Category: Russian cinema

A Russian Youth (Russia 2019)

Here’s an unusual film. It’s short for a modern feature at under 75 mins. It doesn’t have much of a plot but it packs in a great many ideas. After the announcement of its state sponsorship we are told that this is an ‘Example of Intonation’ [from?] ‘A Non-Profit Film Foundation’ (Alexander Sokurov’s Foundation). These credits (white on a black background) are accompanied by what sounds like a shuffling of papers. The first image on screen is a pair of soldiers running/stumbling down a steep slope towards us accompanied by the opening of a dramatic orchestral score and suddenly we see the conductor of the orchestra in mid-shot. He is in contemporary dress, the soldiers are from a much earlier period. For the next couple of minutes the image cuts between the soldiers, who have now caught up with their comrades, a raggle-taggle bunch with a horse pulling a cartload of ammunition and a machine-gun, and the players of the orchestra – seemingly it is an orchestra of young players, perhaps from a conservatory? In both locations the camera alternates between closer and longer shots. The camera eventually picks out a boy soldier, perhaps aged 14 or 15? He is being teased by the men. The filmic image of the soldiers is distinctive. There is a high degree of ‘grain’ and the colours are de-saturated so that the greens of the countryside and the browns of the uniforms merge into a sometimes hazy and almost nostalgic glow like early colour photographs. It is also  ‘painterly’ in its presentation (see the image above). The corners of the image are rounded. The aspect ratio is hard to determine but it seems to me to be something like 1:1.54, unlike anything I am familiar with. (I measured its dimensions on my computer screen.)

The crosscutting between the orchestra and the soldiers lessens as the narrative develops. Yet as soon as the title, A Russian Youth by Alexander Zolotukhin, has disappeared (we easily identify that the film is going to be about the boy played by Vladimir Korolev), we are shown a close-up of the music score itself. Then, although we see less of the orchestra, we do hear the conductor’s instructions which are italicised in the subtitles so that we can distinguish them from the dialogue between the soldiers. As soon as the narrative begins to develop we forget about the orchestra but we know it is there. It ‘re-appears’ at the climax of the film with attention given to ferocious piano playing. I didn’t really notice the ‘intrusion’ of shots of the orchestra later on in the narrative. Perhaps there were some but I don’t remember them. What does this parallel cutting mean? I thought at first that because the filmic image of the soldiers seemed to refer to ‘silent’ cinema (albeit in the ‘wrong’ aspect ratio) the orchestra was meant to signify the players who would have been in the cinema orchestra in the 1910s. It occurs to me now that we do have an orchestra of young players who seem sometimes to be looking at a projected image of the young soldiers fighting for their lives. The Russians on screen are being encircled by German forces who seem much better armed and better led. Is this therefore an anti-war film? It doesn’t seem to be celebrating the prowess of Russian troops.

Aleksay (Vladimir Korolev)

We are not told where the fighting is taking place nor when these events are unfolding but there is a brief scene in which some of the soldiers are distributing leaflets, suggesting that there is considerable unrest about the poor leadership of the armies and the inadequate provisions. Our hero ‘Aleksey’ is blinded in his first action by a German gas attack. He has been badly taught the primitive technique for covering his eyes. The Germans have gas masks. Such scenes (i.e. a gas attack on a defended trench position) suggest 1915 or 1916. The gas was perhaps chlorine, used by the Germans on both fronts. The blinded Aleksey is helped by many of his comrades and taken under the wing of one or another. In a sense, he is no worse off than before. In fact he makes his one positive contribution to the Russian effort by acting as a ‘listening observer’ and giving warning of approaching enemy aircraft using a primitive listening device like a gigantic ear trumpet.

I found this film very watchable and intriguing. I’m not sure what it all means but it certainly explores ideas about sound an image in cinema. Several commentators and reviewers have attempted to link the film to the considerable achievements of the later Soviet Cinema in producing films about ‘The Great Patriotic War’ of 1941-45. Tarkovsky’s film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Elim Klimov’s Come and See (1985) are the two films referenced, both featuring young characters. I haven’t seen Come and See, but Ivan’s Childhood has a young central character who is quite unlike the the village boy in A Russian Youth. The two wars are very different, one largely before the 1917 Revolution, the other a ‘Patriotic War’. Having said that, I was reminded of Aleksai German’s Trial on the Road (1971/85), simply on the basis that there is a futility expressed in these anti-war films. In A Russian Youth, the final scenes, accompanied by that ferocious piano playing seem to take us back to the beginning with a similar scene of soldiers trying to haul a heavy gun up a hill. The difference is that the men (and the boy) are now prisoners being forced up the hill by their captors.

