Thursday, 17 September 2015

A message from… Michel Strogoff (1926) with John Sweeney, British Silent Film Festival

The closing film on Day Two of the British Silent Film Festival and some of us were starting to flag and – in my case – were staring down the barrel of a lat-night return South down the M1… but, cometh the hour, cometh the film with its extraordinary star and cometh too the unfailing hands of Iron John Sweeney.

Michel Strogoff is one of the most famous products of the Russian ex-patriot community in French cinema and it is surprisingly hard to find making tonight’s screening a must-see or rather a Moz-see.

The Tartars
It is a film of scale and splendour which is lifted above the norm by extended sequences in Pathecolor – stencilled highlights over the dancers’ dresses in the ballroom sequence in the Tsar’s palace and then another truly stunning sequence as the Tartar forces mass at camp for the brutal entertainment of Allah’s judgement… it’s as if you are there; you can almost smell the burning flesh…

Director Viktor Tourjansky filmed across Europe from the palaces of France, the snows of Norway and down to Latvia where 6000 extras helped create the battles scenes and the Tartar camp. He took full advantage of the budgetary freedom allowed by the new affiliation  of Cine-France-Film with the German-led West production company.  The result was one of the few films of the period that really could truly match Hollywood scale.

Another was being filmed at the same time in the Billancourt studios and once Tourjansky had completed his effort he helped with Gance’s filming of Napoleon’s Toulon battle.

Their massed cavalry charge their horses across battle fields blurred by the speed of advance as quick cuts are made to pick up the human aspects of the slaughter; as with Napoleon this is not a film you can take likely, it’s at you from start to finish propelled by the unique intensity of its lead.

Ivan Mosjoukine
Jules Verne’s original story sounds true to his form: a time-limited chase featuring one man’s attempt to deliver a message from his Tsar to Irkutsk a city cut off by the Tartar advance. The telegraphs have all been cut and Michel must travel incognito using trains and boats across the plains making friends and beating enemies along the way. The story turns on an unlikely (but just possible) physiological event but the Russian’s present this moment as high drama and the improbable becomes powerfully cinematic.

Surrounded by the Tartars
 The story had an unique appeal for many of the crew who had seen their mother country overrun by a group with an incomprehensible agenda – to them at least. The fact that the Tartars had not enjoyed any kind of substantial military success against the Tsars for centuries is almost beside the point… the story needed an internal threat to show the benevolence of the Tsarist regime; a culture of honour and natural comradeship founded on respect for the Nation and its God-given monarch (I don’t recall Alexander II being especially benevolent…).

Acho Chakatouny
But let’s not let politics get in the way of a rollicking adventure especially one so rich in characters: the traitor Ivan Ogareff (Acho Chakatouny) is given to villainous excess it’s true but is also a very human hate-figure - Chakatouny plays his hero as a man wronged by his state who has the abilities but not the loyalty of a hero.

Nathalie Kovanko
 Love-interest Nadia Fedor (Nathalie Kovanko) is no mere adornment and it is only through her help that Michel has any chance of prevailing; she’s smart, quick to action and as determined as the men. Strogoff’s mother Maria (of course…) is similarly empowered and Jeanne Brindeau plays her with nobility and intelligence: what a pairing she and her son make – unyielding and bound by a love as strong as national pride.

Jeanne Brindeau
Marie-Louise Vois is also super as Zaugara the Tartar Mata Hari and Ogareff’s left-hand woman she can dance, dance and be a villain too… Other amusing stereotypes are available in the form of Daily Telegraph writer Harry Blount (Henri Debain) – a whiskery notepad scribbler for the status quo (they haven’t changed much have they?) and his French counterpart Alcide Jolivet (Gabriel de Gravone).

Vladimir Gajdarov makes Tzar Alexandre is far more likeable than I expected him to be whilst Boris de Fast Tartar leader Féofar-Khan is a superb creation of make-up encrusted malevolence: his evil runs so deep he seems almost serene and yet it's only ever a micro-second from boiling to the surface as he selects random vengeance from God.

Boris de Fast
Micolas Kougoucheff also features as General Kissoff who I just had to mention... no sign of Generals Sodoff or Clearoff though.

But, it’s all about Ivan who portrays a model of disciplined heroism with a twinkle in his eye that not only speaks of his wit but also his weakness. His Strogoff is not someone who can go about his triumphs in a way that makes them seem inevitable he gets stuck in even when he seems to be losing and, indeed, to have lost. What’s more, his victories are not achieved without the help of others…

 He fights off dozens of attackers on a ferry only to be struck down into the water where he makes it to shore and is saved by the kindness of an old man. In his delirium he sees himself in neo-classical torment – barely clothed and assailed by all kinds of monsters only to be saved by the two women in his life. Later he’ll look just like St Sebastian in seeming defeat to the Tartans…

Strogoff is knocked down more times than Rocky by Apollo Creed yet still gets up for one final fight with his nemesis Ogareff which is so much more than a standard silent scrap, the two push each other all over the screen and you’re not sure who the winner is until the very last as one after the other staggers out seemingly in victory…

Sightless in the snow
If we felt slightly exhausted watching all of this, spare a though for tonight’s pianist. Mr Sweeney set about his work with Mousjoukine-levels of energy and invention. His playing was impressively full-blooded and certainly contained doses of Russian that I wasn’t quite able to identify. This melodic engagement with the film must be very hard to maintain and yet he was still as fresh after the three hours: that my friends is the business of show and, indeed, entertainment! Salute Comrade Sweeney!

For such a major work – flawed but sprawlingly-brilliant – it is surprising that this reconstruction (from 2007?) is not available on DVD along with the Albatross output from many of the contributors. All we have is a VHS transfer that collectors swap amongst themselves, passed from hand-to-hand in the darker corners of bars from Omsk to Ormskirk and Irkutsk to Ipswich…

Come on, The Man, there’s money to be made in these digital disc sales!?

Sound and vision
 I drove back down the darkened motorway coffee and calories at the ready but uplifted by the show – I’d left the party halfway through but happy with all I’d seen – yes, even you, Three Live Ghosts with your soviet ret-con nonsense. Next year all four days!

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