difference between Mezhrabpomfilm-Rus's filmmakers and those working elsewhere in the Soviet system in the 1920s seems to be that where others— Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Vertov— often had largely come up in the Soviet system, and owed their careers and prominence to it, Mezhrabpomfilm-Rus and its filmmakers had had pre-revolutionary careers in the commercial film industry, and were rooted in Russia's pre-revolutionary artistic heritage— by their alliance with the Moscow Art Theatre, and by their devotion to classic Russian literature as subject matter. As a result, except for Pudovkin— who had studied with Kuleshov before joining Mezhrabpomfilm-Rus— they seem not to have been particularly attracted to the new Soviet artistic doctrine of montage.

Indeed, Ozep from an extremely early point— 1913, in notes for a book on film theory he'd never write— had argued for an entirely different intrinsically Russian form of cinema, which a modern historian, Yuri Tsivian, summarized as:

...we need psychology for our films to be recognized as Russian; for what, if not 'psychology,' had brought recognition to the Russian novel; and was it not 'psychology' which marked Chekhov's drama and Moscow Art Theatre acting as unique?


("New Notes on Russian Film Culture Between 1908 and 1919," in The Silent Cinema Reader, 2004)

It would be difficult to stake out a position further from the collectivist, the-masses-are-the-main-character orientation of subsequent Soviet film— and, indeed, the editing speed and vigor of Soviet film was probably a reaction to this earlier conception of Russian film, which could drag out meaningful stares interminably. (Kevin Brownlow, apparently not entirely critically, described pre-revolutionary Russian cinema as having "only two speeds, 'slow' and 'stop.'")

But in the 1920s, Mezhrabpomfilm-Rus's filmmakers had two huge advantages within the Soviet film industry. One was that they could actually get films made, at a time when Kuleshov et al. were practicing editing on old prints of Ivan Mosjoukine pictures. Their pre-revolution business contacts in Germany enabled them to get just enough stock past the embargo to shoot Polikushka in 1919— though they'd have to wait until 1922 for the stock to make prints. (As it was, the film had a shooting-to-final-film ratio bordering on Andy Milligan levels, of well under 2:1.) The other was that their films tended to be popular with audiences, both at home and, even more crucially, in the West, where they could earn desperately-needed hard currency.

Both of these advantages were vulnerable to being spun as not Soviet enough, however, which is precisely what happened. Popularity, at home or even worse abroad, could be depicted as bourgeois, decadent; lack of a specifically Soviet aesthetic could be painted as insufficiently revolutionary. Certainly there was resentment from doctrinaire Bolsheviks of the enormous popularity of Ozep's directorial debut (with Barnet), and the one film of his which has recently been widely available and seen: Miss Mend.

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Fun, exciting and with a free filmmaking elan that David Thomson compares to early French new wave films, it strongly suggests that neither ideology nor montage theory was particularly important to Ozep’s style, and when it doesn’t feel like Barnet’s own breezy, quirky comedies, what it feels like is much more German than Russian. The handling of the villain Chiche is obviously inspired by characters such as Mabuse and Count Orlok in German films, and the atmosphere in general is created by well-framed shots and extended thriller sequences more than bursts of showy editing. All of which occasioned griping about a picture that was too conventionally entertaining, too western... too much fun to be proper Soviet spinach.

* * *

The latter is, in fact, somewhat ironic given that Ozep's overall career would show a considerable bent toward weighty, literary subjects, probably to his career's detriment in Hollywood, at least. Certainly how he and Barnet followed Miss Mend up says all you need to know about each of them. They each made a movie with a new starlet named Anna Sten: Barnet’s was the comedy The Girl With a Hatbox (one of the pair I saw at Telluride), while Ozep’s was a Zolaesque drama called Zemlya v plenu, or Earth in Chains, in the USSR and The Yellow Ticket (or Pass, or Passport) in the West. (A “yellow ticket” was an identity card issued to prostitutes in Tsarist Russia; that everyone would have known that back then is evidenced by the fact that Hollywood recycled the title in 1931 for Elissa Landi.)


Anna Sten as a farm girl lured into prostitution in the city in Earth in Chains/The Yellow Ticket (1927)

Forgotten today, The Yellow Ticket apparently made as much of an impression as, say, The Battleship Potemkin did when it was screened in the West; Raymond Durgnat says that it was one of the first Soviet films to reach the West at all, and it was considered important enough that when it apparently divided Variety’s reviewers, they ran two separate reviews to ensure that both viewpoints (that it was important art and that it was pretentious crap) were covered.

But Durgnat also suggests that The Yellow Ticket, despite its implicit anti-Tsarist tenor, had even more problems with the burgeoning official Bolshevik position on cinema, saying it “typifies the ‘traditional,’ mostly non-montage, drama which the narrower-minded Bolshevik modernists regarded as their enemy.” This may in fact have been a worse sin for Ozep than popular success— it’s one thing to make a non-ideological comic trifle, but to make a seriously acclaimed, seriously Russian drama which acted as if it were still Tolstoy's time and the revolution had done nothing to advance the arts was a more direct affront to those for whom Soviet montage theory was a fresh start, a Year Zero in film history.

Perhaps for that reason, his next film, Zhivoy trup/The Living Corpse, would experiment with moments of didactic montage which could have come straight from Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia. Actually Pudovkin (who plays the lead role in the film) is credited on the version I saw with having done the editing as well, and though this is apparently open to question, you won’t doubt it if you see the film— it not only looks like Pudovkin’s work, it looks like little bits of Pudovkin’s work shoehorned into a film where they don’t really match anything else. Whatever the motivation for this— and Ozep does seem to have been intrigued by the possibilities of Soviet-style montage, as he carried on with it into the sound era in other countries— it too would prove a weapon in rivals' hands, as it made him appear a mere follower rather than an artist taking the techniques of his contemporaries in his own, unique direction.

Tomorrow: How To Become a Living Corpse

* I use the Germanicized form throughout because it’s the easiest by which to find information about him elsewhere.

** The most comprehensive source in English for information on Ozep is a 1989 article in Griffithiana 35/36 by one David Godin, an interesting character in his own right who, like Ozep, tended to turn up next to famous people at key moments. It has a great deal of information on the internal politics and business dealings of Soviet filmmaking in the 1920s and 1930s. The problem comes in the next issue of Griffithiana, when D.J. Turner of Canada's film archive and George Freedland, who was Ozep's assistant on nearly all of his sound work, write in vigorously disputing many of Godin's assertions. So note that some of the above is drawn, warily, from Godin and has to be regarded as provisionally true.

Thanks to Roger Skarsten, Arndt Pawelczik and J.B. Kaufman for assistance with tracking down materials for this essay.
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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PostTue Oct 19, 2010 6:06 am

2: How Ozep Became a Living Corpse



Tolstoy’s The Living Corpse, once a very popular play (John Barrymore did it on Broadway), starts with what could be the premise of a legal expose— the main character, Protassow (played by Ozep's fellow director V.I. Pudovkin), wants to divorce his wife so she’s free to marry her aristocratic lover, but both church and civil divorce law conspire to make this simple matter between adults illogically difficult.

But what it’s really about is moral alienation; throughout the story, legal solutions to the dilemma present themselves, but Protassow finds them all so degrading, hypocritical, alien to his sense of decency that he just can’t go along with the “sensible” thing to do in a corrupt society. In many ways it reminded me of the Coen Brothers’ latest (and outstanding) film, A Serious Man, likewise driven by a wife’s desire to divorce and marry her lover— Protassow is trying to be a serious man, an ethical and responsible man, but people keep turning up in front of him saying “Here’s the sensible thing to do,” which invariably really means, “Here’s the sleazy thing it would be really, really convenient for me if you would corrupt yourself by doing.”

The most Pudovkin-esque bits are some sequences which recurring throughout the film in which a gold statue of an eagle or some such— I assume a symbol of the Tsarist regime— is rapidly cut with other things to make some political point about the Bad Old Days that, frankly, I’m not up enough on Tsarist symbolism to get. But these little inserts of classic Soviet-style montage are very much unlike the rest of the film, whose style mirrors the bipolar mentality of its main character.

