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24 April 2015

Alexander Moissi

Albanian-Austrian Alexander Moissi (1879-1935) was one of the great European stage actors of the early 20th century. The attractive and charismatic women's idol also appeared in several silent and early sound films.

Alexander Moissi
German postcard by Verlag Louis Blumenthal, Berlin, no. 2680.

Alexander Moissi
German postcard by Hermann Leiser Verlag, Berlin, no. 8709. Photo: Becker & Maass.

Buried Alive


Alexander Moissi was born as Aleksander Moisiu in Trieste, Austria-Hungary (now Italy) in 1879. He was the fifth and last child of Konstantin Moisiu, a rich Albanian merchant in oil and wheat, and the half Albanian, half Italian Amalia di Rada, the daughter of a Florentine writer and doctor.

After an international childhood in Trieste, Durrës and Graz, 20-year-old Alexander finally settled with his mother and two sisters in Vienna. There he was spotted by Paul Schlenther, the director of the famous Burgtheater, and by the legendary actor Josef Kainz, who gave him acting lessons.

In 1901 Moissi moved to Prague where he worked for the Neue Deutsche Theater, and in 1904 to Berlin, where he became a protégé of the influential director Max Reinhardt at the Deutsche Theater. Here he had his breakthrough as Oswald in the Henrik Ibsen play Ghosts. He would continue to play the part for more than two decades.

Under Reinhardt he played parts in many William Shakespeare plays including the jester in King Lear, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet (1907) and Hamlet (1909). In 1911, Moissi followed the Reinhardt Ensemble to Russia and was acclaimed in St. Petersburg by critic and dramatist Anatoliy Lunacharsky for his interpretation of Oedipus.

Travelling all over Europe and the Americas, he became a globally known star. His repertoire of leading roles encompassed the whole spectrum of European drama, from Greek tragedy to twentieth century modernism. He was the first in Europe to interpret characters from Strindberg, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pirandello, and Hofmannsthal.

His interpretations of Hamlet, Oedipus, Faust, Dubedat in George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, and many others, were celebrated at the time, as were his voice and emotional range. His most famous role was Fedya in Tolstoy's Buried Alive (or The Living Corpse). He performed this role 1500 times between 1913 and 1935 and more than one-and-a-half-million people saw him playing the part.

Alexander Moissi, Lia Eibenschütz
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 4850. Photo: publicity still for Romeo und Julie/Romeo and Juliet with Lia Eibenschütz .

Alexander Moissi, Lia Eibenschütz
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 8198. Photo: Dr. Hans Boehm. Publicity still for Romeo und Julie/Romeo and Juliet with Lia Eibenschütz .

Alexander Moissi in Die  Braut von Messina
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin, no. 4293. Photo: Becker & Maass. Publicity still for a stage production of Die Braut von Messina (The Bride of Messina) by Friedrich Schiller with Moissi as Don Manuel.

Prisoner in France


Though primarily a stage actor, Alexander Moissi appeared in 17 films productions between 1913 and 1935.

In 1913 he appeared in Germany in four silent films for the Deutsche Bioscop GmbH: the experimental pantomime Das schwarze Los/The black lot (Emil Albes, John Gottowt, 1913), Meier Helmbrechts Flucht und Ende/Meier Helmbrecht’s Flight and End (Leo Greiner, 1913), Die Augen des Ole Brandis/The Eyes of Ole Brandis (Stellan Rye, 1913), and he had a supporting role in the classic fantasy film Der Student von Prag/The Student of Prague (Stellan Rye, Paul Wegener, 1913) starring Paul Wegener.

Two years later he starred in the films Kulissenzauber/Background magic (Heinrich Bolten-Baeckers, Leo Peukert, 1915) and Sein einziger Sohn/His Only Son (Adolf Gartner, 1915).

It was World War I and in 1915 Moissi was mobilized by the Austrian army. As an airman he was taken prisoner in France, but he got free five months later through a prisoner exchange. Till 1917 he worked as a stage actor in Switzerland.

In 1918 he starred as Stanislaus in Pique Dame (Arthur Wellin, 1918), a film adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades. That same year he appeared opposite Ria Jende in Der Ring der drei Wünsche/The Ring of the Three Wishes (Arthur Wellin, 1918).

The following years he played in such silent films as Erborgtes Glück/Borrowed Happiness (Arthur Wellin, 1919) with Käthe Dorsch, Zwischen Tod und Leben/Between Life and Death (Arthur Wellin, 1919) with Bernhard Goetzke, Figaros Hochzeit/Figaro’s Wedding (Max Mack, 1920) based on the play by Beaumarchais, and Die Nacht der Königin Isabeau/The Night of Queen Isabeau (Robert Wiene, 1920) starring Fern Andra.

Alexander Moissi
German postcard by Verlag Louis Blumenthal, Berlin, no. 3233. Photo: Zander & Labisch. Publicity still for König Lear/King Lear.

Alexander Moissi as Franz Moor
German postcard by Hermann Leiser Verlag, Berlin, no. 4165. Photo: Becker & Maass. Publicity still for a stage production of Die Räuber (The Robbers) by Friedrich Schiller with Moissi as Franz Moor.

Alexander Moissi as Franz Moor in Die Räuber
German postcard by Verl. v. Louis Blumenthal, Berlin, no. 3285. Photo: Becker & Maass. Publicity still of Alexander Moissi as Franz Moor in the stage play Die Räuber (The Robbers) by Friedrich Schiller.

Albanian citizen


Alexander Moissi’s last silent film was Kean (Rudolf Biebrach, 1921) based on the play by Alexandre Dumas père. Edmund Kean, born in 1787, was the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day. Remarkable is that Moissi’s first sound film, the Hollywood production Die Königsloge/The Royal Box (Bryan Foy, 1929) also told the story of Edmund Kean. The German language production by Warner Brothers was not a success.

In the 1920s Moissi had more success in Russia, France, Austria and Italy than in Germany. After the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Moissi reportedly became an Albanian citizen in 1934 (some sources say that he got an Italian passport). After a successful stage tour through Italy in 1934, Mossi starred in the Italian film production Lorenzino de' Medici/The Magnificent Rogue (Guido Brignone, 1935) with Maria Denis. It would be his final film.

A year later, Alexander Moissi died of pneumonia in Vienna, (some sources say Lugano, Switzerland), and lies buried at the Morcote cemetery overlooking Lake Lugano.

He was married twice. With his first wife, the Viennese actress Maria Moissi he had a daughter, Bettina, who also would become an actress. In 1919 he married actress Johanna Terwin. He is the over-grandfather of German actor Gedeon Burkhard.

In his honor, the High College of Drama in Tirana, and the Professional Theatre of Durrës, Albania, are named ‘Aleksander Moisiu.’ The 60th anniversary of his death was remembered in Albania in 1995 with an Artistic Year dedicated to him; it was sponsored by the Aleksander Moisiu Foundation in Durrës.

Alexander Moissi in Der lebende Leichnam
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin-Wilm., no. 7552. Photo: Fritz Richard. Alexander Moissi as Fedja in Leo Tolstoy's play Der lebende Leichnam (The Living Corpse).

Alexander Moissi
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 4725/1, 1929-1930. Photo: Defina.

Alexander Moissi and his mother
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin-Wilm., no. 8519. Photo: Becker & Maass.

Sources: Stephanie D’heil (Steffi-line) (German), Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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