Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 23


The Commissar


Script and Director: Grigory Kozintsev

Music: Dmitri Shostakovich
Cast: Innokenty Smoktunovsky, Mikhail Nazvanov, Elsa Radzinya, Yuri Tolubeyev, Anastasia Vertinskaya, Vadim Medvedev, Vladimir Erenberg, Stepan Oleksenko, Igor Dmitriev, Grigory Gai, Reino Aren.
Lenfilm 1964.
Ruscico (Russian Cinema Council) Collection. 2-DVD set, Region 0, PAL or NTSC, B&W. TT 70 min + 70 min.
Sound: Russian (mono), Russian, English and French Dolby 5.1.
Subtitles: Russian, English, German, French, Spanish, Italian.
Special Features: Interviews with director G. Kozintsev and actor I. Smoktunovsky; Documentaries: Making of…, I. Smoktunovsky awarded by the Lenin Award; Text material: W. Shakespeare; Sketches of production design; Photo Albums; Filmographies.

Of all the films that Shostakovich scored, the best known and most widely distributed is Kozintsev’s Hamlet (1964). Yet despite this, the film has proved surprisingly hard to find outside (and sometimes inside) the cinema; Ruscico’s new DVD release is therefore extremely welcome.

The climax of a lifetime of study for Kozintsev, Hamlet is the director’s masterpiece and everyone involved was at the top of their game. Jonas Gritsius’ beautifully-toned photography lovingly reproduces every texture from the alabaster-skinned Ophelia to the black-caped ghost against the luminescent mother-of-pearl sky. It also complements Yevgeny Yenei’s designs, less Freudian than Roger Furse and Carmen Dillon’s for Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet, but still stressing the claustrophobic court. Smoktunovsky’s Prince was a career-defining role and of course Shostakovich produced one of his greatest scores in or out of the cinema.

The suite that Atovmyan prepared from the score – in fact he had little to do but select and order the pieces – gives a good idea of the range of the music, from Ophelia’s brittle harpsichord to the powerhouse brass and percussion of the most corporeal ghost ever to appear onscreen. Nevertheless Yablonsky’s recent recording of the complete published score (Naxos 6.110062; reviewed in DSCH 21) is a revelatory listen, filling in the gaps and re-ordering the pieces to follow the film (in the suite the players’ performance precedes their arrival!). Those who have that disc can now see just how the ghost’s music is matched by the literal nightmare of the fleeing horses and the uncanny slow-motion images – ‘time out of joint’ – until we are finally lifted to heaven with the ghost as he bids adieu. In contrast we can see the painful constrictions imposed on Ophelia, gain a deeper insight into her downfall, or watch Claudius at The Mousetrap, transfixed between horror and rage, whilst fearing that not just Hamlet, but the whole court is scrutinising his reaction.

Hamlet would fit onto one dual-layer disc, but preferring single-layer discs, Ruscico spread it over two. Like King Lear (reviewed in DSCH 22), it is a two-part film and Kozintsev’s break point is respected. Hamlet is just under 150 minutes long, though since the PAL video format displays 25 frames per second as compared to the 24 frames per second of film, Ruscico’s PAL discs total about 143 minutes, advertised at 140 minutes. As usual with Ruscico, the film is well chaptered: disc one (71:38) has 12 and disc two (71:01) has 11.

There are four soundtrack options: the original mono, Russian 5.1, and dubbed English and French (both also 5.1) and the menus are in the same languages. Of the Russian tracks, the original mono is obviously to be preferred: as so often, the newly created sound effects for the 5.1 track are sometimes a bit in-your-face. Fortunately, for the dubbed versions the single male voice that Ruscico have sometimes used has been replaced with several actors. However, the English is intoned rather than spoken (not always in synch with either the Russian track or the subtitles) and there’s a sense that the actors aren’t always entirely clear of the meaning of what they are saying.

Ruscico seem to be cutting back on the range of subtitle languages, but for Hamlet still we have Russian, English, French, Spanish, Italian and German. As with Lear, for the English they have returned to Shakespeare’s original rather than try to give a rendition of Pasternak’s translation. The subtitles do not extend very far into the credits though all the main players are covered. More importantly, they are superimposed on the image; it would have been possible to place them in the black letterbox areas, though viewers who prefer to set their televisions to fill the screen with the image would thereby have lost them, along with around 30% of the stunning photography.

There are almost 45 minutes of moving-image bonus material plus two text extras: the same Shakespeare biography as appears on King Lear and bio-filmographies of the cast and the crew that, while generally reliable would have benefited from a final proof-reading. Kozintsev was apparently a member of FACS (not FEKS) and some of the film titles are oddly translated. Shostakovich also has a long list of his honours and a slightly incomplete filmography including a couple which merely use pre-existing music. Cameraman Jonas Gritsius and production designer Yevgeny Yenei get briefer entries. On disc two are the cast members – a surprising number appeared in non-Kozintsev films that have music by Shostakovich.

