Tuesday, May 27, 2008

64. Russian (former Soviet) director Grigory Kozintsev’s "Korol Lir" (King Lear) (1971): An unsung masterpiece on "civilization heading to doom"

Time and again people have asked me which movie is my all time favorite. I have often said without much hesitation: the Russian film Grigory Kozintsev’s King Lear. Even close friends wonder if I have lost my wits because they expect my favorite would be Orson Welles's Citizen Kane or a work of Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, or even Terrence Mallick, my favorite directors.

I fell in love with the Ukranian-born director Kozintsev’s King Lear some 30 years ago and I continue to be enraptured by the black-and-white film shot in cinemascope each time I see it. Each time you view the film, one realizes that a creative genius can embellish another masterpiece from another medium by providing food for thought---much beyond what Shakespeare offered his audiences centuries ago. Purists like Lord Laurence Olivier and Peter Brook offered cinematic versions of the play that remained true to what the Bard originally intended, only refining performances within the accepted matrices.

But Kozintsev’s cinema based on the Russian translation of Nobel laureate Boris Pasternak added a “silent ghost” that was always present in Shakespeare’s play—nature. Mother nature is present as a visual and aural force in the two Shakespeare films of Kozintsev, more so in King Lear. Shakespeare had intended to draw parallels in nature and human beings—only Kozintsev saw the opportunity in highlighting this. The team of Kozintsev and Pasternak took another liberty—the last shot of the film includes the silent Fool dolefully playing his pipe, while the Bard had got rid of the Fool in Act IV of the five-Act play.  Kozintsev had more than one reason for it—the Fool is akin to the chorus of Greek stage and much of Dmitri Shostakovich’s haunting musical score for the film involved woodwind instruments. Kozintsev and Pasternak also bring in the Fool, in another departure from the play, looking on silently at the meeting of the almost mad King with Cordelia on her return from France. Further, the poor, beyond the portals of the army and the courts, occupy “screen-space” never intended in the play. Kozintsev and Pasternak remained true to the basic structure of Shakespeare only adding details that offer astounding food for thought.

The opening sequence of the film is simply brilliant. You see a pair of feet covered by rags trudging slowly. Then the camera reveals that the feet belongs to a pauper. Then you see the pauper is not alone; he is one among many ragged people resolutely walking in single file on a path. Soon the camera pulls back and you realize that there are several such lines of people. A horn is blown by one such ragged man and you see a huge gathering of people looking expectantly and respectfully at a castle. Kozintsev has shown the plight of the common man before he introduces the viewers to the goings-on inside the castle. It is an introduction of the real economic condition of the common people pitted against the intriguing tales of kings, princesses and nobles in a manner Shakespeare never dreamt of achieving on stage.

Today, many know of Shostakovich’s music and few about Kozintsev’s cinema. The fact is that both were friends and close collaborators. While the Communist world was in raptures about the works of Sergei Eisenstein, Kozintsev was making path-breaking experimental cinema (FEX or the Factory of the Eccentric Actors) in the 1920s—the most notable being The New Babylon (1929) with music of Shostakovich added to the footage later and Shinel (an unusual film made in 1926 combining two literary works of Nikolai Gogol). The New Babylon, a tongue in cheek look at life in the Paris Commune, now a film considered to be a major work by scholars, was promptly banned by the Soviets as it did not conform to the accepted norm of social realism. Kozintsev’s creative freedom diminished under Stalin’s dictatorship but his talents revived during the Khrushchev era. Kozintsev’s cinema was banned in the US (Communist propaganda was considered immoral by the Censors in Michigan) and within USSR had an equally rocky ride (for not conforming with accepted political views of the State) with very few getting to see his non-propaganda films. Kozintsev is arguably the only filmmaker to get his different cinematic works banned in both the former USSR and the USA, on both occasions for their "political" content and/or approach!!! (Luckily I got to see some of his early works at the Pune film archives in India, courtesy its then curator Mr P K Nair). I am convinced Kozintsev would be the toast of the cognoscenti if only they could access his works.

Many assume I like Kozintsev’s King Lear because I like Shakespeare’s plays. I do like King Lear as a monumental play but the Kozintsev film offers much more than the sum of the virtues of the play. Now many worthy directors have adapted Shakespeare on screen including Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Peter Brook, Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski, and Julie Taymor. Kozintsev made two Shakespeare adaptations: Hamlet and King Lear. The first went on to win awards at Venice Film festival and in the UK. While Kozintsev's King Lear offered much more substantive cinema, awards eluded this movie. Yet, it was a film version that Lord Olivier himself found to be brilliant….

