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The Forgotten: Gambling Hell

Two stylistic tours-de-force from Fedor Ozep, camera stylist and embodiment of the Pathe-Natan house style.

The third in a short series celebrating the films of the Pathé-Natan company, 1926-1934. 

Fyodore Otsep (Russia), also credited as Fjodor Ozep (Germany), Fedor Ozep (Canada) and Fédor Ozep (France) is probably best known as co-writer of sci-fi epic Aelita (1924) and director of Soviet classic Miss Mend (1926). His work in Europe and America is harder to see, and the whole lot is rarely grouped together for consideration as a whole, the curse of itinerant filmmakers like Dassin, Siodmak, even Ophüls.

To decide whether this is merely a quirk of film history, or a full-on case of major artistic neglect, simply watch this clip:

Amok (1934) is the third of Ozep's Pathé-Natan films, and the most baroque. It's based on a story by Stefan Zweig (Letter from an Unknown Woman) later filmed in Mexico with less fidelity but plenty of gusto. It's a very weird orientalist fever dream.

Jean Yonnel, a specialist in haunted dissipation, plays Holk, a washed-up doctor continually gambling away his savings in a tropic hellhole, where even the natives are prone to explosive mania brought on by the heat and humidity, resulting in regular killing sprees. We first see this in the person of Valery Inkijinoff (another Russian, quite convincingly playing Balinese or something: the film isn't too specific about its setting), who knifes a couple of fellow "natives" (every non-white looking extra the studio could rustle up) before being shot down like a rabid dog.

On the sound of the gunshot, Ozep then cuts, with breathtaking audacity, to another Inkijinoff, the same actor now playing a manservant/chauffeur to a swank lady (Marcelle Chantal, bewitchingly veiled). They're heading to see Holk to procure an abortion. Holk, on first sight of a white woman in some years, immediately loses any vestige of sang-froid (despite having been surrounded by topless girls, one of whom shares his bed) and offers to perform the op in exchange for sexual favors.

She storms out and Holk, mortified at his faux pas, spends the rest of the film trying to win back her trust and persuade her to accept his help. The situation is complicated by the presence of her lover, a terribly young Jean Servais, and the approach of her husband from abroad.

It's all quite overheated and melodramatic, and the colonial attitudes can be disturbing (exoticism is racism's sexy sister), but Ozep's sweep with the camera, his command of dizzying montage, and the elaborate, eerie, majestic and thoroughly moist sets of Lazare Meerson make for a consistently dazzling, at times stifling experience, like a cross between Wyler's The Letter and Sternberg's anything.

I haven't been able to track down the romantic-sounding Mirages de Paris (1933), Ozep's middle film from the studio, but his first, a Franco-German co-production of The Brothers Karamazov (1931), is another impressive feat of cinematic bravura. Fritz Kortner stars as Dimitri, plaything of fate, with Fritz Rasp wonderfully creepy as Smerdjakoff and Anna Sten alluring as Gruschenka. It's a radically simplified version of Dostoevsky's narrative, resolving it almost into a detective story, but there's nothing simple about Ozep's decoupage.

The full set of Pathé-Natan stylistic tropes are deployed: scenes of berserk montage frenzy, long, sinuous camera moves, and scenes built up from fragments, ecstatic snapshots of rain-slicked signposts, train chimneys, billowing curtains. It's a film of striking visual richness, to be wallowed in luxuriantly.

The movie was released in French and German versions, but only the close-ups were actually re-shot: dubbing sufficed to convert the master-shots. Europe's film-making countries were doing all they could to cope with the catastrophe of talkies, which threatened to rob them of all their foreign markets (MGM's vice president had boasted, "Thanks to the movies, in ten years, only English will be spoken in the world!").

Kortner, of course, is mesmerizing, a sort of bulldog stubborn aggression at war with inner weakness. More surprising, Anna Sten, chiefly remembered for Goldwyn's failed attempt to fashion her into a new Garbo, is electrifying. The perverse, provocative character she creates here, deliberately pushing Kortner to violence, knowing it will turn to sex—such a figure would have been impossible by the time she got to Hollywood.

Ozep clearly channelled the Pathé-Natan house style and brought to it elements of UFA and Mosfilm, creating a very rich mix indeed. What I don't yet know is how his sensibility translated to his last work, in America. Sten may have foundered in Hollywood, and Kortner became just another (brilliant) character actor, never quite gaining the prominence he had previously enjoyed, but have any of you seen Ozep's Canadian noir Whispering City (1947)?


