Kozintsev’s King Lear

Grigori Kozintsev (1905-1973) is a filmmaker whose work I’ve long wanted to see, and thankfully, RusCiCo’s new 2-disc DVD set of his King Lear (1969) finally offers the opportunity. Although its NTSC version is PAL-sourced and therefore exhibits subtle ghosting, its solid widescreen transfer and original mono soundtrack (something RusCiCo has been previously known to abandon) make it a welcome video release.

As a true child of the Revolution, Kozintsev writes in his autobiography of his school days during the Russian Civil War: “Our teachers described the flora and fauna of Africa, explained the conjugation of Latin verbs; and meanwhile machine guns chattered in the suburbs.” According to David Robinson’s 1980 entry on the filmmaker in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Kozintsev took an early interest in the arts (drawing, painting, and writing) during a time of extreme social disharmony and cultural reinvention, and he soon became employed by the Soviet agit-train circuit, where he began staging dramatic productions by the the time he was fifteen years old. In 1921, he co-founded “The Factory of the Eccentric Actor” in Petrograd for avant-garde plays, and co-directed his first film in 1924, The Adventures of Oktyabrina. Kozintsev was one of the adventurous pioneers of Soviet cinema and he established relationships then that he would maintain for many years: co-director Leonid Trauberg, cinematographer Andrei Moskvin (who would later film Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible and Heifets’ The Lady with the Dog), set designer Yevgeni Yenej, and composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

After World War II, the Kozintsev-Trauberg partnership was dissolved, likely on account of the political controversy created by their banned Stalin era film, Plain People (1945), which depicted the desertion of a factory and its intense sociological problems. Kozintsev returned to theatrical productions, but in his later years, he directed three literary adaptations that have gained a wide international following, Don Quixote (1957), Hamlet (1964), and King Lear. Kozintev had written several studies on Shakespearean adaptation and he preferred Boris Pasternak’s modern Russian translations over more academically correct line-by-line translations.

The film is a visually impressive Russian recontextualization of the play with strong, empathic performances. J¸ri J‰rvet’s Lear is a wiry, Klaus Kinski look-alike who begins the film in megalomaniacal tones and ends it as a philosophical, crumpled old man. Oleg Dal is particularly memorable as the Fool, his shaven head and eccentric persona suggesting a beguiling mix of Mose Harper (The Searchers) and Gollum.

But Kozintsev and cinematographer Jonas Gritsius’ imagery is the main star of the film, the constantly moving camera, deep compositions, and windswept landscapes providing an acutely vivid milieu accentuated by Yenej’s sets and location work (towering castles, shadowy chambers, crowded villages, and hay-strewn barns). Kozintsev favors reverse tracking shots preceding characters as they stride through the chaotic settings of warring factions and politically-charged interior spaces, and the film’s sense of place offers more than eye candy. As Kozintsev told Ronald Hayman in the Summer 1973 issue of the Transatlantic Review:

“When Lear goes mad at the beginning of the storm scene, this is the beginning of an absolutely new relationship with nature. I try to illustrate with this landscape a country which is not bare, not cruel. I try to show Lear himself as a part of nature, in a field of flowers. His hair spreads like moss, the grey hair of nature. Once man is seen as a part of nature, the movement towards regeneration can begin. Cordelia too has her own landscape–sea and a very wide landscape–with waves and seagulls. All the important characters have their own atmosphere and there are relationships not just on the level of character but between different aspects of nature.”

Another standout feature of the film is the stark and melancholy score by Shostakovich. “I’ve been working with Shostakovich all my life,” Kozintsev remarked, “and I think his understanding of the whole tragic and grotesque imagery in Shakespeare is perfect. And in King Lear I didn’t use just dignifying fanfares and drum-rolls. There is also the voice of suffering. I love the pipe music he composed for the Fool. I think this is a real voice of Shakespeare and I’m very grateful to Shostakovich. When I hear Shostakovich’s music I think I’ve heard Shakespeare’s verse.”

King Lear was Kozintsev’s last film, and as a meditation on the tragedy of age and wisdom, it’s a moving, accomplished example of cultural transposition.