Making the Film ends rather suddenly after 2:45 – perhaps it is edited down from a newsreel, as new films were commonly covered and there were frequent features on well-known actors. A coach arrives at the Estonian castle-set and incongruously costumed actors disembark. Vertinskaya is seen in make-up with Smoktunovsky. Kozintsev is shown directing the Mousetrap scene – sadly there is only a commentary and music (not from the film) on the soundtrack, so we don’t hear his instructions. Smoktunovsky rather feyly mugs to the camera in his dressing room, then chats to Kozintsev on the battlements. Finally we have more footage of Mousetrap rehearsals, including Claudius practising his great reaction to the play.

Awarding I. Smoktunovsky (0:15) offers a tiny snippet of newsreel of the actor receiving a Moscow Film Festival prize. Interviews with G. Kozintsev and I. Smoktunovsky (3:18) are in fairly poor condition and the soundtracks have suffered particularly badly – Kozintsev’s voice is made high-pitched and fluttery. The content, though hardly revelatory, is some compensation: Kozintsev talks about Hamlet as a lifetime project and Smoktunovsky pays tribute to his fellow actors, particularly Claudius (Mikhail Nazvanov) and Polonius (Yuri Tolubeyev), both Kozintsev veterans.

There are several photo albums, often accompanied by fragments of Shostakovich’s score. Hamlet: Unity in Multiplicity (13:39) presents images of actors who have played Hamlet from 1660 to date. Intriguingly, if unsurprisingly, this includes several Russians, testament to the popularity of Shakespeare and this play in that country. The first Russian we see is Vasili Kachalov who played Hamlet between 1911 and 1920 in Stanislavsky’s Moscow Arts Theatre production designed by Kozintsev’s hero Gordon Craig. He was followed in 1924 by Mikhail Chekhov (though he is perhaps best-known as Ingrid Bergman’s psychiatrist-mentor in Hitchcock’s Spellbound from 1945), and Alexander Moissi (1925). Could the young Shostakovich have seen these productions? Almost certainly he would have seen Meyerhold’s wife Zinaida Raikh play the Prince in 1931 but two stage productions of Hamlet which he scored – Akimov’s (1932) and Kozintsev’s (1954) – are absent from this roll-call. Mentioned but not illustrated is a production ‘planned by’ Alla Demidova in the 1970s; she also played Gertrude opposite Vladimir Vysotsky in 1971. More Russian Hamlets up to Valery Garkalin in 2003 are illustrated and there is a photograph of a Russian production of Thomas’ opera, before a montage of other unnamed actors, some more famous than others. But fascinating as this is, there is no analysis of why this play has exerted such a hold on the country and, given the vast literature on the subject, materials – even if only text pages – would have been easy to find.

Stills from the Film (2:16) actually presents on-set photographs, many taken from books. For stills from the film (and some posters) you need to go to the Photo Gallery (1:16) on disc 2, which is complemented by Sketches (1:52), a selection of Yenei’s outstanding production designs for the film. The World of Hamlet (2:34) has paintings and drawings inspired by the play including Millais’ famous Ophelia, a painting that Kozintsev knew and drew on for the film.

Coming Soon on DVD (divided between the two discs) brings six trailers for films that Ruscico has actually already released. Those who have Ruscico’s King Lear DVD will find the same trailers for War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Ashik Kerib and A Cruel Romance. Added to these are traversals of King Lear and The Lady with the Little Dog with a chance to hear Nadezhda Simonyan’s ravishing main theme, albeit initially in a galloping variation. Inserted into this intensely scopophilic trailer there are several shots of a white, textured screen, as if a veil is being drawn over the most passionate moments.

Shostakovichians will need little urging to buy Ruscico’s Hamlet as the film has only previously been available in very unsatisfactory versions (pan and scanned, or so badly transferred as sometimes to make details invisible – the ghost scene was a particular victim). This transfer does full justice to the film’s brilliant visuals and the choice of the original mono track or the 5.1 update should satisfy everybody – certainly the music also comes across excellently.

Ruscico is releasing a regular flow of films, though some of their choices can only be explained by their aiming at the Russian expatriate market and their children. Nevertheless, we can hope that some more Shostakovich-scored films make an appearance. Perhaps The Gadfly (1955), a story popular enough to have been filmed again in 1980, would satisfy both markets?

John Riley


The Commissar (Komissar)
Script and Director: Alexander Askoldov
Music: Alfred Schnittke
Cast: Nonna Mordiukova (Klavdia Vavilova [The Commissar]), Rolan Bykov (Yefim Magazannik), Raisa Nedashkovskaya (Maria Magazannik), Liudmila Volynskaya (Grandmother), Vassily Shukshin (The Commandant), Lyuba Kats, Pavlik Levin, Dima Kleiman, Marta Bratkova, Igor Fishman, Sergei Nikonenko, Otar Kobaridze, Leonid Reutov, Viktor Shakhov.
Gorky Film Studios 1967.
Ruscico (Russian Cinema Council) Collection. 2-DVD set, Region 0, PAL or NTSC, B&W, aspect ratio: 16:9. 104 minutes (PAL) + disc of bonus materials.
Sound: Russian (mono), Russian, English and French Dolby 5.1.
Subtitles: Russian, English, French, German, Spanish, Italian.
Bonus materials: Interviews with Askoldov, Mordiukova, Nedashkovskaya and Bykov. Photo Albums, biography of Grossman, filmographies, press reviews, documents and letters relating to the ban.

