Posts Tagged ‘Trauberg’

Opus 45: The Return of Maxim (1937)

February 23, 2011

The Return of Maxim, op. 45 (1937)
Film on YouTube (ten-minute segments) via SHOSTAKOVI.CH

My experience of watching the second entry in Kozintsev’s and Trauberg’s “Maxim Trilogy”, now that I’ve finally quit dragging my heels and done it, was much the same as that of watching Maxim’s Youth, accomplished with YouTube and without English subtitles.  The Return of Maxim keeps all of the hallmarks of the earlier film’s style:  Its easy-to-watch editing, an abundance of diegetic song and instrumental tunes, and, most pleasantly, Boris Chirkov’s puckish on-screen magnetism in the title role, which remains charming if not particularly interesting despite the language barrier.  The story here seems to focus on printing and delivering issues of Pravda and swaps out most of the original’s factory scenes for depictions of heated backroom discussions and raucous parliamentary sessions.  The film and score both perk up a little bit at the movie’s climactic showdown between workers and police but there is nothing as lively as the earlier film’s sleigh-ride prologue.

Shostakovich produced more original music for this film than for Maxim’s Youth but his contributions — presumably written during or soon after the onset of his political trouble — are still sparse.  He provides thirty seconds of interesting, or comparatively interesting, murky music for a nighttime parting of Maxim and his beloved, before the hero is waylaid on the street; his score for the climactic street scenes hits the required somber and defiant notes.  The most high-spirited music accompanies a billiards contest between Maxim and a drunken, bourgeois antagonist, for which Shostakovich supplies a characteristically energetic but rather perfunctory dance number:

It’s workmanlike stuff, which makes it fine enough film music due to the uniformly high level of Shostakovich’s work, but it doesn’t draw deeply from the composer’s talents.

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Opus 41: Maxim’s Youth (1934)

November 23, 2010

Maxim’s Youth, op. 41 (1934)
Film on YouTube (ten-minute segments) via SHOSTAKOVI.CH: The Page of Shostakovich

As Love and Hatred did, Maxim’s Youth provided me with a web-enabled, unsubtitled, Harvey-Keitel-in-U-571-like, “Everything’s in Russian!” sort of home video experience: Kozintsev and Trauberg’s 1935 film lacks an accessible DVD release, so it’s back to the YouTube library at the SHOSTAKOVI.CH fan site for me. This time I availed myself of John Riley’s plot summary beforehand, to whatever extent that helped: Maxim, a waggish young factory worker, wakes up politically after a pair of industrial accidents, organizes covertly, demonstrates, goes to jail, and ultimately escapes to carry on his work. The story is a Soviet archetype but the film, the first in a trilogy, was very popular in its time, and the character of Maxim apparently became something of a folk hero, one not always entirely understood by the citizenry to be fictional. More useful is Riley’s description of Shostakovich’s involvement in the soundtrack, for which he acted more as a co-curator than as a composer. A popular waltz tune serves as Maxim’s theme song and most of the soundtrack corresponds to action within the film itself: Characters sing and very frequently play the accordion, dance tunes play from behind closed doors, pastiches of industrial sound set an appropriately proletarian mood.

The exception to that is the nighttime sleigh ride in the prologue, set to the only music in the film that Shostakovich composed himself. He mashes up four melodies for the scene, including a polka that he would reuse down the line in a galop in his operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki and a song (sung by a giddy woman in the middle of the scene) called “I am a Footballer!”. The prologue’s exuberant satire of a gaggle of decadent bourgeoisie recalls the visual energy of the directors’ earlier New Babylon more than any Shostakovich film collaboration I’ve watched since then. In fact the scene seems to have little reason to lead off the film other than that it looks nifty, a formalist appetizer before the directors settle into the film’s plainer, more populist attitude, aided by the absence of Shostakovich’s thick orchestral sounds.

