What a dramatic title! Is it about Salem witch trials? The horrors of war? Terrors unknown? Nope! It is the wacky tale of a wandering wife called Elle and the mysterious detective known only as Z, who has been charged with returning her affections to her husband. One of the oddest and most stylish films of the silent era and pretty funny to boot.
I’m weird, you’re weird, we’re weird
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Some of the best Russian films of the twenties were made in France.
With the victorious Bolsheviks in charge of Russia, members of the Czarist film community were forced to set up shop elsewhere. Some went to America but a good number settled in France, where they continued to make works of startling technical virtuosity. The longstanding artistic affinity between France and Russia had resulted in their film industries heavily intermixing even before the Revolution and the newcomers were welcomed with open arms.
It was a win-win. The Russians got a new home and a safe place to pursue their art. The French got an infusion of fresh blood into their filmmaking, which was still stumbling from the Great War.
Ivan Mosjoukine had been a wildly popular leading man in Russia before the revolution (do check out my review of The Peasants’ Lot, one of his pre-stardom films) but his fame reach international levels with his work in France. His performances were deep, emotional, stylized, intense… and funny! Mosjoukine was blessed with a zany sense of humor and he was not afraid to employ it.
The Burning Crucible is intriguing for many reasons. Mosjoukine wrote, directed and starred in the film, the only time he would take on all three roles and his only directing effort. It is also something of a curio and a controversial one at that. Audiences rejected it, critics were confused by it. Some, though, were inspired by it. A young Jean Renoir was so taken with it that he credited the film with stimulating him to try his own hand at directing.
So, what is The Burning Crucible? Is it a forgotten masterpiece? Overrated? Underrated? We’re going to find out but hold onto your hats, kids. This is going to get very, very weird.
The story opens with Elle (Nathalie Lissenko) experiencing a bizarre dream. First, she is being dragged into a hellish pit by a chained man. Then, she breaks away only to find that same man has dressed in evening clothes and is following her. He corners her in an opium den and they embrace. As Elle leaves, she enters a church and the same man is the bishop. Then she exits the church and finds one more incarnation of the mystery man, a beggar who asks for her love. When she does not give it, he stabs himself to death.
Elle wakes up and quickly realizes that her dreams were influenced by her choice of bedtime reading material. She had been enjoying the memoirs of a detective known only as Z (Ivan Mosjoukine) and the various incarnations in her dream were disguises that he donned for his missions.
(Note: Some cast credits lists Mosjoukine’s character as being named Zed but as I am an American and as the character is listed as Z in the film’s French intertitles, I shall stick with the shorter version. It looks cooler.)
Elle’s bedroom is a sort of Rube Goldberg establishment where her every whim is answered with the press of a button. Breakfast trays, fresh flowers, mail, baskets of puppies…
(I want to push a button and have someone bring me a basket of puppies. Where do I sign up?)
You see, Elle is a woman of low birth who has won the heart and hand of a rich South American businessman. Her husband (Nicolas Koline) adores his wife and lavishes her with everything her heart desires, including a beautiful and high-tech mansion in Paris. However, he is in constant fear that she will leave him. Elle is fiery and temperamental and she enjoys going out on the town with large groups of young men.
The husband has purchased an estate in his home country and intends to relocate. Elle will not think of leaving Paris and departs in a huff. When her husband tries to follow, he stumbles into the surreal secret headquarters of the Find-All Detective Agency.
The head of the agency give his pitch: They vow to return any and all of his wife’s affections within two months. If they succeed, he pays them 25,000 francs. If they fail, they will pay him 50,000 francs. All he has to do is sign on the dotted line and choose the detective who will handle his case.
The husband decides to give the agency a chance. The detectives seem to be a rather nerdy lot, unlikely to give him any cause for jealousy. He chooses the dweebiest of the bunch and signs the contract. Surprise! The detective he chose was none other than Z in disguise! The husband is understandably worried but is assured that Z is the consummate professional.
What no one counted on, though, was Elle. She recognizes Z at once, both as a detective and as the man in her dream. Worse, it turns out that the detective and the wife are kindred spirits. Both adore Paris, talk to their dogs and go in for, er, athletic displays.
Z, we soon discover, is not the infallible detective of dime novel fame. He is good at his job, yes, but he is also a complete grandma’s boy, he can’t keep a secret to save his life and he has fallen head over heels for Elle.
