Siege Diaries 5/2/2020

King Lear 4

I mentioned in my post last week on the Stratford production of King Lear that I was looking forward to viewing the 1971 Soviet production of the play, directed by Grigori Kozintsev with music by Shostakovich, an absolutely irresistible combination of my favourite playwright with my favourite composer.  The two DVD set arrived on Thursday (Hamlet is the other film) and earlier today I got to sit down and watch what some reviewers have called “the best filmed version of a Shakespeare play ever made.”

It is all that, and more.  I’ll get to the actual movie in a minute.  Director Grigori Kozintsev and Dmitri Shostakovich collaborated on eight movies, starting with Shostakovich’s first film score for The New Babylon (1929),  Shostakovich often wrote film scores reluctantly as a way to stay solvent in times when he was politically out of favour, but the work he did with Kozintsev–especially for Hamlet and Lear, both done in his later years, when he was financially secure–seems to have been work he was happy with.  The two men were born just a year apart, and in the 20s, when Shostakovich was setting the musical world on fire with his First Symphony and experimentation with the avant-garde, Kozintsev was doing the same with film, directing his first at the same age Shostakovich composed that first symphony.   The two men would work together through the 30s and 40s, right up to just before Shostakovich’s disgrace in 1948.  They did not work together again until Hamlet in 1964. Kozintsev had only directed two other movies in the interim, focusing more on teaching.

What makes his King Lear so amazing is not its faithful adherence to a verbatim oewawbrRUIB of Shakespeare’s play.  The translation he used was one by the acclaimed writer Boris Pasternak, and the filmed version is true to Shakespeare’s play (with a couple of exceptions), but quite a lot of the dialogue is cut.  Instead, the story is told visually and in sound.  The movie is filmed in an expressionistic style that certainly recalls Kozintsev’s roots in the experimental cinema of the 20s, but also reminded me at times–especially in the depiction of vast landscapes– of the work of David Lean (particularly Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago (interesting connection to Pasternak there!).  It’s filmed in black and white, which gives a wintery bleakness to the scenes of empty moors, isolated castles devoid of comfort or decoration, and remote seasides.  All is shades of grey, except for Lear’s white hair–representing his age–and the radiant, almost glowing figure of Cordelia, the only representation of youth and purety in the entire film.  Everyone else looks either exhausted, broken, decrepit, or teeming with evil intent.

The movie opens with a scene of poor and frail people moving across rough terrain, finally reaching the castle where the story will finally begin, over five minutes into the film.  This will mirror the story itself, focusing on the frail figure, hair disheveled, of Lear, played by Jüri Järvet, an Estonian actor whose Russian was so broken that another actor was apparently hired to dub his lines.  But Kozintsev didn’t hire Järvet for his voice–he hired him for his other acting skills, particularly his haunted, weary eyes.   And he is brilliant, conveying far more in silence than in spoken language, right up to the one moment when he rips the silence asunder with a heart-rending wail upon discovering the hanged Cordelia.

Indeed, Kozintsev is masterful in his sparing use of sound throughout the movie.  At key points in the movie, the only sound is the blowing, dissonant wind or the crashing of waves, the creak of a door or the clash of swords.  Shostakovich’s spare, yet unyielding late style–so full of its own silences and dissonances– compliments this perfectly.  Most haunting is the pipe song of the Fool, who in Kozintsev’s version lives to play a final lament at the end of the film.  This, incidentally, was one of only two significant changes to the plot, the other being that the blinded Gloucester is not saved from suicide from his disguised son Edgar, but merely expires at Edgar’s side in the middle of a vast, empty seaside.

One of the other notable points of the movie for me was the costuming.  Kozintsev seems to have set the movie in something resembling England in about the 13th century, with a few touches from later centuries, in a way that feels medieval without necessarily trying to be authentic to any one period.  Similarly, I found the battle scenes were particularly well done, capturing the swirling confusion of battle and the manner in which mere humans are swept along in the tumult very effectively. Again, the use of sound–the clash of swords, the clatter of hoofbeats, the sound of trumpets–conveyed more than words could.

This is just an amazing movie.  Kozintsev manages to capture the meaning of Shakespeare’s script through visuals and paralinguals–telling the story Shakespeare tells in words via images.   I can understand why, while researching this post, I kept running across film writers who place this in their top ten movies of all time, with a couple even putting it as their #1.

If you’d like to watch it, there is apparently an overdubbed version on Amazon Prime, but I would recommend investing in the DVD–hopefully, at the price I paid (just over $40).  I am eagerly looking forward to watching Hamlet — the other film in the set–in the next few days.