When perestroika exploded, the cinema industry was in the vanguard, sweeping aside its supine leadership and forming a Conflict Commission to review decades of bans. The Commissar was the most notorious case. For his first film, arts administrator and Bulgakov-expert Alexander Askoldov adapted Vasily Grossman’s In the Town of Berdichev, in which a pregnant Civil War Red Army officer lives with a Jewish family. Though made (with much intervention) between 1965 and 1967, it was only released 21 years later.

One scene has been highlighted as problematic: the pregnant and delirious commissar’s premonition of the Holocaust. Clutching her baby, she follows a procession of Jews (including ‘her’ family) into a building filled with people in concentration camp uniforms. She turns back. Without that scene, it was said, the film could be released. Askoldov refused.

The authorities’ response was emblematic of the Soviet attitude to Jews, hardening with the Six Day War, which coincided with the film’s production. The sympathetic, but by no means romanticised Jewish family (changing Grossman’s 1934 story) was a provocation, especially the father’s comment: “When a new regime comes, it says everything will be all right. Then it says it will be much worse. And then it says we have to find the guilty ones. And who is guilty? I’m asking you – Who is to blame?” His unwitting potted history of the Soviet Union and the resoundingly ironic use of the eternal Russian question ‘Who is to blame?’ (from the mouth of a Jew!) probably made this another candidate for the cutting-room floor.

Schnittke’s electronic effects and near-musique concrète may not have helped either, but for those who really listen, the most controversial musical aspect is his mingling of Christian and Jewish music in his typically polystylistic way. Catholic bells and Jewish fiddle music are layered; Russian and Jewish lullabies interweave; Catholic organ and Jewish chant sit side by side. The two cultures are explicitly equalised, only for equality to be undercut at the very end. To a plangent solo trumpet’s Internationale, the commissar abandons her baby to the Jewish family, rejoining her comrades in battle and implied death: two eternally positive Soviet archetypes – the self-sacrificing soldier and the loving Russian mother – are made mutually incompatible. “What kind of people are they?” asks the father. For all the understanding, there is no understanding.

Perhaps discussing anti-Semitism set alarm bells ringing, but the fractured narrative form may have also been problematic. The hallucinogenic dream-memories provide some of the film’s most unforgettable moments. Accompanied by bells, the commissar passionately kisses a fellow officer and a nightmare battalion bizarrely scythes the desert sands; the officer dies in Pekinpah-ish slow-motion, his death cry supplied by agonised horns, unleashing a stampede of horses with baying brass, garbled voices and a melange of war sounds. Still, socialist realism was not as backward with regard to such things as is often portrayed: for example, Shchedrin’s Second Symphony (1962-65), with its aleatoric sequences, was initially accepted before falling into disfavour.

Unsurprisingly, Askoldov was accused of ‘parasitism’ and portraying the Revolution as “a blind and unrestrained force, depriving man of hope, ideals, happiness”- a fair assessment of the film. He was expelled from the Party and sacked; The Commissar is commonly described as his only film, although he went on to make two documentaries.

When the ban was upheld by the Conflict Commission, Askoldov held an impromptu press conference and in July 1987 the Party agreed to release it. Mordiukova (who, incidentally, began her career in the Shostakovich-scored The Young Guard, 1948) was refused a Nika (a Russian Oscar), though Bykov, Nedashkovskaya and Schnittke were awarded the prize. Overseas the film was widely hailed, deservedly receiving many prizes.

Askoldov left the USSR for Sweden, where he still lives, apparently planning a new film.

The Commissar is a key film of perestroika, and is handsomely presented on one disc by Ruscico, with a host of extras (outlined above) spilling onto a second.

Particularly valuable are the interviews. In a 39:22 interview post-dating Klimov’s death in 2003, Askoldov talks about his life (he was a purge-orphan, and the Jewish family that took him in were killed at Babi Yar), the film’s history, how he feels about it today and how he wants people to receive it.

Askoldov talks about Mordiukova’s explosiveness, so it’s not such a surprise to find her, in an extraordinarily passionate 4:39 excerpt from an unidentified black and white television programme, castigating him for not fighting back and not having made any more films!

Raisa Nedashkovskaya is interviewed twice (3:31 and 12:51). In the first she considers his fate more sympathetically and reminisces about the lullaby scene, though the second veers off into spiritual matters and her view that Askoldov hoped to save the world through the film.

Rolan Bykov discusses Askoldov, the film and some of his favourite scenes as well as his experience of playing Jews in other films (28:29). Some of the interviews are on fairly poor video (Bykov died in 1998) but the sound is fine and the content fascinating.

Ruscico provide their usual selection of sound and subtitle options, through the English translation is poorly spoken by a rather apathetic Russian man.

Perhaps tangential to Shostakovich’s career (is there any record of his knowledge or reaction to the fate of Askoldov and his film?), this disc is an excellent presentation of a central and shattering film.

John Riley