Opus 26: Alone (1931)

Alone, op. 26 (1931)
DVD:  absolut MEDIEN, Stummfilm Edition 868; soundtrack rerecorded in 2004 by Basel Sinfonietta, reconstructed and directed by Mark Fitz-Gerald

The most exceptional moment in Shostakovich’s score for the film Alone, released in 1931, comes in the middle of the missing sixth reel, when he deploys the theremin to illustrate a near-fatal snowstorm.  I apologize for the clipping in this extract and I’ll try to pull a higher quality one later, but it’s a haunting effect and, from Shostakovich, a surprising one, since as far as I know he never touched the electronic instrument in his concert music:

Despite this and a bit of overtone-singing used to set the movie’s first Central Asian scene, it’s not an adventurous score.  The composer makes some pointed musical jokes and, as the story progresses, provides music of increasing dramatic weight, but for the most part he writes in a straightforward and songful style that he hadn’t used much to this point.  In fact the entire film — Grigori Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s first since New Babylon and a project that essentially reunited that film’s creative team — features some witty and thoughtful visual storytelling but entirely lacks New Babylon‘s tone of anarchic satire.

Yelena Kuzmina, who as the salesgirl in New Babylon was last seen laughing bitterly in the face of her own execution, here plays an idealistic, freshly graduated teacher assigned to teach the Altai people near Siberia’s border with Mongolia.  Thinking of her fiance and of material comfort, she initially lodges a formal protest, but after some carrying on she embraces her mission to educate and modernize the isolated herders’ children.  It’s a plot loaded with propaganda value and racial condescension, the latter a recognizable cousin to attitudes towards native or foreign people in Western movies, then and now.  (Via PostBourgie, this “remix” video, taking Avatar as the latest big-budget example, mashes up several mostly recent, mostly apt examples of stories in which a downtrodden, exotic population requires an American or British hero; Alone fits somewhere on this same spectrum, although Kuzmina most certainly does not “go native”.)  Political elements specific to the filmmakers’ times are present too:  A late subplot in which the village’s backwards-thinking Bey tries to sell their communal sheep to a cattle dealer explicitly (and, in hindsight, chillingly) ties into the USSR’s campaign to liquidate the kulaks.  At any rate, Kuzmina challenges both the Bey and the lazy Russian president of the village soviet, is left for dead by the cattleman in the theremin blizzard, and her grave situation becomes a cause célèbre both for her Altai charges and for the populace back home.

Shostakovich’s score for the early scenes is lighthearted and brimming with cheerful songs.  In the opening sequence, in which Kuzmina wakes up into the bustle of city life, a chirpy tune (reused later in his career) mingles in a collage of birdsong and street noises.  The film was shot at least initially as a silent feature, with synchronized sound added late in production; this scene among others shows the filmmakers making thoughtful and inspired use of then-dubious Soviet film technology.  I watched the film with the DVD edition’s 2004 rerecording of the score by Mark Fitz-Gerald (here is a good interview with him on the subject) but I sampled the also-included original audio track, and despite dire quality the original blends the elements of that scene more effectively:

In another cheeky early sequence, Kuzmina, having received her marching orders, wistfully looks at china in a shop window, which operatically entices her to stay.  The scene establishes one of a few major visual motifs in the film (clocks, teapots, a flayed horsehide drying on the steppes) and leads into another striking visual:  A loudspeaker, not so much a symbol as a recurring character in itself, whose anonymously stentorian voice exhorts her to think of her duty to society:

Shostakovich’s music becomes more somber and Asiatic once Kuzmina is deployed to the Altai, with gruffly supercilious bassoon music for the Bey and the village soviet.  The early tunefulness returns occasionally in callbacks within the more thickly dramatic score; the music throws out some barbed humor, too, most notably in a curdled reprise of the song “Life Will Be Beautiful”, played as Kuzmina observes the sleeping village soviet and his defeated-looking wife.  Note the teapot, a symbol throughout the film of material pleasures:

The music reaches its apex of drama and complexity in the snowstorm sequence — unfortunately the footage itself was lost in the bombing of Leningrad during World War II, pushing the film’s most action-oriented scene offscreen — and, after hitting the expected dramatic notes in the poor villagers’ showdown with their negligent leaders, feeds into a tremulously ecstatic finale as Kuzmina is flown back home, vowing to return.

Kozintsev and Trauberg understandably eschew the barely-controlled chaos of their previous film in assembling this one.  Although it mostly lack’s New Babylon‘s rapid-fire montage, there is liveliness and wit in Alone‘s editing.  The arc of the story, though, despite some gestures towards bitterness and character complexity, is too slow and too compromised by the demands of propaganda (John Riley’s book notes that the directors’ original concept had the despairing Kuzmina commit suicide) to function as a good narrative.

The absolut MEDIEN DVD is a fine production — the packaging and notes are in German but the disc includes English subtitles and, contra my expectations, plays on my decidedly non-European DVD player.  As noted above it includes both new and archival soundtracks, with better sound than I managed to extract in my excerpts above, and as an unexpected bonus the disc includes the short animated film The Silly Little Mouse, also with Shostakovich music.  I could only wish that Alone itself were more unequivocally worthy.

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