The credits reveal that the music by Rachmaninoff is the 1909 Piano Concerto No.3 Op. 30 and the Symphonic Dances from 1940 Op. 45. The orchestra is the Tavrichesky Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Golikov and it is indeed a youth orchestra. Researching the orchestra I came across this excellent piece by Baradwaj Rangan who watched the film on MUBI India. Rangan makes some very interesting points. He’s explored the music and the conductor’s comments as they are juxtaposed with the visual images and dialogue of the soldiers and finds them often connected directly, as if the conductor is giving instructions to his players in a similar way to the orders given to the soldiers, e.g. “Let’s take a break there”. The punchline of Rangan’s piece is to argue that A Russian Youth has much more of an emotional charge through its formal operations than Sam Mendes’ acclaimed ‘one take’ film 1917. I decided not to watch the Mendes film (mainly because I feared something like what Rangan suggests about it). But I do go with the view that A Russian Youth is a very emotionally-involving film.

I was struck by how well writer-director Zolotukhin and his crew (cinematographer Ayrat Yamilov, production designer Elena Zhukova, costume designer Olga Bakhareva and sound designer Fonin Andrey) create the world of 1915. I thought afterwards how it seemed much more ‘real’ than those colourised images of 1914-18 newsreels presented by Peter Jackson that received so much attention a few years ago. A Russian Youth is very much worth 75 minutes of your time. Don’t miss it if you get the chance to see it.

GFF20 #15: Stalker (USSR 1979)

The journey through the Zone begins on a petrol-driven trolley

Glasgow’s retrospective this year was ‘Are We There Yet? A Retrospective of the Future’ and amongst the many Hollywood films selected for this strand, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker stood out as something different. I don’t think I saw Stalker when it arrived in the UK, but I knew something about the film. I was therefore surprised that a 162 minute film which has baffled audiences for 40 years should attract a nearly full house in GFT1 (260 seats taken according to Festival co-director Allan Hunter). Admittedly this was a free show, like all the morning shows in the retrospective, but even so the turnout was impressive.

The starting point for Stalker was a novel, originally titled Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. There are numerous stories about the production of the film but most point towards Tarkovsky’s decision to use the novel only as ‘inspiration’ rather than to adapt it ‘faithfully’, although I think some have argued it is quite close to the novel (which I haven’t read). In addition, reported problems with the filmstock used and a dispute with the original cinematographer meant that Tarkovsky re-shot much of the film and there is a credit part-way through the Curzon DCP which announces ‘Part 2’ and therefore, I think, the new material.

If you haven’t seen the film, the narrative starts from the premise that after some kind of major incident (which in the novel is an alien visitation which the aliens treat ‘like a picnic’) an area of land is cordoned off and access is denied to the public. This is ‘the Zone’. A group of individuals have spent time trying to find ways into the Zone and these people are known as ‘Stalkers’. The narrative opens with a Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) leaving his wife and child at home and meeting two men, the ‘Professor’ (Nikolay Grinko) and a ‘Writer’ (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) who will pay him to lead them into the Zone. Why do they want to go there? The local legend is that at the centre of the Zone is a building with a room in which anyone who enters successfully is able to have any wish granted. The Stalker tells them that the Zone is very difficult to navigate and that only he and his few fellows know the pathways and how to find them. He refers to the most famous Stalker who was known as ‘Porcupine’.

The Writer

The film is divided into sections marked by the use of colour filters or distinctive palettes. The opening in the house of the Stalker and the bar where he meets his two customers is presented in a yellowish sepia, many of the scenes indoors/underground in the ‘Zone’ have a palette primarily of greys, contrasting with outdoor sequences in full colour dominated by the greens of vegetation. The final sequences set back near the Stalker’s home are perhaps again yellowish sepia. (I’m confused here since the many stills online don’t always match what I think I saw in Glasgow.) The film is presented in Academy ratio and there are two types of colour stock used as well as black and white according to IMdB.

