Book Reviews 38
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Kozintsev’s Shakespeare Film: Russian Political Protest in Hamlet and King Lear
Tiffany Ann Conroy Moore
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, and London, 2012
viii + 194 pages
This could have been such an interesting book. It could have dealt with Kozintsev’s correspondence with his colleagues, including Shostakovich, exploring their collaboration in the director’s two Shakespeare movies. It could have ventured into Kozintsev’s and Shostakovich’s understandings of the phenomenon of ‘Hamletism’ in Russia and its incorporation into cinema. It could have offered a compact and useful guide for those watching these two masterpieces for the first time. It could have been a volume to put on the shelf next to Kozintsev’s own writings on Shakespeare – Shakespeare, Time and Conscience and King Lear: The Space of Tragedy.
It is in fact a shallow, one-sided and very subjective reading of supposed “Aesopian” messages Kozintsev supposedly encoded throughout his two Shakespeare films as well as his Don Quixote (1957). If you share the suppositions, you may enjoy seeing them elaborated. Otherwise, this is a book to be read with extreme caution. Moore’s arguments are based on extremely thin, or non-existent, sometimes even incorrect references, and she offers not a shred of evidence for her angle of interpretation.
Had she actually remained faithful to the task she sets herself in the Preface – to bring together the vast amount of existing writings on these films in a narrative that helps the reader enjoy Kozintsev’s Shakespearean adaptations – things would have been much better. Unfortunately even a glance at the Bibliography reveals the absence of any Russian sources – notably, and crucially, the five volumes of Kozintsev’s writings and letters. The author does admit her “linguistic and geographic limitations” in the Preface. But to this must be added her lack of knowledge of Russian culture and traditions. For example, she disregards the symbolic meaning of storm (metel’) in Russian literature as in works of Pushkin and Ostrovsky, to name a few, and interprets Kozintsev’s depiction of the storm in King Lear as a revelation of his fears of the Cold War, the post-Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear holocaust!
This is not to say that Kozintsev’s adaptations carry no political overtones; simply that these are a matter of interpretation, not conception, and should never be confused with the ‘meaning’ of his films in any more abstract sense. It is true that Russian (and other) productions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in particular have often been compared to a mirror, reflecting much about the era and social or political climate in which the play is produced. What Moore gives us, though, is merely a mirror of American or Russian-émigré post-Cold War attitudes, which she confuses with messages encoded in the actual films.
Moore has clearly read Kozintsev’s two books in their English translations. Her short selective history of Hamlet and King Lear in Russia is a paraphrase from Kozintsev’s books as well as the brilliant work of Eleanor Rowe, Hamlet: A Window on Russia (1976) and the compact study by Zdenĕk Stříbný, Shakespeare in Eastern Europe, to which she adds her subjective comments.
There are, however, some serious problems with her handling of sources. One of these concerns Polish writer Jan Kott and his book on Shakespeare, Shakespeare – Our Contemporary, whose publication date according to Moore is 1964 (p. 4). She then argues that Kott’s book contains major revelations concerning political protest in Shakespeare works, which then inspired Kozintsev in his first book on Shakespeare. Furthermore, she claims that the original title of Kozintsev’s book, Nash sovremennik – Vil’iam Shekspir (Our Contemporary – William Shakespeare), which was translated into English as Shakespeare, Time and Conscience in 1966 is in fact an encoded homage to Jan Kott and his similarly titled book . What she fails to see (presumably because she is unable to study documents in Russian) is that Kozintsev’s book was first published in 1962, two years before Kott’s. Clearly Moore is only aware of the second revised Russian edition of Kozintsev’s book which was indeed published in 1966.
The pages on Shostakovich are disappointingly meagre and go no further than basic description of a handful of scenes. With a little help from Rowe, she correctly mentions the other two Hamlet productions for which Shostakovich composed incidental music: those of Nikolai Akimov at the Vakhtangov theatre (1932) and of Kozintsev at the Aleksandriysky Theatre (1954). But she offers no further study of these scores, nor of the productions, except for a few quotes and paraphrases from Testimony and Kozintsev’s books. Instead she wastes a great deal of space on a synopsis of The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, attributing the 1936 “Muddle instead of Music” to Stalin, in ignorance of Leonid Maksimenkov’s research and his conclusions in favour of Platon Kerzhentsev, not to mention of the status of Testimony and Volkov’s other works, which she evidently considers to be reliable sources.
Following Volkov, Moore assimilates the Fool in King Lear to Shostakovich himself. She presents quite an informative short history of ‘the holy fool’ in Russian culture, with examples from other works such as Boris Godunov and Tarkovsky’s Andrey Rublyov, but then jumps to the wild assertion that the Fool in Kozintsev’s Lear “is at once fool, victimized Russian peasant, Nazi concentration camp or Gulag inmate resurrected at the scene of a nuclear disaster” (p. 23). Later she expands the claim, affirming that the Fool is in fact a Jew, given his skinny frame, shaved head and his wandering throughout the play. Why, then, one might ask, did Shostakovich – whose acquaintance with the Jewish idiom is not in question – not drop some kind of musical hint in this direction? Why did he instead use, in his 1941 production, an American Christmas song composed in 1857? Decode that!
There is a glimmer of hope when Moore reminds us that Socialist and Stalinist were two different understandings among Soviet intellectuals, and that Kozintsev, in his studies of Shakespeare, shows affinities with Marx, and with Lenin’s approach to the bard. However, she fails to apply these observations in her discussions throughout the book. Offering no reference or evidence, she reads Kozintsev’s Elizabethan studies as mere coded messages regarding the Soviet regime, his King Lear as nothing more than a critique of the Brezhnev era, and Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible as simply a mocking portrait of Stalin. Furthermore, using Lev Losseff’s terms in breaking down the Aesopian scheme into screens and markers, she views Shostakovich’s film music as a screen (hiding dissident messages) and any Russian motif in his film scores as markers (reminding the audience of the hidden messages). All well and good, so long as you don’t question the assumptions.
In sum, the author singularly fails to accomplish what she promises in her Preface, namely to contribute to the enjoyment of Kozintsev’s two Shakespeare films. More seriously, she exemplifies precisely the fallacy that Kozintsev himself put his finger on, in exasperated reply to a famous critique by Aleksandr Anikst of symbolic readings in Kozintsev’s 1954 mise-en-scène of Hamlet:: “Don’t try in vain to find meaning in everything you see on the stage.”