The Czar Wants to Sleep (1934)
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I had heard conflicting stories about how the clerk invented Kizhe, involving ink blots and sneezes, but I'd heard the film was lost, so there was no way to find out what happens. Then the film turned up at the Barbican in London as part of their Prokofiev festival. For the record, it turned out that all that happens is that the clerk confuses two words whilst writing an order and turns Kuzhe into Kizhe. As the tsar is in a hurry to see the order, there's no time to correct the mistake.
Having gone expecting an historical curiosity, I was pleasantly surprised. The film is very funny, and the audience, myself included, laughed continuously. Although most of it is filmed straight, set mostly in the palace, there are a few "trick" shots where multiple images appear on the screen. For instance, the tsar's army is represented by a small group, repeated across the screen. Four identical guards perform perfect drill in perfect unison. Two identical servants scrub the floor.
One slight drawback was it was very difficult to work out who everyone was. There were two women who might have been the tsar's daughters, or a daughter and a servant or something else. And very few people were named. But all in all, an enjoyable film and I'm surprised it's not seen more often.
The famous Troika appears as a song during chaotic night time ride and the romance is sung as a solo with harp accompaniment.
On the whole the sound is as goo as most prints of Alexandeer Nevsky that I have seen - though i await a restored version from Ruscico - the Russian Cinema Council.
I hope they do a restored version of this forgotten classic.
I am sure there is a tremendous interest here in the United States in seeing it. The Lieutenant Kije Suite is very popular here. I know that I, for one, have been dying to see this film almost all of my life. The story about antics pertaining to maintaining this fictitious personage -- at least what I heard of it through commentary accompanying the Suite -- sounds fascinating.
I really hope that the film is or becomes available. English subtitles would be nice for those who do not know Russian, but that can be worked around.
Lieutenant Kije fan
The film's demolition of the epically Ruritanian absurdity of Tsarist times manages to be at once bitingly contemptuous of the pomposity it punctures, and as charming as an innocently silly fable. The captivating performances are of a comic subtlety and sophistication redolent of pre-revolutionary 'bourgeoise' sensibility. There is actually affection for these hopeless and futile idiots - none of the bitter and implacable hatred for perceived 'enemies of the People' that blights so many otherwise brilliant Soviet productions of the era..
It is a welcome anomaly amidst a fierce tide of state propaganda. Of course humanity is shown in the work of all the great Soviet directors, but only as interludes in an ongoing war against the enemies of the Soviet mission. In 'Lieutenant Kizhe' on the other hand there is a perfectly relaxed stance viz-a-viz the material: Everyone on set is obviously having enormous fun. It is a wonder such a light-hearted approach escaped censorship during revolutionary times!
Perhaps this laxity on the part of the Soviet authorities had something to do with the involvement of the great Prokofiev, since the composer had managed to maintain a good relationship with Stalin. However this may be, this wonderful comedy should be treasured, especially as it's survival appears to have been a matter of chance until it was eventually rediscovered in modern times.
Tsar Paul is such a martinet that his courtiers are so terrified to admit to a typographical error in the regimental orders of the day that they resort to inventing a non-existent Lieutenant Kizhe in order to comply with what is written down on the paper. However, matters begin to spiral out of control when the eccentric Tsar takes a personal interest in the "confidential and invisible" officer.
This movie is highly recommended to anyone who thinks that Russian Cinema begins and ends with the heavy, epic propaganda films of Serge Eisenstein. "Lieutenant Kizhe" is well produced and the actors are excellent, but the material is never ponderous. incidentally, for those who may be interested, it is available on Youtube. I might add that even the subtitles are very legible, which is not always the case with Russian films.
It's really has two things going for it, namely the Prokoviev score and a very witty central idea, based on a novella by Yuri Tynyanov, who also is credited with the screenplay. A slip of the pen causes the Russian "Poruchiki zhe" to become "Poruchikki zhe," which is corrected to be "Poruchik Kizhe," creating a fictional Lieutenant Kizhe whose career dogs the idiotic Tsar Pavel I.
Tynyanov, the inventor of this scenario, was a main Russian Formalist, and it certainly concerns itself with the formalist-related theme of the gulf between reality and the potential effects on it language-created illusions. I'd still like to read the novella, especially since, with the film's somewhat sparse dialogue, I suspect much may have been lost.
It's a satire and a broad one, painting as complete idiots the Tsar and all his coterie. Tsars were, of course, not especially respected in the early Soviet Union; it is possible to read it more subversively as a satire on bureaucracy and tyrannical power in general. I suspect Tynyanov may have had that sentiment, if not Prokofiev. But it doesn't make the satire less broad.
This falls into the category of early talkies, and it is not one of those early talkies which work well around the inconveniences created by early sound equipment. It is, in short, very awkward and many moment which could have been funny end up being only badly timed. Only when the humor moves to gags that are based on set-pieces -- such as when the woman marries the Kizhe and ends up taking vows with an empty space at the wedding -- does it become actually amusing.
Curiously, the opening credits seem to list which major Soviet theatre each of the actors worked with. And perhaps that has to do with why most of the acting comes across as very overplayed -- as if the actors were playing to a large theatre full of audience-members, rather than a nearby movie camera. Sometimes its amusing, but usually it's much too much.
The score is, of course, brilliant. And it's difficult to think of it as part of this mediocre film rather than its own piece even after watching.
The score by Prokovieff is, of course, brilliant. And the basic idea is really cute. But the movie is forced and not funny at all. Sometimes a hint of subtlety is more powerful than nothing but broad strokes.