Stalker has been described in many ways but like all films labelled as ‘science fiction’ it is about ‘now’ rather than anything futuristic. The film seemed to me to be primarily concerned with living in the USSR. This in turn requires entering a number of philosophical debates about how to survive in the society and what it is that keeps people going. We do find out what the Professor and the Writer are seeking but several questions are unanswered by the narrative. The most obvious is why the Stalker hasn’t entered the room and obtained his own wish – which might be for money to support his family or for a cure for the affliction which means his daughter has difficulty walking.

The Writer and the Professor

I should point out that I found the film very heavy going. Partly that might be because I was feeling under the weather anyway with a heavy cold but I think I stayed alert throughout the running time. However, I am now finding it difficult to remember some parts of the narrative. I saw my first three Tarkovsky films on release in UK cinemas, Solaris (1972), Andrei Rublev (1973) and Mirror (1980) and not only did I enjoy them but I found myself moved by them in different ways. When I watched Tarkovsky’s début film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) some years later on video, I was similarly knocked out. Why then did I not respond to Stalker? I don’t know. I was impressed by the camerawork and some of the ‘action sequences’ such as the initial breaking into the Zone, the walk across it and some of the sequences inside the buildings, but for some reason I wasn’t engaged. I wasn’t sure what to make of the opening and closing sequences with the Stalker and his wife and daughter. It may be that I just couldn’t tune into the religious and and more broadly philosophical questions – though these are also present in various ways in some of the earlier films. More likely, is that the narrative itself is much more abstract and though it isn’t difficult to see some of the links to a critique of Soviet society, I tend to enjoy narratives that are more materially, more sociologically grounded (or in the case of Solaris, couched in more specific generic structures).

There are many, many pieces written about Stalker from eminent film critics and scholars to auteur fans. There are also many attempts to explain the narrative. Stalker has become one of those films that are endlessly argued over. You can easily find many of these on YouTube and through simple searches. Perhaps I need to watch it again – or perhaps I should seek out his last two films? I’m pleased Glasgow screened it and I’m glad I saw it in what is now considered a large cinema. Here’s the trailer for a recent restoration of Stalker:

GFF18 #15: A Gentle Creature (Krotkaya, France-Germany-Russia-Ukraine-Netherlands-Lithuania 2017)

The ‘gentle creature’ (Vasilina Makovtseva) at one of the several bureaucratic ‘windows’ where she will fail to proceed with her quest

As if to prove that Glasgow’s programme offered real diversity, the last film I saw was also the most difficult to read (but also at times quite beautiful in its construction). This is the latest film from Sergey Loznitsa who has now become a Cannes regular. I’m guessing that Loznitsa’s best-known film is Maidan (2014), a documentary about the civil protests in Ukraine in 2013/2014. I was intrigued by that title as I’ve always associated ‘maidan‘ with India as a public space but it turns out to be a Persian word. Loznitsa turns out to be a prolific filmmaker and I’m glad I got the opportunity to see one of his films for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Sergey Loznitsa is a Ukranian but has recently lived in Russia and now Germany, which might help to explain the wide range of funders for his latest film. A Gentle Creature is an adaptation – a ‘creative’ one – of a short story by Dosteyevsky. The story dates from 1876 and has had several film adaptations, the most notable perhaps by Robert Bresson as Une femme douce in 1969 and Nazar by Mani Kaul in 1991. There have also been other versions in Russia, Poland, Vietnam, the US and Sri Lanka. Having read an outline of the Dostoyevsky story, I’m at a loss to relate it directly to the new film but it may be that it is a thematic adaptation rather than a ‘faithful’ one.

The joys of bus travel . . .

The film begins with a long shot of a country road. A young woman alights and sets off across the fields. The photography is by Oleg Mutu, The Romanian master whose work I saw most recently in the Polish film United States of Love (2016). The young woman is ‘the gentle creature’ of the title who, like many of the characters in the film, is not given a personal name, and is played by Vasilina Makovtseva. Next we see the woman visiting the post office to retrieve a parcel (actually a box of food, clothes and cigarettes etc.) that has been returned to her by the prison where her husband is incarcerated. Why has this parcel been returned? Her only option is to visit the prison, many miles away, in person and try to deliver it. At this point we begin to realise that we are again in a Kafkaesque narrative where every move to resolve an issue will result in a block or a refusal to act. Our hero is constantly thwarted and thrown into danger as various unreliable characters offer her assistance. The cinematography and some of the elements of the mise en scène suggest that the setting for the journey to the prison could be Soviet Russia before 1990, but other clues confirm it is 2012. It doesn’t seem to matter and as several reviewers have pointed out, the Russian penal system (like the American one?) has been a source of despair from the time of the Tsars until the present. There are suggestions that the prison in the film might be in Siberia and the woman travels by train. The long distances which relatives must travel just adds to the despair.