The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

I do in fact have WHISPERING CITY, but it’s been years since I’ve watched it ( I have it on VHS, which may be an indication as to why it’s been that long ). Don’t recall much about it, but I’ll re-watch and report back.Great stuff David.
A lot of wild stylists from Europe who went to America seem to have been subsumed into the standard industrial way of doing things — Dupont would be one example. I’m hoping the possibilities of the noir school allowed Ozep enough creative leeway to be creative.
I love reading and seeing your clips of older films such as Amok, but where is it possible to see any of these?? I have searched for this and other titles that you have discussed, but all to no avail. They seem to exist in some form and place, given your clips. Is there any way that we can see these? Thanks for your work.
Frustrating, I know. The grey market in unavailable movies works two ways — through private downloading communities, and through communities of people sending discs through the post. The films are frequently off-air recordings, many of them decades old, sometimes transferred from VHS. And there are fans at work creating subtitles for movies that never got translated into English before. I would suggest inquiring among cinephile contacts. I’m happy to help out where it’s legal, but I prefer to swap for other rare titles or to charge a modest fee.
Looks like a winner. I haven’t seen any films by Fyodor Otsep (yet), but I’ve had an interest in the man since I’ve heard of him in relation to his place in Québécois film history – his Le père Chopin is our earliest professionally made talky. Both Le père Chopin and the alternate French language version of Whispering City, La forteresse, are available in Québec thanks to the on-demand streaming service Éléphant (and hopefully Whispering City will someday be for the sake of a better looking print). And I have a copy of Gibraltar laying around somewhere, so I guess this would be a good time to start checking out Otsep’s work.
Gibraltar, with Stroheim on screenplay? I’m up for that. I’d happily trade you for a copy.
Ostep’s Karamazov film lists Victor Trivas has a co-writer — director of but five films but one if them is the fabulous Niemandsland.
And another is that film with Michel Simon as a severed head!
Just ran across this— if you’re interested on Ozep, I wrote a series of articles trying to reconstruct the outlines of his career and make a case for his importance at Nitrateville here: The very short of it is that at the least, Ozep had a really strong period of creative fertility through the 20s in Russia and into the early 30s in Germany and France. But for various reasons, more political than aesthetic, he was dismissed by writers on Soviet film (not least because he basically defected) and never got the place, in the second tier but still of note, that he deserves. But the period that includes Miss Mend, The Yellow Ticket/Earth in Chains, The Living Corpse, the Karamazov film and Amok is quite strong and worthy of rediscovery. And we just don’t know about his later commercial work in France, but with things like a version of Queen of Spades in there, it could have some moments. Alas, what isn’t very good, though it’s watchable enough, is his noir (and last film), Whispering City; he doesn’t seem to have had much feel for noir compared to many fellow emigres. The one bit of good news in terms of availability that I can offer is that Editions Filmmuseum is working on a DVD of The Living Corpse, supposedly coming this year.
That’s excellent news. I’m on the trail of Gibraltar, which seems promising. I did manage to see Whispering City and it was OK but nothing special. It has a feeling of an assignment, and one where perhaps he was discouraged from trying anything too interesting.
Mike, your research and thoughts on Otsep are much appreciated, and the idea of a Welles influence doesn’t seem far-fetched to me. Some of the nonsense being spouted by your readers gave me brainache though (Tarantino is a greater artist than Welles? Oh really?). Must be why I don’t frequent Nitrateville that often. If all the scholarship and analysis was on the level of your piece, it’d be a different matter. Honorable exception: the tenacious “Ann Harding,” who’s been doing some research for me.
Thanks, kind of you to say so. Well, Nitrateville is a discussion site, very democratic, so the good news is that anybody can speak and the bad news is that anybody can speak. It’s all about the effectiveness of one’s own signal to noise filter. (Though I don’t think Bob Lipton was really saying Tarantino is better than Welles— just that Welles’ vast ambition is often half-baked in the end, where Tarantino’s smaller pastiches are better constructed to successfully achieve smaller ends.) Anyway, I think there is a R2 Gibraltar, though it’s not the one I’d most like to see of that era. But it would certainly be good to see something from that era, and fill in the gap a little between Amok and Whispering City.
“Though I don’t think Bob Lipton was really saying Tarantino is better than Welles— just that Welles’ vast ambition is often half-baked in the end, where Tarantino’s smaller pastiches are better constructed to successfully achieve smaller ends.” I still have a problem with that. It plays into a peculiarly American idea that Welles’ artistic ambition was a mistake, and it’s still predicated upon the notion of Welles as a failure, even if a heroic one. Neither idea has any traction outside the US, where both have formed part of the comfortable mainstream view which discourages filmmakers from taking risks. Yeah, Gibraltar might not be the best one to see, but at least it’s right in that grey area. According to the IMDb, Three Russian Girls, with Anna Sten and Kent Smith, exists at the BFI but is otherwise impossible to see…

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