As dancer Marfa Koutiloff in Les Vampires (FR 1915-16), Stacia Napierkowska gave the silent cinema one of its most iconic images: a woman in a black bodystocking and great black bat wings, stretching and swirling as if to take flight. Later, she starred in a genuine blockbuster, L’Atlantide | Queen of Atlantis (FR 1921), playing the eternal and rapacious Queen Antinéa. However, much of Napierkowska’s feature film career took place not in France, but in Italy. Today, I’ll take a tour through Napierkowska’s screen career, with a particular look at two films she made one hundred years ago in Italy: Effetti di luce | Effects of Light and La modella | The Model.
Ms. N was born Renée Claire Angèle Élisabeth Napierkowski in Paris in 1886, to a Polish émigré father and a French mother. She was trained in classical ballet, but increasingly became known for her exotic dances inspired by the Ballets Russes: besides star performances at the Opéra-Comique, she performed in the music hall at venues such as the Folies Bergère. Fellow vedette Mistinguett saw Napierkowska’s performance in a very successful ‘orientalist’ production, and tapped her to appear in L’Empreinte ou La Main rouge | The Red Hand (Pathé frères, 1908), performing a gypsy dance. (Also Mistinguett’s film début, this is incidentally the film in which Mistinguett performed her famed valse chaloupée, aka la danse apache—it’s one of the not-readily-available films I’d most like to see).
Napierkowska’s early film roles emphasized her dance background. Among others, she performed exotic dances in Pathé films such as Cleopatra and Le festin Balthazar (both 1910). Between 1908 and 1913 she worked frequently with director Albert Capellani, that giant of the pre-war French cinema. Under his direction, she was cast as a dancer in four films that Mariann Lewinsky of the Cineteca di Bologna regards as crucial to her career: La Zingara | The Gypsy Girl (1910, lost); La danseuse de Siva | The Dancer of Siva (1911, lost), Notre-Dame de Paris | The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1911), a grand success in which she played Esmeralda; and Le pain des petits oiseaux | Bread for the Birds (1911).
Le pain des petits oiseaux is included on the DVD Albert Capellani: un cinema di grandeur 1905-1911, published by the Cineteca di Bologna. It’s a charming rags-to-riches story about a man who helps a starving girl, whose latent dance abilities become apparent when she playfully drapes herself with the mistress of the house’s shawl and dances around the drawing room. She becomes a celebrated dance star, while his fortunes decline—but she hasn’t forgotten her benefactor.
As one expects from Capellani, Le pain des petits oiseaux is a generally well-structured and formally progressive film. However, the highlight is undoubtedly the theatre scene, in which we see Napierkowska’s impressive grace in movement.
Alongside her other film activity, in 1912 she was paired with Max Linder in a series of comedies; the following year, she toured America with her ballet, an “Arabian pantomine” called The Captive. Artist Francis Picabia was travelling on the same transatlantic voyage, and Napierkowska inspired several of his works, including Mechanical Expression Seen through Our Own Mechanical Expression and Danseuse étoile sur un transatlantique | Star Dancer on a Transatlantic Cruise (both 1913).
Napierkowska’s performance in New York City resulted in a police summons on charges of indecency. The New York Times reported on the testimony of the detectives who had made the complaint about Napierkowska’s ‘Bee Dance’, who declared it to be “a danger to morals” and a kind of “hootchi kootchi” dance (which they then struggled to define to the officials). As described in the New York Times, the dance itself was an artsy routine that involved the removal of several items of clothing, such that Napierkowska’s back and legs were bared. The courtroom was packed, as word has gone around that Napierkowska was to perform the dance therein, in order to give the Magistrate a chance to judge it; she did not oblige. These goings-on most certainly did not amuse La Napierkowska: “Really, I have not brought away a single pleasant memory from the United States”, she told the New York Times afterwards, going on to describe Americans as “hardly civilized”. Only Magistrate Levy, the judge who acquitted her, escaped her scorn: “the only exception which proves the rule of general barbarism in the United States”.
In 1915, Napierkowska appeared in seminal French serial Les Vampires (1915-16). The serial follows intrepid reporter Philipe Guérande as he investigates the activities of criminal apache gang Les Vampires, of whom the most salient member is the group’s strategist Irma Vep (the wonderful Musidora). Stacia Napierkowska has a small but significant role in the serial, appearing in the second episode, titled La bague qui tue | The Ring that Kills. She plays dancer Marfa Koutiloff, about to perform a ballet called Les Vampires. To avoid publicity on his gang—and to dissuade the inquiries of Guérande, who is involved with Koutiloff—the leader of Les Vampires arranges for the ballerina to meet an untimely demise, courtesy of the titular poisoned ring.