At one point our hero is tricked into lodging at a brothel where she will be humiliated

On the train and at the prison itself, the woman is surrounded by a variety of Russian character types with much drinking and singing of songs. Stoically she walks to and fro carrying her box. We fear that her naïvety will lead her into some kind of forced sex work but somehow she evades her fate. Finally, she falls asleep and in her dreams experiences a kind of show trial and then wakes from a nightmare – only for it to appear as if the real nightmare is about to begin . . . A Gentle Creature is a long film (143 minutes) but for the most part I was fully engaged trying to work out what was happening and what it might mean. It was only the last sequence of the dream that seemed to drag, not because of the dream/fantasy itself but that similar ‘testimonies’ are made by virtually every character the hero has met on her journey. It felt as if we had to hear each one for the narrative to be ‘complete’. I thought I’d got the point after the first two or three but I suspect I wasn’t getting the point at all.

Falling asleep at the station and dreaming . . .

So much talent and effort has gone into the film, supported by so many different organisations from different European countries that I want to support the film myself even if I don’t understand it that well. The performances are all very good, especially the lead. The cinematography and design features are also very good and if the whole mammoth enterprise was achieved with a budget of €2million (IMDb) both the producer Marianne Slot and director Loznitsa are miracle workers. According to the festival programme, the film has been taken up by Arrow Films in the UK, though whether it will get a cinema release remains to be seen. I hope it does find its audience because anyone with better knowledge than me about Russian history and culture will find plenty to get their teeth into.

Loveless (Nelyubov, Russia-Germany-France-Belgium 2017)

Breakfast – Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) has little time for her son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), being more interested in what’s on her phone. Soon after breakfast, Alyosha will disappear.

Loveless is the fifth feature directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. For some critics, he has become the successor to Andrei Tarkovsky. Every film has won a major prize. With Leviathan (2014) he fell foul of the Russian government and this latest film comes as a co-production in which Zvyagintsev has attracted support from French-German cultural TV channel arte and fellow filmmakers the Dardennes Brothers among others. Cannes prizewinners stick together. In the UK, the film is released by the small independent Altitude rather than one of the larger arthouse brands like Curzon Artificial Eye. I hope this doesn’t restrict audience access – it doesn’t seem to have done so far.

I’ve been surprised by some of the reviews for the film in the UK and there has been a lot of discussion about how harrowing the film is etc. I’m somebody who weeps easily in any sentimental film and copiously for a finely wrought melodrama. I sat through Loveless unmoved, but always closely engaged. This isn’t callousness on my part but rather a function of the film’s address to audiences (it may also be because I’m not a parent). The film doesn’t aim to manipulate emotions but to observe a situation. The style is ‘hyper realist’ with a camera eye that is cold and unblinking, observing, often head-on, a marriage disintegrating. The camera is often still and the digital image is pristine but desaturated, emphasising the bleakness of the coming Russian winter in the opening and closing shots of the film. I think it is a kind of anti-melodrama and I enjoy the visual splendour of a film which some critics seem to feel is too heavy-handed. I’m sure there are things I missed or haven’t thought through, but I’m confident that there is intelligence behind every move Zvyagintsev makes.

Alyosha in the woods on his way home from school at the start of the film.

