I’ve written about Grigori Kozintsev before, the Russian film and theater director whose career began in the ’20s but climaxed with three sophisticated literary adaptations: Don Quixote (1957), Hamlet (1964), and King Lear (1969). Many film scholars place his adaptations at the top of the form (at least in the ranks of Welles’ adaptations), but Kozintsev’s films continue to elude popular summaries; the dubious Ruscico has distributed fine all-region DVDs in the last couple years, but Facets Video has finally released Hamlet in North America.
Kozintsev was more than a director; he was also a scholarly Shakespearean aficionado who published two books on the subject: Shakespeare: Time and Consciousness (1966) and King Lear, the Space of Tragedy (1977). The former includes his summary and critique of Hamlet‘s reception in its day and its cultural export to France, Russia, and Germany, where “hamletism” (largely thanks to Goethe) emphasized the Prince’s vacillation and inability to act over his more heroic qualities. “The meaning of Shakespeare’s tragedy lies not in the inactivity of its hero,” Kozintsev counters, “but in the tragedy’s provocation to action. Hamlet is a tocsin that awakens the conscience.” Elsewhere, he compares Hamlet to Pascal’s fragile but noble “thinking reed.”
Kozintsev sees the play as a dramatic conflict between two systems embodied by Hamlet’s beloved Wittenburg, the site of his university and the center of Renaissance enlightenment, and Elsinore, the setting for the drama’s corrupt and oppressive court. “The characters of the Elsinore story perish from more than physical causes,” Kozintsev writes. “They were finished long before the poison had gotten into their blood streams from a scratch or a drink.” In his shooting diary for the film, he writes:
“Laurence Olivier followed his own method in his film: he cut lines belonging to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Fortinbras, and both the monologues on the greatness of man and the revolt of Laertes. To make up for it, there are almost no cuts in the remaining lines. Having seen his movie (excellent in its way), I wanted to film Hamlet even more. Olivier cut the theme of government, which I find extremely interesting. I will not yield a single point from this line.”
Kozintsev emphasizes the imprisoning moral architecture of Elsinore, not by obvious claustrophobic visuals, but by a rich, widescreen frame and purist, black-and-white imagery that captures the towering palace and cavernous rooms, moving through their spaces and shadows with their multitudes of opportunities for spying eyes and ears. Renaissance tapestries and ancient battlements connect by innumerable doors that open and close with an almost Bressonian regularity; Hamlet (played by Innokenti Smoktunovsky) is enveloped in luxury and often surrounded by people, but he’s continually immersed in spiritual solitude.
Kozinstev has spoken highly of the great theatrical designer Edward Gordon Craig‘s 1912 Moscow production of Hamlet, saying, “His great book Towards a New Theatre is, I think, Towards a New Cinema, and I was greatly impressed by his ideas, his understanding of the tragic meaning of space, his understanding of big visual imagery in Shakespeare.” Yet Craig’s abstract production was directed by Stanislavsky, whose interests in realistic performance can be felt in Kozintsev’s psychologically nuanced actors. (The script was penned by Boris Pasternak, who favored a less academic, colloquial translation.)
The film begins by evoking the eternal–long, contemplative shots of Elsinore’s shadow (in reality, the famous Swallow’s Nest in Crimea; the Elsinore set was constructed separately) looming over the slowly rolling sea. Kozintsev’s feeling for the natural elements are as tangible in his film as they are in King Lear: recurring seascapes emphasize the ongoing march of time, stone walls and iron weaponry evoke the era’s government and rampant militarism, a large fireplace crackles and sputters, filling the air with anxiety when Horatio first speaks of the roaming ghost of Hamlet’s father.
The ghost itself provides one of the film’s central visual moments: appearing as a swirl of light and shadow, the towering figure in flowing cloak is filmed in low angles and slow motion, lending it massive stature as it glides through the stormy landscape. Filmed largely in silhouette except for a breathtakingly brief glimpse of its old, sad eyes, the ghost exudes an electrifying presence that permeates the rest of the film–even the later scene in which it reappears in Hamlet’s mind before his mother, a vision Kozintsev keeps offscreen; not only does Smoktunovsky’s fevered expression suffice for audience comprehension, but composer Dimitri Shotakovich‘s reprisal of his crashing ghost theme dispenses any doubts regarding the content of Hamlet’s gaze.
Shostakovich’s bold score plays an important role throughout the film, from repetitive military fanfares to frilly courtroom tunes to Ophelia’s delicate harpsichord dances that are increasingly touched with sorrow. One suspects the filmmakers’ love for music is not the only reason Hamlet’s rebuke of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern–insisting he will not be played like an instrument–is such a pivotal scene in this adaptation, even dramatically outweighing, with its public exchange before a crowd, the traditional “to be or not to be” monologue. “Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me,” Hamlet intones, and authoritatively exits the room as the camera tracks back before him and his conspiring cohorts recede into the background. For Kozintsev, the Prince of Denmark’s contemplation and conscience is a heroic fight against the silent corruption around him.