Satan Triumphant (Satana Likuyushchiy) 1917

Director: Yakov Protazanov
"...And evil awakened in Sandro's soul..."
The insidious influence of our own Lord of the Manor visits damnation upon two generations of a pious Christian family. A prestige production made during the last days of Tsarist Russia starring the esteemed Ivan Mozzhukhin.

Synopsis: Part One
The stridently ascetic Pastor Talnoks lives with his late wife's sister Esfir and her hunchbacked husband Pavel in a home with scant warmth and affection. One night, a stranger appears, injured and seeking shelter from the storm. Talnoks takes him in, though the stranger's sly, goading manner soon begins to stir up repressed emotions. The stranger plays 'The Hymn of the Triumphant' on Esfir's piano, a rousing piece of music that seems to bring all their hidden desires to the surface. Talnoks and Esfir struggle to deny their carnal attraction, but after the stranger leaves, Talnoks admits that he "was right... right about everything."

Alexandr Chabrov, in demonic aspect
A 200-year-old painting bearing the stranger's likeness confirms Talnoks' suspicions that the stranger was Satan himself; Talnoks later steals the portrait and hangs it reverently in the church. His ultimate undoing comes when he and Esfir are discovered consummating their affair beneath Satan's painted gaze by an enraged Pavel. The church collapses, and only Esfir survives.

Part Two:
Twenty years later, Esfir is living with her illegitimate son Sandro, who has inherited his mother's talent as a pianist. While looking through old musical scores he finds 'The Hymn of the Triumphant', and almost immediately falls under its spell. "I don't know whether it was composed by an angel or a demon, but it is magnificent!", he tells his mother, who still remembers the terrible night she first heard it. Later, Sandro discovers the portrait of Satan in the collection of an acquaintance, and his mother's worst fears are confirmed.

Satan reappears and strikes up a friendship with Sandro, encouraging him to indulge in all the sensual pleasures he had until now denied himself. Esfir, still troubled by guilt over the events of twenty years ago, pleads with him to mend his ways before it is too late. Sandro tells her, "All joy is based on Evil" and embarks on the conquest of a society girl named Inga. Finally Esfir steals the painting of the stranger from Mikhaels and burns it. Though Esfir dies, Sandro is freed from Satan's evil influence. Sandro and Inga are married.

Satan Triumphant (and what a title!) is an old story, and one that's been told often; the Devil places temptation in the path of unwary mortals, and in doing so forces them to face uncomfortable truths (see The Witches of Eastwick or Brimstone and Treacle for a couple of more recent examples). But whether or not you'd enjoy it hinges on the question of whether you could enjoy reading a book when you know the last two chapters have been torn out. Both sections of the film are missing their final act, doubly disappointing considering the impressive bearing of the eighty-seven or so minutes that remain. 

Ivan Mozzhukhin as Sandro
What's left of the film undoubtedly belongs to its star, Ivan Mozzhukhin, a leading figure in Russian cinema during the Tsarist era. His dual role as Pastor Talnoks and his illegitimate son Sandro is a textbook performance, miles removed from the overstated posturing that 21st century audiences have come to expect from films of this era. Mozzhukhin was famed for his expressive features and his penetrating gaze, and not just with cinema audiences. Many directors, most notably the theorist and film school founder Lev Kuleshov, cited him as a prime exponent of the acting craft, and a string of love affairs attested to his charm on a more personal level.

Mozzhukhin makes Pastor Talnoks a character perpetually at odds with his own nature, his humourless piety marking him out as doomed from the start. His refusal of a simple gift of flowers from one of his flock ("they suggest a profane vanity") shows the sad extent of his distance from the material world. We are hardly surprised when Alexandr Chabrov's ingratiating Devil awakens him to the charms of his sister-in-law Esfir,  effortlessly condemning Talnoks in this world and the next. 

In fact, what is probably most appealing about Satan Triumphant is this frankness in matters of sexuality. While never explicit, the film's unambiguous tone makes the character's moral breakdowns that much more believable. At the Devil's urging, Pavel clumsily attempts to claim his "conjugal rights", only to be rebuffed by a clearly repulsed Esfir. Esfir later catches the Pastor stealing a longing glance at her, and though she hurries away guiltily, her expression when she is alone tells a different story. Sexual desire, and its denial, is what drives the four protagonists (including Sandro), and by extension, the entire film.

Ivan Mozzhukhin and Natalya Lisenko make love
under the watchful eye of Satan
Happily, Natalya Lisenko as Esfir (Mozzhukhin's real-life wife at the time) is called on to do more than just react to the male lead. Just as Mozzhukhin is equally convincing in portraying the fall from grace of both the Pastor and his rakish son, so Lisenko describes Esfir's path from dutiful wife to adulteress to remorseful mother with (for 1917) understated dignity. But if all this anguish makes the whole picture a bit gloomy at times, it is at least always watchable.

Satan Triumphant arrived at a turning point in Russian history. By the time it was released in October of 1917, the Tsar had been deposed and the Red Army was slowly moving eastward. The state soon censored practically all of Mozzhukhin's work, including a similar tale of sexual repression, Father Sergius, one of the best-known of all his films and the last of several collaborations with director Protazanov. A year later he had lost his home and possessions to the communists but continued to work under the protection of the White Russians in Yalta (now in Ukraine) until the end of 1919, when he was forced to flee to Europe.  

A promising new career in France was curtailed by an ill-advised move to the USA in 1926 at the invitation of Carl Laemmle at Universal. In search of a new Valentino, the studio tried to shoehorn Mozzhekhin into an unsuitable role alongside the Phantom of the Opera's protege Mary Philbin, changing his name to 'John Moskin' and insisting that he had plastic surgery to streamline his features. Though the advent of talkies left the non-English-speaking actor out in the cold, he moved back to Europe where he continued to work all through the thirties.

End Credits:
Ivan Mozzhukhin (Pastor Talnoks / Sandro), Natalya Lisenko (Esfir), Pavel Pavlov (Pavel, the hunchback), Alexandr Chabrov (Satan), Vera Orlova (Inga).
Scenario: Olga Blazhevich, Cinematography: Fyodor Burgasov, Producer: Iosif Yermoliev.
Yermoliev Film, Russia
Running Time 87 mins

Not available commercially. Be vigilant!

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