"A generalized picture of a civilization heading towards doom", is how Kozintsev described his King Lear. A close look at Kozintsev’s King Lear gives glimpses of political criticism beyond the obvious references within the original play. Kozintsev possibly saw parallels between the king and himself, an aging director who once made films that must have rankled him in later life and career. One must recall that Kozintsev courageously and openly supported Boris Pasternak at a time when the Soviets were trying to decry the Nobel laureate. Is Cordelia merely a character, a loving daughter, or is she personifying truth, innocence and unpolluted nature? Is King Lear more than a king--is he representing all the mistakes of humankind?

Kozintsev himself wrote to friend and filmmaker Sergei Yutkevich after making King Lear, "I am certain that every one of us . . . in the course of his whole life, shoots a single film of his own. This film of one's own is made . . . in your head, through other work, on paper . . . in conversation: but it lives, breathes, somehow prolongs into old age something that began its existence in childhood!"

The contribution of co-director/assistant director Iosif  Shapiro in Kozintsev's King Lear and Hamlet is speculative as very little is documented. What is evident is that Shapiro was a co-director/assistant director of several major Soviet films of quality in the Sixtes and Seventies.but rarely made a film directed solely by himself.

Kozintsev’s choice of actors in the film is truly remarkable. For true film buffs, it is perhaps not surprising to find Juri Jarvet (Lear) and Donatas Banionis (Duke of Albany) were to play, a year later, the lead roles in Tarkovsky’s Solyaris. Estonian actor and national hero Juri Jarvet has been compared to Klaus Kinski, but the wail of Jarvet (King Lear) on finding Cordelia dead is perhaps the most riveting sound bite in cinema history for me. Kinski could not have done that ever. Kozintsev's choice of actors was immaculate. I have often wondered about the creative relationship between Kozintsev and Tarkovsky--but very little is on record. Kozintsev died soon after making King Lear.

For lovers of quality cinema the emerging grey hair covered head of a fallen king among the grasses, the sea gulls and waves that add punctuation and “color” to the Bard’s words in profound selection of camera angles by cinematographer Ionas Gritsius are true gems of good cinema. Many directors have tried to copy facets of this remarkable film but failed. The poor and landless emerge as silent but powerful characters.

Kozintsev teases our senses by getting Gritsius to capture the face of Cordelia against the figure of an older woman--could she be a relative of Cordelia's mother that Shakespeare never discussed? These are cinematic touches that make this version more complex than those of Brook or Olivier, for an attentive viewer.

At a time (1971) when directors would have opted for technicolor extravaganza, Kozintsev reverts to his own expressionist style of the twenties using back and white to bring color to the viewer’s imagination. Each frame of the film has the quality of a well thought-out painting, combining light and shade and gives importance to balance. The maturity of the camera-work is staggering.

Black and white cinematography of Ionas Gritsius, the music of Shostakovich and the enigmatic face of Jarvet, make all other versions of King Lear smaller in stature. Oleg Dal's Fool lends a fascinating twist to the character. The "Christian Marxism" of Kozintsev can knock-out any serious student of cinema and of Shakespeare. Kozintsev is one of least sung masters of Russian cinema. His cinema is very close to that of Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov. Kozintsev's Lear is not a Lear that mourns his past and his daughters--his Lear is close to the soil, the plants, and all elements of nature. That's what makes Kozintsev's Shakespearean works outstanding. Thankfully, even if the DVD of the film is difficult to obtain some sequences are available on the U-tube for the casual viewer to taste the remarkable cinematic work. It is time the world wakes up to the cinema of this unsung genius from Ukraine (or former USSR, depending on your personal perspective).

P.S. King Lear is one of the author's top 10 films. The cinematographer Ionas Gitsius was brought to Hollywood by director George Cukor on being impressed to film his The Blue Bird (1976)--but the cinematographer did not find color film to be his forte.


Unknown said...

Dear Ab, that was a very good article, thanks for bringing into our attention this great direction (who, by the way, was SOVIET, not Russian, and you shouldn't be shy to write so...). Also, you mention the US "cencors in Michigan". Kindly let me know who/where this organisation is; Thanks -- Rik

Jugu Abraham said...

Hi Rik,

Thanks for the comment.

I agree Kozintsev was an Ukranian but the cast of King Lear came mainly from the Russian Baltic states. I have modified Russia to (the former Soviet Russia) at your suggestion to be more accurate.

The police commissioner of Detroit, Michigan, acting as censor, banned Kozintsev's "Youth of Maxim" (1935) in the Thirties as being "pure Soviet propaganda and likely to instill class hatred of the existing government and social order of the United States." Consequently, the Kozintsev's Maxim Trilogy did not get shown in the US, unless the ban was revoked.


