In one of the weirdest developments in DVD-land, Grigori Kozintsev’s powerful, black-and-white Hamlet is now available for us to visit—sort-of: in place of Boris Pasternak’s translation to the Russian vernacular, the English subtitles instead show Shakespeare’s text! Consistency with a vengeance: at least in the English-translated credits, Pasternak’s name has been erased! Perhaps he never existed; perhaps he was a phantom of the mind, like the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father.
This dark, spare, elemental vision—literally, the whole of it seems to churn and flare up in Hamlet’s own turbulent mind—begins with crashing waves. In some ways it is a naive misreading of the play, but certainly this Hamlet is a riveting, soul-shaking experience. Perhaps the clearest index of its simplification of an ambiguous and complex text is its reduction of Claudius to pure villainy. Human nature is no longer what is rotten in the medieval state.
Instead, the dim, inhospitable castle, which Kozintsev’s camera roams as though through catacombs, projects the evil of deranged political power, treachery. At the center of this maelstrom is the film’s ace-in-a-hole: the legendary performance of the melancholy Dane by Innokenti Smoktunovsky. It expresses the convolutions of the suspicious Prince’s mind that requires a straightening-out so that Hamlet may commit himself to murderous revenge, which, once done, busts loose all hell, swallowing him up; it shows that this man struggles every minute to retain his humanity.
Then there is Smoktunovsky himself: Polish and Jewish as well as Russian, he seems the perpetual outsider trying to break through to a dead father’s love. A death camp was Smoktunovsky’s destiny when he became a German POW during the Second World War; but he escaped. His reward from Stalin: Siberia.
But Smoktunovsky came back from the dead. He came back to play Hamlet.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.