Shakespeare’s two greatest plays are generally regarded as Hamlet and King Lear. More specifically, Hamlet is generally regarded as the greatest play ever written and King Lear as the greatest tragedy ever written (by Shakespeare, or anyone else). However, while it is common in the theatre for actors and directors to perform both plays (last year, for example, Simon Russell Beale performed the title role of King Lear at the National Theatre in London, more than a decade after he had performed the title role of Hamlet for the same company), in the long history of Shakespearean cinema around the world only one director has produced feature-length film adaptations of the two plays. That man is the great Russian director of Shakespearean cinema, Grigori Kozintsev (Fig. 1), and his Hamlet and King Lear movies (released in 1964 and 1971 respectively) are not only superb Shakespeare films in their own right but seen together shed new light on and prompt new questions about Shakespeare’s two greatest masterpieces.
Kozintsev’s life and career almost spanned the length of the 20th century and so coincided with the Soviet era in Russia, when the Communist Party first seized power from the Tsar and then ruled over the country for more than seventy years. Kozintsev died before the end of the Soviet era, when the Communists finally lost control over Russia, but his two great Shakespeare films, made near the end of his life and career, still stand amongst the most profound, if subtle, artistic examinations of Soviet-era totalitarianism.
Kozintsev was born in 1905 in Kiev, which is now part of Ukraine (a country that is still suffering from the convulsions that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a war currently raging in the east of the country between Ukrainian nationalists and ethnic Russian separatists, who want closer links, if not full assimilation, with Russia). Consequently, Kozintsev’s early life and artistic career were lived and acted out against the backdrop of the Communist Party taking control of Russia and instantly implementing sweeping social, economic and even artistic reforms.
The young Kozintsev was clearly precocious, studying first at the Kiev School of Art and then at the famous Academy of Arts in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg, having been Leningrad in between). Although he formally studied art, he was always fascinated by theatre, including Shakespeare, organising experimental performances from an early age, including of Gogol’s play, Marriage, in which a civil servant contemplates the personal and financial difficulties of taking a wife (exhibiting Hamlet-like indecision as he does so). Among Kozintsev’s direct contemporaries in Petrograd were numerous luminaries who would go on to become some of the greatest artists of Soviet Russia, including the theatre director and theorist Vsevolod Meyerhold, the film director Sergei Eisenstein and the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. It was with Shostakovich that Kozintsev was to have the longest and most fruitful personal and professional relationship, as he ultimately scored Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films, in the process writing some of the finest film music, and particularly Shakespearean film music, ever written.
Having completed his studies at the Academy, Kozintsev found work at the Lenfilm studios in the city (originally known as the Sevzapkino studios), part of the newly nationalised Russian state film industry. He worked alongside the likes of Eisenstein and Shostakovich. However, his closest friend and associate at this time was Leonid Trauberg, a fellow Ukrainian with whom Kozintsev made all his early films (indeed, all his films until about 1947). These included a 1926 adaptation of another Gogol work, the short story called “The Cloak” or “The Overcoat”, about the attempts of a 19th century Government clerk first to buy and then to retrieve (after it is lost) the new coat that he desperately needs to protect him against the Russian winter. (Again, it is possible to see the planting of a seed here that would only flourish more than 40 years later, when Kozintsev would film his King Lear desperately seeking shelter from the harshest of elements.)
Unlike many Russian artists, including film-makers, of the Soviet era, Kozintsev managed to survive the worst excesses of Stalinism. This was at least partly because much of his creative energy was dedicated not solely to film-making but to teaching at academic institutions in Petrograd (by now called Leningrad after the founder of the USSR). What is particularly intriguing is that Kozintsev taught both cinema and Shakespeare, writing works on Shakespeare as well as on directors such as Charlie Chaplin and his former contemporary Eisenstein. In retrospect, it is tempting to see this period in Kozintsev’s life and career as a period of research and even groundwork for the pair of Shakespeare films he would finally direct near the end of his life.
Another crucial element of this research or groundwork was his close collaboration with Boris Pasternak, the great author (notably of Dr Zhivago, which itself would go on to become a major Hollywood film after the manuscript was smuggled to the West and translated into English) and, crucially, translator of Shakespeare. In the early 1940s, Pasternak translated a number of Shakespeare’s plays into Russian, including Hamlet and King Lear, and these translations formed the basis of Kozintsev’s productions of the plays, first on stage and then, much later, on film.
Kozintsev first staged Hamlet and King Lear in the early 1940s, but the Nazi invasion of Russia effectively put his work of adapting Shakespeare on hold until after the war had ended. And it was not only the Nazis who Kozintsev had to be wary of. Stalin himself was famously suspicious of any production of Hamlet, because he allegedly feared comparisons being made between himself and Shakespeare’s usurper, Claudius: Stalin may not have killed Lenin, but he had seized control of the Communist Party after Lenin’s death and certainly had several of his rivals for power, including Trotsky, eliminated. In effect, he did not want the Kremlin to be presented as another Elsinore – the corrupt centre of a corrupt state. Stalin particularly punished another of Kozintsev’s former contemporaries in Petrograd, Meyerhold, who had always dreamed of performing Hamlet but was forbidden from doing so; worse still, he was eventually arrested, tortured and executed for supposed “anti-Soviet” sentiments in his work. After his murder in 1940, it was said that Meyerhold had wanted as his epitaph: “Here lies a man who never played or directed Hamlet”.
