Dmitri Shostakovich and the Free Space of Music

By John Riley

testimony-tony-palmer.jpgTestimony, 1988

Independence in a dictatorship


The most important syllable of the word ‘independent’ is the first, signifying freedom from constraint – political, social, economic or other, making it a counterblast to controlling situations.

For film-makers the most controlling may have been Stalin’s Soviet Union where permissions were needed at every stage and access to collaborators and equipment was under the control of a regime which assessed each artist’s and project’s political value in a bizarre ‘dark-side’ reflection of the capitalist Hollywood studio system.

In the West Soviet artists in all fields have tended to be more highly rated when they have suffered at the hands of the regime, making ‘compliant’ artists inferior and ossifying the canon as people and films which ‘deserve’ study attract study, confirming their worthiness of study. Obscurity is no more testimony of value than fame, but it is worthwhile breaking this cycle by looking at other film-makers, cutting across existing debates.

Starting on 23 September the Barbican Cinema will do exactly that by mounting the UK’s largest ever retrospective of the film composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) in collaboration with the UK Shostakovich Society.

Between 1929 and 1970 Shostakovich worked on three-dozen films with over 20 directors, many of whom (for instance Yutkevich, Ermler, Chiaureli and Arnshtam) are known, if at all in the West, only as names.

The thirteen films that are included are mainly UK premieres or have not been seen here for decades. Even the best-known directors, perhaps Kozintsev and Trauberg, are represented by rarely seen work.

But, in the context of Soviet cinema, how independent is it? And how independent can it be?

Stories of industrialisation (he managed to avoid collectivisation) and the two world wars, biopics of pioneering Russians, Stalinist epics and, of course, the Revolution: under Soviet control surely all of these must be utterly conventional politically, and probably artistically as well.

counterplan-sergei-yutkevich-fridrikh-ermler.jpgCounterplan, 1932

When we think of independence in Soviet cinema we think of open defiance: Ivan the Terrible or Andrei Rublev, conveniently forgetting to ask why such works were allowed in the first place, even if they were later banned. So our view is polarised to the nobly dissident and the cravenly capitulatory, leaving a vast empty middle ground where compromises are made and there are small victories and failures.

These victories often used irony and satire, common tools of political independence. But in repressive regimes they need to be used carefully unless it is ‘sanctioned’: overt and aimed at state-approved enemies.

Shostakovich did his share of such work, for example in The Golden Mountains (1931). But in an unexpected irony the waltz that accompanied the conniving bourgeoisie (incongruously played on a Hawaiian Guitar!), when divorced from the film, became an early hit. Was the original context a help or an irrelevance to its success? Such unexpected ironies continued: The Counterplan (1932) is about the problems of industrialisation but, given new words, the theme song became a regular part of New York school assemblies until the McCarthy years when it became unacceptable to have children sing a communist’s song.

But more interesting are Shostakovich’s deliberate ironies and satire, though the obscurity of some of the films means that these have sometimes passed listeners by. In The Counterplan a fanfare heralds a factory meeting but 24 years later it accompanied a failing tractor in The First Echelon, linking the policy failures of 1930s industry 1950s agriculture. Pirogov (1947) seems to be a standard Soviet biopic (this time of the Crimean War surgeon) but what about the expressionist elements and deliberately over-the-top music? And the end, when the hero (as in many such films) stares into a glorious future with a suitably uplifting comment while the expectedly unbombastic music the shadow that falls across his face casts a clear but subtle doubt. And what of The Unforgettable Year 1919, apparently a Stalinist hagiography, unsurprisingly filled with mendacities and anachronisms, but which is so overwrought that we have to question how seriously we are intended to accept its portrayal of the year in question?

This is the fascination of these films, aiming simultaneously at popularity and personal credibility while achieving political acceptability. Rather than an overt challenge, the makers chose to tread a fine line of independence, commenting subtly and sometimes covertly so that a superficial viewing might miss strange details that raise questions. The films demand a different level of engagement of the audience and it is in itself to be independent of received wisdom to watch them with such an eye.


John Riley is the author of Dmitri Shostakovich: a Life in Film.