When he’s dark and moody, the film is too— capturing a sick bourgeois society with a mordant eye for grotesqueries. When Protassow goes to a tavern, the first thing he sees is a sailor getting drunk while his child begs him to come home. And the three pimps who offer to help him by setting up a scene of adultery to facilitate the divorce are gargoyles straight out of George Grosz, particularly one with what looks like a double-wide set of teeth. The sinister politesse with which they try to transact their business is the equal of anything in Pabst or Lang for moral rot— and equally Weimar-Germanic in feel.

But when he gets a taste of freedom from his intolerable situation— as when he visits a gypsy dance club— the style goes manic in a manner that looks much less like his fellow Bolsheviks, and far more like that of his old White Russian colleagues like Alexander Volkoff and V.I. Tourjansky, who were by then working in France. The rapid cutting suggests Volkoff’s Kean or Gance’s Napoleon (on which both Volkoff and Tourjansky assisted), while the handheld camerawork suggesting exhilaration or agitation in several sequences reminds one not only of Napoleon but of Dmitri Kirsanoff’s Menilmontant.

To have made a film of such psychological acuity, in which the drama comes from inner states rather than outward events of the plot, was rare enough in the silent days, though others (notably Stiller and Pabst) certainly did it. But it is hard to think of another film in which those inner states are melded so completely with the style of the film, and in such a varied and visually innovative fashion. It's one of those late silents that leave you marveling at the medium as it existed— at its end.

* * *

But there’s another side to the film which I didn’t really put my finger on until I was reading a Canadian essay on Ozep and there was a stray mention (going back to the British film writer Tom Milne) of the French director Robert Bresson as having been influenced by Ozep. Of course! Suddenly much became clear; looking at Pudovkin’s long, melancholy face you literally see many of Bresson’s protagonists— the dying priest in Diary of a Country Priest, the self-loathing Pickpocket— and looking at Bresson’s reading list you see that he filmed Tolstoy and Dostoevsky just like Ozep did.

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Ozep's living corpse...

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...and Bresson's pickpocket and country priest

Bresson is the least ideological of filmmakers— politics is mere trivia when the only salient fact about the world is that it’s fallen— and conversely one of the most committed to an examination of individual psychology. The archetypal Bresson protagonist is someone whose Christlike suffering goes completely unnoticed by a busy world obsessed by the venal and everyday; nearly all of his films are about what The Living Corpse is about, the individual at profound moral and emotional alienation from the society around him. Ozep and Pudovkin’s Protassow is the model for Bresson’s haunted men, just as Pabst’s Lulu is the ursprung for all his deer-eyed, sad and uncomprehending young women. (When Protassow expresses deep fellow-feeling for a beaten horse, you start to wonder if you've even found the inspiration for another of Bresson's protagonists, the donkey Balthasar.)

And if Ozep is the missing link between Bresson and the filmmakers of the 1920s driven by psychology more than plot or editing style— Pabst, Murnau, Stiller, Sjostrom— then that’s a sign of how Ozep’s focus on the psychology of the individual rather than the struggle of the classes was bound to keep him out of the favored mainstream of Bolshevist film— a fact which surely influenced his next career move.

The Bolshevist response to Ozep's embrace of Soviet montage can be seen in the only reference Eisenstein makes in his writings to his rival, in A Dialectic Approach to Film Form, (1929). He subtly denigrates Ozep by linking him to what he considers one of his own less successful attempts at making a point via montage in October:

Such a means [of montage] may decay pathologically if the essential viewpoint-emotional dynamization of the subject-is lost. As soon as the filmmaker loses sight of this essence the means ossifies into lifeless literary symbolism and stylistic mannerism. The sugary chants of compromise by the Mensheviki at the Second Congress of the Soviets-during the storming of the Winter Palace-are intercut [in October] with hands playing harps. This was a purely literary parallelism that by no means dynamized the subject matter. Similarly in Ozep's Living Corpse, church spires (in imitation of those in October) and lyrical landscapes are intercut with the courtroom speeches of the prosecutor and the defence lawyer. The error was the same as in the "harp" sequence.


Setting aside Eisenstein's point (which is a good one; montage works better if it grows out of the scene's visuals than if it has the arbitrary symbolism of an editorial cartoon), in Eisenstein's formulation, Ozep is a second-tier follower of his own work, equal to himself on a bad day; and his links to Russia's literary past are ossified and out of date. That Ozep might have some other artistic direction of his own to follow is not even considered— since, of course, in Eisenstein's view there is no other artistic direction for the cinema.

For me, quite the opposite is true; in The Living Corpse Ozep unites the introspection of pre-revolutionary Russian cinema with the energy of Soviet film to produce a film of psychological depth and cinematic vigor that ranks among the best Soviet films— if one counts it as a Soviet film, that is.

The Living Corpse was in fact a German-Russian co-production, shot in Germany; the first, and one of relatively few, since its director and his favorite female star soon defected to the West as the entire venture collapsed. David Godin tells an elaborate, and who knows how reliable, tale of financial malfeasance on the part of the film's producer, and Ozep being in an awkward spot as a result, and so on. But really, the decision for him was obvious enough: given a choice between a Russia where Eisenstein's ideology was ascendant (and Ozep would forever play catch-up) and a Germany whose Expressionism and pre-Soviet literary culture he obviously felt deeply in sympathy with, Ozep had every artistic and personal reason to pursue a commercial career in Berlin.

The decision may well have been a lifesaver, given the next decade in the USSR, and at first it seemed one that was rewarded with success. But it was also a fateful one which would leave him running one step ahead of history for most of the next two decades. Worse yet, it would create the pretext for historians to undo the reputation he had built to date, leaving him, by the end of his life, a man without official existence. Before that, however, Ozep would achieve his greatest international success, and make the film that, though it would soon be forgotten, would influence in turn another of the mid-century's most influential directors.

Tomorrow: Toward a Fusion of Sound and Image
Last edited by Mike Gebert on Wed Oct 20, 2010 8:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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PostTue Oct 19, 2010 6:48 am

Calling Bresson non-ideological in the face of his commitment to 'types' and non-actors strikes me as odd. I realize you're speaking of political ideologies, but isn't the film-maker's ideology that he should make movies?

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PostTue Oct 19, 2010 7:33 am

Sure, I guess, but the point is, he was about as far as you could get from identifying with conventional leftism (or any other point on the spectrum) of the time, at least in his work, and thus would seem to have responded to something in The Living Corpse that he wouldn't have in just about any other Soviet film— especially not for the conventional reasons.
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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PostTue Oct 19, 2010 12:04 pm

Terrific read. Blogged it, and am looking forward to the next installment. THX!
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PostWed Oct 20, 2010 7:39 am

Thanks, Raymond. I appreciate the kind words. Now on to...

3: The Secret Influence of Karamasoff

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Ozep's first sound film— Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff, or any variation of that title or Dostoevsky's original which you can imagine— is, well, an early talkie, and it can be hard to see it with the eyes that hailed it as a masterwork in 1931. (It was actually made in both German and French versions, but the former is the one everyone pays attention to.) There are dead airless stretches, and stripping the sprawling novel down to its most melodramatic basics— Dimitri Karamazov goes head over heels for the courtesan Grushenka and apparently murders his father— it not only jettisons most of the novel but will seem like a tale of baffling grotesques to those unfamiliar with Dostoevsky's grander purposes. Fritz Kortner, a great and dynamic stage actor of the time, may look brutishly handsome as Dimitri, but his early talkie overenunciation can be nasal and sing-song, almost childlike at times (though I don't necessarily agree with the comment often made on this film, that it's the collision of Kortner's Expressionist acting style with Ozep's Soviet visuals; having seen him play a bugeyed Germanic Ali Baba in the 1934 British Chu Chin Chow, he seems quite naturalistic for himself, here). Anna Sten, as Grushenka, is more successful at smoldering in a Dietrich-like manner, but the electricity between the two of them varies considerably in voltage, created more by the decadent atmosphere around them than by the actors themselves.

