THE BURNING CRUCIBLE Fires The Imagination
If I wanted to introduce someone to silent film, The Burning Crucible is the last movie I’d show them.
And the first.
The last because it’s such a shock to the system it might scare them off. It’s totally subversive, completely unpredictable and impossible to define—bedroom farce, surreal nightmare, drawing-room comedy, romantic melodrama, goofy slapstick, detective story… it’s like the Whack-A-Mole of genres. Just when you think you’ve nailed it, something wildly different pops up in the next scene, or even the same scene. And that’s also why I’d show it first. At its height, this is what filmmaking used to be, when every possibility was explored and nothing was off the table, when labels were for film canisters, not for films.
Starring Ivan Mosjoukine, who also wrote and directed, The Burning Crucible was potent enough to inspire Jean Renoir to abandon a life in ceramics for one in film: “I was delighted,” he recalled. “Finally, I had a good French film before my eyes…” Really more of a French-Russian one: threatened with arrest and execution by the Red Army, the hugely popular Mosjoukine had fled his homeland for Paris, where he became the linchpin for cutting-edge artists from both countries.
The film opens with a dream that shifts seamlessly, as dreams do, from one terrifying vision to another, including one where a prisoner chained to the stake is dragging a woman by her long braids into the fire… finally she breaks away and flutters like a moth from the flames. All of this chaos couldn’t be further removed from the dreamer’s waking life—and when Elle (Natalya Lisenko) finally emerges from her fitful sleep, she realizes the source of her nightmare: she’d fallen asleep reading the memoirs of “The Famous Detective Z” (Mosjoukine), a master of disguise and magnet for danger.
“What a stupid dream!” she laughs. “What connection can there be between these disturbing visions and the calm life and brilliant future in store for me?” Even as the title card fades, we know she’ll be shaken out of her complacency. But so will we.
Elle is farcically pampered: her breakfast and tea trays pop out of her headboard (decades before similar goings-on in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast), her vanity table slowly descends from the ornate ceiling, and as she primps and preens with her giant powder puff, a fawning servant scurries in with… wait for it… a tray of puppies!
Even her most useful accessory, her doting husband (Nicolas Koline), pops out from a panel behind a picture. But the “good news” he’s come to deliver knocks Elle for her first jolt: He’s selling their lavish estate and resettling them in their South American homeland. Frantically, she flees to her beloved Paris streets, sending her husband on a hunt for her in a world where nothing is as it seems…
Enter The Famous Detective Z, who’s tasked not only with finding Elle but taming her—a course that does not run smooth. Until then, the most ardent love of his life had been his grandmother…
To walk you through the plot would be as useless as bringing a coffee cup to Alice’s Tea Party. You really need to see it, and feel it, for yourself. It’s so inventive, visually astonishing and quirky it leaves you a little dizzy and drunk, and none too eager to reclaim your balance. You don’t want to leave this world, or Mosjoukine, behind; you’ve been spoiled for more linear films and less lyrical actors.
Mosjoukine was often called the Russian Valentino, which is a bit like saying Ingrid Bergman is the Swedish Ruby Keeler. Yes, he’s extravagantly romantic, and his eyes are truly hypnotic—but he’s also hilarious and brilliant and wry and touching and as physically fluid as Chaplin. In a single film, and without a trace of ego, he shows you there’s nothing he can’t do. If you’ve seen him, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, be warned: The Burning Crucible may be the start of a magnificent obsession.
The Burning Crucible is available from Flicker Alley as part of its five-film DVD collection, French Masterworks: Russian Emigrés in Paris 1923-1929. The other four fabulous films in the set are The Late Mathias Pascal (also starring Mosjoukine), Kean, Gribiche and The New Gentlemen. The prints are absolutely gorgeous, and contain both the original French as well as English subtitles.
This article is part of the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Fritzi at Movies Silently and sponsored by The House of Mystery, an astonishingly stylish serial epic that has miraculously survived from the early 1920s and is now available in a beautiful DVD print from Flicker Alley. To read all the other entries, click here!