Will the Find-All Detective Agency fail? Will Z fulfill his contract? Sounds like we have ourselves a few issues.
If nothing else, The Burning Crucible is stylish and aggressively innovative in both style and technique. There are rapid cross-cuts (no, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin was not the first to use them), elaborate tinting and toning, extreme close-ups and gargantuan sets that dwarf the actors. Mosjoukine also makes playful use of the very medium of motion pictures, film. When she is contemplating her life, Elle finds some old photographic negatives. As she holds them up, the negative animates and then reverses. This imaginative way of introducing flashbacks is so effective that it is a shame it was not more widely adopted.
The characters inhabit a strange, pseudo-science fiction world where everything is automated if you just know the right button to push. From breakfast trays to chairs to noses (!), transformation is just a touch away.
Of course, this topsy-turvy world also means that the audience is never quite sure what is a dream and what is real. The poor husband, the only character in the film who can really be described as average, is an unwilling Alice trapped in this surreal wonderland. No wonder he wants to escape Paris for the safety of his home country!
It takes a powerful actor to rise above such bold imagery and Ivan Mosjoukine is more than up to the task. A veteran of the earliest days of Russian cinema, he learned to act on film when close-ups were a rarity and an actor’s charisma had to be visible even from a distance. The role of Z also calls on all of his versatility as he is called on to play both the “real” Z, his disguises and the incarnations that Elle imagines. (They are: Demon, Seducer, Priest, Beggar, Dweeb.) What we have are performances within performances within performances.
Everyone has their list of favorite actors but how those actors land there varies, at least for me. See, there are some actors (such as Conrad Veidt, Pola Negri and Geraldine Farrar) who made it onto the list immediately. One scene from one movie was enough. Then there are actors who need more time to display their skills before being allowed into the club. John Gilbert, Enid Bennett and Blanche Sweet all required me to watch several of their films before I “got” them. I don’t love them any less, it just took some getting-acquainted time.
Well, Ivan Mosjoukine is in this latter category. Like most silent fans, I first heard of him in print and saw some clips of him in documentaries before I was able to get my hands on one of his full-length movies. Then, I got the worst possible introduction. I saw him in Surrender, an infamous bomb and his lone American film. Fortunately, more of his performances became available and I was able to see him displayed to better advantage. However, I did not catch Mosjoukine-mania until I had a half-dozen or so of his movies under my belt.
What you must realize is that Mosjoukine is an actor with astonishing control of his body and emotions. He is able to convey incredibly complicated motivations and feelings with alarming precision. (Is it any wonder that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with him?) Appreciation for this precision is essential if one is to become a Mosjoukine fan. He demands a lot of his viewers but the rewards are great.
Even his humor asks quite a bit. The Burning Crucible requires the viewer to have a knowledge of French detective films of the silent era, true, but we are also asked to ride along with a series of in-jokes and oddball references.
This in-joke feeling is one of the reasons why The Burning Crucible remains something of a controversial film. I am fairly sure that the only people who got 100% of the humor were Mosjoukine and a small circle of friends. This insular feeling can leave the viewer alienated from the film and it is what makes it a love-it-or-hate-it bit of entertainment.
To be honest, I went into The Burning Crucible expecting to dislike it. After all, I generally find in-joke films to be annoying. And, anyway, The Burning Crucible is so aware of its own stylishness that it can barely be bothered to look up from its own navel-gazing.
And yet… I liked it. I was most certainly amused from beginning to end. True, the movie is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma but the thing is gleefully packaged and so full of cheerful good humor that I could not resist it. Some of the scenes (like Lissenko’s athletic pursuit of the fleeing Mosjoukine around her bedroom) are laugh-out-loud funny.
The scene that really won me over, though, was when the husband meets Z for the first time. He is in the Find-All Agency and one of the detectives, a particularly dippy-looking mouth-breather, explains their mission and methods. The husband picks him as his agent and once the contract is signed, our mouth-breather peels off his disguise, revealing his splendid visage. The scene is played deadpan and is so wonderfully strange that I had to love it.
Nathalie Lissenko (who was involved with Mosjoukine at the time, accounts vary as to whether or not they were actually married) is a wonderful foil for him. A handsome woman with intriguing features, she matches Mosjoukine in enthusiasm, intensity and athleticism. The first time their characters meet (in the real world, anyway) she gives him this predatory grin and from that point forward you don’t know who is the hunter and who is the prey.
