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This is a powerful and moving documentary about the life and death of Dimitri Shostakovich. It uses documentary footage, archive materials and contemporary footage of places where Shostakovich lived and worked. As befits a documentary about a major composer the music is integral to the film and is illuminated by the visuals. Extracts from his symphonic works are used and also from his chamber music including the last work he wrote but never heard in performance. Although it was distressing to see Shostakovich towards the end of his life looking ill and haunted the documentary is life affirming in the sense that the music lives on and continues to enrich our lives.
This is a very special documentary on Shostakovich. Firstly Sokhurov is a film director and it shows - he has put together some beautiful images within an unusual structure. The film uses the last summer of Shostakovich's life and particularly some details of the composition of the Viola Sonata as a reference point to which the film returns several times. Thus he mixes the chronology of the composer's life. The film reveals some wonderful examples which illustrate Shostakovich's nature. The film had a turbulent history - made in 1980, just 5 years after the composer's death, the film was "arrested" by the KGB and Sokhurov hid a version of the film which was released in the 1990s. It must be stressed the film is not an A-Z of the composer's life - it does not mention "Lady Macbeth" nor the 13th Symphony (2 extremely important events in the composer's career). Perhaps these events could not be discussed in 1980 USSR. However it is a wonderful film and it's narrative reminded of Tarkovky's "The Mirror". I recommend this over the "Shostakovich against Stalin" documentary - Sokhurov has given us a masterpiece of filmaking on the subject of a great composer. I wish everyone could see this film.
This is not a straightforward biography--little attempt is made to be
complete or tell the tale in a linear fashion. In fact some of the
latter parts of Shostakovich's life are covered at the beginning. The
film is pieced together from archival film footage, narrative, photos,
and original imagery forming a collage that makes a lasting impression.
Many scenes discussing Shostakovich at a particular age are presented against a backdrop of footage from the era being considered, not necessarily directly applicable to Shostakovich himself. For example, there is early footage panning across a street scene in Leningrad when Shostakovich's young life is being considered. There is footage from an amusement park where one ride is particularly amusing--on this ride several people initially form at the center of a large rotating disk and, as the disk speeds up, some hang on, others are thrown to the side, while a few manage to stay upright by trotting in place. Pick your favorite metaphor to apply to that scene.
There are many little jewels to be had. There is footage of Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the final few minutes of the 5th Symphony as well as a young Leonard Bernstein (from a performance by the New York Philharmonic in Moscow in 1959, with Shostakovich in the audience) conducting the same. Played back-to-back these segments offer a great comparison of Mravinsky's cool precision vs. Berstein's hyper emotionalism. There is a still image of Shostakovich at Prokofiev's casket and at his grave. There is footage of Shostakovich playing the last part of his 1st piano concerto, showing that he was a virtuosic pianist as well as a great composer. Also a quintet is shown playing the lovely ending of Shostakovich's piano quintet,
Of course we get a sampling of much of Shostakovich's music throughout which makes for a compelling score, even if the sound quality is not the best. Interesting that Shostakovich expressed disdain for composing music for film since his music has now been used in over one hundred feature films. After the movie I felt the need to revisit some old Shostakovich favorites and explore some compositions that I had never heard, like the violin sonata of the title. Not all of Shostakovich's work is easily digested, for example I think that an appreciation for Shostakovich's opera "The Nose" may be reserved for but a few.
The artistic flourishes of the directors are sometimes enigmatic, such as the opening scene that has a fuzzy globe swinging in an out of focus. This image is also used toward the end. Many of the filming techniques used, like zooming in or panning across still images to make them seem alive, preceded the same techniques used so effectively by Ken Burns in his documentaries.
The films of Russia's Alexander Sokurov can be extremely opaque, but this documentary about famed composer Dmitri Shostakovich, made early in his film career, is straightforward and very rewarding (perhaps because this time he codirected with Semen Aranovich). Made in 1980, early in Sokurov's career and just a few years after Shostakovich death, it was unreleased for a decade (though it is not clear why, since the movie in a large part shies away from dealing with the composer's problems with the authorities during Stalin's rule). It makes great use of documentary footage. A highlight of the movie is a recorded telephone conversation between Shostakovich (in his old age) and a conductor about the latter's performance of his works.
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