Originally produced in 1997, Shostakovich Against Stalin: The War Symphonies makes its long-needed debut on DVD under the Philips' concert performance category - which might give browsers the impression the doc is really just a concert DVD with minor bio sketches.
The film opens with an actor reading from Shostakovich's original - and dangerously critical - writings:
"I refuse to believe that every Russian is an idiot. Everyone says, 'We did not know... We did not know... We didn't understand... We believed Stalin... We were tricked... How cruelly we were tricked'. I feel anger at such people. Of course they understood; they must have understood. How could they not have understood that a war was being waged against them?"
During the doc's economical running time, Weinstein weaves a vivid portrait from the years preceding WWII up to Stalin's death, which subsequently led to a partial thaw and the public performance of once-banned music by top composers such as Shostakovich. In and out of favour, it's clear from the excellent interviews of associates, colleagues, and contemporaries that Shostakovich was also the victim of Stalin's primal jealousy; according to Weinstein, no matter how big the dictator built himself up in his monstrous cult, Shostakovich remained the real star to the Soviets.
His ability to capture a nation's trauma and reinvigorate demoralized souls was tested during the siege of Leningrad , and Stalin recognized Shostakovich's 7th Symphony had extra value as a rallying song to help purge the Nazis from Soviet soil. The composer's 8th Symphony, however, was slyly satirical of the government's ideological and jingoistic wants, and until Stalin's death, Shostakovich stayed in the doghouse, scoring acrid propaganda movies.
One of the most infamous, The Fall of Berlin (1949), is excerpted in the doc, and to the strains of the composer's score (with grand chorals), the sequence shows the arrival of Uncle Joe from a plane - grateful crowds scream his name, with occasional burps of hysterics. What's extraordinary in this particular scene are the blatant parallels to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will - recalling Adoph Hitler's descent from the clouds, and the dictator's address to adoring fans. Fall has the added bonus of being in colour, with Uncle Joe positioned in several shots like a white-garbed Messiah, preaching peace and love.
Hitler's template for maintaining a fascist cult is also evidenced by some incredible Soviet newsreel footage: enormous parades in Red Square , with posing athletes forming the shells of trains and tanks like weird Busby Berkley variations. These exercises in self-aggrandizement frequently lead to unfurled Stalin portraits and mosaics, with each participant's shirt stamped with the leader's headshot.
From the interviews, one initially regards Shostakovich as a tortured soul, but the beauty of his music - exceptionally interwoven throughout the narrative - reveals another dimension. Shostakovich's daughter Galina also describes her father's nervousness when listening to his own compositions, and a colleague also performs a delightful children's waltz as a counterpoint to the darker, tragic themes the composer embraced in later years.
The composer's own performances are also used in the doc, and Weinstein uses some clever editing and sound transitions between the formal, large-scale orchestral performances, and archival film clips of the composer on piano. The DVD also contains longer performances of key themes in a separate music gallery, and Shostakovich's radio address during the Siege of Leningrad can be played with multi-lingual text translations.
The original video master does show its age in an otherwise good transfer, and the interview segments have obvious compression in spots. The sound mix is sharp and clean, and Weinstein's doc should motivate viewers into checking out complete recordings of Shostakovich's concert and substantive film work (including Fall of Berlin ).
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan