Ossip Runitch

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Ossip Runitch (1889-1947) was a Russian-Jewish silent film actor, producer and stage director. Ossip Runitch (1889-1947) was a Russian-Jewish theatre actor, producer and stage director. Thanks to his star roles in Russian films of the 1910s, he was, at the time, the best-known Jewish actor in Russia.

Also known as Ossip Runitsch, Osip Runich and Giuseppe Runitsch Also known as Осип Рунич, Ossip Runitsch, Osip Runich and Giuseppe Runitsch


Ossip Runitch was born Ossip Ilyich Fradkin (Russian: Осип Ильич Фрадкин) in 1889 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, of an assimilated family from Vitebsk. [Encyclopaedia Judaica. Second Edition. Vol 17. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA; Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Ltd, 2007. P. 529.] At an early age, he was adopted by a Serbian engineer and eventually took his stepfather's surname. ['Arest O I Runicha - po donosu byvshego kontrrazvedchika. Segodnya (Riga), 19 May 1928.]

According to Wikipedia[], he was born Ossip Iliych Runitsch (Russian: Осип Ильич Рунич) in 1889 in St. Petersburg, Russia, of an assimilated family from Vitebsk. However, there is some contention about his early years. For example, Russian film historians believe that his surname was actually Fradkin. In a late 1920s interview, for example, he stated that he was adopted by a Serbian engineer at the age of three. That's how he came by his Slavic surname. (In the 1920s, he had a Yugoslav passport). Also, the place of birth is a matter of contention, for he came from a Jewish family and St Petersburg was outside the Pale of Settlement. His brother, Mihail Chernov, is said to have been born in Odessa and Runich's colleagues remembered that Runich spoke like a true Ukrainian. He also began his acting career in Kharkov and Kiev, two of Ukraine's largest cities.

However, in 1917 he was working at the Moscow Drama Theatre, which was - at the time - the city's third most popular theatre, after the Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre and the Maly Theatre. Their building was at the Hermitage Garden in Moscow (not the Hermitage in St Petersburg, as many sources believe, claiming that he "began his acting career at the St. Petersburger Eremitage theatre"). He was soon in demand as a stage actor, and went on to become a star of Russian silent cinema in the period 1915-1919, appearing in a number of silent films including Molchi, grust... molchi ("Be silent, sorrow ... be silent") and Posledneiye tango - in which he plays a dancer from Argentine, alongside Vera Kholodnaya. (It was one of the last films he made in Russia, and only part of the film survives[1]).

In 1919, after the Russian Civil War, he fled Russia for Italy, where he acted in a number of films before moving to Germany to work in German films. Among the better known were Die Bestie im Menschen (1920), Danton (a supporting actor, with Emil Jannings star, 1921), and Düstere Schatten, strahlendes Glück (1924) and supporting roles in three films by Robert Wiene (of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari fame), also in the 1920s. He also continued working in operas and stage plays (e.g. in 1921 and again between 1925 and 1928 in Paris).

His adoption enabled him to live outside the Pale of Settlement. He thus did not speak Yiddish and did not have anything to do with Jewish art until the 1920s, when he began to take part in Yiddish theatre performances in Germany and Latvia.

In 1925 he began a relationship with Nina Pavlishcheva, a dancer and actress, despite both of them being married at the time. By the late 1930s, they were living in Riga, Latvia, where he was part of a Russian theatre company (possibly known as the Russian Drama Theatre). As a full-time employee, he acted and produced plays for Jewish theatre as well. (See for instance https://collections.lib.uwm.edu/digital/collection/yiddish/id/37/).

It seems that being aware of the impending Second World War, he accepted an invitation from his local Jewish friends to tour South Africa in 193*. He ended up staying in South Africa, marrying Nina Pavlishcheva there in 1931, and working in theatre and opera till his untimely passing in Johannesburg on 6 April 1947. Ossip Runitch died on 6 April 1947 in Johannesburg. [The Final Curtain, The Billboard, 3 May 1947, p 46.]


