05 February 2014

Nathalie Lissenko

Russian film star Nathalie Lissenko, aka Natalya Lyssenko, Natalie Lissenko, and Natal’ya Lisenko, is most famous for the French silent films of the 1920s, in which is she was often paired with her husband Ivan Mozzhukin.

Nathalie Lissenko
French postcard, no. 2.

Expressionist Film Ante Litteram

Natalia Andrianovna Lissenko was born in Saint-Petersburg, Russia in 1886, according to IMDb and Filmportal.de (in Mikolaiv in 1884 according to Cinéartistes.com).

During the First World War she started to perform in films of the Khanzonkov company and was enormously productive. First, she appeared in Katioucha Maslova/Katioucha Maslov (Pyotr Chardynin, 1915) and Leon Drey (Yevgenii Bauer, 1915).

In her third film, Nikolay Stavrogin (Yakov Protazanov, 1915), based on a story by Fyodor Dostojevsky, she already performed with Ivan Mozzhukin, her future husband.

In 1916 Lissenko was in a high number of films: Grekh/Sin (Yakov Protazanov, Georg Asagaroff, 1916) written by and starring Mozzhukin; Bez vinyvino vatye/Without Guilt (Cheslav Sabinsky, 1916); Na Boykom Meste/The Busy Inn (Cheslav Sabinsky, 1916) after a play by Ostrovsky, Nischaya (Yakov Protazanov, 1916) with Mozzhukin; Yastrebinoe gnedzo/The Cloven Tongue (Cheslav Sabinsky, 1916) with Nicolas Rimsky, Kulisy ekrana/Behind the Screen (Georg Asagaroff, Alexandre Volkov, 1916), and Tanietz smerti/The Dance of Death (Alexandre Volkov, 1916).

In 1917 followed the Leonid Tolstoy adaptation Otets Sergiu/Father Sergius (Yakov Protazanov, Alexandre Volkov, 1917) starring Mozzhukin; Prokuror/The Public Prosecutor (Yakov Protazanov, 1917), and Satana likuyushchiy/Satan Triumphant (Yakov Protazanov, 1917).

Then followed: Malyutka Elli/Little Elli (Yakov Protazanov, 1918), Bogatyr dukha/A Hero of Mind (Yakov Protazanov, 1918), Cherna yastaya/The black herd (Yakov Protazanov, 1918), and Tayna korolevy/The Queen’s Secret (Yakov Protazanov, 1919).

Her last Russian films were Chlen parlamenta/The member of Parliament (Alexandre Volkov, 1920) and Morphine (Yakov Protazanov, 1920). At least half of these titles were with Ivan Mozzhukin in the lead.

The Italian film historian Vittorio Martinelli wrote: “Lissenko was extremely popular in pre-revolutionary Russia, performing psychological dramas or adaptations of famous novels and stage plays. Brunette Lissenko had a rather static and matron way of playing; her performance was marked, however, by the details in her face: the lifting of an eyebrow, a hardly noticeable tremble of the lips, fulminating eyes or a sweet smile.

Only after the Czarist cinema was rediscovered at the 1989 Pordenone Silent Film Festival, it was possible for Western eyes to appreciate Lissenko’s performance in e.g. Satan Triumphant, an expressionist film ante litteram (ahead of one's time), graciously directed by Protazanov. During the first part of the film, Lissenko does not strike us particularly, but when the amorous clash occurs, to the expressivity of the face the objective is made clear: the face lights up and from it a new, incomparable sentiment appears, her mimic play conquers and emotions the spectator.”

Lissenko’s popularity is also marked by Kulisy ekrana/Behind the Screen (Georg Asagaroff, Alexandre Volkov, 1916) in which Mozzhukin and she appear as themselves. Unfortunately only a fragment of the film remains.

Nathalie Lissenko in Kean
French postcard by Cinémagazine Editions, no. 231. Photo: publicity still for Kean/Edmund Kean (Alexandre Volkov, 1924).

Nathalie Lissenko
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1665/2. Photo: De Westi Film. Publicity still for Kean/Edmund Kean (Alexandre Volkov, 1924).

Albatros Films

At the outbreak of the revolution, Nathalie Lissenko and Ivan Mozzhukin followed the fate of producer Ermolieff and his troupe, including Nicolas Koline, Vera Orlova, Nicolai Panov, Nicolas Rimsky. They had moved to Yalta in 1918 and remained there until 1920. In 1920 they all expatriated.

During the trip through Constantinople to Marseille they produced the two films Chlen Parlamenta/Morphine (Yakov Protazanov, 1920) and L’angoissante aventure/Agonizing Adventure (Yakov Protazanov, 1920), which proved to be their business cards to the Paris film world.

In France, Lissenko continued to play with Ermolieff’s company, which later turned into Albatros Films, which had its studio in Montreuil.

The first film of Lissenko in Paris was a remake by Protazanov of his own Russian film Prokuror: Justice d’abord/Justice For All (Yakov Protazanov, 1921), the story of a judge who, torn between love and duty, does not hesitate to condemn his beloved suspected to be a spy. He kills himself after finding out she was innocent after all.