It was only after Stalin’s own death in 1953, and the subsequent easing (relatively speaking) of Soviet oppression of its artists, that Kozintsev’s vision of a “great Russian Shakespeare” could finally begin to develop fully. First, he staged Hamlet again in 1954, as the unofficial ban on the play imposed by Stalin was finally lifted after his demise. Even more importantly, Kozintsev began to put in place his idea to film the play, and King Lear, which had long germinated in his teaching, writing and even his film-making.
Kozintsev’s films of Hamlet and King Lear were the last two films he ever made, at the end of a long and illustrious career as a film-maker that included not only the aforementioned adaptation of Gogol but other adaptations of classic works of literature, including Don Quixote, which he made in 1957. However, it is on these two great Shakespeare films that his reputation largely endures, especially in the West, and deservedly so, because they are among the finest adaptations of Shakespeare ever filmed.
Hamlet was released in 1964 and was one of the great Russian films of its time. Kozintsev marshalled not only his own creative forces (which had necessarily long been suppressed under the brutal reign of Stalin) but those of a stellar list of collaborators: Iosif Shapiro (as assistant director or co-director, who would also work with him on King Lear); his lifelong friend, Shostakovich, to write the music (again, Shostakovich would also compose the music for King Lear); and a superb cast of Russian actors, including Innokenty Smoktunovsky as a smouldering male blonde bombshell of a Hamlet and Mikhail Nazvanov as a charismatic, even glamorous, Claudius.
There are two key sayings of Kozintsev that are vital to an understanding of both his Shakespeare films. The first was that he famously said that the main advantage of filming Shakespeare, as opposed to staging him, was not that you could show men on horse-back but that you could show them in close-up, so that you could literally see them think. And this he does continually, to stunning effect, in both Hamlet and King Lear, notably when he is filming Hamlet’s soliloquies, especially the “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy. Secondly, Kozintsev, like many Russian writers and critics, argued that Shakespeare was a great natural poet, intimately knowing and describing the world of nature that is largely forgotten to 20th century urban man, and so it was vital to film his plays in nature. Again, he does this to astounding effect in both Hamlet and King Lear, in which he convincingly creates whole cinematic “Shakespeare-worlds”: in Hamlet, the world of a cliff-top castle; in King Lear, the world of a huge, sprawling, desolate kingdom, which has as much in common with Soviet Russia and its satellites as it does with early medieval England.
There are numerous cinematic and Shakespearean delights in both of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films, and the best thing that I can do is to urge any reader to see them (notwithstanding the difficulty of accessing English-subtitled versions of the films, which I will discuss below). For the purposes of this article, I shall concentrate on an analysis of their openings, which, while very different in some respects, are similarly effective in introducing us to the distinctively Russian cinematic Shakespeare-worlds that Kozintsev creates.
Kozintsev’s Hamlet does not open, as the play does, with the Ghost appearing to the soldiers atop Elsinore, but with the sea itself that surrounds Elsinore. (Like all Shakespearean film-makers, especially those filming Hamlet, Kozintsev had to make major cuts to the play to reduce it to an acceptable running time for a movie audience.) We hear a bell tolling, which eventually segues into the beginnings of Shostakovich’s superb, strident Shakespearean score, and then we cut to Hamlet on horseback, hurrying towards Elsinore with Horatio. He is immediately ushered into the castle, and the drawbridge is raised again. What is most telling, however, and it is something that I cannot recall seeing in any other Shakespeare film, or indeed any other film featuring a castle, is that Kozintsev shows the men (the poor men, or peasants) struggling to raise and lower the drawbridge. He does this time and again throughout his Shakespeare films, particularly in King Lear: he shows the subjects of these kingdoms, the subjects of Claudius and Lear, who are so often absent from any reading or stage production of the plays. Kozintsev peoples his Shakespeare-world, more than any other Shakespeare film-maker and arguably even more than Shakespeare himself, showing how the actions of the few (the rich and powerful) impact on the many (the poor).
This effect is even more pronounced in the opening of King Lear, released in 1971 after the considerable success (both at home and abroad) of Hamlet, and employing many of the same creative elements, notably Shostakovich as composer. Like Hamlet, it does not open as the original play does, but with dozens, and eventually hundreds and thousands, of poor people (peasants) making their way across a landscape that is almost lunar in its desolation. (Kozintsev filmed much of King Lear on the flatlands of Estonia, then a Soviet satellite state and where many of the actors, including the lead, Jüri Järvet, hailed from). They make their way on foot, or in some cases on carts or other wheeled vehicles, towards the great castle in the distance, within which Lear is deciding their future. Tellingly, they are not allowed near the castle, but held at a distance by Lear’s soldiers. They are kept “off-stage” – away from the castle – and only act as the most distant audience to the political developments inside.