Runich had no formal education in acting.


His acting career began in the Mogilev Governorate in 1910. [Runich, Ossip Ilyich. Member's card. Member database of the Russian Theatre Society. Central Academic Library of the Russian Theatre Union, Moscow.] From 1913 to 1917, he played leading parts with the Kharkov and Kiev companies run by one of Russia's best-regarded producers, Nikolay Sinelnikov. In the 1917-8 season, Runich was a star of the Moscow Drama Theatre.

Runich was first invited to act in cinema by a former colleague of his, Vladimir Gardin, who had become a film director. In 1915, he debuted on the big screen as Nicolay Rostov in an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

After several supporting parts in features by Yevgeny Bauer and Pyptr Chardynin at the Khanzhonkov Studio, he followed Chardynin to the newly established Kharitonov Studio as its main star in 1916. By the end of 1917, Kharitonov had contracted all other major Russian film stars, except Ivan Mozzhukhin and Vera Karalli. Runich's best-known screen part is one in the biggest blockbuster of the Russian screen of the 1910s, Molchi, Grust, Molchi (1918).

In 1917, after the February Revolution, Runitch was elected as chairman of the first trade union of Russian film professionals.

In 1918, during the Russian Civil War, the Kharitonov Studio moved from Moscow to Odessa, then occupied by German troops. Apart from Vera Kholodnaya, the country's Cinema Queen, Runitch was the only other star remaining in the Kharitonov lineup. It was rumoured that Runitch and Kholodnaya were lovers.

Kholodnaya died in early 1919, and Runitch emigrated to Italy with Tatyana Pavlova, a future mentor of Vittorio de Sica and leading proponent of the Stanislavky school of acting in Italy. [V Martinelli, Cineasti russi in Italia. Cinegrafie (Bologna). 1997. No 10, p 119.]

After several leading parts in dramas by the Ambrosio Studios in Turin, Runitch joined his former employer, Dmitri Kharitonov, in Germany. In the eearly 1920s, Runitch starred in several big-budget productions by Russian studios in Germany. These projects were partly financed by his wife, Emma (whom he divorced in the early 1930s and who married Sol Hurok, a legednary American impresario). [V Alexandrov, Journey through Chaos. Foreword by Upton Sinclair. New York: Literary Press, 1945, p 97; H Robinson, The Last Impresario: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Sol Hurok. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, pp 125-126.]

From 1920 to 1924, Runich also played leading and supporting parts in films by German studios, alongside Emil Jannings and Werner Krauss (Danton, 1921); Diana Karenn (Das Spiel mit dem Feuer, 1921; Marie Antoinette, 1922); Dary Holm (Ihr Fehltritt, 1922; Frühlingsfluten, 1924); Henny Porten (Prater, 1924; Das goldene Kalb, 1925).

In 1922-3, Runich ran a production company, Lionardo-Film, with Robert Wiene, who directed The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Under Wiene, he played in Der Puppenmacher von Kiang-Ning and Die höllische Macht. [U Jung; W Schatzberg, Beyond Caligari: The Films of Robert Wiene. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999, pp 211—212.]

In the mid 1920s, his film career stalled. Runich joined the largest Russian company outside the Soviet Union, the Russian Drama Theatre in Riga, as a leading actor. After a brief return to cinema in the late 1920s, Runich realised that there was no future for in Germany, with the rise of Nazism and their impending coming to power. He turned to his Jewish roots, learnt Yiddish and went back to Riga, to become the chief dirtector of the government-subsidised Jewish Theatre. In the mid 1930s, Runich produced plays at the leading Yiddish companies in Kishinev and Kaunas. This work made him one of the major figures of the Jewish stage in Eastern Europe.

His return to the Russian Drama Theatre in Riga in 1938 was brief. By May 1939, he was on his way to South Africa, having been invited to perform for Jewish audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town. [G Roos, Ossip Runitsch. Die Brandwag (Johannesburg), 18 April 1947, bl. 7.]

Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and/or performance

After a successful career in Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe in the 1920-1930s, Runitch came out to South Africa. He helped to develop professional Jewish and Afrikaans theatre in this country and produced the first full-length opera in Afrikaans.

On his arrival in South Africa, Runitch became a pioneer of professional Yiddish theatre in South Africa and was one of the earliest professional opera producers in the country.

In 1943 he produced a play called Soviet Wife for the benefit of the South African Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR, starring in it with his wife.

(According to the Wikipedia[2] and IMDb[3] entries on Runitch, he "became a founder of one of the first professional theatre companies in a country. Besides, he produced operas for the State Theatre in the mid-1940s." Both these statements are patently wrong and need to be rectified: there had been numerous professional opera companies in the country since the late 19th century, many of them professional, and the first 'State Theatre' theatre in the country - the National Theatre Organization - was only founded in 1947, the year of his death.)

While in Johannesburg in 1939, Runich and his wife, ballerina Nina Pavlishcheva (formerly, a soloist at the Grand Theatre in Warsaw), were asked to establish a professional Yiddish theatre company in that city. On the board of the new Jewish Art Theatre sat Wulf Sachs, Leon Feldberg, Gustav Simon Kuper and Olga Ryss. The performances were held at the South African Zionist Federation headquarters. ['Jewish Art Theatre Society formed in Johannesburg', The Zionist Record (Johannesburg), 4 August 1939, p 21.]

The company included a Jewish-Austrian singer Hedi Haas, a character actor from Riga, Max Angorin and members of the Jewish Workers' Club and the Jewish Cultural Society. [Penkin Belling V. Yiddish Theatre in South Africa: A History from the Late Nineteenth Century to 1960. Cape Town: Jewish Publications — South Africa, Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, 2008, p 83.]

Despite the initial interest, the venture failed. The last performance took place at the end of 1939.

In 1942, The Afrikaner Yiddishe Tsaytung newspaper organised the Jewish Forum, a cultural organisation with its own Yiddish theatre. Runich organised the theatre company and produced the plays. Performances took place intermittently until 1943. [Penkin Belling V. Yiddish Theatre in South Africa: A History from the Late Nineteenth Century to 1960. Cape Town: Jewish Publications — South Africa, Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, 2008, p 86.]

Meanwhile, Runitch started producing operas for the annual opera seasons in Johannesburg, initiated by John Connell. Jewish produced full-length versions of La Boheme, Traviata, Faust amd Tosca. The leading part in his Rigoletto was played by Redvers Llewellyn, later a Fellow of the Royal College of Music. [South African Music Encyclopaedia. Vol. IV. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1986, p 301; The South African Jewish Chronicle (Johannesburg), 13 April 1945, p 183, and 10 May 1946, p 315.]

In 1946, Runitch produced the first full-length opera that was ever performed in Afrikaans. It was Carmen, translated into Afrikaans by Gideon Roos. [Lantern (Pretoria), 1963, Vol 13, p 22].

From 1941, Runitch mentored Afrikaans actors. Under his direction, an Afrikaans company called the Kunsteater (an allusion to Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre) performed in some of the largest venues in Johannesburg, including the Standard Theatre. Among the members of the company were Henrietta de Waal, who had worked under Paul de Groot in the 1930s; Gideon Roos and his wife, singer Esther Mentz, who sang the part of Carmen in Afrikaans in the Runich production for the opera seasons. [G Roos, Ossip Runitsch. Die Brandwag (Johannesburg), 18 April 1947, bl. 7; H Viljoen, Esther Mentz, Scenaria (Johannesburg). May 1987.]

While working in theatre under Runitch, Roos and Mentz starred in Donker Spore, one of the first Afrikaans feature films. After the Second World War, they appeared in the first Afrikaans production of [Hamlet]], with Roos playing Claudius.


Personal correspondence from Boris Gorelik. (15 June 2019)



Percy Baneshik, 1998.

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