Ivan Mosjoukine, Betty Amann, and Lil Dagover directed by Alexandre Volkoff in a Tolstoy adaptation? Who do I have to kill? No one, as it turns out. This is the cast and director of The White Devil, one of the last major silent films to be produced in Germany.
I will also be covering the 1959 talkie remake, The White Warrior, a sword and sandal flick starring the mighty Steve Reeves. Click here to skip to the talkie.
The end of silence.
By 1930, the art of the silent film was dead in Hollywood. With Charlie Chaplin as the lone holdout, movies were all singing, all dancing, all talking. In the rest of the world, silent film clung on a little bit longer. Switching to sound was expensive and challenging but the public demanded the talkies.
Germany’s film industry had survived a devastating war, economic turmoil and its best talent being swiped by Hollywood. The famous Ufa studio was being wired for sound and soon Marlene Dietrich would sing but silent film did not go out with a whimper. Ufa’s late silents show innovation and brilliance. Silent film as a popular art was doomed but it made the most of the time it had left.
The White Devil opened for business on January 29, 1930, just two months before The Blue Angel. It boasted of synchronized sound effects and music, a common practice for films of the late silent era. (Silent film is really a misnomer. Music, sound effects and even spoken gibberish are allowed in films defined as silent. Only the coherent spoken dialogue is forbidden.)
What makes this film particularly significant is that it was a reunion for one of the most talented director-actor screen teams of the silent era. Director Alexandre Volkoff and actor Ivan Mosjoukine first worked together in Russia but it was their work in France that won international acclaim. Their collaborations included The House of Mystery (1923), Kean (1924) and Casanova (1927), each film considered a masterpiece of its genre.
Readers of this site will know how I feel about Ivan Mosjoukine (strongly) but here is a very brief introduction for any newcomers: Mosjoukine was only six years old when representatives of the Lumière film company put on a show of brief actualities for astonished Russian audiences in 1896.
The Russian film industry had a slow, painful birth and it was years before Russian people began to see narrative movies made in their own country. Mosjoukine, by this time in his early twenties, was one of the first major stars of the new Russian cinema. He instinctively knew how to play before the camera and his ability to layer complex emotions and convey them in a single glance (helped along by his intense blue eyes) made him one of the most formidable performers of his generation.
Mosjoukine, along with a good portion of the country’s film industry, fled the Russian Revolution and ended up in Paris. The émigrés soon set up shop and were producing pictures of astounding innovation and artistry. The Russians were able to make films that pleased both critics and popular audiences. Quite a feat, I’m sure you will agree.
Hollywood took notice of this and imported a few of the Russians but had no idea how to work with them. Poor Ivan Mosjoukine made the fatal error of signing on with Universal, which cast him in Surrender (1927), a truly dire romantic soaper, opposite the notoriously wooden Mary Philbin. The film wasn’t a box office bomb but it was an artistic disaster.
If this had occurred a year or two before, the damage to Mosjoukine’s career may not have been as calamitous but there was a new problem on the horizon: sound. In silence, the Russian performers could play anything and anyone. In sound, their accents had to be explained. They had to adapt or return to Russia. Considering that the coming of sound coincided with Joseph Stalin’s increasingly dangerous cult of personality and his mass purges, the latter option did not seem healthy.
Losing career momentum at this stage was a serious problem but Mosjoukine made the best of the situation. He finally settled in Germany and signed on with Ufa, where he continued to make films in the waning art of silence. He also reunited with Alexandre Volkoff. And this is where we bring in The White Devil, the final silent film of both Mosjoukine and Volkoff.
Russian literature remains a fertile source for movie plots and the works of Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy constantly find their way onto the screen. For their reunion, Mosjoukine and Volkoff chose Tolstoy’s final novella, Hadji Murat. (This review is truly full of finales, isn’t it?) The choice was a sound one on paper. Both actor and director were most at home in flamboyant costume dramas anchored to solid plots and characterization. Renamed The White Devil (Der weiße Teufel) for the screen, Hadji Murat concerns the culture clash that occurs when a warrior of the Caucasus Mountains attempts to negotiate with invading Russian forces.