Mozzhukin and Lissenko often played together at the Ermolieff-Albatros studio, as in L’Enfant de carnaval/The Kids Carnival (1921), directed by Ivan Mozzhukin himself, and Tempêtes/Storms (Robert Boudrioz, 1922) with Charles Vanel in the lead and with exteriors shot in Nice.

Two other examples are Le brasier ardent/The Burning Brazier (Ivan Mozzhukin, Alexandre Volkov, 1923), also with Nicolas Koline, and Kean ou désordre du génie/Edmund Kean (Alexandre Volkov, 1924), the film to which the postcards above refer.

Kean ou désordre du génie was an adaptation of the play by Alexandre Dumas père on the famous early 19th century British stage player. While the exteriors were shot in Paris and Versailles, the interiors were done at the Joinville studio (for the set of Drury Lane theatre) and the Montreuil studio. While Ivan Mozzhukin played the title role, Lissenko was the Comtesse de Koefeld and Nicolas Koline was Solomon.

Nathalie Lissenko
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1085/1, 1927-1928. Photo: De Westi Film.

Nathalie Lissenko
French postcard.

Côte d’Azur

Nathalie Lissenko also performed in several films without Ivan Mozzhukin, such as Nuit de carnaval/Carnival Night (Viktor Tourjansky, 1922) for which Mozzhukin wrote the script, the serial La fille sauvage/The Wild Girl (Henri Etievant, 1922) with Romuald Joubé in the lead, La riposte/The Riposte (Viktor Tourjansky, 1922) with Jean Angelo, Calvaire d’amour/Love Cavalcade (Viktor Tourjansky, 1923) with Charles Vanel, and Les ombres qui passent/Passing Shadows (Alexandre Volkov, 1924) for which Paul Poiret designed Lissenko’s costumes.

Next followed three films by Jean Epstein in which Lissenko was the star: Le lion des Mogols/The Lion of the Moguls (1924) with Mozzhukin, shot at the Côte d’Azur, in Paris, Montreuil, and the Montreuil studio; L’affiche/The Poster (1924) with Génica Missirio, shot in Paris, Bougival (exteriors), and the Montreuil studio; and Le double amour/Double Love (1925) with Jean Angelo, Lissenko’s last film for Albatros, partly shot at the Côte d’Azur.

Lissenko knew to show her artistic sensibility, not only in the films of the Russian migrants such as Le brasier ardent/The Burning Brazier (1923), a striking phantasy directed with great refinement by Mozzhukin himself, but also in the films by Jean Epstein, Alberto Cavalcanti and Marcel L’Herbier.

In the late 1920's though, Lissenko performed not only in French productions but even more in German films. Her first German film was Die selige Exzellenz/His Late Excellency (Wilhelm Thiele, Adolf Licho, 1926) and Kinderseelen klagen euch an/Souls of Children Accuse You (Kurt Bernhardt, 1926) with Albert Steinrück.

Then followed the French super-production Casanova/The Loves of Casanova (Alexandre Volkov, 1927) with Ivan Mozzhukin, Rina De Liguoro and Diana Karenne, and the French avant-garde film En rade/Sea Fever (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1928) with Pierre Batcheff and Catherine Hessling.

After that followed three German films in a row: Rasputins Liebesabenteuer/Rasputin, the Holy Devil (Martin Berger, 1928) with Nikolai Malikoff as Rasputin and Diana Karenne as the zarina, Hurrah! Ich lebe!/Hurray! I Live! (Wilhelm Thiele, 1928) where she played Koline’s wife, and Fünf bange Tage/Five Scared Days (1928, Gennaro Righelli) with Maria Jacobini, and set in Russia.

Finally. she appeared in the late French silent film Nuits de princes/Night of Princes (Marcel L’Herbier, 1929), starring Gina Manès and Jaque Catelain.

When sound film came in, however, Lissenko’s heavy Russian accent blocked her career. She only played in three small parts in sound films before retiring from the screen altogether: Ce cochon de Morin/This Pig of Morin (Georges Lacombe, 1932), a remake of a film by Viktor Tourjansky; La mille et deuxième nuit/The Two Thousand Nights (Alexandre Volkov, 1933) with Ivan Mozzhukin; and finally Le veau gras/The Fat Calf (Serge de Poligny, 1938) with Elvire Popescu.

Nathalie Lissenko died in Paris in 1969.

Nathalie Lissenko, Nicolas Koline & Nicolas Rimsky in Calvaire d'amour
French postcard, with names written in Russian. Photo: Nathalie Lissenko, Nicolas Koline and Nicolas Rimsky in the Albatros production Calvaire d’amour/Love Cavalcade (Viktor Tourjansky, 1923).

Sources: Vittorio Martinelli (Le dive del silenzio), François Albéra (Albatros. Des Russes à Paris 1919-1929), CineArtistes, Filmportal.de and IMDb.