Sunday, 15 April 2018

The spy who came on to the cool… The Adjutant of the Czar (1929), with Meg Morley, BFI

Febrile crowd, chants of "Ivan, Ivan!!" echoing across the Thames, tourists looking nervously on as the enhanced police presence struggled to maintain order… it could only mean that Russia’s premier silent actor was playing at the Southbank. Yes indeed, as far as the fan-girls and boys were concerned, there are no faults in this Czar and a packed NFT 2 attested to the actor’s appeal following on from the London Film Festival Screening of Casanova last autumn when a middle-aged male blogger fainted.

Calming down a little, there is no doubt that Ivan Mozzhukhin always delivers and his extraordinary screen presence is not just that of a White Russian Valentino, he’s his own mix of undeniable masculinity and feline expression. Technically he’s more aligned with modern sensibilities than most silent Hollywood males and he’s just fascinating to watch: diffident, remote, sometimes insecure, passionate and valorous… as unpredictable as almost anyone else.

See, feline...
This was also the BFI debut of the Bioscope’s own Meg Morley, who is so stylistically flexible herself being an improvisational jazz player by trade as well as a nuanced film accompanist. There’s so much character in Meg’s playing, I was really interested to hear her Mozzhukhin-Mix and she did not disappoint with improvisations that sounded so context-contemporary, with fulsome phrasing that tracked emotion and narrative with classical lines and evocations of screwball-to-come: Carole Lombard could well have been in the room and she was having a jaunty conversation with Maurice Ravel and Paul Whiteman.*

The Adjutant of the Czar (Der Adjutant des Zaren) was a German production directed by Ivan’s fellow exile Vladimir Strizhevsky. It is, of course, quite different from the films of their former countrymen, although we did have some quick-fire montage towards the end.

Carmen Boni and Ivan Mozzhukhin
Bryony Dixon introduced and explained that this was one of Ivan’s rarer films, the only copy being in Denmark where the DFI had produced this restoration. Like all of Ivan’s pictures it is worth watching and whilst it’s no classic it is none-the-less the kind of good quality watch that, if anything, gives modern watchers more of the flavour of late period silent than the truly great moments from say, Dreyer, Pabst and Vidor.

The programme notes included a “review” from British trade mag, The Bioscope, which made the extraordinary claim that our hero was “wooden” and showed “little emotional power”. Yeah, right. Ivan Mozzhukhin is a talent of World-historic cultural importance whilst The Bioscope is no longer published.

Full English?
The story begins with Strangers on a Train and ends a bit like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (only not quite as cold…). Ivan plays Prince Boris Kurbski who is the titular Adjutant and is returning by train to St Petersburg on the back of a cancelled engagement. In the dining car, he encounters a young Italian woman Helena di Armore (Carmen Boni) who is struggling to communicate her order, he translates for her and is quickly demonstrating just why his fiancée felt he wasn’t a keeper, with appreciative glances and an agenda...

At the border Helena’s papers are stolen by a shift-looking bloke in a scruffy beard and trench coat (Alexander Granach), passport-less there’s no way she can press on to her important engagement in St Petersburg but Boris hatches a plan: he can pass her off as his wife and smuggle her through.

Carmen Boni
The plan succeeds and there’s a Hitchcockian tension in their compartment as she gets changed and he watches her shadow and stares at her sleeping (honestly, if it was anyone else, I’d be worried). Back home, Boris’ friends and colleagues are delighted with his new wife and there’s no easy way out of close proximity for attractive man and attractive woman… One thing leads to a dozen others and before you know it they’re getting wed for real with two more – huge - twists to come.

Boris returns to duty but is instructed to return home and look after his bride only to find her off out… he follows her to the darker end of town and is astonished to overhear the real reason for her mission to Russia, their meeting and subsequent marriage.

There’s superb cinematography from Nikolai Toporkoff at this moment as a close up on Boris’ anguished face is followed by a zoom through wooden door to a room with dozens of conspiratorial faces half lit as they peer over our old friend the scruffy-bearded bag-snatcher. he is busy de-briefing Helena – who is a spy, sent to get close to the Russian court and off-load an explosive device at the first target-rich social event.

But she is begging her comrades to be relieved of duty as she has, genuinely, fallen for the man she was meant to entrap and wants no more of their plot. But, no one gets to walk away from the, whatever-group-they’re-supposed-to-be, and Helena is trapped. There’s worse to come though as now Boris knows and whilst he’s also in love with his wife, this is a tough one…

On the run
This all works so well as Strizhevsky takes the time to really establish his characters, from the two leads who are both superb to warm supporting types such as the Prince's manservant (Daniel Dolski) and his Generals Koloboff (George Seroff) and Trunoff (Fritz Alberti). Even the authority figure of Baron Korff (Eugen Burg) who begins to suspect Boris and Helena’s relationship is shown to be decently professional as well as slightly scary.

The chemistry between Mozzhukhin and Carmen Boni is terrific and you really believe in their situation just as you root for their eventual happiness. It’s light, romantic and with enough genuine jeopardy to keep you anxious.

And Meg was with them all the way, on the train, through slapstick and sedition to a thrilling chase involving horse-drawn carriages. A thoroughly entertaining debut and top quality support for arguably the greatest silent smoulderer. #MegAndMozz

* Ravel was fascinated with jazz and met Gershin, Paul Whiteman and Bix Beiderbecke on a trip to New York in 1928. Find out more here...


  1. Thank you very much for this review, it sounds like a great film. How was the quality of the print? I assume these are all production stills. I looked around but couldn't find evidence of a home video release.

  2. It's all from a Danish Film Institute restoration and the quality on screen varies from very good to a bit too washed out/soft for the close ups - which would have been "softened" anyway.

    The grabs above are from a copy on YouTube (!!) from the same source - it's low res but gives more of an idea of the film's content than stills etc.

    I couldn't see a home video release on either the DFI site or Edition Filmmuseum in Germany. Hopefully it will get a release because it is a very visually-accomplished film and it's stars are so good in front of the camera!

    Best wishes.


  3. Wow- the grabs are so clean, I assumed they were stills! Thanks to your reply, I found it on YouTube. You're right, it can be soft, but overall the quality is quite good. If it gets a home video release, I hope there'll be English subtitles. I appreciate your response!

  4. there are no faults in this Czar

    Oooohhhhhhhh ...

    Ivan Mozzhukhin is a talent of World-historic cultural importance whilst The Bioscope is no longer published.

    Hahaha, BURN.

    Very nice recap! I have had a digital copy sitting around for ages, but only got around to watching it recently.

    It's a fun film - as you say, no classic, but quite fun. So many tropes! Obviously the Moz is always worth watching, and I really like Carmen Boni too. I agree that the supporting cast was very good! This guy in particular was quite something.
    And I probably should have seen The Twist coming! That was nicely done, though afterwards, I hoped for a convoluted double/triple-cross plot.

    Side note - I'm sure you know it, but the director, Strihevsky, played Pascal (beloved son of Nicolas Koline's woodcutter character) in La maison de mystère!

    (Katherine of Silents Please here, by the way. I always have such trouble with commenting on blogspot, ugh).