The Caucasus has long been a disputed region and the violent, tragic history of Chechnya and Dagestan did not start with terrorism at the Boston Marathon, the Beslan hostage crisis, the Russian apartment bombings or the First or Second Chechen Wars. Near the end of his life, Leo Tolstoy was reminded of the Caucasian War (1817-1864), in which the Russian Empire annexed the Northern Caucasus (that is, Chechnya and Dagestan) and set off a chain of events that the entire world is still dealing with.
(With Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial underway at the time of this writing, I find myself in the uncharacteristic position of writing about an event of topical interest. A quick reminder that this is a movie blog, not a current affairs website. Feel free to mention world events in a neutral manner as they pertain to the films being discussed but no political comments, please.)
In Tolstoy’s case, he attempted to pick a Tartar thistle for his bouquet but the plant refused to surrender its flower so easily. After struggling with the unexpectedly tough plant, Tolstoy managed to remove the flower but completely destroyed it in the process. Later, Tolstoy saw the same variety of flower in a plowed field. It had been battered and trampled but it still survived, bruised and battered though it was. This staunch refusal to die without a fight brought to mind the warlord Hadji Murat.
The story of Hadji Murat consumed Tolstoy’s final years. He wrote to witnesses who had met the man and begged for details that would give his story life. He referred to Murat’s memoirs and his own memories of life as a soldier. At Tolstoy’s own request, the slim novella that resulted was published posthumously.
(Should you care to read the novella yourself, I highly recommend that you seek out the 2009 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky published by Vintage Classics. This translation makes all the difference and other editions simply do not have the right flavor. The translation comes as a standalone novella or as part of a collection of Tolstoy’s shorter works.)
On to the movie, kids!
Note: The intertitles of this film use the Germanized spelling for cast and crew. (Schamil for Shamil, Hadschi for Hadji, Jwan Mosjukin for Ivan Mosjoukine, etc.) To minimize confusion when discussing the differences between the book and film, I have opted to only use the spellings that are most commonly used in the English speaking world.
The film opens with Hadji Murat (Ivan Mosjoukine) returning to his village. He is a fierce warrior, feared by the invading Russians and called “The White Devil” because of his distinct white clothing and horse. (You don’t want to know what they spend on dry cleaning.) A widower, he lives with his young son, Yusuf (Kenneth Rive). Hadji Murat has promised Yusuf that he will bring him a new mother soon.
And hoping to fill that role is Sarai (Betty Amann, last seen under six pounds of false eyelashes in Asphalt). She’s the niece of Imam Shamil (Acho Chakatouny, last seen helping burn out Mosjoukine’s eyes in Michael Strogoff), the leader of the armed resistance against the Russians. Sarai displays her best dance moves but Hadji Murat is stubbornly uninterested. This doesn’t sit very well with either Sarai or Shamil but then Sarai is carried off in a Russian raid and that’s the end of that.
As revenge for the raid, Hadji Murat leads an attack of his own and manages to take a large party of Russian soldiers prisoner. Shamil wants to execute them, Hadji Murat refuses and this is where the simmering hostility between the men boils over. Shamil orders Hadji Murat arrested but our hero has other ideas. He escapes with a handful of his men.
Hadji Murat is in a pickle. He’s an outcast, he didn’t have time to rescue his son and Shamil has sent warriors to hunt him down. There is only one option left. He will go over to the Russians, pretend to join their cause, use them to destroy Shamil and then strike them down from the inside.
The Russians are excited but wary to have the White Devil offer his sword to their cause. Unsure of how to proceed, they send Hadji Murat to St. Petersburg to meet with Czar Nicholas I. This is a major departure from the novella, which took place entirely in and around Tiflis, present day Tbilisi, Georgia. It’s also one of the major missteps in the screenplay adaptation. More on that in a bit.