Having stipulated all its faults, your honor, we wish to now turn to its defense. Karamasoff is one of the most fascinating and innovative of all early sound films, one that deserves to be discussed with the likes of Applause and Hallelujah! for its attempt to create a new sound film aesthetic in which the soundtrack and the visuals work together for a synesthetic emotional effect. As awkward as it often is, Karamasoff is alive with the new possibilities of the medium, restless in its determination not to fall into the filmed-stage-play style of talking pictures but to maintain a silent-movie-level of visual dynamism through long takes, in-your-face framing, and silent-style rapid cutting, combined with a soundtrack which uses both music and effects to convey the emotional states of its main characters.

The most famous sequence in this film, inevitably discussed on the rare occasions when it comes up, comes right after the murder of old Karamasoff; we believe at that point that Dimitri has committed the crime, and he flees the house in a carriage with what we take to be the manic energy of a murderer, in a rapidly-edited sequence that feels, with its atonal modern music, as if it came from an avant-garde film of the 1950s. But for me, just as impressive is the part that follows, in which Dimitri, flush with stolen cash, enters a house of undefined pleasures looking for Grushenka. Shot in one take, the scene plays out almost dreamlike, different forms of music and noise fading in and out as he prowls the building room by room, searching for pleasures to ward off the moment of reckoning:



Judging purely by the rest of sound's first decade, of course, you'd have to say that Ozep lost the battle to invent a new form fusing sound and visuals; sound did become mere audio recording during that decade, with music (glorious as it is in the hands of Korngold, Steiner, et al.) serving to underscore and smooth transitions in a fairly conventional manner. But as with Bresson and The Living Corpse, I suspect that Karamasoff came along at just the right moment to make an impression on one of the major filmmakers of the talkie era— and where Bresson's influence is limited to a fairly small arthouse circle, this one would become one of the main influences on the "film school generation" and a patron saint of almost everyone seeking personal expression through a camera.

Did Orson Welles ever see Karamasoff? I've found no record to indicate that he did as such— but it would have been released just at the time he was soaking up many another German Expressionist influence. The wildly moving camera, the unconventional framing, and the use of music to create an overall mood more than merely underline dramatic moments in Karamasoff all suggest Welles' work, most notably the way he often uses loud, boisterous sound for ironic contrast in a dark scene, such as in the dancing girls sequence in Citizen Kane, where he and Cotten seem to recognize their growing distance over the can-can, or the weirdly manic courtroom scene in The Lady from Shanghai. Ozep doesn't go that far, but he recognizes, quite early for the sound film, how powerful that contrast between a boisterous soundtrack and the emotions of a main character can be, and pulls off one entire scene set only to the music of manic laughter that is quite striking.

One film of Welles' in particular suggests a connection between Karamasoff and himself. The first time I saw Kortner's Dimitri, I couldn't help but be reminded of one of Welles' characters, the Nazi in The Stranger:

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Big deal, so you've got two guys with broad faces and mustaches, you say. No reason to think Ozep influenced Welles any more than, say, Fritz Lang, or Joe May. Well, consider this: the real name of Welles' Nazi is Franz Kandler. Franz Kandler, Fritz Kortner? Okay, maybe that's fanciful too. But there's one rather more solid connection: the story for The Stranger was written by a refugee in Hollywood named Victor Trivas. Who 15 years earlier had been the screenwriter of... Fedor Ozep's Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff.*

In fact we don't have to spin such webs to establish the influence that Karamasoff had on Welles' work. Even if Welles himself never saw the film himself (unlikely, but let it go), it had a profound impact on one of his most important collaborators, and one of the most influential Hollywood figures within his specific artistic field.

In 1973 Bernard Herrmann gave a lecture on music in film at Eastman College, and turned to the subject of the earliest days of music in talkies. Actually, he begins with the problem going back to the Greeks of combining music and dialogue in theater‚ that one drowns out the other, then turns to film:

Nobody attempted to write music for silent films. They simply played existing music, good or bad. And when early sound came in, they could only draw upon what had been commercially viable in the past in the theatre. This was the situation until a film called "The Brothers Karamazov" was made by the Soviet director Fedor Ozep working in Germany in 1931. The film starred Fritz Kortner and Anna Sten. Ozep employed a composer by the name of Karol Rathaus who did the score. This, to me, was the first great realization of the dream of melodram. Rathaus, who remains relatively unknown, was to become a refugee in New York and to teach at Queen's College. Nobody gave him an opportunity to write any further films.** But the music of "The Brothers Karamazov" is one of the most imaginative achievements in sound films.

What did Rathaus do? He treated for the first time the music of a film as an integral part of the whole, not as decoration. Because the film deals with one of the Karamazovs falling in love with a prominent harlot and visiting her in her establishment wherein a gypsy orchestra plays, the music of the picture begins with a gypsy orchestra simply playing Russian gypsy music. But as the picture progresses and the brother becomes more and more involved with the harlot, the music stops being ornamental and becomes an emotional mirror of him. It becomes more and more tragic and more and more hysterical. It reaches its greatest moment, I think, when the brother hysterically drives a troika through a raging blizzard accompanied musically by a great battery of percussion instruments. Remember: this was done way back in the early 1930s! It is one of the great genuine achievements of using music for the first time as an integral emotional accompaniment— not as decoration, and not to achieve the sale of phonograph records!


Two of Herrmann's happiest directorial relationships were with Orson Welles (on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) and William Dieterle (on The Devil and Daniel Webster)— his first three film scores, in fact. And as proof of the fact that Karamasoff deeply influenced Herrmann's synesthetic approach to using music in a film, and that he communicated this powerfully to the directors he worked with, one only has to look at the fact that two of those three films manage to work in... a sleigh ride sequence for him to score. Here is where Herrmann took the lessons he got from Ozep and Rathaus in The Magnificent Ambersons, which comes as close as anything in film history to a perfect fusion of visuals and music into a kind of cinematic musical performance:



It may be harder to see and hear the influence in, say, Herrmann's scores for Hitchcock's films, though something like the Psycho strings surely come from that same willingness to score films so unconventionally, using actual instruments as noisemakers to push the boundaries of what sounds like music. But squint a little aurally, and I think you can hear it in one of Herrmann's very last scores. At the time of that lecture, he surely would never have guessed that in just a couple of years, he would be scoring scenes about a murderer "falling in love with a prominent harlot and visiting her in her establishment," where the percussive, atonal score (blended with a touch of delusional romanticism) "stops being ornamental and becomes an emotional mirror of him. It becomes more and more tragic and more and more hysterical":



Then I could point out where Scorsese got the idea of ending a movie with a series of slow tracking shots separated by dissolves, and who scored that, but we'd be here all day.

* Trivas was himself a director who had an international success with the pacifist WWI drama Niemandsland (1931), and would merit rediscovery himself.

** Actually, he worked on about a dozen films in Europe in the 1930s, including most of Ozep's subsequent films, and after fleeing the Nazis wrote stock music for Hollywood which turns up in an amusing range of B movies, according to the IMDB. His later career was largely spent teaching in New York rather than composing.


Tomorrow: A Refugee in Casablanca
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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PostWed Oct 20, 2010 8:06 am

I think you're stretching here and at least partially falling into the trap of film history as historical narrative, as if you're Claude Lelouch doing TOUTE UNE VIE. I don't think anyone seriously makes a movie to fill in the narrative of film history. People make a movie, this one at hand, and if there is a discernible narrative, it's a matter of "Looking at such and such I realized this could work, so I used it. And I added something else and it seems to have worked."

Of course, this reflects my basic philosophic view, so maybe this is overpoliticizing the matter.

But please, continue.


Bob
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PostWed Oct 20, 2010 8:23 am

Yeah, I understand what you're saying. I guess then I would draw the distinction between Herrmann and Welles. Herrmann said he was influenced profoundly by Ozep and Rathaus on Karamasoff and I think you can see examples of how that influence played out throughout his career, in that he scores things differently from how other people would approach them-- imagine Rosza or Bernstein doing the Psycho shower scene, say. It would have been as dramatic-- but it wouldn't have involved strings shrieking like seagulls and barely sounding like strings at all.

Welles-- well, there's no question he had his German Expressionist influence. There are direct lifts from Caligari in the Lady From Shanghai funhouse sequence, little nods to what he grew up on. I don't think it's far-fetched that Kortner and Karamasoff was on his mind when he was making The Stranger... from a story by Karamasoff's screenwriter. But that could all be coincidence and I would still bet that Ozep's freewheeling style, so liberated at a time when the camera was mostly nailed down, had its influence along with many other things on Welles' attitude that there was no reason a sound movie in the 40s couldn't be as visually inventive as a silent movie in the late 20s. And Welles' influence is on everybody who uses a Steadicam...