The story is carefully set in 2012 (referenced via news reports and later on posters). As someone in another review has pointed out, the figure at the centre of the narrative (even if he appears only fleetingly), is 12 year-old Alyosha who was born in 2000, the first official year of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. The appraisal of society that the film offers could be argued to be a statement about ‘Putin’s Russia’. Alyosha is unlucky to be the son of Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), parents who are in the process of divorcing, having both found new partners. There doesn’t seem to be a place for Alyosha in either new relationship, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he disappears one day. The narrative then becomes about the search for Alyosha and what this does (or doesn’t do) to Zhenya and Boris. In various interviews Zvyagintsev has said that the idea for the film came when he visited America in 2015 and that Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (Sweden 1973/4) was a filmic starting point. This implies a kind of universalist approach. The tragedy could actually happen anywhere. But Zvyagintsev is an artist who believes that universal stories have to be rooted in a specific place and he’s chosen different Russian settings for his films. In this sense Loveless is most like Elena (2011) in focusing on social class difference in suburban Moscow. Not many critics have noticed that Aleksey Rozin as Boris, also appeared as Elena’s son Sergey in the 2011 film. There are several other parallels between the two films, e.g. the potential pathway which leads boys from school into the armed forces. 

The family in Loveless, though upwardly mobile, lives in a flat/apartment in a high-rise block in suburban Moscow. Boris has a desk-job in a company owned by a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, who Zhenya refers to as operating a form of ‘Sharia Orthodox Law’. Perhaps it’s a good thing that Boris’s new partner Masha is already heavily pregnant, so he won’t lose face in his company if he divorces and remarries before anyone notices. Zhenya has some kind of interest in a beauty salon – but she has also snared a wealthy older businessman with a grown-up daughter. Both parents have their materialist concerns sorted out, but they don’t have much idea about parenting. I wondered about ‘spoilers’ at this point, but this film is not heavy on plot. It turns into a kind of police procedural when Alyosha goes missing and I need to analyse some moments to make any meaningful comments.

Boris and Zhenya with the head of the volunteer search team.

The look of the film

Zvyagintsev has worked with the same key ‘creatives’ on several films. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman has photographed three out of four (but not Elena). Production designer/art director Andrey Ponkratov has also been on three out of four shoots (including Elena). I mention Elena for two aesthetic reasons. One is the use of opening and closing sequences without actions but heavy with a sense of something – and I’m not sure exactly what it is. We know from interviews that in Elena, the shots (outside an apartment) were shot in a studio. Loveless was supposedly all shot on location, but the complex compositions inside apartment buildings feel like they too were studio shoots – perhaps Ponkratov constructed sets inside empty apartments? In both films there is significant action outside the apartment blocks, especially in the wooded areas. Moscow appears to be like Paris with high-rise blocks some distance from the centre of the city. This kind of development is not often found in the same way in the UK (though the architecturally-famous high-rises of the Alton Estate in Roehampton that featured in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 make an interesting parallel). Particularly resonant are shots through the windows and over the slopes below the high-rise where the disintegrating family live. As my viewing companion remarked, the images towards the end of the film, with families enjoying tobogganing on the snowy slopes, looks almost like a Breughel painting. The three images above show the complex mise en scène of the apartment and the more naturalistic shots of the woodland walk home that Alyosha makes from school. The trailer below also has shots of the landscapes around the high-rises.

The static head-on camera is quite disturbing in its ‘immersive’ effect. At one point it is almost like we are sitting on the other side of the works canteen table as Boris and his immediate boss eat their lunch. Boris explores issues about the firm’s moral codes as his colleague eats noisily, occasionally dropping food from his fork. As one reviewer has pointed out, we become complicit with the ‘bad parents’ when we realise that we’ve been so wrapped up in watching and criticising them that we too have failed to notice that Alyosha has disappeared. Zvyagintsev and his collaborators use the ‘Scope frame very well. Several scenes are so detailed that we feel forced to look around the screen and in one delicious shot in the open-plan office space, we notice that somebody is playing Solitaire on their desktop – a moment of frivolity in the oppressive work space.

