Thursday 10 March 2011
It doesn’t get much bleaker than the end of Grigory Kozintsev’s King Lear, released in the USSR in 1970 (well, perhaps there’s one exception – Klimov’s horrifying anti-war film Come and See). Silence, cinematography, landscape, music (by one D Shostakovich – the last of his 40 or so film scores), sound-montages, speech, silence again…is it possible to go further than this in the perfect, distilled marriage of all these elements?
On Tuesday evening, prior to the BBC Symphony’s Maida Vale performance of excerpts from the score tomorrow, I showed those last 23 minutes to the students, and all, I think, were stunned. One particularly commended the duel between Edmund and a disguised Edgar: no music beyond the fanfares at the beginning, few blows, much of it out of sight, and yet so brutal, culminating in an extraordinary angle on Edmund dying on the ground, upside down as it were. The burning of the settlement around the huge castle – in Estonia, I believe – takes place to the same wailing unaccompanied chorus that starts up when Edgar buries Gloucester (the sequence at the foot of this entry unfortunately starts after that – here's a glimpse of the cracked landscape through which dying father and disguised son walk).
Lear’s howls resound from a distance, high up on the battlements; Cordelia hangs above a rushing river, the camera then lingering on its eddies once her body has been cut down and removed. And the ending is better than in any staging of the play I’ve seen (though Michael Grandage's recent production starring the unsurpassable Derek Jacobi was as clear and stark as any) – the fool playing his pipe (E flat clarinet) while Edgar wanders blankly through the ravaged town.
The music, too, is distilled genius by a composer who, like Kozintsev and his one-time collaborator Leonid Trauberg (pictured with him below), lived through the major upheavals of the Russian 20th century. All three were there, too, at the birth of sound film; their first collaboration, the extraordinary Noviy Babylon of 1929, was devised with a live orchestral accompaniment, in which form it sometimes still resurfaces; Odna (A Girl Alone) exists in two versions.
I love every instalment of their trilogy about cheeky proletarian and freedom-fighter Maxim; even when the agitprop gets stronger in the mid-1930s, you still love the central character. A shame there doesn’t yet exist a DVD with English subtitles, but this one will do.
And so, passing over decades of what was perforce much hackier film work, Shostakovich arrived at Kozintsev’s Hamlet and Lear. The first may have the edge in the compelling central performance of Innokenty Smoktunovsky (though Yury Jarvet looks amazing as a wizened gnome king with unsuspected reserves); but the last masterpiece is a fusion that goes even beyond even Eisenstein’s work with Prokofiev on Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, in that Shostakovich’s skeletal music really is undetachable from its context. A total work of art, gripping from first image to last. Here's the final sequence. Don't forget to double-click on the moving image if you want the full screen, widescreen effect (essential).