Nicholas (Fritz Alberti) is a blustering, cruel despot who immediately demands that Hadji Murat lead a campaign against Shamil. Hadji Murat refuses to fight his own people. The Russians are like, “So, why are you here?” and they have a good point. I do not think much of our hero’s planning ability, let me tell you. (He had no such qualms in the book.)
Nicholas has both a czarina and a mistress, Varvara Nelidova (Lil Dagover, who played Jane in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). Like everyone else, Nelidova is taken with the picturesque Hadji Murat but there is another denizen of the Caucasus who has her worried.
After Sarai (remember her?) was taken by the Russians, she was delivered to St. Petersburg and allowed to join the royal ballet. Um, okay. Is this standard operating procedure for Russians? Do they do this with all Chechens or just the girls? How did Sarai get good enough at ballet to perform before royalty in just a few months? What the heck? See, this is why the action should have stayed in Tiflis. Then we wouldn’t have had to jump through silly narrative hoops to keep Sarai in the story.
Anyway, Nicholas spots Sarai, both Nelidova and the czarina spot him spotting Sarai, Sarai spots Hadji Murat and before you can say “pass the blini” we have us a love tangle. Hadji Murat is torn because Sara’s Uncle Shamil made him an outlaw and is holding his son hostage. If he marries Sarai, it will make family reunions all kinds of awkward. But then again, Sarai is played by Betty Amann so there are compensations. For her part, Sarai is just as silly about Hadji Murat as ever but there is that pesky czar to deal with…
So, will Hadji Murat rescue his son and get revenge? Will he risk awkward pauses over the family dinner table and marry Sarai? Will Nicholas survive his attempt to cheat on his mistress? Watch The White Devil to find out!
Let’s start with the good stuff. The White Devil looks and sounds amazing, especially considering the year it was made. As sound films became the norm, many films became static and dull, the wild imagery of the late silents dampened by the primitive sound technology.
The White Devil is a silent, of course, but it also makes use of synchronized music and sound effects. I am on record as being a non-fan of most vintage silent film scores. Frankly, they are too high-pitched for the modern ear and get jaunty at the most inappropriate times. The White Devil’s score has the brooding authenticity of its Russian and Caucasian settings.
Per the moronic Mordaunt Hall, film critic for the New York Times during most of the silent era, The White Devil was released in the United States with dubbed English vocals. If Hall is to be believed (and even a blind pig sometimes finds a truffle), these alien voices were unintentionally hilarious.
So, it sounds good but how does it look? Wow, wow, wow. I mean, you see the screen caps. You can see the moody lighting, the gorgeous costumes and the stern dedication to authenticity. And the direction, while not groundbreaking, is imaginative and quite modern. The whole thing is a brooding, shadowy affair with campfire smoke and candlelight offering relief to the darkness.
And Ivan Mosjoukine… Be still my heart! This film makes me glad for the pause button so that I can stop and admire.
Beautiful cinematography, great sound… What’s the bad news? Well, like so many films before and since, The White Devil completely misses the point that Tolstoy was making. In fact, every imaginative and observant aspect of the story is flipped over in favor of the trite and conventional. I will get into the particulars of this in a bit but let me say that this is shocking for a screenwriter of Alexandre Volkoff’s skill. It could be that Volkoff, a czarist, was uncomfortable with the decidedly critical take on Czar Nicholas I.
(Fun fact! The assistant director for The White Devil was Anton Litvak, who would go on to direct the delightful Anastasia, Ingrid Bergman’s 1956 comeback picture, and the truly ghastly 1959 drama The Journey, based on the same material as Surrender.)