So I'm not so sure what the difference between my chain of influences and "Looking at such and such I realized this could work, so I used it. And I added something else and it seems to have worked" is, except I guess you find mine heavy-handed. In which case, again, I'd say, it really is a heavy (and acknowledged) influence in Herrmann's case, and more glancing and elliptical in Welles'.

Some day I'll post my theory on how the ending of 2001 is inspired by the ending of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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PostWed Oct 20, 2010 8:32 am

Now that would be worth a doctorate, if only to see the reasoning involved!

Bob
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PostWed Oct 20, 2010 8:48 am

Actually, I used to have the clips edited together off laserdisc. There are weird similarities-- the stiff way the artificially aged Tierney and Dullea walk, with their hand in the same spot on a long robe... the fact that they both drop a glass... the way an older/ghostly version of each looks at a younger one, sitting there... something large and black comes looming into the frame... the tracking shot toward the vertical rectangle... the music swells, and... who knows what sticks in a filmmaker's head for later use?
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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PostWed Oct 20, 2010 8:55 am

And that would be the way to do it, preferably on a split screen.

Bob
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PostWed Oct 20, 2010 10:48 am

Thank you, Mike, for your astute and insightful essay. I think you are making a very good case for the connections you point out. And - seeing as you yourself resort to courtroom language at one point = I do not think it is necessary to establish these things "beyond reasonable doubt", a preponderance of the evidence suffices.
There is always something fascinating about tracing influences in art. You need a good eye and a lot of knowlegde to spot them. In this essay you demonstrate both.
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PostWed Oct 20, 2010 5:58 pm

Mike Gebert wrote

Welles-- well, there's no question he had his German Expressionist influence. There are direct lifts from Caligari in the Lady From Shanghai funhouse sequence, little nods to what he grew up on. I don't think it's far-fetched that Kortner and Karamasoff was on his mind when he was making The Stranger... from a story by Karamasoff's screenwriter. But that could all be coincidence and I would still bet that Ozep's freewheeling style, so liberated at a time when the camera was mostly nailed down, had its influence along with many other things on Welles' attitude that there was no reason a sound movie in the 40s couldn't be as visually inventive as a silent movie in the late 20s. And Welles' influence is on everybody who uses a Steadicam...

Yeah, well Welles was vast, almost Emersonian in his tastes and while he built these large and fascinating constructs, he never seemed to have put them together into anything in particular. In many ways, his work, once Houseman left, makes me think of Tarrantino's construction as a series of great (stolen/borrowed for Tarrantino) shots that he places throughout his movies and then writes a script to connect them. In some ways, though, Welles was afflicted by an itch for art, a sense of trying to do something important, which means that the mismatched linkages are d***ed annoying, while Tarrantino's are offered with a wink. Hard to tell, as we'll never see AMBERSONS the way he meant us to see it and there are too many moments in TOUCH OF EVIL that haven't aged well. I suspect that Welles had it too easy too long and when he hit the big time lacked the discipline. It's the journeyman who borrows the particular shot, and the master who understands how to evoke it without showing it.

None of which address the major thesis of this thread, Mike, and while I continue to think it's an interesting idea the evidence is a bit thin so far. However, I am always anxious to be convinced by a telling argument. Yes, you can argue that Welles was influenced by Ozep and that he in turn influenced others, but for me, that doesn't make Ozep important. You can argue that his obscurity is his own fault and it took Welles' genius to pull off what he essayed. I won't go that far, but I am more interested in what particular details made Welles successful (which come down to ballyhoo and the simplistic noble Artist versus the booboisie Businessman narrative) in the transmission of the techniques rather than the failures of previous workers. Yes, I know this goes against the Tragedy=Good, Comedy=Bad idea that afflicts most art -- but I think that's just sour grapes on the part of the failures. Welles failed, Welles was great, and I failed, therefore I, like Welles am great.

But we were speaking of Ozep....

Bob
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PostWed Oct 20, 2010 7:55 pm

It's true that subsequent influence/endorsement only goes so far. There are plenty of films which had huge influence but do not seem like great, or even good films, later on. So to look at the films purely in terms of their own merit:

The Living Corpse is, to my mind, indisputably a very fine film, one to rank among the better, if not the very best, late silent works, to keep in the company of Asphalt, or Piccadilly, or Bed and Sofa and Storm Over Asia. I don't believe that this is a minority opinion among those who've seen it, incidentally; see the last three posts in this a.m.s. thread.

Karamasoff is a tougher sell because it is an early talkie and shows it, but it is consistently inventive and at the very least, should be better known as a step in the evolution of the sound film (an underexplored topic in any case). Not to jump ahead to tomorrow's piece, but part of its point is that Ozep has been buried so thoroughly that we honestly have no idea what else his filmography may contain. What one finds is that when you can find someone who has actually seen the films in modern times, they nearly always praise them. This is in marked contrast to the past, when people seemed to bend over backwards to dismiss them.

Of course, Ozep is only one of many such filmmakers. Everyone loves Lonesome, yet David Thomson suggests that Spring Shower (1932) is an advance on it; when will we ever really get to know Paul Fejos? Or Gustav Machaty? Or Sadao Yamanaka? Or... choose your own. But Ozep is, I think, a little different because for a short time he was a very celebrated and admired filmmaker, and then it became important to downplay his importance, and that's the reputation that stuck, or whose absence of one did. For me, I don't need to ever see another Vertov film, say (there are no more Eisensteins for me to see), but I would see any Ozep film, because so far, three out of four times, they've amply rewarded my curiosity with originality— and, admittedly, the thrill of the chase fulfilled.
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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PostWed Oct 20, 2010 8:55 pm

I'll engage in some judicious back pedallng here, simply because I haven't seen as much Ozep as you, although I am quite willing to: just MISS MEND and his participation in CHESS FEVER. These two movies argue that there was a significant body of Russian films that unlike POTEMKIN and that Nitrateville favorite SALT FOR SVANETIA are rarely seen in the west, made for audiences to enjoy without vast amounts of Uplift. Their absence gives us a distorted view of the Soviet industry. It is as if all the American films one saw were Demille biblicals, Oliver Stone conspiracy movies and Sirk melodramas.

Surely there is a place in the continuum for comedies and mysteries and B Westerns if one wants to understand what was going on in Hollywood. And surely Ozep is a good place to look to broaden our understanding and appreciation of what was going on in Russia if I read your thoughts aright.

Perhaps part of my objection to the thrust of your musings on Ozep is the perceived need to make a director IMPORTANT to make us want to look at his work. This is not the sort of Narrative of Film History to gain my attention. This is undoubtedly idiosyncratic on my part. I still look at movies for fun and pleasure and if five decades of movie watching and a bit of reading -- including the many excellent posts on this board -- have made me more educated in my tastes than some modern Hollywood blockbusters can please, well, I still enjoy a movie with a plot and some characters I like. Sounds like Ozep will supply those if I can arrange to see his work.

And now, if you will excuse me, I'll go look at some Andy Clyde Columbia shorts that have come into my hands recently.

Bob
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PostThu Oct 21, 2010 5:51 am

Well, of course, Barnet's the fun one. Ozep is more of a Russian Masterpiece Theatre director, but I think the films justify a certain amount of thematic heavy lifting. Just think of The Living Corpse as a Russian version of, say, They Won't Believe Me, I guess.

And part of the fascination for me is that he does seem to be Important in that he took montage (and Expressionism) and carried them on into sound, and other filmmakers picked up on that, and yet the narrative of film history, as you say, doesn't see that at all.

Anyway, onward to the last part:

4: Leaving a Europe Run Amok For a Whispering City

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Ozep and Anna Sten, c. 1936.

After the international success of Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff Ozep had a decade of relative success in Europe, although given that he made films in France, England, Spain and Italy, in reality it was doubtless a decade of constant hustling and frequent frustration in getting projects launched, and one gets a sense that his prominence among world film directors was steadily losing air as the decade went on. If there's justice to the dismissive characterization of him as "merely" a commercial talent, which was plainly untrue in the late silent/early sound era, it would be in his glossy-sounding mid to late 30s work. Still, with more than a dozen years' films unseen and largely unknown, who knows what might still impress?

