War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1966)

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Sure to be among the longest, if not the best, movies to play on Seattle Screens this year is Sergei Bondarchuk’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s longest novel. Running just over seven hours, and split conveniently into four parts, the film captures something of the essence of the book, while leaving out just enough to infuriate partisans of literature in its war against cinema. Being that this is the rare adaptation of a book I have actually read, I can happily carp on the minimization of some of the best characters, the wholesale elimination of favorite scenes, and the rejection of Tolstoy’s more bizarre musings on the movements of history. But I won’t, because taken as it is, War and Peace is majestic, the missing link between the silent epics of Griffith, Ganceand Eisenstein and the historical films of Terrence Malick.

Of the four parts, three are named after the film’s three primary characters, the fourth reserved for that monumental year 1812. It begins with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, an earnest and reserved man who heads off to war only to lose both his delusions about martial honor in the battle of Austerlitz and his sickly young wife in childbirth. His story forms the spine of Part One, the longest of the sections, with the rest of the time taken up with stage-setting and character introductions, especially the two other main characters: Natasha Rostova, namesake of Part Two, and Pierre Bezhukov (Part Four). Key episodes from the book are rushed through (Pierre’s drunken revelry and disastrous marriage, Natasha’s brother Nikolai’s experience at Austerlitz, etc) but the focus remains primarily on Andrei and his view of the world. Multiple voice-overs compete for our attention, internal monologues for many, many characters, along with a narrator who at times might be Pierre but at others matches more closely Tolstoy’s own voice. These voices, with their philosophical musings, mixed with gorgeous images of the Russian countryside, make it obvious that this is a film Malick certainly saw before making The Thin Red Line or The New World. Bondarchuk goes just about as far in the direction of romantic transcendentalism as one could expect from a Soviet-era production.

The second part, Natasha’s story, is probably the best. Lyudmila Savelyeva has something of the charm Audrey Hepburn brought to the role in King Vidor’s fine 1956 version of the book, growing believably from effervescent pixie to hollowed-out saint through the course of the the story’s seven years. Her debut ball is a magnificent bit of filmmaking, dare I say Minnellian in the shear joy of her first dance with Andrei. Her fall from grace is filmed just as impressionistically, as Bondarchuk abandons the tedious recounting of dialogue and plot in favor of the mad rush of excitement and temptation that leads the poor girl into an deliriously ill-considered romance with Pierre’s dastardly brother-in-law.

The third part is mostly concerned with the Battle of Borodino, where the Russian army fought the French to a standstill on the outskirts of Moscow before ultimately retreating, setting the stage for the Bonaparte’s disastrous winter withdrawal. The battle scenes are as spectacular as everything else in the movie, with reportedly more than ten thousand extras populating vast scenes of movement and death, which Bondarchuk films in every way imaginable: split screens and wipes, helicopters and cranes and tracks and handheld cameras, POV shots and long arcing movements. It’s as glorious as it is horrific.

The final section, after these spectacular middle parts, is a bit of a let down. The focus centers on Pierre, the brains of the film (such as he is with all his deluded ideas, barely hinted at in the film), where Andrei is its heart and Natasha its soul. Various plot threads are rushed to their conclusion, new characters sent on their tragic ways almost as soon as they are introduced. Rather than building in cumulative power over the course of its massive run time (as Hu Bo’s upcoming An Elephant Sitting Still does), or capping the proceedings with an unexpected change in tone and direction (as does Satantango, that other great behemoth of Eastern European cinema), War and Peace just kind of fizzles out. It’s been more than a decade since I read the book, but if I remember correctly it kind of does the same thing. A novel that big, in length and scope and ambition, can’t ever really end though, it goes on long after you’ve put it down. Despite its length, the film doesn’t approach the all-embracing nature of the book and its failure to do so is a good argument for the claim that no film can really express the totality of a great massive novel. The movie is at its worst when it tries to stick to the novel’s plot. But at its best, it captures the same great heights of Tolstoy’s most stirring sequences.

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

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Armando Iannucci is, if nothing else, the defining political comedian of our era. The anti-Aaron Sorkin, he understands that politics is about power, and nothing else. His lying, manipulative, vulgar, grasping, venal, and above all stupid bureaucrats, officials, advisors and other governing detritus barely even pay lip service to the ideals and ideology valorized in the word of the last era’s most celebrated propagandist, Aaron Sorkin, and Iannucci, with his television series The Thick of It and Veep and his film In the Loop, seems to have dedicated himself to undermining and unraveling all the myths and delusions of propriety, fair play and principled centrism that The West Wing perpetuated. I don’t know that the functionaries of Iannucci’s work are any more “accurate” than Sorkin’s heroes and heroines, but they seem like it. And in their degradation they certainly speak more to the present moment than the earnest ideologues of neo-liberal technocracy. That Iannucci can so deftly translate his style from the world of contemporary American politics to that of Soviet Russia should tell us a lot about what politics truly is: games of manipulation performed by the vile, the scheming and the moronic for the sake of self-preservation and, above all, power.