Finally, let’s discuss the performances, specifically, my beloved Ivan Mosjoukine. Well, to be honest, I was a little disappointed. It’s not that he’s bad. Far from it. He’s excellent. It’s just that there is nothing about either the role or the performance that couldn’t be done by any other accomplished actor of the period. You see, Mosjoukine specialized in challenging, complicated characters. When you watch a Mosjoukine movie, you go in expecting to see something that no one else could pull off. So seeing him as a conventional stern heroic type feels anticlimactic. It also fails to make use of his flair for comedy, which is a real shame.
Spoiler warning for this paragraph: That being said, Hadji Murat’s operatic fifteen minute death scene is so good that it almost redeemed the entire film. We get everything: a fight to the death, an “I’m dying on my feet” moment, a too-late rescue, tearful farewells to almost every major character and then a final stylized collapse. Such a scene could have so easily been maudlin or tedious or descend into bathos but Mosjoukine does what he does best and he pulls it off.
The supporting roles are a mixed bag. Asphalt allowed Betty Amann to sink her teeth into both her juicy character and Gustav Fröhlich. In The White Devil, Sarai is utterly damseled for much of the picture. The narrative contortions required to send her character to St. Petersburg seem to throw Amann off balance and she never really finds her footing. This is particularly irritating since we all know Amann is a good actress when she has good material. It is also uncharacteristic for Volkoff and Mosjoukine as both tended to prefer strong, independent heroines in their productions.
Lil Dagover fares much better as Nelidova. The influential mistress of the czar is played with a knowing wink. Nicholas may think that he is in charge but he only has the title. Nelidova has the brains, the cunning and she wears the pants in the relationship. It’s the better of the two main female roles and Dagover clearly knows it. Nelidova’s smarts and her mischievous sense of humor comes across loud and clear. Frankly, she should have been the main character.
Fritz Alberti is truly excellent as Czar Nicholas I. He properly conveys the metal gymnastics of a man who is not half as clever as he thinks he is. His childish antics made me doubly regret that he and Dagover were not present for the entire film. It would have been a marvelously saucy court dramedy, I think.
Acho Chakatouny does well enough as Shamil but the decision to make his character heroic is another mistake made by the screenwriters. Hadji Murat had made it clear that Shamil was just as despotic and corrupt as Nicholas and the contrast between the two not-as-smart-as-they-think-they-are men was a central theme of the novella.
Tolstoy himself stated the importance of these powerful men. “I am fascinated by the parallel between two main figures pitted against each other: Shamil and Nicholas I. They represent two poles of absolutism – Asiatic and European.”
The screenplay abandons this contrast in favor of more conventional story elements. Alberti’s fine acting is wasted when Nicholas is turned into your standard cartoon villain threatening Sarai with A Fate Worse Than Death™. Hadji Murat saves her of course and then he returns to the Caucasus to have it out with Shamil and the czar does not pursue the matter.
So… there was no point to the whole St. Petersburg episode, was there? I wouldn’t mind so much except that the screenwriters moved heaven and earth and twisted and turned in order to get everyone there. If they had just kept the action in Tiflis, it would have saved all sorts of time that could have been used on giving Sarai a personality or something.
I mean, Alberti and Dagover are the highlight of the film but their meeting Hadji Murat and Sarai does not change the course of the story. The St. Petersburg scenes would have worked better as a contrasting interlude, which is what they were in the original novella. (I need to print up signs for aspiring screenwriters that say, “Do you really think you know more than Tolstoy? Really?”)
But I want to talk more about Imam Shamil. In the novella, the bad blood between Shamil and Hadji Murat is a complicated blend of old feuds and succession debates. Hadji Murat is the more noble of the two but he wants power and he is willing to do a lot in order to get it. The White Devil makes their antagonism the result of Hadji Murat being just too darn heroic. Once again, depth is sacrificed for conventionality.
Tolstoy specifically stated that Hadji Murat did kill prisoners (war is war) and he was capable of brutality, though he does have a strong sense of honor. Still, he leaves a trail of bodies wherever he goes, which makes the character ambiguous to say the least. Hadji Murat of the book was charismatic and intriguing but he can’t really be described as a hero.