The other notable scene for Shostakoviphiles highlights the song “You Fell as a Victim”, which the composer used prominently within his eleventh symphony two decades later. Here it serves within a long, initially very moody sequence in which a worker is killed in a factory accident. Maxim, initially backed only by a soundscape of keening whistles, comes to the factory floor and sees his fallen comrade, whose status as martyr is sealed by a shaft of sunlight; the assembled workers then spontaneously begin singing the revolutionary song as they bear the body away in a funeral procession that boils over into political demonstration.

I was pretty bored by the film by the end. Most likely that’s because I don’t know what any of the words mean, less of a handicap than commonly thought, I suspect, when watching narrative movies but a handicap nonetheless. Or perhaps it’s because the film becomes more somber and self-constrained as it works towards its didactic close; perhaps too because most films have trouble sustaining their energy and novelty all the way through to the end. For all that, the film has a number of evocative sounds and, more so, a visual panache that I find hard to define; the filmmakers’ editing is consistently snappy, as in their earlier New Babylon and Alone, and there is some striking, dramatically shadowed close-up photography of the actors. Boris Chirkov in the title role has enough high-spirited charisma to carry many scenes for me even though their finer details were incomprehensible due to the language barrier. In contrast to when I watched Love and Hatred a week ago, I didn’t push myself to try to understand what precisely the story is. Instead I took in the movie’s visual and auditory pleasures, when present (including the gritty but still somewhat fantastical factory setting, with its chorus of hooters and its tiny steam locomotives) and let myself be carried along, half distracted, through it’s duller stretches. It’s a satisfactory way to watch a film.

Opus 26: Alone (1931)

October 1, 2010

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.

Opus 18: New Babylon (1929)

September 21, 2010

New Babylon, op. 18  (1929)
DVD:  New Babylon, The Eccentric Press

I’ve been looking forward to watching New Babylon, to hear an unfamiliar, early Shostakovich score (his first for film) in something like its original element.  Just prior to starting this blog survey I tore through John Riley’s Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film, a fine account of each of the composer’s film scores.  Practically, I expect it to come in most handy in the many cases when I can’t get ahold of a DVD copy of a movie and Riley can flesh out the plot as well as the context of the musical cues that made it into the concert suites.  One of Riley’s bigger points, though, is that Shostakovich’s film music is too often dismissed as perfunctory and unworthy of much attention, while in his view the film scores, though they exhibit as much inconsistency and varying quality as the rest of Shostakovich’s output, constitute a coequal branch of the composer’s career.  I’ve been interested in hearing and seeing what I can; Riley makes a good case for Shostakovich’s seriousness in crafting some of his scores and in seeking a viable film-music language but he doesn’t describe the composer’s film style in contrast to his concert or theater works.

This DVD edition of Grigori Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s film, prepared by Marek Pytel, comes bundled in a special-edition set (at a fairly premium price point) with his informative but haphazardly edited book New Babylon: Trauberg, Kozintsev, Shostakovich, based on his research into the film’s history.  It doesn’t speak directly about the version of the film on the disc but lays out Pytel’s justification for trying to restore it to a version prior to several studio-mandated cuts just prior to its premiere, which besides adding a more propagandistically appropriate ending (still in place) muted some of its formal experiments and threw the final edit of the film out of sync with Shostakovich’s score.  Pytel fails to credit the musical performance in his disc; it’s not entirely clear to me to what extent the soundtrack has been recut.  There is another, apparently similar, considerably cheaper DVD release on Arte Edition, though I haven’t (yet) seen it for comparison; in a quasi-public exchange of emails through a reviewer at DVDBeaver.com Pytel asserts that his own edition’s frame rate is the correct one.  Both are based on an old print of the film which, for international release, censored some of its allegedly racier shots.  All of this to say, it doesn’t seem there is an authoritative version of New Babylon currently on the home video market, and the concept of authority itself gets tricky for such a long-troubled film, but the energy and inventiveness of both film and score both shine in the present version.

