Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Joseph-Louis Mundwiller

Departure of a Grand Old Man (1912)

Departure of a Grand Old Man

This Russian movie by Yakov Protazanov is more famous for the controversy it provoked than for its content. Leo Tolstoy’s widow sued the company for libel, and was successful in getting its screenings suppressed in Russia, although it was still distributed internationally. She is depicted in the film as being domineering and greedy, and ultimately as causing her husband’s death – surely grounds for a libel suit if I’ve ever heard one! This narrative is not unusual, however. She has often been accused of preventing Tolstoy from giving land and money to peasants and worthwhile causes, and the story, depicted here, of Tolstoy saying “I’m not the boss, check with my wife” had been told anecdotally long before this movie was made, whether it was true or not. It may well be that Tolstoy himself hid behind her as a kind of excuse for his own moral weaknesses, and the movie certainly fails to show the hard work she put into editing his novels.

The movie itself is fairly unimaginative hagiography. Nearly every shot is the same, they are all static, and at fairly long distance from the characters. There is some interesting documentary footage of a train station near the end, but the vast majority of the film takes place inside of small, square-shaped sets with characters entering and exiting as from a stage. The scenes are not inter-cut and do not interact with one another; each is a discreet unit that plays out until the end. A final effect shot was added for the foreign audiences: Tolstoy is welcomed into Heaven by Jesus Christ. Not really what one hopes for from Russian silent cinema.

Directed by: Yakov Protazanov, Eliziveta Thiemann

Camera: George Meyer, Aleksandr Levitskii

Starring: Vladimir Shaternikov, Olga Petrova, Mikhail Tamarov, Elizaveta Thiemann

Run time: 31 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Romance with a Double Bass (1911)

Romance with a Double Bass

This Russian comedy short relies mostly on situation rather than slapstick for its humor. However, as compared with “Princess Tarakanova,” the actors do rely more on pantomime to get the story across and we have no intertitles at all. In this one, a very different sort of a princess goes out fishing at a local stream. So far as I can remember, this is the one time in 104 years of movies that I’ve ever seen a woman cast a fly in a film (someone can correct me in the comments if Katherine Hepburn actually did it in “Bringing Up Baby” or something, but all I remember is golf). Anyway, once we’ve gotten past the shock of that gender-bending situation, we are introduced to a musician traveling with his friends, who decides to put down his instrument and take a dip, just a little way downstream. His friends move on, and as soon as they do, two thieves show up and steal his clothes, as would happen in any American comedy of the period. The swimmer spies the princess napping and swims up to meet her, but becomes shy, perhaps because he’s only wearing a longjohns-style-swimsuit, and moves on. When she wakes up, she goes for a dip too. She, however, is wearing the latest in Paris fashions in swimwear. Still, while she’s in the river, the same two thieves steal her clothes. When each comes back to land, they discover their embarrassed state, and soon afterward, they discover each other. Luckily, the thieves didn’t take the heavy double bass (I guess there’s a big market in Russia for illegal clothes fencing, but not expensive musical instruments), so the musician convinces the princess to hide in the case while he chases after the thieves. The friends now return and, finding the case abandoned with no musician about, pick it up and carry it to the nearby home of the princess. She bursts out, in front of her father, his guests, the servants, and everyone, humorously ashamed of her semi-nudity.


Charles Musser, in The Emergence of Cinema, mentions a number of American comedies in which women’s bodies are exposed for the pleasure of male audiences. This one differs slightly from that earthy tradition. For one thing, it’s based on a Chekhov short story, suggesting that even where light comedy was concerned, Russian audiences wanted to class up the movies with a little culture. For another, the man in this story is also deprived of clothing, although his embarrassment is not lingered over as much. It’s hard to imagine that female audiences found his skinny frame as interesting as the men found the princess, either. Finally, in the movies Musser mentions, the father is often also the butt of some Oedipal prank, as where the escaping boyfriend topples the peeping father from a ladder in “How the Athletic Lover Outwitted the Old Man,” but here the father is an agent of the girl’s humiliation.

Director: Kai Hansen

Camera: Joseph-Louis Mundwiller

Cast: Vera Gorskaya, Nikolai Vasilyev

Run Time: 6 Min 45 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.


Princess Tarakanova (1910)

Princess Tarakanova

Alternate Title: Knyazhna Tarakanova

This appears to have been another French production in Russia, made by Pathé, to judge by the images of roosters on the intertitles. Nevertheless, it is clearly intended primarily for Russian audiences as it tells a story from the time of Catherine the Great, that would have been familiar to the class of people expected to attend films there. Princess Tarakanova was a pretender to the Russian throne who is betrayed to Catherine by her lover, Count Orlov, then tricked into imprisonment. Unwilling to renounce her claim, she eventually died in a dungeon in Peter and Paul Fortress of tuberculosis. The movie recounts all of this, also inserting a tragic final visit by a repentant Count Orlov, and also includes an “alternate ending” showing her being drowned in her prison cell, as one legend claimed was her fate.

Princess Tarakanova1

Painting of Tarakanova’s legendary drowning.

Over all, the production here is very stagey, with stationary cameras and scenes shot in single takes. The movie is based on a stage production, and most of the actors make no effort to adapt their acting style for the lack of sound – they just seem to mouth their lines and make the same kinds of motions they would on stage. The exception is V. Mikulina, who played the hapless princess. For most of the movie, we get the impression of a sort of haughty assurance that everyone will realize their mistake, and finally she hams it up gloriously, especially for her (first) death scene, where we get the impression that it was the untimely visit by Orlov that brought about the tubercular attack. Another issue with the movie is that it depends a great deal on written documents to replace the dialog. Every few minutes, Orlov is ending a letter, or Catherine is issuing a decree, so that the audience can be informed of what is happening. Later Russian filmmakers, such as Evgeni Bauer, would avoid such devices where possible. The final “drowning” sequence is only on screen for a few seconds, but I suspect that it is where most of the budget went – the water rushes in to Tarakanova’s cell from two directions, looking like quite a good deal of pressure is behind it. Apart from that, the costumes and sets are nicely authentic-looking, but this isn’t a triumph of national cinema.

Directors: Kai Hansen and Maurice Maître

Camera: Joseph-Louis Mundwiller and Toppi

Starring: V. Mikulina and Madame Pogorel’snaia

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.