Commentary

When Boris and Zhenya finally go to the police, the narrative does change to the extent that an element of both ‘mystery’ and ‘procedure’ takes over. The procedure structures the narrative, not through the police, but through the appearance of the volunteer search group comprising volunteers who are incredibly well-organised. The group is modelled on a real life organisation called ‘Liza Alert’, formed after the tragic conclusion to the disappearance of a 5 year-old girl. This is discussed in an excellent piece by Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound, March 2018. The police are not incompetent or uncaring as such, but simply overwhelmed by the number of missing persons and the paperwork required to progress anything. Inevitably, we make the comparison between the ineffectiveness of the police under Putin and the model of efficiency and common sense portrayed by the volunteers. They represent the possibilities of disinterested but public-spirited groups of citizens who care. They give their time and effort to a worthwhile cause. I’m tempted to think of them as representing what was good about the socialist state destroyed by rampant capitalism. Zvyagintsev shows us not just Boris and Zhenya, but many others in the worlds that they inhabit, trapped within a materialist world of screens, phones and selfies. This is presumably the ‘heavy-handedness’ some critics don’t like, but I find it a very powerful when I re-edit the film in my head and juxtapose the volunteers searching the forest and an abandoned Soviet era building with the selfie takers in a restaurant. I do have to agree, however, that Zvyagintsev tends make the women responsible for the worst excesses. Zhenya is hard, selfish and grasping. Boris is weak and at times pathetic and looks as if he has learned nothing as he moves into his new family set-up. The gender split is then repeated in other groups we see.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) is the poised, well-dressed modern woman – freed of the strains of motherhood when her son disappears?

Whereas Aleksey Rozin is an actor, like some others in the cast familiar from other Zvyagintsev films, Maryana Spivak as Zhenya is appearing in only her second cinema feature. She is tall and athletic. Zvyagintsev has chosen to show off her body, not I think in a fetishised sexist way but perhaps as an example of consumerist obsession. We see her in the beauty parlour for a waxing and then in bed with her new partner. Similarly we see Boris making love to his heavily pregnant new partner. The scenes are shot quite differently. Boris and Masha are shot from some distance away in a darkened room. Zhenya and her new partner are in a modernist apartment with a dividing panel with a large mirror. Sex for Boris and Masha seems enthusiastic, sweaty and straightforward. Zhenya is presented in more studied poses. At the end of the film we see Zhenya’s athleticism expressed now as exercise on a running machine and she dressed in a shiny new ‘Russia’ tracksuit.

A final image of Zhenya

In some ways the ‘procedural’ leads us into thinking about the very successful long-form crime narratives of recent years – except that we understand that Loveless is an art film and we don’t necessarily expect a dramatic resolution. Instead we are returned to the mystery. I’d like to finish by referring again to Jonathan Romney’s piece ‘The Lost Boy’. Romney is one of the best of the current batch of critics and even when I might disagree with him, I can see that his arguments make sense. He comments on Zvyagintsev’s use of symbolism and how contemporary (younger?) audiences seem now to be impatient with it because of their experience of the excessive ‘wash’ of media images from so many sources. They resent the arrogance of someone who challenges them to spend time thinking about what might be being symbolised. This certainly makes sense. There seems to be a rush now to read images in a superficial way and for films to be enjoyed and celebrated if they have easily understood messages. That’s not the case with Zvyagintsev and I look forward to the next five films and their presentation of a complex world with few easy answers.

The previous four films by Zvyagintsev:

Leviathan (2014)

Elena (2011)

The Banishment (2007)

The Return (2003)

King Lear (Korol Lir, USSR (Russian) 1971)

Juri Jarvet as Lear sitting by the fire in his court.

(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)

King Lear is Shakespeare’s tale of an ageing monarch who makes a spectacular error of judgement by dividing his kingdom through a ‘love trial’ of his three daughters, unleashing chaos in the land. There are countless film versions, some of the best known like King of Texas (US TV film, 2002), A Thousand Acres (Iowa, US 1997), Ran (Japan 1985), transplanting the story to radically different soil.  Peter Brook’s monochrome film (1971) is considered by many the definitive screen version of Shakespeare’s original. In his absurdist vision, the key word ‘Nothing’ reverberates throughout – from the black silence of the opening titles to the apocalyptic waste of the ending. Most British stage and screen productions have followed in this tradition of nihilistic despair, recent ones taking the theme of breakdown further by retreating to the small, dark, senseless space of an old man’s dementia-ridden head.