Jugu Abraham

vijay padalkar said...

Dear Abraham,
This is one of the best articles I have ever read .I am a film critic
living in Maharashtra,India. I write in Marathi,my mother tongue.I have written a book on Roshomon,and a book on the relation between Bandopadhyay novels and Apu tilogy by Ray.Presently I am working on the project Shakespere in Films.Though I have seen about 12 such movies,I have not seen this film.Because of your excellent analysis,I am now eager to see it. Where can I get it?
Of all the films I have seen I am deeply influenced by Ran by Kurosawa.
I have just seen 9 minutes part of Kozintsev film on you tube. What a wonderful film indeed ....
Vijay padalkar

Jugu Abraham said...

Dear Padalkar,

"U tube" has several segments of the film. You can buy DVDs of the film on the internet. In India, copies of the film were widely shown commercially in the Seventies and Eighties, which is how I got to see the film several times.

Jugu Abraham

adip said...

I saw this great creation when in school -eight standards,with my exposure to creativity at that age I can only say a great creation will impress even who has yet to achieve maturity.The acting,cinematography and music deeply influenced me.Thank you Jugu Abraham, for your excellent analysis.

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Dear Sir,

I have finally watched it! It was certainly a kind of Cinema that makes one feel blessed. From the very beginning till the end, Grigory Kozintsev was relentless in his attempt to masterfully adapt a Shakespearean tragedy. I must say that I loved every moment of it. The devastating impact of mother nature was indeed ubiquitous. I simply adored Juri Jarvet as the dilapidated King. His role in Solyaris was indeed memorable, but in Korol Lir he delivers a tour de force. I just couldn't help comparing Korol Lir with Kurosawa's Ran and found both of them to be equally devastating. Lear's fool, however, seemed more cynical and effective than Hidetora's Jester.The scenes between the demented king and his fool are pure gold and are up there with the very best in Cinema. After having watched the movie once and having read your review several times, I have finally fathomed why Korol Lir happens to be your all time favorite as Kurosawa's Ran has been mine for quite sometime now!!!

Jugu Abraham said...

Murtaza, the camerawork of Ionas (Jonas) Gritsius is simply staggering. Director George Cukor of Hollywood was so impressed that he got Gritsius from Russia to film his "The Blue Bird" (1976)that had a cast including Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda, but soon replaced him with cinematographer Freddie Young. Why, you would ask. Because Cukor realized that Gritsius had never before worked with color film!

Gritsius surpasses the capability of Sven Nykvist and other great stalwarts of cinematography when it comes to composition of frames in black and white cinema. It is a pity that most critics have not acknowledged Gritsius' art to date. At least Cukor spotted the talent, though he did not use him.

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Have been watching a lot of Herzog and Kinski of late (the likes of Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, My Best Fiend, etc.)... just searched your blog for something on Klaus Kinski and I came across your review of Korol Lir. What really struck me was the manner in which you have compared Kinski with Jarvet. It made me revisit the climactic sequence in Korol Lir. And while I am totally convinced about the sheer brilliance of that particular scene (Jarvet indeed is magnificent), I wanted to know why exactly you felt that Kinski was incapable of reaching the same level of brilliance as far as the delivery of that scene was concerned.

Jugu Abraham said...

Kinski and Jarvet have often been compared because of their visages and the characters they have played on screen. There was a distinct difference between the two thespians. While both could depict inner turmoil, Kinski always betrayed the warped mind (recall the short sequence in the train in Lean's "Dr Zhivago") or even in spaghetti westerns in which he played roles of villains. Today we know, after his death, that he was despicably evil and tormented in real life by the revelations of his first daughter. Kinski could never bring out the philosophical anguish that Jarvet could as in the case of "King Lear" and "Solaris". He could externalize the internal conflicts of a wounded soul. Kinski even in "Aguirre" and "Fitzcarraldo" appeared to do the same but with a difference--there was evil in his "soul" not anguish that his countenance and body movements revealed. For Jarvet, any evil that he portrayed was limited to anger and a tortured mind, seeming wound himself more than others. That was why he was perfectly cast for "King Lear." Kinski could never wail at Cordelia's death as Jarvet did--Kinski would perhaps have shown a twisted face or with an unusual glance, at best, at the camera. Who knows what Kozintsev/Tarkovsky would have done if they had chosen Kinski over Jarvet?

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Thanks a lot for your insightful explanation. I believe it would have been utter chaos had either of Kozintsev or Tarkovsky preferred Kinski over Jarvet... for both the great auteurs would have had a tough time exorcising the evil in Kinski. Going by Herzog's testament, a revolver would have been a must to keep the mad actor under check!!! :-)