Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 27

The Fall of Berlin

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Katerina Izmailova

27_Fall of Berlin /

The Fall of Berlin
Director: Mikhail Chiaureli
Music: Dmitri Shostakovich
Mosfilm 1949.
International Historic Films 22855. DVD-Video, Region 0, NTSC, Colour. TT 151 minutes.
Sound: Russian mono.
Subtitles: English.
Bonus feature: photo gallery with accompanying scholarly audio commentary.
Available from International Historic Films, Inc., P.O. Box 5796, Chicago, IL 60680, USA; phone: +1-773-927-2900; fax: +1-773-927-9211; e-mail:;

The early 1990s: the countries of the former Soviet Union struggle to come to terms with their new independence while some Western countries are run by bullish right-wing governments. The last thing on anyone’s mind, it seemed, was Stalinist propaganda. Some of the artefacts of high-Stalinism (the Moscow Metro; the wedding-cake buildings; the monumental statues) had almost lost their power by quotidian exposure, the market in Soviet kitsch was yet to develop, and Stalinist art was still often hidden away in an embarrassed silence.

In cinema, one title remained notorious: The Fall of Berlin, Mosfilm’s 70th-birthday present to Stalin. It enjoyed saturation coverage in the Soviet press when it was released in 1950 and was popular in sympathetic countries, but post-1956 it was a different matter. Khrushchev criticised Chiaureli in his secret speech; the film disappeared and some of the actors and technicians began, where possible, to downplay their involvement in such work. For nearly forty years, stills, a few clips and critical accounts were all that any but the hardiest seekers would find.

Then, in the mid 1990s, Mosfilm and the Toulouse Cinémathèque collaborated to restore the film and it was seen by astonished film festival audiences all over the world. Since then, screenings have been almost regular (three previous showings in London made it too ordinary to include in the Barbican Cinema’s UKSS-supported 2006 retrospective of Shostakovich’s film career, which majored on true rarities).

Finally we were able to see what all the fuss was about.

The film opens with the teacher Natasha taking her class across a poppy-filled field to visit the local steel-works (the surprisingly understated first reference to Stalin), where record-breaking worker Aliosha works. There they stand in light summer clothes while huge slabs of red-hot metal are swung around their unflinching heads.

So we have the vernal innocence of the pre-War Soviet Union and the happy cooperation of worker and intellectual, hand and brain, industry and agriculture – almost a continuation of the Mosfilm logo, Vera Mukhina’s famous statue The Worker and the Collective Farm Girl – an innocence that was schismatically shattered by the Nazi invasion. The children sing Shostakovich’s setting of Dolmat-ovsky’s words looking forward to eternal growth whilst the steelworks pumps out the infernal, black smoke that has so catastrophically shortened the life expectancy of many Russians.

What is exciting about seeing The Fall of Berlin is the chance to question the simplistic critical positions from the time of its release or when it was safely locked away and its ‘meaning’ conveyed through secondary sources. Critics often approached it politically, and it is likely that it is not the only work to have suffered praise or condemnation sight unseen or at least unconsidered. Now we may be able to separate the politics and the artistry. This could lead to a more nuanced position on the relationship of the artist to the state, for instance, giving us a chance to examine the Testimony-inspired view of Chiaureli as an unprincipled incompetent. Is the coincidence of Dolmatovsky’s words and the hellish vision of industry an oversight or something more? Still lacking evidence, is it only in retrospect that we might see it as an Aesopian comment?

Naturally Shostakovichians will find their own points of interest. The chance to hear Gauk (the soundtrack conductor) take on some bits of the Seventh Symphony; the chance to contemplate why Shostakovich reworked The Song of the Forests for the scene in Stalin’s garden and, perhaps tangentially the fact that, when Natasha and Aliosha quote poetry at each other, he intones arch-proletarian Mayakovsky, while she chooses Pushkin’s What Is My Name to You?, which Shostakovich would set a couple of years later.

International Historic Films’ release of The Fall of Berlin helps fill a gap in many people’s view of Shostakovich. The image quality is excellent (far better than a recent Russian DVD) with beautiful, glowing colours (the reds of course are dazzling!).
In a couple of scenes the quality drops but this is entirely due to the source material: during the years in the archive-gulag the film deteriorated. The DVD isn’t overwhelmed with extras though the mini-essay on the film is welcome contextualisation. Given that a scene featuring Beria was cut before release but still exists, it would have been good to include that, and there are, of course, lots of on-set photographs and journal articles that would have plumped things up. But enough: this is a welcome release that, with Adriano’s recording of the complete score (Marco Polo 8.223897; reviewed in DSCH No. 18; deleted), makes serious study of the film easier.