The fact is that Hadji Murat is not really suitable as a feature-length film. It really needs to be a miniseries. Most translations run around 120 pages but the pages are densely packed without a shred of fat. The story has dozens of characters, each with their own agenda and backstory, and Hadji Murat is not actually center stage throughout most of the novella. Rather, characters are reacting to his actions.
(Oh and Hadji Murat had a couple of wives, a bunch of kids and his son Yusuf was eighteen and loyal to Shamil.)
I think that if they were determined to adapt a tale of Chechnya/Dagestan by Tolstoy, they would have done better to select The Prisoner of the Caucasus. It features a fairly limited cast, plenty of room to expand the story and has a driving and suspenseful narrative that would have suited motion pictures far better. Plus, it has the sort of wry humor that Mosjoukine could do so well. (The short story was loosely adapted in 1996 as Prisoner of the Mountains, a critically acclaimed film directed by Sergei Bodrov.)
The White Devil is drop-dead gorgeous to look at and the acting has much to recommend it but the conventional plot and lack of a driving narrative make it fall short of the earlier work of both director and star.
Still, even second-rate Volkoff-Mosjoukine is a great deal better than what most filmmakers managed. We’re used to “excellent” and “masterpiece” from these guys and so “very good” is inevitably disappointing. The White Devil is a valuable look at Russian émigré filmmaking in Germany but it falls short of being either excellent or a masterpiece. Still, it’s a solid, well-made film and is definitely worth seeking out.
Movies Silently’s Score:★★★
Where can I see it?
There are blurry public domain versions of this film floating around the internet but no major silent film concern has released in high-quality format. This is a pity as the movie’s biggest pluses, its cinematography and costuming, are spoiled somewhat by the blurry picture.
Given the controversial subject matter, it’s amazing that any adaptations of Hadji Murat made it to the screen. At one point, the novella was outright banned as a subject for film in the Soviet Union. However, Hadji Murat’s journey to the movies was not over.
Do you like movies about gladiators?
Peplum. Hoo boy, peplum. For those of you unfamiliar, it refers to the mid-century sword and sandal flicks made in Italy. American bodybuilder Steve Reeves was the king of this curious genre, taking advantage of the fact that Italian films were shot silent and voices were dubbed in post-production. No Italian? No problem! You could still be an Italian movie star.
Sword and sandal film is a hit-or-miss thing for me. Some of my favorite so-bad-they’re-good films fall in this genre but others get so bogged down in blood and bikinis that they become tedious. The White Warrior isn’t a completely peplum affair but it has leanings.
The Italians teamed with the Yugoslavians and tried their hand at Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat with the 1959 Steve Reeves flick Agi Murad, il diavolo bianco, released in the United States in 1961 as The White Warrior. To be honest, I wasn’t going to cover The White Warrior beyond a brief note in the review text. However, this review has been pretty heavy and I think we all need a break. So what the heck! Let’s do this. Let’s pit Steve Reeves against Ivan Mosjoukine. There will surely never be another opportunity to do so.
The film opens with Czar Nicholas I (Milivoje Zivanovic) all flustered at those dad-blasted, stubborn people of the Caucasus who refuse to be conquered. I mean, what can you do about such people? (The movie actually has a character refer to the czar as “Nicholas the First.” Prognostication. Nice job if you can get it.)
The most popular leader of the rebels is the dashing Hadji Murat (Steve Reeves), a musclebound hunk of strategic and tactical genius. The czar wants to use negotiation to win the Caucasus over to their side and so he orders the officers on the frontier to use diplomacy. The Russians decide the best way to handle this is to shoot and stab Mr. Reeves a little and kidnap him. Then he will be their friend! If you see flaws in this glorious plan, you clearly do not deserve the czar’s commission. Diplomacy. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Hadji Murat’s capture causes all sorts of trouble for his new wife, Sultanet (Giorgia Moll) and his young son. They are faced with death and/or dishonor but I was distracted by something else. The voices for the women and Hadji Murat’s young son, they seemed so… familiar.
