A frothy farce of false identity, L’heureuse mort reveals little of the upheavals—wars, revolution, exodus—that lie behind its existence. It was produced by Russian filmmakers who fled the rising tide of revolution and landed in Paris. It was directed by Serge Nadjedine, a shadowy figure with little film experience. It was released to a French public fearful for the future of France’s film industry. Yet it floats above these stormy crosscurrents as lightly as a cork upon the waves.
When Serge Nadjedine arrived in France in 1922, Paris was bursting with émigrés like him who had escaped the uncertainties of revolutionary Russia. The center of bohemian life since the mid-18th century, Montmartre became the gathering place for Russian painters, singers, and poets. Former members of the Romanov court were driving cabs, running nightclubs, and modeling for French fashion houses. Coco Chanel was about to embark on her brief affair with the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the dead Czar’s cousin, which resulted in a season of Russian-inspired couture.
Films Albatros, a studio based in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil, was another hub of the émigré community. It began its existence as Ermol’ev-Cinéma, most of whose key personnel had followed producer Iosef Ermol’ev when he fled Moscow, spending three years shuttling among Kiev, Odessa, and Yalta, cities then occupied by an ever-changing guard of Czarist, German, and Allied troops. He carried films from his Moscow studio as well as bits and pieces of productions begun en route. Arriving in Paris in 1920, Ermol’ev-Cinéma finally finished the film its team had begun in Yalta, the appropriately titled Harrowing Adventure.
Nadjedine had fallen in with Ermol’ev’s company in Yalta and was with them in 1920 when Odessa fell to Bolshevik troops and Allied ships transported the refugees to Constantinople. While the filmmakers traveled on to Paris, Nadjedine stayed in Constantinople. A graduate of the Aleksandrinskïï Theatre in St. Petersburg, he found work as a ballet master and theater director, all the while hoping for a job in America. The job never materialized. Instead, Alexandre Kamenka, an acquaintance from St. Petersburg, urged him to come to Paris. Kamenka was now the head of Ermol’ev-Cinéma, reorganized under the name Films Albatros with the motto, “Upright, in spite of the storm.”
The studio’s motto was also a fitting description for France’s film industry, which had been crippled by the twin blows of World War I and the subsequent wave of American films flooding the European market. France, the birthplace of film exhibition, saw its native production decline so severely that by 1919 only ten percent of films playing in Paris were French-made. “No one realizes the stagnation against which the French film industry is struggling,” wrote a critic in L’illustration in 1919. “Hypnotized by the remarkable American productions […] our producers seem to have given up trying to create a formula for French film art.”
In their effort to revive French production, French filmmakers tried serials in imitation of the hugely popular The Perils of Pauline. Directors celebrated the French countryside in realist films like André Antoine’s La terre (1921). They invested in “super-productions” like Koenigsmark (1923) and Madame Sans-Gene (1925), which starred box-office draw Gloria Swanson. While each genre offered intermittent success, none proved to be the magic formula to cure the industry of its ills. Former production giants Pathé and Gaumont produced fewer films, turning to distribution (often of American films) to keep up revenue.
This production void was an opportunity for new, smaller studios like Ermol’ev’s Albatros. After its big hit La maison du mystère (1922), Albatros’s production expanded to a high of seven films in 1924, three of which were made by newcomer Nadjedine. Born in 1880, Nadjedine was 44 when he undertook this new career (although some accounts suggest he may have worked on films in Czarist Russia, no evidence has been found to support that claim). His first directing assignment in France was Le chiffonnier de Paris (The Ragpicker of Paris). A review in Mon ciné noted, “a Russian director, still unknown here.” The film is a sentimental melodrama, involving an abandoned child, a villainous officer, and a miscarriage of justice—all set right by the kind-hearted ragpicker.
Nadjedine’s next film, La cible (The Target), about a South American refugee named Diaz de Tolédo, was co-written by Nadjedine and fellow Russian émigré Nicolas Rimsky, who also plays the lead character’s evil alter ego in the film. Rimsky (born Kourmacheff) then wrote the script for Nadjedine’s third film for Albatros, L’heureuse mort, in which he plays both a mediocre French playwright, Théodore Larue, and his look-alike brother. While on a pleasure cruise, Larue falls overboard and is presumed drowned. Returning home, he finds that death has transformed him into a literary genius, his plays now much in demand. Comic situations ensue as Larue pretends to be his own brother returned from the colonies, in an effort to reap the benefits of his posthumous acclaim.
This farcical exploration of the fluidity of identity has its own share of stylistic shape-shifting, incorporating melodrama and, in one sequence, animation, as well as borrowing from the visual style of the French avant-garde. In Nadjedine’s hands, however, rapid cutting, off-center framing, and image reversal are used to comic effect. In one instance, a subjective camera shows the timid, seasick Larue experiencing a mild storm as a dizzying hurricane. Cinémagazine’s critic wrote, “a very good film for which I predict a fruitful career.” In sharp contrast to the historical extravaganzas dominating the bigger studios, L’heureuse mort is fresh, modern, and above all, funny. Film historian Richard Abel observed, “Ironically, it was the young Albatros company formed of Russian émigrés that initiated the renewal of French film comedy.”
L’heureuse mort was Nadjedine’s last film for Albatros. Even as he wrapped production, the character of the studio was changing dramatically. Charles Vanel had described Albatros in its early days as a place where “émigrés slept in dressing rooms … the tailor was a Czarist general, the cook an Orthodox priest, the chief engineer a Cossack colonel.” However, by the mid-’20s, the once tightly knit émigré community began to drift apart. Iosef Ermol’ev was the first, departing for Germany in 1922. Director Jakov Protazanov returned to Russia in 1923. The biggest defection came at the end of 1924, when Kamenka’s producing partner Noe Bloch left to join the Russian-financed Ciné-France-Film, taking directors, actors, and technicians with him. After his departure, Kamenka turned to directors from the French avant-garde who had long interested him. Marcel L’Herbier, Jacques Feyder, and Jean Epstein all collaborated with Albatros, and René Clair made several classic French comedies under the studio’s wings.
Perhaps this shift spurred Nadjedine’s departure. The director made only one more film, Naples au baiser du feu (1925), for producer André Legrand. Then he moved to America, where he eventually found a job as head of the Russian Imperial Ballet School in Cleveland, Ohio—replacing Nikolai Semenov, who had thrown himself over Niagara Falls in protest against the ugliness of modern dance. As far as we know, Nadjedine’s final exile was less tempestuous. He became an American citizen in 1942 and died in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, in 1958. His obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer barely mentions his foray into film.
Presented at SFSFF 2010 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble with live narration by Frank Buxton