Karamasoff was followed by a light romance with a lovely title for an early 30s movie, Mirages de Paris (1932), like Karamasoff shot in French and German versions, the latter of which is lost. (Ozep was evidently something of a specialist in multi-language-version productions, though it often entailed working with a co-director when his grasp of the language was incomplete; that Ozep was the senior artistic partner becomes obvious quickly enough when you look at the filmographies of, say, the detective genre specialist Erich Engel, who helped with Karamasoff, or Mario Soldati, who actually directed the Italian version of Princess Tarakanova, but still gets second-billed under the more prominent Ozep on the poster.)

Next came probably his most acclaimed post-Karamasoff film, Amok (1934), based on a Stefan Zweig story about a doomed adulterous affair in the tropics which Raymond Durgnat describes as "Ophuls bittersweet modulated to the tragic squalor of Graham Greene." Alas, it was banned by the British censor (and in the US) for the presence of abortion in the plot, so we don't get to see what Greene himself (reviewing movies at that time) would have thought of it. (It actually had a run on the exploitation circuit in the US after the war; William K. Everson mentioned seeing it then.) Continuing the Ozep-Rathaus musical collaboration at a more advanced point of film technology, Amok seems the likeliest of these films to be an unappreciated major work. A short, unsubtitled clip of it is online:

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xamdzz ... shortfilms

Hard to say what's going on there, but at least the sound design is striking for 1934. Dudley Andrews, in Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film, describes it more precisely and tantalizingly:

The most excessively atmospheric film of the era must surely be Fedor Ozep's 1933 Amok. Once again modern fiction provided a subject that helped the cinema mature... the tropical setting served as a perfect incubator for such decadent subjects. It probably also mollified the censors, who were willing to accept outrageous behavior 'over there,' in the realm of the uncivilized [colonial Malaysia]. To engage his audience in such decadence, Ozep encouraged Lazare Meerson to fashion his most bizarre sets ever so as to concoct a milieu that would be physically and morally stifling. Newspaper articles reporting on the production describe the dripping jungle, the fantastically enlarged butterflies, and the shabby dives that Meerson constructed in Pathe's Joinville studios. A typical review forgave the film many of its shortcomings because of its 'atmosphere, heavy with the unknown, rich in exotic splendor the likes of which the screen has not shown us before; a film both luminous and somber.'

In the meantime Anna Sten, who had gone west with Ozep for Karamasoff, had gone to Hollywood and flopped tremendously, having traded Ozep's management for that of her German husband Eugene Frenke and Samuel Goldwyn. Somehow, though, she had been more successful in the UK, and so Frenke recruited Ozep to come to England to work on her comeback, A Woman Alone, released 1936 and apparently a loose reworking of The Yellow Ticket. However, Frenke's relentless interference drove Ozep off the picture halfway through production.

A French remake of The Queen of Spades (his first screenplay in 1916, for Protazanov) and the historical drama Princess Tarakanova, about a Lady Jane Grey-like pawn in royal intrigue in the court of Catherine the Great, followed, the latter in both French and Italian, though it's worrying that apparently the latter has a happy ending, unlike in real life. (Set designer Leon Barsacq would later complain that Ozep, still evidently in a baroque phase, forced him to design a stairway so elaborate that it overshadowed the actors.)

According to Ozep's assistant, George Freedland, Gibraltar (1938), with Erich von Stroheim as a spymaster, was a frustrating experience in which Stroheim would arrive on set each day having written himself new speeches to deliver, knowing that the tight shooting schedule would not allow time for his speeches to be discarded and him to memorize the original dialogue he was supposed to speak. Nevertheless, it was commercially successful in Europe and might have led to a renaissance had war not broken out shortly after. (It didn't reach the U.S. until 1943, under the title It Happened in Gibraltar, at which point its picture of espionage seemed very quaint, and may well have hurt Ozep's attempts to launch a U.S. career.)

As the Germans approached Paris Ozep and his wife fled to Nice, and then managed to get as far as, yes, Casablanca, but were stuck there in a Vichy-run camp for displaced persons through 1940 and into 1941. Having been one step ahead of history for much of his career, yet managing to achieve success and a reputation, Ozep now found himself with both seemingly passing out of reach.

Image
The Queen of Spades (1937)

Image

* * *

At the very moment that Karamasoff seemed to cement Ozep's international reputation as one of the major directors of the new talkie era, Soviet-leaning writers on film began to chip away at his reputation, dismissing him for his apostasies from the dominant montage doctrine (and, one suspects, for the crime of leaving Communism for capitalism). Scott Mackenzie, in the article on Ozep's work in Canada cited in part 2, cites several examples of how critics began to denigrate Ozep as a mere commercial filmmaker whose best touches were borrowings with no integral cinematic nature. Paul Rotha leads the charge by dismissing The Living Corpse in The Film Till Now in 1930:

He is not a director of any standing, his work being uneven and lacking in any dramatic quality. The Living Corpse, which was one of the few films exemplifying Soviet technique to be generally shown in Britain, was of interest principally for the playing of Pudovkin as Fedya Protasov, and for the editing, which was in the hands of the latter.


Curious, then, that five years later Rotha should be trying to sell Gaumont-British on a new version of the Tolstoy play to star Conrad Veidt— and that he would screen Ozep's version for his team. Perhaps he merely wanted to show them everything that Ozep got wrong, or Pudovkin's editing showpieces, but if so, then it's hardly surprising that Gaumont-British execs didn't see much commercial potential in the silent. As with the Eisenstein quote in part 1 of this essay, this is simply about the film the writer thinks the filmmaker should have made—Ozep was a Russian, he should have made montage films, when he did so he did a bit halfheartedly and probably had Pudovkin's help. That's the argument, which is completely oblivious to what The Living Corpse actually is, a study of alienation whose use of editing is psychological and impressionistic, not driven by theory.

The most dramatic example of Ozep's marginalization probably comes in what was, for decades, the one and only book on Soviet film of any consequence by an American, Jay Leyda's Kino. Ozep turns up repeatedly in its pages, but every time as something between a bystander and an object lesson of what not to do. Miss Mend zips by in a passage about Kuleshov's proteges (specifically Sergei Komarov, who played Chiche) that any writer will recognize as the kind of smoke you blow when you haven't actually seen the film:

Boris Barnet collaborated with Otsep on the scenario of a serial adventure comedy... and he adapted the Kuleshov method so well to the familiar material that he was off to a good start in Soviet films.


Of course, there's about as much Kuleshov in Miss Mend as there is Arthur Freed. The internationally acclaimed and important The Yellow Ticket is dismissed as mere melodrama:

Fyodor Otsep made what was to be his last Soviet film [sic], Earth in Chains (known abroad as The Yellow Pass), where the involuntary absorption of the heroine (played by Anna Sten) into commercial prostitution is shown with more drama than logic.


The Living Corpse is recast as something of a Pudovkin film, the way Orson Welles tended to get credit for directing anything he acted in:

Though Pudovkin appears to have left full directorial control in Otsep's hands, his skill as an editor seems to have been employed in the film's completion.


That Pudovkin would have to be throwing bones to the director of the international success The Yellow Ticket and the homegrown hit Miss Mend (who was, to boot, an executive at Pudovkin's studio) is self-evidently wrongheaded. Finally, writing when Karamasoff's reputation was still high, Leyda uses that film to put the headstone on the grave of Ozep's Soviet days:

His Murder of Karamasoff had a greater effect on international films than any Soviet film he directed.


Ozep? Nothing to see here, folks. For all the wealth of detail in Leyda's book (which has always made it a valuable reference but tough read), his account of the rise of Soviet filmmaking is essentially romantic, with Eisenstein et al. unmistakably the heroes of Soviet film the way Stakhanov was of Soviet coal mining. A chapter on the first years of the Soviet Union— the years before filmmakers actually had film stock to make films with— ends with a stirring scene-setting c. 1922, showing all the bright young men poised and ready to take Moscow by force and forge exciting careers in the years ahead:

Eisenstein is designing scenery and costumes at the Proletkult Arena. Grigori Alexandrov's work in a front-line theatre on the Eastern front encourages him to seek fame and fortune in Moscow. Abram Room has moved from dentistry to journalism and is on his way to direction at the Theater of the Revolution...