(If you want to watch along with me, I have set the video to start at the appropriate scene.)
Hokey smokes, Bullwinkle! It looks like the folks in charge of the dubbing hired the services of June Foray, the remarkable voice actress who played Rocket J. Squirrel, Natasha Fatale, Nell Fenwick, Witch Hazel, Granny of Tweety Bird fame and dozens and dozens of others. And so we get to hear the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel declaring plans to kill as many Russians as possible. It’s pretty hilarious. (Maybe battling Boris and Natasha finally snapped his fuzzy little mind.)
Most of the film is spent with the villainous Prince Sergei Vorontzov (Gerard Herter) doing a “you must pay the rent, I can’t pay the rent” routine with the captive Hadji Murat. Herter overacts outrageously while Reeves manages to get through these scenes with a straight face, which did impress me a bit.
The White Warrior does all right for what it is but it’s hardly the most exciting film. A lot of time is spent talking about this and that but the action is grudgingly eked out. Oh well, at least viewers can play Spot June Foray to pass the time.
Now I must be blunt. Steve Reeves simply cannot wear a cherkeska. He doesn’t know how to move in it and he certainly doesn’t know how to sit in it. The length of the coat seems to have completely befuddled him. Fortunately, he is not obliged to wear it for much of the story as the screenwriters find assorted ways to relieve him of his cherkeska, as well as his shirt and large sections of his trousers. Not to be outdone, Scilla Gabel (who plays the czar’s goddaughter) parades around in a sheer nighty and granny panties. I’m not sure any of this ever occurred to Tolstoy. (Leo! Honey! Baby! You need to add some sex appeal if you want your books to sell!)
As expected, this version takes outrageous liberties with Tolstoy’s text. Hadji Murat totally saves Chechnya from Russian rule (history!) and rumors of his death are greatly exaggerated as all ends in wine and song. The whole thing is unintentionally hilarious and I do recommend it for fans of chee-zee cinema but not for fans of Tolstoy. But I’m pretty sure that’s stating the obvious.
And the winner is…
No surprises here. It wasn’t a fair fight but life isn’t fair. The White Warrior is a clunky film with no sense of pacing. The White Devil had its problems but there were no issues with the basic craft of moviemaking.
As for the leading men, Steve Reeves is a sinewy block of wood. While Mosjoukine is not at his best in The White Devil, there is still no competition in the acting department. Or the directing. Or even the writing.
That’s not to say that The White Warrior is without its charms. In addition to the Rocky and Bullwinkle connection, we are treated to the least Russian Russians and the least Chechen Chechens ever to grace the screen. I can see this film being a blast watched MST3K-style with a group of friends.
Oh and if you are one of those people who likes movies that are “artistic” and “tasteful” (picky picky!) then you should definitely check out 12 (2007) for your modern-look-at-Chechnya needs. Directed by the legendary Nikita Mikhalkov, it’s a remake of 12 Angry Men with a Chechen boy on trial for the murder of his Russian adoptive father. It’s a cross-section of modern Russia in which the assorted characters must confront their prejudices and humanity. Great stuff and one of my favorite Russian films. (Here’s the trailer.)
Availability: There are lots of public domain and bargain releases for The White Warrior, all of them the cut down American release as far as I can tell. If you want to plunk down money for the thing, you may as well snag the Warriors 50 Movie Pack Collection, which gives you fifty sword and sandal movies for the price of a single movie theater ticket.
This post was my contribution to the Fabulous Films of the 30s Blogathon hosted by the CMBA. Be sure to read the posts and do check out the tie-in book that some of the other participants put together. All proceeds will be donated to film preservation.