It was refreshing therefore recently to discover Grigori Kozintsev’s gloriously expansive Russian language film Korol Lir. Released the same year as Brook’s film and superficially similar in its monochrome vision of tragic destruction, it deserves to be far better known: Kozintsev offers a more coherent, richer and arguably uplifting reading of Shakespeare. The film is available on DVD but only a cinema re-release could truly do justice to this wide-screen epic. A contemporary of Eisenstein, Kozintsev was an experimental film-maker who learned his craft in the great age of montage, with the creative theatre and film school FEKS; in his later career, he developed into a visually imaginative but more mature artist with a (socialist?) realist style. He was also a Shakespeare scholar with a deep interest in his tragic ‘philosophy’, so it is no surprise that in the 1940s he staged and later filmed his two darkest tragedies Gamlet (1964) and Korol Lir (1971). Kozintsev declared he wanted ‘to create a visual poetry with the same quality as that of Shakespearian verse’ (dialogue with Ronald Hayman, 1973) – so dramatically cut Shakespeare’s lines (the film runs to only 2 hours 11 minutes). Achieving his goal was made easier because of his long and close collaboration with translator Boris Pasternak and composer Dmitri Shostakovich on productions of Shakespeare. Shot on the shores of the Baltic, both films are remarkable for their powerfully symbolic elemental imagery, luminous clarity of vision and epic – often monumental – shot-making. There is no finer example than the breathtaking scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears on the castle battlements.

Much of the rich ambiguity of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films derives from the Soviet context: they share the quality of ‘double-voicing’ (Bakhtin) that characterises much of the art produced in a repressive state. That is to say, they can be read as innocent ‘art’ or allegorically, as political critique of the Soviet system. In turn, audiences were primed to look for encoded meanings – each one potentially a small act of resistance. To the distant pre-Christian English setting of King Lear, Kozintsev added another layer of strangeness, using some foreign actors dubbed into Russian – for example, lead actor Estonian Juri Jarvet. As a truth-hating tyrant whose actions ruin his country (symbolised by his tearing up of an enormous map of the nation), Lear stands for oppressive Soviet leadership, from Stalin to Brezhnev. However, Kozintsev suggests he is doomed from the start: unlike the great bearded patriarch of the silent era Lear (1909) or Patrick Stewart’s heroically masculine ‘King of Texas’, gaunt-faced Juri Jarvet cuts a frail figure. For all the actor’s passionate performance, this Lear is dwarfed by his throne, his outsize royal garments and ridiculously sculpted hair collapsing around him as he hurtles towards his downfall. In presenting the all-powerful leader as almost comically impotent from the start, Kozintsev creates pity for Lear and but also stirs the political hopes of his audience.

Grigori Kozintsev

Like many Russian artists who saw Shakespeare as a radical and their contemporary, Kozintsev understood instinctively the deeply political nature of a tragic vision that links the fate of the individual to the nation. From the opening frames to the great final battle, this feels like a biblical epic. In his re-imagining of the play, Kozintsev presents  the poor multitudes on the move, devotedly following Lear on his journey all the way to Dover – crowds that perhaps represent the peasantry or proletariat, the dispossessed and alienated living in internal exile. Lear has to be reduced to their level, to a state of Nature, to ‘ . . . a bare, forked animal’ before the process of regeneration can begin.  At this climactic point of the narrative, Kozintsev makes Nature his central character. In a series of intensely atmospheric scenes Ionas Gritsius’ savagely beautiful cinematography captures the disorder both in Lear’s mind and kingdom. In the critical storm scene, there is an epic sweep to his camera work, which takes us to vast windswept wastelands where high overhead shots pick out a tiny figure illuminated in the darkness – Lear raging pitifully against the elements.  Such shots are reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Macbeth and Othello, but Welles’ use of chiaroscuro is more noirish. In this scene wild grunting boars, horses, and bears charge restlessly through desert spaces, amid an enhanced soundscape of violently rustling trees and howling winds. The film abounds in such primitive imagery and Kozintsev does not flinch from the darkest side of human nature. After the unimaginable cruelty of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out, he reflects Lear’s verdict that he has spawned sexually rapacious ‘tigers, not daughters’ by cutting to invented  scenes of Goneril and Edmund having sex, followed by the necrophiliac horror of Regan not so much kissing as devouring the face of her dead husband Cornwall.

Despite its darkness, there are other striking features that make this a politically engaged film. Firstly, Kozintsev gives the Fool (Oleg Dahl) a much greater role than usual, exploiting his ambiguous status as state servant but licenced truth-teller to represent him partly as the artist, and partly as the ‘holy fool’ of Russian tradition. He introduces him to the play earlier than does Shakespeare, showing Lear from the start sheltering him under his cloak and patting him on the head, like a surrogate child, a reminder of the loving daughter Cordelia he has unjustly banished. Crouching in dark corners, the Fool is a loyal dog growling out his riddling wisdom to Lear. From the opening titles, Shostakovich uses the motif of jaunty pipe music to signal the Fool’s artistic purity and role as the voice of Shakespeare’s conscience. Even though the playwright has him fade away well before then, Kozintsev keeps him till the final frames, when he is kicked aside like a cur but rises defiantly to play Russian folk tunes that hint of hope to the audience.