Victor Turin (Turksib), Esther Shub (The Fall of the Romanovs), Koszintsev and Trauberg, Dovzhenko and Kalatozov... the music rises and all these young people who will do things in the next few years are painted as being on the cusp of something extraordinary. Only the one who has already done something significant, Ozep, the adapter of Polikushka and soon to be internationally acclaimed director, is left out of the picture.

* * *

But there were worse indignities to come, including from one of the most important film writers of the mid-century. In 1940 the Nazis made an infamous documentary, Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), intended to show the supposedly pernicious cultural influence of European Jewry. (It opened in Paris just after the Ozeps fled.) Clips from two of the most celebrated early German sound films are included: M and Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff. M is obviously included to associate Jews with child murder, one of the oldest forms of European anti-semitism, but the reasons for including Karamasoff are less coherent— basically, because Ozep and Fritz Kortner were Jews (in Kortner's case, prominently so; his most celebrated role would be as Shylock in Der Kaufmann von Venedig), and the film shows a supposed Jewish sympathy for murder. (You can see the clip here, at about 42 minutes in.)

Yet shortly after the war, Siegfried Kracauer devoted two full pages in his landmark study of German film, From Caligari to Hitler, to Karamasoff— concluding that Ozep's film was a proto-fascist film. Scott Mackenzie sums up his argument:

Kracauer argued that the film was authoritarian in nature, foreshadowing the rise of Nazi cinema. Indeed, Kracauer sees Ozep's Karamasoff as one of the early examples of what he calls the "national epic," in which concerns about social formations are subordinated to themes of individual rebellion. As rebellious individuals take control of destiny, they also embody the need for an authoritarian figure. Kracauer argues that Ozep avoided Soviet montage, despite the Russian theme of the story, as the Soviet aesthetic was at odds with the themes of the film. For Kracauer, the aesthetics of a national cinema movement are intrinsically tied to a given nation-state's politics: "It was a story which had little in common with Dostoievsky or with Soviet mentality. Ozep seemed to sense it; for he refrained from using Russian 'montage' methods, except, perhaps, for the magnificent troika episode which juxtaposed treetops and horse's hoofs in fast cutting so as to increase the impression of speed."


The logic here is torturously politicized. Dostoevsky's tale, a Russian, Christian exploration of evil and redemption among the old aristocratic class written half a century before the revolution, demands for Kracauer to be treated in the style of the revolution a generation or two later; that Ozep doesn't do so, and makes a movie focused on individual psychology rather than the class struggle, means he's calling for a fascist state glorifying the individual.* (By that logic, Rick Blaine ought to be happy that Major Strasser has arrived to solve all his romantic problems with Ilsa Laszlo.)

The only thing that smacks of fascism to me here is the idea that there's only one way to make a film. Again, Kracauer is writing about the film he thinks the director ought to have made, not the one he did. Ozep is being accused of being backward in failing to aspire to the logical end of all film, or at least all film on Russian subjects, Soviet montage; that he might have moved past montage in the sound era and be an important innovator in this new medium in his own right is a heresy not even to be considered.

Through such dismissals and, frankly, insinuations, Ozep's Soviet-era achievements were put beyond the pale of discussion of the era. At best, he might turn up in a list (as he does in Arthur Knight's The Liveliest Art), but more likely, he will be omitted entirely from reference books and histories of Soviet film which go on at length about films he worked on and include colleagues of less prominence at the time. It is hard to find his name at all in anything written between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Soviet Union.

* * *

The Ozeps finally managed to reach the U.S. in 1941. David Godin says that Ozep's first attempted Hollywood project was a version of War and Peace, which seems horribly impractical for the time, though George Freedland says this was only one proposed project of many. It does seem that Ozep lacked the instinctive feel for the crime film that would prove the salvation of so many emigres in Hollywood, however, and his only Hollywood credit proved to be another run-in with Anna Sten, ironically enough an independently-made piece of our-ally-Russia propaganda called Three Russian Girls, which did at least get an Oscar nomination for its musical score.

Image

Image
La Pere Chopin

Instead Ozep, comfortable in French, was lured to Quebec, where they were flattered to have such a (once) prominent foreign director direct the first Francophone Canadian feature, 1945's La Pere Chopin (apparently about a priest, not the composer; the backers were Catholics wishing to fight Communism through the cinema). Somehow a Portuguese-language film, Cero en Conducta, a remake not of Vigo's Zero for Conduct but of a DeSica "white telephone" drama from 1940, followed. Then back to Quebec for the inevitable fate— a noirish drama, made in both French (La Forteresse) and English (Whispering City). After a gap of 16 years, this last film is one we can actually see (there's a decent Sinister Cinema version and a reportedly awful Alpha Video one; there's also a clip from La Forteresse viewable here).

Image


Film noir guilt meets Quebec Tourism Board in Whispering City (1947).

Paul Lukas plays a wealthy lawyer who seems to have been mixed up in a suspicious case two decades earlier; when a once-famous actress in the case dies, a reporter (Mary Anderson, who had been a belle in Gone With the Wind) starts poking around it again, which prompts Lukas to put the screws to one of the artists he patronizes (Helmut Dantine) to bump her off. The novelty of the Quebec City setting (five years before Hitchcock's I Confess) is worked in several travelogue sequences as well as extensive use of what one presumes is a local symphony orchestra (Dantine is a composer); it's the sort of thing that one might find a little above average for a low-budget independent crime film (it was released by Eagle-Lion in the U.S.), but there are undoubtedly better such termite-art movies from people like Anthony Mann or Bernard Vorhaus. The script has an unsure hand on the genre (and takes far too long to get to the first real dramatic moment, the putting-the-screws part), and at best Ozep's direction is like Lukas' performance, the old pro delivering the shadowy, atmospheric goods competently enough whether they were entirely worth his effort or not. But that the maker of this movie had once been an avant-garde figure of some note— that you would not guess.

Without seeing some of those films in between, it's impossible to say whether Ozep's fire had gone out during his period of commercial success in Europe, or if he was making the best of a modest opportunity and waiting for a better chance. Still, on their modest scale, these films did well enough, and Godin says he was offered postwar work in Paris again. Unfortunately, Ozep did not live long enough to benefit; he died of a heart attack in Beverly Hills in 1949 at age 54.**

* * *

A peripatetic life that went from the USSR to Tinseltown with most of the countries in between at some point is not one that makes it easy to be remembered and championed. Within the Soviet Union he had artistic rivals eager to dismiss his work, once outside there was a conspiracy of silence to downplay the acclaim he had once enjoyed and to denigrate his work for failing to live up to dogma he had never agreed with in the first place. The result is a filmmaker with no one to champion him and plenty who had reason to ignore him.

Yet Ozep seems— from what we can see of him— to have been an intelligent, capable and artistically curious filmmaker with a consistent focus on individual psychology. His best characters and his loose, impressionistic mise-en-scene remain captivating when more dogmatic films seem hard to love; he's a consistent breath of fresh air for those stifled by the familiar Soviet classics. Fortunately, his profile does seem to be ever so slightly on the rise: Miss Mend, of course, reintroduced his name to film enthusiasts, and soon what is probably his best silent and perhaps his best film overall, The Living Corpse, will be released in a first-class edition by Editions Filmmuseum under its German title, Der Lebende Leichnam. It is time to devote serious energy to reviewing his entire canon and giving his small handful of important works a proper, long-denied place in the history of film.

* This is especially absurd in the case of Dostoevsky, given that the hope for a more Christ-like idealism and charity in the next generation of Russians is one of the novel's main themes.

