The mystery of the author of the 1937 cult novel “Ali and Nino” — a recently-rediscovered “Romeo and Juliet of the Caucasus” — is explored in “Alias Kurban Said.” Renowned Dutch documaker Jos de Putter travels from Azerbaijan to Austria to the U.S., chasing down who wrote the book under the pseudonym Kurban Said. Magnificent historical whodunit, wherein crumbling photographs, yellowing documents, and forgotten reels of 35mm film are invested with tremendous evocative power, should find post-fest welcome on indie cable.
The most probable and interesting of the candidates for authorship is Lev Nussimbaum, a veritable compendium of aliases and metamorphoses who reinvented himself at every turn.
Born in Baku (site of “Ali and Nino”) into a Jewish family, he subsequently converted to Islam, emigrated to Germany to flee the invading Russians (his eponymous hero Ali, on the contrary, dies defending Azerbaijan from the Soviet hordes) and next resurfaced in Berlin as “Essad Bey” (“prince of the desert”), moving to Austria when the Nazis grew suspicious of him.
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In Berlin, Nussimbaum/Bey connected with the second possible Said: Baroness Elfriede von Ehrenfels, a noted bohemian figure whose signature appears on book contracts made out to Kurban Said. Elfriede herself emigrated to Greece and became obsessed with Plato, the unique subject of all her subsequent writing.Nussimbaum/Bey hied himself off to Positano, Italy, where he wrote radio propaganda for Mussolini and died of gangrene during the broadcast of one of his pieces. Buried beneath a tombstone sporting a turban instead of a cross, he was greatly mourned by many in the town, who had dubbed him “Arafat.”
Fascinating as these stories are, they pale beside the passion of the storytellers themselves. In Azerbeijan, a bevy of Russian women archivists painstakingly pore through handwritten contracts, synagogue records and files of photos seeking any trace of Nussimbaun or his family.
In Austria, Baron von Ehrenfels’ second wife looks through shelves, bookcases and suitcases full of papers, searching for the manuscript to Kurban Said’s second novel, “The Girl From the Golden Horn,” which she held in her hand very recently, she says, wryly adding that for her “recently” could mean anytime in the last 10 or 20 years.
The son of Yusef Chemenzementi, the third serious contender for author Said, putters around his apartment under a photograph of his father, producing editions of “Ali and Nino” from all around the world, some of them bearing Chemenzementi’s name.
Even the New York publisher of a recent edition of “Ali and Nino” unfurls a rolled-up early version of the dust cover (never used because of uncertainty about the biographical info given about the author) and reads the flyleaf, commenting on the likelihood of each assertion.
But documents are not the only archival riches unearthed by de Putter. A librarian in Azerbijan carefully threads a 1920s Russian film, and the exotic streets of Baku are reanimated in glowing black-and-white. These images of Baku are echoed by present-day color images shot by de Putter, and echoed again in scenes from an old black-and-white fiction film made by Baroness Elfriede with her brother and husband called “The Great Longing.”
Overlaying much of docu’s multi-sourced footage is the off-screen voice of Bruno Ganz, reading aloud relevant descriptions from the novel.
In the end, de Putter has resurrected a mystique of history that may ultimately prove even more remarkable than the rather facile topicality of “Ali and Nino,” a bygone novel that relates the doomed love affair between a Muslim man and a Christian woman.