While a whole season of Stalin films would be beyond the pale for most cinemas, showing this film in isolation is acceptable. However, The Fall of Berlin is amongst the best made of the films, and to see only this peak without the lowlands gives a very distorted impression. Perhaps its quality and its very notoriety are the reasons for its disinterment, though it begs the question whether the poorer examples will ever enjoy such a wide release. Different audience members can see The Fall of Berlin in a variety of ways: through a haze of nostalgia, as an enjoyable piece of kitsch, or as a sad reflection of artists struggling under a repressive regime. For a counterblast it would be good to see Chiaureli and Shostakovich’s next collaboration, The Unforgettable Year 1919, though this far more ambiguous and perhaps ambivalent film is a less comfortable experience as our responses are necessarily more complex. Let’s hope we get the chance to be disturbed soon!

John Riley

27_Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk /
27_Katerina Izmailova /

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Stage Director: Martin Kušej; TV Director: Thomas Grimm.
Cast: Katerina – Eva-Maria Westbroek; Sergey – Christopher Ventris; Aksinya – Carole Wilson; Zinovy – Ludovít Ludha; Boris – Vladimir Vaneev; Shabby Peasant: Alexandre Kravets; Sonyetka – Lani Poulson.
Mariss Jansons, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera.
Opus Arte OA 0965 D. DVD-Video, All Regions, NTSC, Colour, Aspect ratio 1.78:1 (anamorphic). 2-DVD set TT 236 min.
Recorded live at the Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, June 2006.
Sound: Russian DTS surround sound/LPCM stereo.
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch.
Bonus features: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – The Tragedy of Katerina Ismailova, a documentary by Reiner E. Moritz, including interviews with Martin Kušej, Mariss Jansons and leading members of the cast; illustrated synopsis; cast gallery.

Katerina Izmailova
Directed by Mikhail Shapiro
Cast (singer): Katerina – Galina Vishnevskaya; Sergei – Artem Inotemstev (V. Tretyak); Zinovy – Nikolai Boyarsky (V. Radziyevsky); Boris – Alexander Sokolov (A. Vedernikov); Shabby Peasant – Roman Tkachuk (S. Strezhnev); Sonetka – Tatyana Gavrilova (V. Reka).
Konstantin Simeonov, Chorus and Orchestra of the Shevchenko Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kiev.
Lenfilm 1966.
Decca 074 3137. DVD-Video, All Regions, NTSC, Colour, Aspect ratio 2.35:1 (anamorphic). TT 112 min.
Sound: Russian 2.0 enhanced mono.
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese.
Bonus features: Shostakovich chronology; excerpt from Cheryom-ushki; excerpt from Shostakovich against Stalin.

Can there be another opera whose fortunes swung so vertiginously? The ‘palpable hit’ was banned before re-emerging triumphant (but re-edited) 25 years later, then to find its original form re-vindicated. And a work so misunderstood? The ‘two versions’ that we know actually shatter into many more: during its initial runs Shostakovich made many minor changes to realise the effects he wanted; then came the re-editing (or bowdlerisation). Even its title is not so simple, as the first Leningrad and Moscow runs used the names Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Katerina Izmailova, respectively, though the latter was revived for the re-edited version: and this is not even to step into the notoriously treacherous waters of the opera’s meaning and any moral position that we might take with regard to it.

Now we have four DVDs of various incarnations available to study such questions. DSCH Journal has already reviewed Petr Weigl’s film (Image Entertainment ID 5655 CLDVD; see DSCH No. 15) and the production from Barcelona (EMI 7243 5 99730 9 8; see DSCH No. 22), though neither sticks strictly to either of Shostakovich’s versions. Now we turn our attention to a stage production of the original version from De Nederlandse Opera and Mikhail Shapiro’s 1966 film of the revision.

Actually, large parts of Lady Macbeth remained relatively untouched in the Katerina Izmailova revision, but since Shostakovich’s death, the mania for ‘originals’ has generally cast Katerina aside. Of course, in 1966 Shapiro had no such choice and used the expurgated version: Shostakovich himself was embargoing revivals of the original version. More importantly, Shapiro cuts the film back to 112 minutes.

Shapiro’s film lacks the punch of more recent, graphic versions, but it makes up in other ways, primarily by being unashamedly filmic, using superimpositions, split-screens and other effects throughout the film to escape any staginess. So, at the beginning, superimposed scenes of farm life and luboks depict Katerina’s boredom. Later Boris conjures up fantasies of his younger self seducing her, and she is repaid for murder with a superimposed gigantic ghost. When Sergei is whipped, a split-screen prevents her from rescuing him and another ironically counterpoints the stately wedding procession with the drunk’s frantic race to the police station. The most shocking moment is when Katerina hands over her stocking and Sergei glances directly into the camera, challenging us to agree with his assessment of her as a fun-to-dupe idiot.

Over forty years old, the film looks good in this restoration: ironically the Sovcolor stock (actually a development of the Agfa technology that was ‘acquired’ after the war) has an aged look that complements the setting. The occasional slight colour shifts are not too disturbing. The soundtrack is also very acceptable – remember this is not the later EMI recording that Weigl uses. Certainly there’s no evidence to support Testimony’s comment; ‘you can’t hear the orchestra at all.’ The main downside is some inaccurate lip-synching and the fact that, indoor or out, the acoustic hardly changes; both problems with the original film rather than the transfer.

The disc is subtitled in English (using Joan Pemberton Smith’s translation), French, German, Italian, Spanish and Chinese and the extras are an 8-page text chronology of Shostakovich, a clip from the forthcoming DVD of Cheryomushki and a clip from The War Symphonies. There exist, of course, stills and even some footage of the film being made, so it is a shame that these couldn’t be included, for completeness’ sake, and it might have been interesting to hear what Vishnevskaya thinks about it now. The trilingual (English, French and German) booklet includes a synopsis keyed to the 32 chapters, and an essay by Andrew Huth that stays away from the speculative.

Apart from the visuals, there are a couple of other reasons why you would want this DVD. Of course, Shostakovich was involved, though it’s hard to believe he was happy for one cut to be the great passacaglia. There is also Vishnevskaya’s performance (she is the only person to both act and sing). Apart from Sergei, everyone is a bit one-dimensional, though occasionally to good comic effect. Zinovy is a sniveller; even as he is threatening to beat Katerina he picks up his cup of tea, and when Boris realises that Sergei has beaten him to Katerina, a delightfully pained expression comes over his face. Overall this disc goes beyond being a ‘historic document’ that we might watch for some academic value, and is an enjoyable (if less than full-on) presentation of the story.

Shostakovich’s phrase ‘tragedy-satire’ sums up his interweaving of horror and comedy in Lady Macbeth. For De Nederlandse Opera, Martin Kušej, describing his production as ‘orgasm and murder’, existentially links sex and power. The glass-cage set makes us feel like voyeurs or punters at a clip joint (no chance to expose the cast’s corporeality is lost), and Aksinya’s rape is as revolting as it should be (this is astonishingly tame in Shapiro’s film). But the stroboscopic sex-scene prudishly distances us, rather than forcing us uncomfortably to witness the heroes’ animalism, and the interludes cut away to the conductor, breaking the mood; in the theatre they simply brought down the curtain, leaving us to contemplate what we had just witnessed.

Mingling the horror and comedy of this extraordinary work is hard, and many productions miss the balance (the Royal Opera’s, recently screened on the UK TV channel BBC4 is one such). Here the down-trousered drunk begs for more slapstick staggering as, accompanied by delirious music, he prepares to run to the police to denounce the murderers, whereas the Priest, rather than becoming increasingly ridiculous, is drunk from the start, leaving the character with nowhere to go. Most seriously, Katerina does not commit suicide but is lynched by her fellow prisoners. Other than these production problems, musically we are on firmer ground; conductor Mariss Jansons is an old Shostakovich hand and the cast are excellent, particularly the platinum-dyed Eva-Marie Westbroek.

The two discs are generously chaptered, though the break – at Jansons’ somewhat inexplicable insistence – is just into Act 3. The extras include a cast gallery, an illustrated synopsis (for those too impatient to watch the whole thing?) and, most importantly, a 65-minute documentary in which cast and crew discuss the production. Kušej’s comments are particularly valuable; whether or not you agree with him, his rationale is clearly laid out. The generously illustrated booklet includes a note by Kušej and a longer essay by DVD producer Reiner E Moritz.

None of the four available DVDs are in fact exact rivals. Shapiro’s stands alone as the revised version, with Galina Vishnevskaya’s Katerina as compelling a performance as you could hope to see. Of course, much of it is by necessity understated; an adjective that could never be applied to the Dutch production, whose explicitness is a counterweight to Shapiro’s veiled quality.

The ardent will want all four, but these two top the list, with Weigl as an interesting extra and the Barcelona production the most dispensable. Sadly, licensing problems mean that the BBC broadcast of English National Opera’s aptly hallucinogenic production (set in a semi-abattoir) is unlikely to appear.

John Riley