Surrender (1927) represents the only American appearance of the famous Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine (né Mozzhukin, 1989-1939) whose romantic swashbuckler roles were much admired by adolescent Nabokov (1912016). Mosjoukine made his own miraged appearance in the first stage of young Nabokov's life as exile. After the Revolution his family moved to the Crimea, where Nabokov senior became Minister of Justice in the hopeful Regional Government. One morning in the summer of 1918, with real battles raging in thenorth (the Civil War), Nabokov suddenly met on a mountain trail
a strange cavalier, clad in a Circassian costume, with a tense, perspiring face painted a fantasitc yellow. He kept ferociously tugging at his horse, which, without heeding him, proceeded down the steep path at a curiously purposeful walk, like that of an offended person leaving a party. I had seen runaway horses, but I had never seen a walkaway one before, and my astonishment was given a still more pleasurable edge when I recognized the unfortunate rider as Mozzhuhin, whom Tamara [his first love, the model for Mary—A.A.] and I had so often admired on screen. The film Haji Murad (after Tolstoy's tale of that gallant, rough-riding mountain chief0 was being rehearsed on the mountain pastures of that range. "Stop that brute [Derzhite proklyatoe zhivotnoe]" he said through his teeth as he saw me, but at the same moment, with a mighty sound of crunching and crashing stones, two authentic Tatars came running down to the rescue, and I trudged on, with my butterfly net, toward the upper crags where the Euxine race of the Hippolyte Grayling was expecting me (Speak Memory, p. 247).
All rehearsals concluded, both actor and carefree lepidopterist would soon become permanent emigrés; Surrender starred Mosjoukine as a White Army officer who losed everything in the CIvil War that had provided a backdrop for the actor's unreal meeting with Nabokov. A publicity photograph poses Mosjoukine with Edward Sloman, Surrender's director, and some of those dazed Russian emigré extras "whose only hope and profession was their past." The theme is memorably orchestrated in Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command, (1928), in which Emil Jannings plays an ex-tsarist general who, now a poor old man in Hollywood, applies for work as and extra and is cast to replay his former self in the film-within-the-film. The cruel, dizzying commission and that film's Communist director (William Powell) combine to drive Jannings insane. (Sternberg's scenario was inspired by a "true story" rather than, say, Pirandello's play Henry IV, 1922.) Still photos often fail to communicate the essence of a tragic performance or, even worse, freeze what seems to be an overblown expression (always a possibility in the context of the more stylized "theatrical" action of the silent cinema).
The haunting quality of The Last Command, however, is preserved in several stills: Jannings about to don his "costume" in the extras' common dressing room; Jannings being inspected like a young recruit by the assistant director and prop man, ready with a box of authentic medals; or the spectacle of Grand Duke Jannings, imprisoned by mirrors and carried away by his re-creation of the past as he bravely confronts a mob of revolutionaries or arrogantly reviews the troops of his last command, many of them played by actual Russian emigrés. "I had fortified my image of the Russian Revolution by including in my cast of extra players an assortment of Russian ex-admirals and generals, a dozen Cossacks, and two former members of the Duma, all victims of the Bolsheviks, and, in particular, an expert on borscht by the name of Koblianski. These men, especially one Cossack general who insisted on keeping my car spotless, viewed Jannings' effort to be Russian with such disdain that I had to order them to conceal it," writes Field Marshal von Sternberg in his autobiography, Fun In A Chinese Laundry (1965).
—Alfred Appel, Jr., from Nabokov's Dark Cinema, Oxford University Press, 1974
The DVD event of the week, or rather the month, or quite probably the whole year, is Criterion's Three Silent Classics By Josef von Sternberg, which collects the seminal films Underworld, The Docks of New York, and the above-discussed Last Command. (Incidentally, while I could not find the publicity still from Surrender described in the above passage, on the left here is a shot of the actor Mosjoukine.) Mr. Dave Kehr, in his superb assessment of the set and the movies therein for The New York Times, gets down to cases and nails them right away: "In a sense, Sternberg was an avant-garde filmmaker who found himself, by fluke and only for a short while, at the controls of the Hollywood machine, then operating at the peak of its otherworldly artificiality." I should hope to perhaps elaborate on this idea on this blog some time soon. In the meantime, I am hoping that the hereafter, where some believe the good Professor Appel (whose work moved and inspired me in so many ways) travelled to in May of last year, has a very good home theater system.