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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: September ::
Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2149  Wednesday, 12 September 2001

From:           Mark Harris <
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Date:           Monday, 10 Sep 2001 11:56:09 -0700 (PDT)
Subject:        Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet

I am aware that this film has been mentioned at SHAKSPER before, but I'd
like to share this post I originally wrote for another group:

For years there has a been a rumor floating around (chiefly in printed
references) that Grigori Kozintsev's 1964 Soviet version of Hamlet was
the best you would ever want to see. Now that I have seen it, I can
confirm: this is the best Hamlet you would ever want to see.

The merits are many, the demerits non-existent. The film looks great:
beautiful b-and-w cinematography, gorgeous use of the wide frame. The
art direction deserves a gold medal; the exterior sets of Elsinore
Castle in particular are staggering (I assume it was built rather than
found). The music by Shostakovich is tremendous. The cast, as Kirk
points out, is evenly strong up and down the line, and Innokenti
Smoktunovsky (who was the narrator of Tarkovsky's Mirror) is a knock-out
as Hamlet.

What is peculiarly exciting at the level of cinematic conception is
Kozintsev's division of the action into four planes, and his stress on
making as many of those planes visible in single shots as possible. The
first plane is the sea, which is omnipresent. This is most appropriate
for Hamlet; remember, Denmark is not only surrounded by water, but
interpenetrated by water (Copenhagen is essentially a lagoon). The
second plane is the mighty exterior of Elsinore Castle and the desolate
surrounding landscape. The third plane is the richly appointed castle
interior. (This castle, by the way, bears affinities to Mervyn Peake's
Gormenghast; Peake was strongly influenced by Shakespeare's play.) The
fourth plane is the minds of the characters, as revealed in monologues,
asides, facial expressions (some of the monologues are handled as
voiceovers).  The relations between these four planes are frequently
breathtaking - witness the staging of the play-within-a-play on an
outdoor stage, at night, with the roiling ocean as backdrop. You believe
in the spatial connection between the interiors and the exterior; you
could practically draw a diagram of the castle. Kozintsev has entirely
solved the proscenium arch problem; there is not a trace of staginess
here.

The pace is stately, ceremonial, with sudden stabs of action. I loved
the closing sequence: Hamlet's body is borne on a bier, and Kozintsev
takes all the time he needs to end the movie on a note of awe. This is
properly tragic, and I am not surprised to learn that the clearly
thoughtful Kozintsev wrote a book about Shakespeare (which was
translated into English): Shakespeare: Time and Conscience.

Kozintsev was born in 1905, and after some early film successes he made
only three features in the last twenty years of his life (though I'm
betting he did a lot of stage direction as well). All were adaptations
of classics: Hamlet, Don Quixote, King Lear.  (Kozintsev's writings on
Lear were also translated into English as King Lear: The Space of
Tragedy - The Diary of a Film Director.)

Mark R. Harris

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