Claudius’s court is at least alive and lively, as bull-headed Bacchanalian dancers greet the tired and still-grieving Hamlet, whereas Lear’s is almost as dead as the man himself. Indeed, the only real sign of life amid the heavily armoured soldiers and the solemn dignitaries is Lear’s fool. It is the ringing of the Fool’s bells that first announces Lear’s arrival (he is playing a game with the Fool) and indeed, in a marvellous cinematic trick, Lear actually smuggles the Fool into the main Courtroom under his cloak. Watching this scene again, it occurred to me for the first time (despite watching dozens of Lears on stage and on screen) that Lear’s division of the kingdom into three parts can itself be seen as a kind of foolish game, or act, one that he had concocted before the play begins and continues with, even when the Fool himself warns him against it.
And those are just the beginnings of the two films. It would take a much longer article, focusing on the films themselves (and not the build-up to them, which much of the rest of Kozintsev’s career can be regarded as) to discuss their many delights. In Hamlet, they include a wondrous lead performance by Smoktunovsky (even Laurence Olivier, the second best screen Hamlet, conceded that Smoktunovsky was the best); a depiction of an Elsinore/Kremlin (a Kremlinore?) that is all walls and shadows; a superb rendition of the soliloquies, especially the “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy, which, though much reduced from the stage version, is a masterpiece of compression, proving that the cinematic voiceover is the artistic heir of the stage monologue or soliloquy; and finally a devastating ending, featuring a powerfully authentic fencing match (screen fencing matches are always so much more convincing than their stage equivalents), which ends with Hamlet’s famous final soliloquy reduced to “The rest is silence”, before he sits down and dies in a hole in the castle-wall that looks uncannily like a throne made of stone (the only throne he will ever ascend).
In King Lear, the near-claustrophobia of the “Kremlinore” is substituted for what is almost agoraphobia, as Lear and his retinue spend almost the whole film in transit: certainly no stage production could convey the sheer sense of scale as Lear’s horses, men and even dogs make their way between his daughter’s households, like an internal invading army. Certainly, it is easier to have some sympathy with Goneril and Regan for having to deal with so many house guests of different species than it is on stage, where Lear’s forces are often only a handful of men and few or no animals. But against this magnificent backdrop of an entire, huge, sprawling kingdom, there are also wonderful individual performances that bring the characters to real life, particularly that of Jarvet himself as the fond old man. Another actor, Zinovy Gerdt, may have redubbed his voice, but it is his sheer, strange visual presence (his slender frame and long, straggly white hair making him resemble a Klaus Kinski suddenly grown old, or even a Robert Carlisle gone to ruin) that makes him so utterly compelling to watch.
Ultimately, Kozintsev’s Hamlet and King Lear cry out to be seen together, as the perfect Shakespearean cinematic double bill. If they are viewed in this way (as I myself have done in researching this article), they throw up fascinating questions and even correspondences about what are generally regarded, as I said at the outset, as Shakespeare’s two greatest plays. They both emphasise the visual majesty of Shakespeare’s storytelling: I had to oscillate between watching old, faded VHS copies of the films and unsubtitled online versions, but in both versions the storytelling (presupposing only a basic knowledge of the play) was still clear, showing how foreign-language films of Shakespeare, like those of Kozintsev or Kurosawa, can be enjoyed almost as silent movies.
Even more importantly, Kozintsev’s King Lear made me reassess the personal importance of the play to Shakespeare. Hamlet has long been considered as perhaps Shakespeare’s most personal, even autobiographical, play – his idealised creation of a scholar-warrior prince to replace his own son, Hamnet, who died before he grew up – but perhaps King Lear is also full of deep personal resonance for Shakespeare. In his recent documentary for the BBC, Shakespeare’s Mother, which told the story of Mary Arden, the historian Michael Wood recounted how the financial troubles of Shakespeare’s father, John, led to him first selling off his wife’s inheritance and ultimately selling off even part of the family home to a neighbour, who turned it into a pub. In this light, and fresh from seeing Jarvet’s King Lear dividing up his kingdom and turning part of it into the equivalent of an ale-house with the arrival of his rowdy horsemen, it occurred to me that the roots of both of Shakespeare’s greatest plays may lie close to home: Hamlet, the lament for a lost son; King Lear, the adoring but still critical examination of a foolish old man who squanders his family’s fortune. Of course, both stories were transmuted and transformed through Shakespeare’s adaptation of ancient tales (a Scandinavian folk-tale and Holinshed’s “Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters”), but their origins may be the most profoundly autobiographical experience of personal tragedy.
Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films are still extremely difficult to find in the West, but English subtitled DVDs are available to buy from Mr Bongo Films. Online versions of Hamlet and King Lear exists on YouTube but do not have subtitles.