The Death of Stalin, based on a French graphic novel, begins on the last day of the Russian dictator’s life. He eats a big meal with his closest advisors: Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), watches a Western (I couldn’t tell which one, but they toast Wayne and John Ford at the end of their boozy night) and, left alone in his room, suffers a cerebral hemorrhage. He’s not discovered until the next morning and, because he’d recently killed or exiled all the best doctors in Moscow, he’s unable to receive medical attention until it’s too late. The delay is exacerbated by the scheming of his advisors, most of whom are more than willing to let the man die: as soon as his condition is discovered Beria and Khrushchev begin their plotting, a race to secure the support of the various other members of the inner circle and the various state security forces. Beria, as head of the secret police (called the NKVD at this point), has the initial advantage, and is able to manipulate Malenkov (a fool in most things and especially devoted to Stalin: a pointed reminder that in a totalitarian state the only officials who survive long enough to attain any kind of importance are either evil or stupid or both), who as Stalin’s deputy becomes the titular ruler in his absence.

The scramble for control between Khrushchev and Beria is greatly accelerated in time: events that here transpire over only a few days in fact took about six months, but while the film certainly takes liberties with historical fact, in its essence it is accurate. A host of fascinating side characters fill out the world, the overwhelming sense of terror and irrationality and double-thinking inherent in the Stalinist state. Olga Kurylenko plays the pianist Maria Yudina, whose defiant note to Stalin (included in a concert recording, the apocryphal story of which opens the film) may have killed him. Michael Palin plays Molotov, a longtime Stalin ally who had been marked for death but is rescued by the dictator’s demise, who nonetheless sticks to the Stalinist party line (Palin gives maybe the best performance in the film, and Molotov is its most dizzying character, a cruel man driven mad by even greater cruelties). Jason Isaacs appears late in the film as General Zhukov, bedecked in a lunatic assembly of medals, who comes to Khrushchev’s aid. But the Beria/Khrushchev conflict is at the film’s core: Beria tries to consolidate power by appearing to overthrow the “excesses” of Stalinism, positioning himself as a reformer while merely switching out one list of enemies for another. Khrushchev, on the other hand, actually is a reformer (well, relatively speaking), and while he (apparently) lacks Beria’s most vile qualities (in addition to all the murders, Beria was a perpetrator of just about every sex crime you can imagine) he has no qualms about exercising any means necessary to achieve his goals.

The Death of Stalin is deeply, darkly funny at almost every moment, like all of Iannucci’s work. Whether in the petty infighting and reversals of the Soviet leaders, to minor side-plots like the comic opening sequence with the fear and panic of the Radio Moscow technicians when Stalin requests a recording of a concert that was broadcast live, forcing them (led by Paddy Considine) to regather the audience and musicians to play the whole thing again, or the desperate scrambling of Stalin’s children, suddenly pawns in a greater game they are wholly unequipped to play (the son’s coaching of the state hockey team is especially funny), or more terrifying background action, like the cold brutal efficiency in which everyone in Stalin’s household is rounded up and shot by the NKVD. It’s an absurdist world where there are literally no moral or ideological values, and only the people who actually understand that truth are able to achieve power.

Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, 2015)

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Playing for the next two weeks at the SIFF Uptown is Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s look at The Louvre, a companion piece to what remains his most well-known film in this country, 2002’s Russian Ark. That film, shot in an elaborate and still impressive single-take, weaved through The Hermitage, the museum in St. Petersburg, crossing seamlessly through Russia’s past and present, a guided tour of the fluidity of culture and the ways art, and our collections of art, keep the past alive into the future. Francofonia is no less thematically ambitious, though the single-take approach is abandoned in favor of more conventional shifts between documentary-style glides through the galleries, dramatic recreations, and meta making-of looks at those recreations. The film is framed with a film director (Sokurov himself) in the editing stage of the movie we’re watching, attempting to talk to a ship’s captain caught in a storm at sea (Captain Dirk, seriously). The ship is apparently transporting precious works of art, an extension of the final image of Russian Ark, with the museum as a ship floating in seas of time. Captain Dirk has a bad Skype connection, so the director ruminates about the museum itself, covering, in somewhat random order, its founding as an anti-Viking fortress, its various expansions and decorations, its transformation into a museum filled with the spoils of imperialism and finally its modern state. Taking up the bulk of the film is the story of how the museum’s director (Jacques Jaujard) and the Nazi in charge of cultural artifacts (Franz Wolff-Metternich) kept the collection safe and out of Hitler’s hands during the Second World War.

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