Prior to Les Vampires, Napierkowska had started to make films in Italy for Pathé-Frères’ Rome-based subsidiary Film d’Arte Italiana. It was in Italy where she introduced her friend Germaine Dulac, who would become one of the most important experimental filmmakers of the silent era, to the medium of film. In order to maintain the pronunciation of her name, she was known in Italy as “Stasia”; indeed, the second of her Italian films was called Lo stratagemma di Stasià | Stacia’s Ruse (Film d’arte italiana, 1914)—a “brilliant comedy in two acts”, according to contemporary film journal La cinematografia italiana ed estera.
1915 saw the release of several Italian Napierkowska films, but 1916 was her biggest year in Italian cinema. Pathé announced a Serie Napierkowska starring “the great Russian actress”, and ran some elegant adverts promoting her as a film star:
Effetti di luce | Effects of Light passed the censor in late summer 1916. The film concerns an aristocratic couple, the Marquis and Marquise d’Osnago; bored of domestic life, he is unreceptive to her attentions. But the neglected wife has the full attention of the Marquis’ close friend, the Conte Lisiera, and seeking to clear a path to gaining the Marquise’s affections, Lisiera undertakes to introduce the Marquis to another woman: “the ideal woman, perfectly formed, such as no wife will ever be”. This paragon of beauty is Rosina Montaguti (Napierkowska), who we meet as she performs a dance onstage at the theatre the two men attend.
The Marquis is taken by her beauty, all the more so when the two are introduced by the Conte backstage; he dreams of her that evening. The next day, Rosina’s dance performance is the talk of the town, piquing the curiosity of the Marquise. Jumping at the chance to meet Rosina again, he tells his wife that he will seek out Rosina and ask her to come and teach the Marquise her dance (“Never was an errand so pleasing”, says an intertitle).
The Conte Lisiera organizes a costume ball, and the Marquis plays right into his hands by asking him to dance with his wife while the Marquis pursues Rosina—and the Conte even ‘generously’ offers the Marquis use of his bachelor pad for an evening rendez-vous. Later, the Conte reveals to the Marquise that her husband will be meeting Rosina. Rather than falling into the Lisiera’s arms, the Marquise decides to catch her husband and Rosina in the act … yet Rosina arrives in advance of the Marquis, and the two women decide to pull a switcheroo under cover of darkness: “All right, we’ll play the libertine wife! And we’ll reverse the parts of men and women! This time, we will lead the game …”
When the light is switched back on, the Marquis sees that the woman whose embrace gives him such pleasure is not Rosina, but his wife—and the couple reconcile. The ending shows Rosina receiving a note from the Marquise: “Dear friend, thanks to your help and an ‘effect of light’, love has entered our house … therefore accept the sincere remembrance of a couple … that you have illuminated.”
A somewhat cheesy ending, and Napierkowska shamelessly mugs her way through the film. All in all, Effetti di luce is an undistinguished offering, but it’s refreshingly light in its treatment of adultery and its depiction of the friendship between the two female characters. Directed by Film d’Arte Italiana regular Ugo Falena, Effetti di luce‘s most significant claim to fame may be that it was written by director/writer/producer Lucio D’Ambra, in one of his early forays into the film world.
A few months later, La modella was released. The film began life under the title Nuda, as one can see in early advertising:
The name change was necessitated by the censor, who also requested that an intertitle be rephrased to remove the word “nude” (it has been restored in the available version).
In La modella, Napierkowska plays Flora, a young woman abused and forced to beg by her drunken brute of a father. Meanwhile, Carlo Alteni is a sculptor suffering from an intense creative block, whose model “does not rouse any creative vision in him”. After he sees Flora begging and is captivated by her beauty, it seems like they might both benefit.
And so it is … but not before a group of men harrass Flora, and a certain Count Gerami comes to her rescue. Flora goes to Alteni’s studio and poses for his new sculpture; the two form an emotional as well as artistic partnership, and decide to marry.
Alteni’s sculpture wins first prize at the exhibition, but it also causes a scandal, being a nude and therefore immoral—as is Flora for posing for it. Being shocked by a tasteful, classical statue of a nude woman seems ridiculous given Italy’s artistic history, yet it’s so in this film, to the point where even Alteni shames Flora for it: “Everyone talks of your nude! … It’s a scandal, and the blame is yours alone!” Outrageous. To make matters worse, Alteni’s former model, vengeful from her dismissal, has decided to add insult to injury by sending Alteni a note saying that Flora is cheating on him with Count Gerami.
