For this year’s seasonal series, we’ll be spending three bleak mid-winter afternoons with vintage big-screen Russian-language adaptations of the novels of Dostoevsky.
To introduce the series, we invited the curator of Dostoevsky Day, Dr Vladimir Smith-Mesa to explore these three classical adaptations of Fyodor Mikhailovich on film…
‘I could not agree more with the Barbican’s selection of film adaptations to mark the 150th anniversary of Crime and Punishment and The Gambler. These films are essential and among the very best adaptations of his works. They are great ways to visualise the socio-philosophical roots of Dostoevsky’s aesthetics, his unique form of the novel, where the man and reality are seen as objects of art. Certainly, the Russian language gives the films the vital flavour that Dostoevsky’s original novels demand. These films are proper brain exercises and real cinematic experiences, absorbing examples of how hard it can be to bring Dostoevsky’s work to the silver screen and at the same time, to do it successfully. In the former Soviet Russia, where for most of its film history, commercialized mass culture has been non-existent, the film adaptation of classics of literature was a distinctive feature and risky challenge to the film production of the epoch.
Basically everything by Dostoevsky has been made into a film adaptation. Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s most tragic novel, has been adapted and interpreted by filmmakers for over seventy years from 1917 to 1987 and not only in Russia but in other countries too including Robert Wiene (Germany), Josef von Sternberg (USA), Andrzej Wajda (Poland), José Lombardi (Peru) and by the BBC television in 2002. In Russia alone, this novel has been filmed at least five times since the 1927 silent version. Without doubt, one faithful film adaptation of the novel is the 1970 Soviet adaptation directed by Lev Kulidzhanov.
Kulidzhanov’s film runs three hours and 20 minutes, which makes certain demands on the spectator. This film also allows us to see the decadence and elegance of the old St. Petersburg that Dostoevsky refers in his novel: the city’s multi-storey houses, including those unique, sinister staircases of the old houses, those magnificent buildings of the Imperial Russian city; its narrow alleys, dusty squares and bridges, streets, its canals, its parks, which are forever miserable like Dostoevsky’s characters.
Kulidzhanov’s Crime and Punishment is that Dostoevsky’s existentialist drama in which the police inspector, Porfiri, persuades Raskolnikov, a self-described ‘former student’, to confess his murder of an old pawnbroker and her sister. Like Raskolnikov, this film version of Crime and Punishment rages with contradictory moods and emotions, pretty much in the same way that Dostoevsky creates his main character. Masterly performances by an outstanding cast, the most memorable one is Georgi Taratorkin as Raskolnikov, whose tall, curved silhouette, topped by his stovepipe hat, is the sinister symbol of the film. The film poster of the film illustrates this nicely. Another big interpretation is Innokenti Smoktunovsky, as Inspector Porfiri is.
Several films have been inspired by Dostoevsky’s novella The Gambler. It tells the story of the young teacher Alexei Ivanovich, who tries to win happiness at the roulette table, with the expected results. Alexei Batalov’s film is an excellent adaptation of Dostoevsky’s book; a 1972 co-production of the USSR and Czechoslovakia by Lenfilm studio and Barrandov Studios. Batalov is also a well-known actor, starred in two key films during Soviet times: Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957), which is considered – with I am Cuba (1964), also directed by Kalatozov- among the very best films of the Khrushchev Thaw period, and the one which won Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Also, in 1979, Batalov played the main role in the melodrama Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, the movie that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1980.
The Brothers Karamazov is the title of the last novel by Dostoevsky and of a 1969 Soviet film directed by Ivan Pyryev. Since the film was unfinished at the time Pyryev unexpected death, Kirill Lavrov and Mikhail Ulyanov are usually credited with having brought the project to a conclusion. In the opinion of many, this is a much better film adaptation of Dostoevsky by Pyryev’s own previous version of The Idiot. This film is also an interesting example of the post-Stalinist cinema, which intended to rehabilitee canonical literary texts, among them, those by Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov was the most popular movie at the USSR box office in 1969 and it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was also entered into the 6th Moscow International Film Festival, winning Ivan Pyryev a Special Prize.
The Barbican’s Dostoevsky in December movie line-up is one of the best in recent memory, dedicated to celebrate the literary work of one of the great Russian writers of all times. Dostoevsky in December represents the ideal closing Gala event of the inaugural Dostoevsky Day UK, a project initiated in UCL SSEES, on the day that marks the 195th anniversary of Dostoevsky’s birth.
Dostoevsky in December takes place every Saturday from 3–18 December, opening with Crime and Punishment.
For more information on the inaugural Dostoevsky Day UK, click here.