** Or is there one more Ozep film— a 1948 expose of big business and crime called The San Francisco Story, produced and then suppressed after a preview by its producer, Howard Hughes, who feared the repercussions during the HUAC era of a Russian director's attack on American capitalism? No, there isn't. The foregoing was invented out of whole cloth by the perpetrators of a hoax about a supposed avant-garde-slash-exploitation filmmaker named J.X. Williams, and its entire existence is in a supposed interview with Williams. But you have to give them credit for attributing this hoax within a hoax to a noteworthy director still unknown enough for it to seem plausible.
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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PostThu Oct 21, 2010 7:04 am

So in some ways it all becomes a matter of Ozep, not fitting into any of the narratives of Soviet film-making, winding up on the cutting-room floor except for the crowd scenes. It is odd that the narrative of Russian film-making is the narrative of the individual Hero Director. One would think that the soviets would invest in the collectivist aspects of film-making, yet we get the story of the individual struggling against official indifference, like the French view of the sly American auteur slipping things past the low-browed corporate producer. There's Eisenstein, with his undoubtedly high forehead to give space to his enormous brain, thinking up montage on his own, directing not actors but types.

One wonders how many infants died in tragic baby buggy accidents as they rolled to their doom down those steps to produce glorious art for the people! Oppressed by Uncle Joe, yet called back into service, he went willingly back to rally the spirits of blah blah blah. And people complain about von Sternberg and Demille being megalomaniacs!


Reading Eyman's book on Demille, I was struck as he told people to hell with his heart attack, he was going to shoot the Exodus scene, that if Eyman were given to flights of poetry, Macauley would have been appropriate:

How can a Man die Better than facing Fearful Odds,
For the Ashes of His Fathers and the Temples of His Gods?


And if it weren't for your taste for rueful irony, Mike, a little Henley might have worked for Ozep:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

No wonder they dismissed him in Moscow.

Bob
“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” — James Thurber
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Arndt

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PostThu Oct 21, 2010 8:02 am

It really is high time we consign Kracauer's FROM CALIGARI TO HITLER to history. If ever a book was of its time and thereby for its time only, this one is it. Kracauer has a massive chip on his shoulder. It's a perfectly legitimate chip, don't get me wrong. But this gives him a totally distorted view. He sees proto-fascism in every film made in Germany between 1919 and 1933. That is, with 20/20 hindsight he does. He did not see these portents of doom in his reviews of the 1920s.
Unfortunately his views were very influential, maybe because they tied in nicely with the post-war vogue for psychoanalysis (or rather a much simplified primer version of it). Lotte Eisner's DIE DAEMONISCHE LEINWAND (THE HAUNTED SCREEN) does much more justice to the films it talks about.
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PostThu Oct 21, 2010 8:52 am

But that is why it must be remembered and referred to; because it had an agenda but was widely read and believed, it had a deleterious effect on the reputations of filmmakers like Ozep; we have to understand why Ozep is so underrated, not just accept the fact. For Kracauer's work, so with Paul Rotha's The Film 'Til Now; in the same way he condemned Ozep's work for not being, in Mike's phrase, the film he thought the filmmaker should have made, he condemns the entire British Film Industry of the late silent era, apart from his friends in the nascent Documentary Movement, for not being the film industry he wants them to be; that is, Sovfilm. But without this understanding of the history of the writings, people refer back to it as a near-contemporary source material and fail to realise that, for all its faults, the British Film Industry of the silent era was capable of great things. Both books are, as you put it, of their time; but they must be read, although with a jaundiced eye, to get the full picture of cinema history.
I could use some digital restoration myself...
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PostThu Oct 21, 2010 10:21 am

Okay, you read Kracauer then. I find it impossible. After a couple of pages I get so agitated that I have to stop.
I don"t think we need to study Kracauer in detail in order to understand his agenda and how it influenced film history. When I read an Enno Patalas text from the 1980s in which he classifies most of Lang's 1920s films as fascist, I know how to take it.
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PostFri Oct 22, 2010 8:14 pm

Fabulous posts, Mike.
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PostMon Jan 24, 2011 9:47 pm

I happened to run across this translation of a group of movie reviews by Jorge Luis Borges, including Fedor Ozep's Karamazov film. Two interesting points in the first page (all you can see for free):

• Borges says he's unfamiliar with the Dostoevski novel.

• He says that Ozep's film considerably outdistances the two other films under review. The names of the other two films are: Morocco and City Lights.
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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PostThu Jan 27, 2011 8:41 pm

Tomorrow afternoon, 28 January 2011, Ozep's THE LIVING CORPSE will be shown at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art.

Bob
“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” — James Thurber
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Mike Gebert

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PostSun Jun 19, 2011 10:48 pm

Image

I found a copy online of Ozep's second directorial effort, Zemlya v Plenu, variously translated as Earth in Chains, Land in Captivity, The Yellow Ticket, The Yellow Pass, The Yellow Earth Passes a Ticket in Chains of Captivity, etc.

So, is it better than Potemkin, the film it was compared to in its initial release in the West? Who knows, but it's quite a good picture and deserves better than the total forgetfulness it seems to have inspired. What it lacks in Potemkin's innovative impact, it makes up at least part way in visual energy and imagination, pictorial impressiveness, and characters you actually are interested to watch as human beings.

The copy I found had only Russian subtitles, but with the help of the synopsis in Mordaunt Hall's review from 1928 in the NY Times, I was able to follow it well enough. Maria (Anna Sten) and Jacob (I.I. Koval Samborski-- guess who got left off the marquee in US engagements) are a happy peasant couple soon to become unhappy; the local baron, who rented them the rockiest piece of land this side of Man of Aran, has a daughter, who forces Sten to abandon her own family and wetnurse hers. She in turn has a husband (Vladimir Fogel of Miss Mend) who lusts after the peasant girl whose bare shoulder he's exposed to on a regular basis, and all this leads to Maria having a fight with her husband, trying to flee the home, and winding up with the infamous Yellow Ticket certifying her as a member of the league of prostitutes.

Clearly Ozep, in devising this Zolaesque story, was looking for material that would fly with the regime, and there's a perfectly good expose of the decadence of the Tsarist regime here, chaining peasants to aristocratic whim just as the land is chained with barbed wire, and using their bodies for feeding or pleasure indiscriminately. If Ozep's visual lyricism about peasants and the land doesn't go to the florid extremes of, say, Dovzhenko, on the other hand it has a sharp point which it makes with precision and a mordant wit, which you can't really say of Earth. You don't need thesis and antithesis making synthesis to convey the idea that Maria is little better than the cows in the barn as a milk machine, when you simply show her being forcefed to keep her milk up, as Ozep does with dry satirical wit.

In fact, though the scenes of Maria and Jacob's peasant life have a rough-edged believability (as in The Living Corpse, Ozep is a great caster of weatherbeaten, non-actor extras) and quite a lot of visual beauty, the strongest section of the film is the one Mordaunt Hall has to daintily elide from his review, when Maria sinks into the profession for which she mistakenly has the ticket. It's worth noting that Ozep made three films in a row with substantial brothel sequences, and in each case he seems to evince a real, ahem, love for the milieu in all its forced joviality, wanton desire, and seedy decadence, music and lust and self-loathing combining for a vivid impression of manic-depressive hell on earth. Sten, too, reaches the high point of her performance here, trading Maria's customary cow-like blank stare for a despondent world-weariness.

Anyway, it's 70 minutes long which is short enough to keep a dour story clipping along at a fair pace, it's more interested in the actors and their expressive faces than in creating abstract ideas through editing, and it's a strong, well-made film that, like The Living Corpse, deserves to be better known and to take a place somewhere in the middle reaches of the first tier of late silents. Maybe someday.

Image

(One thing to note: there is a persistent desire to link the plot of this movie to a once well-known play called The Yellow Ticket, filmed multiple times including by Raoul Walsh in 1931. There is no resemblance in the plots of the two works, other than the presence of yellow tickets. The play-- which, curiously, originally starred John Barrymore, just as The Living Corpse, which Ozep also filmed, did in America) is about a Jewish girl seeking to travel to see her dying father, and finding she has more freedom of movement if she takes the dreaded Yellow Ticket than as a respectable Jew.)
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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PostWed Jun 22, 2011 8:46 am

Mike,

Excellent job on this entire series; glad to encounter such an in-depth and revelatory study on a classic film maker I hardly know at all, and I was particularly interested in Herrmann's comment on Karol Rathaus. I have heard his music, but I was not familiar with his work in film; Herrmann is certainly a strong advocate, and modern-styled music in sound films is rare before King Kong. And, having said that, I'm pretty sure I've just opened up the opportunity for others to sweep in and say, "No, it's not! What about such and so, and such and so, etc..."