With the help of a friend who is looking out for Flora, the truth comes out—Flora and Alteni embrace and kiss, while the friend looks on somewhat forlornly. If I were Flora I would have kicked Carlo Alteni to the curb, but one expects this kind of ‘happy’ ending in such a narrative. Consider also that Flora had obviously had a terrible home life growing up, thus rendering her less likely to recognize or be able to counter unhealthy behaviour (although I strongly doubt that the movie was trying to make a point about the cycle of abuse).
La modella looks great. The video’s visual quality is far above that of Effetti di luce, probably due to higher-quality source material, but the film itself is also a level up in staging and composition. Most importantly, director Falena has shown off Stacia Napierkowska’s lovely face and expressive eyes far more than in Effetti di luce, which had very few close-ups, and none of La Napierkowska. Falena has generally moved the camera closer to the actors in La modella, and Napierkowska is undeniably gorgeous in this film:
Those huge, dark eyes are key to her appeal. In the Capellani DVD booklet, Mariann Lewinsky quotes the Bulletin Pathé 1911, which talks of her captivating features “lit up by two dazzling eyes, burning with a dark flame”. I would not call Napierkowska a great actress, yet there is something about her that holds one’s attention.
What of Napierkowska’s other Italian films? Another 1916 title, La figlia di Erodiade | The Daughter of Herodias, which is not known to survive, also saw her in a role that took advantage of her dance abilities.
Herodias’ daughter is better known as Salomé, she of the scandalous dance and head-removal request: an ideal role for an actress like Napierkowska.
About half of Napierkowska’s Italian films survive in some form. Along with Effetti and La modella, Il conclave of 1917 has been made available online by the Cineteca di Bologna, who also screened a five-minute fragment of Cuore e cuori | Heart and Hearts (1916) in 2014. Last year, the Cinémathèque Française showed Napierkowska’s interpretation of the Pierrot character-archetype, Il disinganno di Pierrot | The Disillusionment of Pierrot (1915), which Mariann Lewinsky considers to be probably the best of her films, marked by a “deep romanticism”. Bookended by Francesca Bertini’s artistic and commercial success L’Histoire d’un Pierrot (1914), and another film about Pierrot, Emma Vecla’s Amor che tace … | Love that is Silent … (1916), Il disinganno di Pierrot is mentioned in La cinematografia italiana ed estera as “a fantasical-sentimental drama, in our opinion based on a play”, that one “can’t not like”.
Another surviving title is La tragica fine di Caligula imperator | The Tragic End of Emperor Caligula (1917), aka Dementia Caligulæ Imperatoris. Some more information on this film can be found on this page, but here are a couple of contemporary Italian adverts:
It was also in 1917 when Napierkowska made her sole directorial offering in a French film, L’héritière de la manade | The Heiress of the Herd, about which not much is known. The same year, she starred in her friend Germaine Dulac’s second film, Venus Victrix, a lavish orientalist film with a proto-feminist slant. Regrettably, neither of these two films survive.
Thereafter, Napierkowska appeared in few films. One, however, was Jacques Feyder’s L’Atlantide | Queen of Atlantis (FR 1921), an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Pierre Benoit.
L’Atlantide told the story of French army officers who become lost in the Sahara Desert and discover the lost kingdom of Atlantis, ruled by its quasi-immortal queen Antinéa (Napierkowska), who takes men as lovers and embalms them when she grows tired of them. It’s an overly long film with a slightly complicated, flashback-within-a-flashback narrative structure, but the visual design is wonderful, and the cinematography is striking.
Napierkowska met with criticism over her performance in L’Atlantide, in which she refused to dance. In the Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, Angela Dalle Vacche outright describes her as “aging and overweight” as Antinéa. I think this is an overly harsh view, but nonetheless, Feyder regretted his decision to engage her for the part. However, L’Atlantide was a huge hit, having a long initial run in Paris and a successful 1928 re-release.
Not much is known of Stacia Napierkowska’s life after she left films in 1926, having at least 90 screen credits to her name.
– – –
Effeti di luce [Effects of Light]. Dir. Ugo Falena and Ercole Luigi Morselli. Italy: Film d’Arte Italiana, 1916. Available to watch on the Cineteca di Bologna’s Cinestore here. Translation available here.
Many thanks to Andrea Meneghelli of the Cineteca di Bologna for providing me with higher-resolution research copies of these two films.