The film presents a predictably one-sided account of the 1871 Paris Commune with a romance, not often in the foreground, between a perpetually fiery salesgirl / eventual Communard (Yelena Kuzmina) and a thoroughly miserable-looking soldier (Yevgeni Chervyakov).  Its 1929 premiere of the film was a disaster by all accounts:  The film’s avant-garde techniques baffled the audience, despite the above-mentioned late cuts, and an under-rehearsed and uncomprehending cinema orchestra butchered Shostakovich’s unconventional score.  On disc now it’s lucid and bracing.  My previous exposure to early Soviet film consists of Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera (and my familiarity with early film in general doesn’t go much beyond that) but, compared even to those strikingly constructed works, Kozintsev and Trauberg deploy an extraordinarily kinetic editorial style.  Unlike anything else I’ve seen in film, too, is an uncanny, muddy quality they bring to out-of-focus figures moving in the middle background of several scenes, most notably dancers in a restaurant early in the film and soldiers digging graves for executed Communards late.  Maybe due to the directors pushing at the bounds of a not yet settled cinematic language and maybe due to their freedom from the stagey anchor of dialog, the film frequently pushes into swirling near-abstraction, full of high contrast (both photographically and thematically) and extremely fast-cutting montage.  The clearest example to me is this scene of a journalist attempting to announce the defeat of the French army over the din and bourgeois nonchalance of a Parisian dance hall:

The film works as propaganda but, by propagandistic standards, it still seems sardonic and gloomy by turns, willing to find dark humor in the Communards’ circumstances and show their pessimism:  In a scene near the end, the salesgirl, awaiting her execution, notices that her soldier is digging her grave and bursts into hysterical laughter before breaking down into tears.

The music here — to turn finally to Shostakovich — is one of his characteristic sweet-sour dance numbers, both comical and cloudy.  His score, which according to Trauberg he wrote in three weeks, is stylistically of a piece with The Nose, although it’s also thinner in texture and more repetitive.  The brash instrumentation is, by now, recognizably the composer’s, for instance in the eerie use of a flute paired with, I think, a quiet flexatone (I do love mentioning the flexatone) to indicate nighttime bugle calls.  It almost constantly propels itself and the film forward, although a very few dramatic silences and lowerings of the music occur at key moments.  It’s highly parodistic — the composer and filmmakers alike are at their most exuberant when lampooning the excesses of wealthy Parisians.  One thing it’s not is directly tied to what’s happening onscreen:  At some times the score is illustrative of the images (most literally when a solo piano shadows an old Communard as he plays a sentimental song onscreen) but more often Shostakovich’s music suggests a more abstract level of drama, or else just seems to exist on its own plane entirely.  The latter kinds of moments have their joys, especially when the music is in its elbowy, high-energy mode, but the sequences in which Shostakovich draws out a lower emotional layer are some of the most powerful.  In my favorite example, a group of radical women trying to protect cannons from a French army detachment give the starving soldiers milk and attempt to win them over to their cause, only to have the soldiers turn on them when reinforcements arrive; the score, in marked constrast to the fury of the filmed action, is pensive, tragic, tender, evocative of the women’s feelings of betrayal:

I’ll conclude with an example of the film’s overall mood of anarchy, visual energy, and warped humor, as the French army mounts its final assault on the Commune’s defenses.  (The burning mannequin belongs to the titular “New Babylon” shop where the salesgirl worked before joining up with the Communards.)  This excerpt also shows off Shostakovich’s willingness to repurpose existing music, his own or anyone else’s:  A prominent musical theme throughout the film, including here, is a distended, wrong-note-ridden version of Offenbach’s famous cancan from Orpheus in the Underworld, associated with the Parisian bourgeoisie.  (Riley suggests that Shostakovich’s tendancy to recycle was exacerbated in this score’s case because of his close deadline.)

It’s just a stunning movie for its youthful exuberance all around and the music, while not Shostakovich’s most careful score, is a fine specimen of his spirit.  I wish he’d written music like this longer (although there is more work in this vein to listen to) and I wish more narrative movies today were made with this level of visual daring.