In fact, the whole balance of power in the film is weighted toward the women. They are the romantic aggressors, the nurturers and the manipulators. Elle’s husband breaks the rule by trying to control his wife and gets only heartache in return. Z manages to play with Elle’s head but he is only able to accomplish it through the assistance of other women. And, of course, he is utterly infantilized in the presence of his grandmother. (“Grandma, I have a boo boo.” Yes, really.)
Late in the film, Z organizes an all-female dancing endurance competition. The lowlifes of Paris shove their wives and girlfriends onto the dance floor, commanding the women to earn the generous prize. Once the contest is over, though, the women have their revenge, forcing the men to hoof in hopes of winning some money.
The lesson of the film is clear: Do not try to dominate women, for they will pay you back with interest.
Now for a little something that has been irritating me for a while. I would like to take a moment to talk about Ivan Mosjoukine’s name. Specifically, the spelling in the Latin alphabet.
The Cyrillic alphabet (used by many Slavic languages, as well as Mongolian) has some sounds that are spelled assorted ways when transliterated into Latin letters. There are multiple systems for transliteration and this has led to some very odd and different spellings.
Technically, according to the Russian government’s GOST 7.79-2000 System B, Mosjoukine’s name should be spelled “Mozzhukhin” but the French spelling, “Mosjoukine,” is the more popular version. Here is the breakdown:
M is M. That’s easy enough.
O is O. We’re on a roll! (Yes, I know there are stressed and unstressed O sounds but let’s not get too carried away and scare everyone else off.)
З is Z. No, it’s not the number three, it’s Z as in zoo.
Ж is ZH. The ZH sound is one of the hardest to spell out. As I learned with Jetta Goudal (whose name is pronounced “Zhetta”), some people read ZH as Zah-he. Nope, not even close. Actually, ZH is a soft J sound, like the S in treasure, pleasure, measure… Easy!
У is OO. Like root, boot, moot. Sometimes Romanized as U.
Х is you choking on a bone. Seriously, it’s kind of like that guttural CH sound that classical announcers use for Bach’s name. Often transliterated as KH or just H. Most English speakers roll over the choking bit and opt to just say K or H.
И is EE. Not a backwards N. (Designers: stop using it that way to make things look Russian. It’s stupid.) It’s just a long EE sound. Sometimes transliterated as I but then it confuses our poor heads as the letter I is often pronounced IH in English. EE is better.
Н is N. It is not an H, it is the letter N, as in net, nope, neck and neat.
How about that! You get a movie review and a Russian lesson thrown into the bargain. Of course, this is a highly crude and simplified explanation but you get the idea of how the different spellings of Mosjoukine, Mozzhukhin, Mosjukine came about.
I like Mosjoukine because it actually produces the best pronunciation result for non-Russian speakers, at least in my opinion. The other form? I mean, any time you put that many Zs and KHs together, you are bound to scare English speakers away. We are a skittish lot. You should see the way we react to umlauts in a non-heavy metal context.
(I do not speak Russian but I can read it or, rather, sound out the letters. One of the advantages of being partnered with a Russian student for a few college courses. Knowing that alphabet has helped immeasurable in research. It is very useful to know that clicking on кино will get you information on movies. I just don’t have time to attack Slavic grammar. My heart already belongs to the Macro-Altaic language family. Of course.)
Well, now that we’ve settled that, let’s wrap up the review. The Burning Crucible most certainly deserves its reputation as one of the oddest offerings of the silent era and it remains a love-it-or-hate-it affair. For me, it hit just the right spot. While I am sure that I would get more of the humor if I had a deeper knowledge of French crime films and Russian culture, there was still plenty for me to enjoy.
It’s a pity that Mosjoukine never sat in the director’s chair again. He had flair in abundance and his mad humor could have enhanced many a late silent or early talkie.
As far as recommending this film, all I can say is give it a try. It’s not for everyone but you just might end up joining the ranks of its fans. Think of it as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension of the nineteen-twenties. Oh yeah, I went there.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★½
Where can I see it?
The Burning Crucible was released on DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s French Masterworks: Russian Emigres in Paris 1923-1928 box set. It contains five wonderful films from the talented Russians who settled in France. It’s a bit spendy but not bad if you think of the per-film cost. I highly recommend it. It’s eye-opening. Put it on your wish list and start leaving very, very broad hints with your friends and family. Or skip ten lattes. Just get it, you won’t be sorry.