Cordelia’s marriage to the King of France with the overt Christian symbolism

Secondly, Kozintsev makes overt use of Christian references in a pagan world that can be taken for the atheist state. Shostakovich begins with highly emotive religious chants, reflecting the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a force of resistance in the later Communist era. His orchestral score then builds to a thundering discordant climax as Lear ascends prophet-like to the top of his castle to address his kneeling subjects, only to spew ugly fire against his daughters. To emphasise that Lear is the false god of the old order, Kozintsev cuts straight to a new order in which the forces of good are aligned with Christian imagery of resurrection: Cordelia’s marriage to France (off-stage in Shakespeare’s play) takes place before a great wooden cross. He underscores this idea through the use of a fabric motif; first seen in the background to the opening and closing titles is a threadbare coarse-weave fabric that symbolises both the ruination of Lear’s land and its salvation. This becomes clear when Gloucester’s innocent banished son Edgar (disguised as Poor Tom the beggar) uses such a fabric to cover his nakedness, but later gives up even this meagre rag to bind his broken staff into a cross marking his father’s grave. Fire that is first foregrounded burning in Lear’s hearth eventually becomes a raging holocaust, evoking perhaps the destruction of two world wars, Hiroshima and Vietnam. But the effect is cathartic and perhaps revolutionary: the whole social order must be razed to the ground for a better one to arise.  After the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, the camera takes us out wide to birds flying over the sea, signifying not death but liberation. Ending on images of sacrifice and redemption might in a western context seem almost reactionary, but here can be read as resistance.

Faced with the everyday threat of personal and nuclear annihilation, for the artists of Brezhnev’s Cold War USSR despair might have seemed a western luxury; on the other hand, engagement was an act of survival. Some might dismiss the film as rather traditional, but for me it is precisely Kozintsev’s commitment to a search for meaning that makes his version of King Lear particularly appealing in our jaded postmodern age. His achievement was to marry poetry and politics using the moving image – the ultimate light illusion – to conjure something from Shakespeare’s ‘Nothing’.

The film is officially available from Lenfilm (with English subs) in HD (but a slightly-squeezed aspect ratio on YouTube:

Written by Shabanah Fazal – see her other posts on this blog

A modern film artist: the work of Andrey Zvyagintsev

Andrey Zvyagintsev with the Golden Lion he won at Venice in 2003 for his first feture, The Return.

Andrey Zvyagintsev with the Golden Lion he won at Venice in 2003 for his first feture, The Return.

Every few years the international film community discovers a new director whose films win prizes at festivals and new fans around the world. Andrey Zvyagintsev first attracted attention with The Return in 2002, followed by The Banishment in 2007 and Elena in 2011. The director’s fourth feature Leviathan was one of the most celebrated and controversial films of 2014 and given the current belligerence of the Russian state, Zvyagintsev’s oblique commentaries on Russian society have begun to attract attention in the news media. What makes these films so compelling and distinctive? 

This day school introduced Zvyagintsev as an unusual figure in contemporary cinema who worked for many years as an actor before directing an episode of a television drama series aged 36 in 2000. The move into feature films was rapid and The Returns award of the Golden Lion in Venice was a reminder of another début win by Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood in 1962.

Zvyagintsev’s film’s have attracted audiences for three main reasons and these were the focus of the Day School:

  1. The stories resonate because of strong characters and universal themes (often with Biblical allusions) – which can also be interpreted in specific Russian contexts.
  2. Some fruitful collaborations with talented filmmakers to produce a powerful aesthetic appeal in terms of cinematography, music and sound and use of settings and landscape.
  3. A dedication to the ‘art’ of cinema and an obvious debt to several of the giants of art cinema such as Andrei Tarkovsky as well as an affinity with other contemporary art directors such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

 The day included a complete screening of Zvyagintsev’s third feature Elena plus discussion-based sessions with extracts from the other three films and complementary material from Tarkovsky and Ceylan.