A couple of years ago I assisted a friend in researching Si-Lan Chen, who was a Chinese-Russian dancer that was married to Jay Leyda. She had tremendous difficulties getting citizenship in the U.S.; she had been one of the main modern dancers in Soviet Russia before the advent of Stalin. Perhaps the US felt she just had to be a Soviet spy? Nevertheless, she was finally granted citizenship in 1948, about 12 years after she arrived here.

Leyda, of course, was not an emigré, but he may have been influenced by the tendency of some immigrant artists to run down the achievements of those who'd also been forced to leave home. He seems to have decided somewhere along the line that Ozep was essentially a commercial film maker. With Soviet Russia particularly there was this idea that the initial concepts and motivations behind Soviet society were golden, but the result, over time, became mere tin streaked with gold. Combine that with the immigrant attitude and you have a situation where film makers who stayed within the brutal Soviet regime were the most celebrated, but only up to a certain point in history, creating an artificial barrier to research. Some film makers, and films, ended up "more equal than others." So for the longest time there was this huge gap in the understanding of Soviet Cinema between Earth (1930) and Ballad of a Soldier (1960), with only Alexander Nevsky (1938), Ivan the Terrible (1944) and perhaps Jolly Fellows (1934) sticking out of it. Leyda's work was about the only link most of us had to what else there was, and I wholly agree that the opaqueness of "Kino" is a major obstacle.

As to Kracauer, the opposite tack has a similar result! He was an extreme anti-fascist and tended to read non-obvious concepts into everything he handled. I had a film professor who was very influenced by Kracauer who claimed he had found subliminal vampire teeth in a frame of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which I'm sure was just a defect in the fuzzy print he was examining. Kracauer, though, was also a sociologist who dealt in closed systems and would not deal with anything that he couldn't tie up in an epistemological knot. Such viewpoints are by now in themselves historical; and while the datum that both writers convey is still of great value, the baggage needs to be checked before boarding the plane.

spadeneal
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Ann Harding

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PostWed Jun 22, 2011 9:42 am

Well, this is a great series of articles, Mike. Thanks for all those priceless informations. My own discovery of Ozep was rather underwelming. As you probably know he made some films in France in the 30s. I have two of them. Tarakanova (1938) with Pierre Richard-Willm and Anny Vernay.It is a remake of the 1930 silent version by Raymond Bernard. Having seen both films, I have to say that the Bernard wins hands up. Les Frères Karamazov (1931) is the French version of the film you mentioned, with Anna Sten and Fritz Kortner being dubbed and the rest of the cast being French. This one is still waiting to be seen. I will make the effort to watch it and report about it.
Here is the cover of a French magazine about Tarakanova. The two leads were famous French screen stars. Russian-based stories were very popular in commercial French cinema at the time.
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PostWed Jun 22, 2011 10:14 am

Yes, except for Eisenstein's films, the late 30s, 40s and 50s are such a blank spot on the map in Soviet cinema. Yet the names we know were all working during that time. One of my holy grail films is Barnet's By the Bluest of Seas from 1936; Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about it here. But even more than that, I'd like to see that great film I have no idea what it is that I'm missing...

I'll be very interested to hear about the French Karamasoff, Ann, especially if you have a chance to compare the sleigh-ride/brothel sequence that I embedded above. I would assume they're as similar as possible (especially given that there's relatively little dialogue) but that would show you how close, or not, the two versions were.
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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Ann Harding

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PostThu Jun 23, 2011 2:26 am

I watched Les Frères Karamazov yesterday. The French version is actually a patched-up job using for the most part the original German footage with parts of the scenes (mostly talking bits) re-shot. The sequence posted above is identical as they use entirely the German footage. I fail to understand why they needed to re-shoot part of the films when it could have been just post-synchronised in French. But, it was common practice in the 30s. For exemple, there is a Michel Strogoff/Der Kurier des Zaren (1935) with Adolf Wohlbrück (i.e. Anton Walbrook) shot in France by Jacques de Baroncelli and in Germany by Richard Eichberg.

As for the film itself, I was very impressed by Ozep's masterly use of the camera. I had the feeling of watching a Russian director who had kept all the techniques he had learned in the silent era and went on to use it for talkies. The score is certainly extremely impressive for the time. Whether in France or in the US, in 1931 music was used very sparingly in dramas. And on top, it's an original score, not just a compilation (like many studio hacks used to do at the time). The sleigh-ride sequence reminded me of L'Inhumaine (1923, Marcel L'Herbier). In a particular sequence an engineer speeds up on a road intending to commit suicide with his car. The sequence has got the same pacing. But, of course, both Ozep and L'Herbier got the idea from Gance's La Roue (1921-23). Actually, Gance's rapid-cutting spread like fire among film-makers at the time: Epstein used it in Le Lion des Mogols (1924) and Volkoff in Kean (1924). Then the Soviet Russians learned about it and it became the 'Russian rapid-cutting'.
By a funny coincidence, I saw two days ago a film with the same lead actor and the same cinematographer. Das Schiff der verlorenen Meschen (The Ship of Lost Men, 1929) is Maurice Tourneur's only film shot in Germany. Fritz Kortner stars as the captain of derelict ship and the talented Hungarian Nicolas Farkas was behind the camera as well. (BTW Farkas became a director later on.)
I was rather annoyed by the French dubbing as it was out-of-synch a lot of the time. I guess it was very difficult to get it right in 1931. There was also quite a few jarring cuts between the German and French versions. Anna Sten's hairdo and dress looked quite different. As she is fighting with Dimitri over Katia's picture, the scene reverts to the German version and it shows. Overall, it's a very impressive picture which manages to convey the right atmosphere thanks to its editing, music and acting. Tarakanova (1938) is most certainly not in that league, as if Ozep had given up all individuality. (But I have heard that the Mario Soldati version is better.) I am glad you talked so eloquently about Ozep or I wouldn't have watched that Bothers Karamazoff!
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Ann Harding

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PostThu Jun 23, 2011 3:57 am

A few caps of Les Frères Karamasov.
The cast list (showing the three French actors included in the French version):
Image
Anna Sten (Grouchenka) in German footage:
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In French footage:
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Re: The Erased Auteur: Rediscovering Fedor Ozep

PostTue Mar 26, 2013 11:28 am

I have been able to watch Amok fairly recently thanks to a TV broadcast. A great picture! 8)

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Amok (1934, Fédor Ozep) with Marcelle Chantal, Jean Yonnel, Valéry Inkijinoff and Jean Servais

Adapting a novel by Stephen Zweig, Ozep recreates an tropical jungle in Joinville studios. The tone of the film is resolutely oppressing as we watch Dr Holk (Jean Yonnel) a fallen doctor who has become an alcoholic unable to cope with the stifling heat and dampness of his surroundings. One day, beautiful Hélène Haviland (a patrician Marcelle Chantal) comes to see him. She is married and in desperate need of him. She is pregnant and has not seen her husband for a whole year. But, he refuses the money she offers for an abortion. As she runs away, he realises his mistake and tries to convince her of his desire to help her. But it is too late, she dies after a failed abortion. Dr Holk will then sacrifice his own life to protect her honor after her death. The sets are a showcase for the talent of that genius called Lazare Meerson who could create a XVIth century Dutch city (in Carnival in Flanders by Feyder) or an Indonesian jungle in studios. But, the fluidity and beauty of the cinematography (the brilliant German Curt Courant) are enhanced by Ozep's great use of the camera. The film starts with a 10 min silent sequence meandering through that jungle where we meet the native people and the derelict doctor. Using all the power of tracking shots, quick editing and rhythmic montage, the film caught me instantly. On top, the film boasts a superb score by Daniel Rathaus who gives a dark and brooding atmosphere to the proceedings. His musical style is very unlike the usual French scores of the time. It sounds more like a post-romantic score by Waxman, Herrmann or Rosza for the 40s. That film gives a foretaste of the future French 'poetic realism' and American film noir with its desperate characters unable to control their destiny. If you have a chance to see it, don't miss it!

Thanks again Mike for making me aware of Ozep.

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