german site The Agony of Essad Bey

A Film by Ralf Marschalleck

If we were to make up a figure like ESSAD BEY for the film, we’d be in danger of criticism: do we really need to lay it on so thick? Couldn’t we make the story just a little bit more believable? This man’s incredible life appears like a parable about the rejection of the Twentieth Century. In his destiny, reality cast a long shadow upon fiction: a story, which couldn’t have been invented more fascinatingly; a story for an unusual documentary film - adventurous, originally, explosively, tragically.

MOHAMMED ESSAD BEY lived his short life as if he wasn’t allowed to take a break. Living on three continents, and between three religions, between the lands of the rising and the setting sun, this wide-awake spirit searched for belonging – in vain. The man who is called one of the most mysterious writers of the 20th century, was a dazzling cosmopolitan, who lived the adventure of spiritual freedom; a provocative border-crosser, driven by the world’s upheaval, gifted with the ability to see, and inflicted with the courage to deeper insight; that his only home is in his texts.

One hesitates to call the biography of a 37 year old the „biography of the century“, and yet the title seems fitting. Whoever believes, that there are at present enough interesting biographies in the world, will be surprised. The astoundingly varied film about this man, his time and his influence becomes the narrative motif for banishment, aberration und self-assertion in the midst of world history’s insanities. The rediscovery of this visionary author who has so much to contribute as bridge-builder between East and West, is the strongest motif in this film.
Now available in a limited First Edition
with an original signature of the director

„The Agony of ESSAD BEY”, an UM WELT FILM PRODUCTION © 2014 English version, Length 104 min, price 25,50 Euros incl. shipping. Available only here:

DVD order


A fascinating life

the challenge of a great body of work

the motivation for a film

The filmmaker follows the traces of his favourite author. Through the authors fascinating books he gained insight into the history of the current conflicts between the West and the East. In the disquieting tensions of the present, he finds support and orientation in „his writer“, to whom he feels spiritually related. The man who is sought after lived in the first half of the Twentieth Century and was of Jewish origin. He was probably born in 1905 in Kiev as LEW NUSSIMBAUM, grewing up in a Jewish family in the oil metropolis Baku on the Caspian Sea. During the chaos of the Russian Revolution, he fled there 1920 with his father, a wealthy oil trader, via Georgia and Turkey to Europe, first to Paris, then to Berlin.

While travelling to the locations of his hero’s life, the “detective” meets various „experts“ and witnesses who are somehow involved with the writers life, either for professional or personal reasons. The trail leads him from Baku to Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Positano/Italy. After talking witnesses and researching archives, he sees that his hero was constantly on the run from the political catastrophes of his time, first from the Russian Bolsheviks, then from the German and Italian Fascists. In his Berlin exile of the Twenties, he confesses Islam and attempts repeatedly to hide his Jewish identity. As a stateless person he wrote using the Oriental pseudonyms, ESSAD BEY and KURBAN SAID. He chose German as his literary language and was considered a great bestselling author and an expert of the East. Within only ten years of creative life, between 1929 and 1939, he wrote 18 books which were translated into many languages. The subject matter in his non-fiction writings and novels were explosive. He wrote about rulers and dictators, like the last Russian Tsar Nikolaus II. and the Reza Shah of Persia, he wrote one of the first biographies about Stalin, about the terror of the Soviet secret police G.P.U., about the Islamic world in the Orient and the prophet Mohammed, about the secrets of the Caucasus and Baku as a melting pot of peoples, fired on by the limitless greed for crude oil. Blamed being a Jew by his emigrant Azerbaijan countrymen and slandered as a story swindler, he fled Berlin 1933 when the Nazis took over the power, heading to Vienna. After the “Anschluss” of Austria by the Nazis 1938, he had to fled Vienna too and finally reached his last exile in the southern Italian village of Positano. There, cut off finances and contacts, poor and lonely, he died in 1942, at the age of only 37, after suffering a miserable four year illness. A friend and admirer built him a Muslim gravesite at the edge of the Catholic cemetery in Positano, probably the only Muslim grave at Europe’s Christian cemeteries.

Decades after the World War II, the work of this almost forgotten author is rediscovered in the 1970’s. His novel „Ali & Nino“, a tragic love story about a Georgian Christian princess and an Azerbaijan Muslim count, first edited in 1937 succeeded to become the „Caucasian Romeo and Juliet version“, and causes an international furore. Becoming a jewel of world literature it is already being translated into 37 languages. His books about Islam and the Russian and Soviet Empire, which try to give Western readers an understanding of the Eastern world, are presently being printed in new editions as well.

Supported by his expert consultant, the filmmaker was able to take a look at the deathbed notes of his hero therein one can find his late reflections about his life. The strong artistic decision to use only quotes of these notes as the personal narration instead of a filmmaker’s commentary, gives not only the protagonist an authentic voice but gives also the film its unique shape. Like a puzzle, one can put together a picture which challenges the viewer to ask questions of himself. The life of this writer is a biography of his century, and depicts a restless cosmopolitan and provocative border-crosser. The present conflicts between cultures and religions seem to be an oppressive consequence seen in context of his prophetic warnings on the subject of the nowadays so-called “clash of civilizations”.
The books of Essad Bey

The Agony of ESSAD BEY

narrated by
„The voice of Essad Bey“



written, directed and produced by
expert consultant


voice recording, sounddesign, mixing
author, Berlin und Baku
historian and witness, Positano
Germanist and translator, Baku
witness, Paris
witness, Positano
witness, Positano und Rom
witness, Positano
witness, Positano
priest, Positano
actor, Positano
musician, Positano

Centre of Modern Orient, Berlin
MARC ELSNER, Stefanie Steinbichl
HeadRoom Studio Berlin

with financial support by

Rachele Hein, Munich
Culture Foundation of Berlin
Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg
Campania Film Commission, Naples
Federal Bureau of Culture and Media, Germany
Gencevi-Institut for Azerbaijanian Culture in Germany