It is a wonderful thing to stumble across a 24-carat classic when you’re not even looking for a chrome-plated trinket.
That’s what happened when – flicking through the channels on my new TV for the first time – I came across a Russian version of King Lear. Initially intrigued by the black and white cinematography and castle setting that reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, this out-and-out masterpiece pinned me to my seat.
Within twenty minutes I speculated that it might be the best Shakespearean film I’d ever seen and by the time it got to “The oldest hath borne most” I’d decided to dispense with the conditional mood and assert: “This is the best Shakespeare film I have ever seen.”
I feel embarrassed that I’d never heard of the film before. From the age of 16 onward I would go every Wednesday to the one independent cinema in my home town. It wasn’t actually a cinema at all, just a room in the local arts centre, but for two or three days a week they would show an independent or world cinema film, mixed in with the occasional reissued classic that had done the rounds of the main arthouse cinemas and didn’t have anywhere left to go except this room with folding seats and a tiny audience consisting of assorted English teachers, retirees and the odd clueless youth such as myself.
There were a few Russian films shown. I remember watching Marcello Mastroianni’s beautifully melancholy performance in the Italian/Russian production of Black Eyes/Ochni Chorni. Seeing Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice probably affected me more than any other film. I was crying as I left the screening room, but I had absolutely no idea why or whether these were tears of sadness, happiness, beauty, love or grief.
The emotion was so beyond my adolescent capabilities that I watched the tears roll down my face with a sort of amused curiousity. Around fifteen years later almost exactly the same thing happened when I watched Andrei Rublev at the National Film Theatre in London – only now I was hardened enough to choke back the tears and have a stiff drink.
As soon as the Russian Lear had finished, I looked it up on the internet, which only doubled my embarrasment at never having heard of it. Director? Grigory Kozintsev. Composer? Dmitry Shostakovich. Text translated by? Boris Pasternak – and so on.
But what really intrigued me was the list of Baltic actors in nearly all the main roles. Estonian Juri Jarvet is Lear, Latvian Karlis Sebris is Gloucester, and Lithuanian Regimantas Adomaitis is Edmund with many other cast members having decidedly Baltic names: Juozas Budraitis, Donatas Banionis (who starred as Kelvin in Tarkovsky’s Solaris one year later), Leonhard Merzin, Ants Lauter and more.
Apparently some of the Baltic cast members had to have their lines re-dubbed into “proper” Shakespearean Russian back in the studio, which makes the power of their performances all the more impressive.
Indeed given that Lithuanian Jonas Gritsius was responsible for the unforgettable cinematography in a landscape that looks extremely Baltic (I have not been able to ascertain the exact location, though the shoreline is very like parts of Estonia’s northern coast), this “Russian” Lear could almost claim to be the greatest “Baltic” film ever made.