Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 29

Scenario: Tat’yana Soboleva
Director: Boris Dvorkin
Camera: Ivan Alferov
Sound: Nikolai Ustimenko
Sound engineer: Aleksandr Shram
Archive film selection: Marina Eremenko
Director [presumably unit or studio director]: Liudmila Shumelova
Executive producer: Anna Tsereteli
Producer: Gennadii Gorodnii
Moscow Chamber Ensemble/Misha Rakhlevsky
© Kinostudios 55, 2007

Even after the centenary year, posthumous films about Shostakovich continue to be popular but, with the basic facts of his life well-known, a sadly declining stock of friends to interview, and little new archive footage to draw on, traditional documentaries are less common.

So Boris Dvorkin’s Epitaph (2006) takes a different approach: the Chamber Symphony, Op 110a is set to archive and newly shot footage.

According to the film-makers:

An artist’s fate is inseparable from his time. Epitaph, the story of Shostakovich and the country, uses the only language suited to a composer’s story – music. The film-makers attempted to see in the quartet a reflection of that time, in which lived a great composer. They however, show that history sometimes repeats itself in unusual ways.

Essentially, it is a wordless reflection on Shostakovich’s idea that the quartet would act as his own epitaph (at the end of the film his letter to Glikman is quoted).

After the Moscow Chamber Ensemble tunes up we see shots of the Neva before the camera looks up at an apartment block. As we go through a 360 pan the music is obliterated by street sounds until we return to the block, giving the impression that the music is some sort of posthumous emanation of Shostakovich from the building.

This impressionistic (and somewhat reverential) approach characterises the whole film. We enter the flat and a montage of photographs of Shostakovich’s early life and then, back outside, the feeling is underlined with reflections in puddles and windows, climaxing in a split-screen shot of Petersburg: on the left archive footage and on the right, the present day, reflected in a shop window.

continues in this vein, cross-cutting between Shostakovich and historical events. The second movement begins with the First World War, Eisenstein’s October (standing in for the Revolution), moving quickly to the Civil War, pogrom victims (which brings the Piano Trio quote), before the 1921 famine (presumably standing in for the 1932 famine, which was barely recorded visually), collectivisation and a rapid entry into the Second World War and more Jewish suffering.

This could simply be a montage of ‘Russian suffering’ but the real story becomes clear when, after a shot of Stalin in a rapidly-edited sequence, the Piano Trio quote appears over a noticeably long-held portrait of Shostakovich.

This linkage of the composers and the Jews’ fates is followed by the jester (i.e. yurodivye) in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (ominously the militia take him out and slam his head into a tree). Some of Rublev’s shots only appear in the long version of the film, but it’s drawing a conclusion too far to think that this hints at the censorship that Shostakovich himself suffered. Then, at a New-Year’s ball people don masks, embodying another popular view of the composer, and intercutting makes Stalin look on approvingly.

Hence this one sequence introduces three of the most popular ideas about Shostakovich: that he was extremely empathetic to Jews, that he acted as a yurodivye and that he presented a mask to the world.

We progress back and forth through Shostakovich’s life, public and private, mostly with a sense of overhanging threat: for the Young Guard quote we see the landings on which Shostakovich awaited arrest after Chaos instead of Music, and stairwells down which it would be very easy to ‘fall’. Though we don’t hear his words as he speaks about joining the Party, his body-language screams his agony.

Perhaps this non-chronological approach is meant to take us into Shostakovich’s own memories (just as, at the beginning of the film, the flat kept his spirit alive). Certainly, different lights are thrown on the returning musical themes by the different images that accompany them, sometimes seeing them as public and sometimes as private.

The climax comes with the Lady Macbeth quote for which we return to a close-up of the cellist (perhaps a bit closely-miked) intercut with shots of the composer agitatedly listening to a concert.

Finally, in the last movement, there is a quote from a letter “I want to be happy – I dream of happiness”: there are stills of Shostakovich with Irina Antonovna, shots of the coast and a last shot of a memorial flame before we see the path by his grave being swept.

Despite being a wordless film there are a couple of captions to identify people or events. Some of these appear in English only and there is an untranslated original French intertitle about the pogroms. Presumably this is a version for overseas markets: there’s no evidence of Russian intertitles: but would they all necessarily recognise all the people and events, such as the nice intercutting of the construction and reconstruction of the Moskva Hotel?

Epitaph is certainly well put together and evocative but it has little new to say: Shostakovich’s philo-Semitism, the yurodivye theory and the idea of his using masks are almost common knowledge. But the impressionistic approach means it falls between two stools: those who know the back-story will understand, but those who don’t may be a bit mystified.

NB The film can be viewed on-line at:

John Riley