Jun 252010

I just now submitted the following comment to WeeklyStandard.com in response to a review of “Beethoven and the World of 1824 by Harvey Sachs. The review, written by Lawrence Klepp, was titled: “Freedom’s Symphony : The world of Beethoven’s Ninth

I challenge Mr. Klepp to watch Tengiz Abuladze’s 1984 movie, Pokayanie (Repentance) and then continue to speak of Beethoven’s Ninth as freedom’s symphony. If that isn’t enough, think about the totalitarian overtones in the Ode to Joy, in which all men become brothers. And those who don’t? Well, tough for them.

The part I was thinking about is what I blogged about over a year ago: http://kino.reticulator.com/2009/04/26/music-for-pokayanie/

Here is a YouTube clip of the segment of the movie that features the Ninth Symphony. Naturally, it doesn’t have the same impact out of context.

Apr 262009


Pokayanie has some really strange musical references. Here Yelena breaks into a singing of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” in German. The effect is sinister. It comes after she tries to “comfort” Nino by saying the following:

Of course, the arrest of Sandro and Mikhail is a mistake. We must summon up patience, both you and I. You’ll see, Nika will do everything.
They’ll look into it and free them. You must be strong, Nino. Don’t forget that you have Keti. I’m sure it will end well, everything will be all right. They’re bound to find the truth and set Sandro free. I’m sure of it! Nino, I’m thinking now of your girl. Keti must become a good citizen and an honorable woman. Your misfortune must not lead her astray. Don’t forget that we’re serving a great cause. The future generations will be proud of us. But since the scale of events is so grand, big mistakes are inevitable. It may even happen that innocent people are victimized. But I can already hear our favorite “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven which will surely sound all overthe world very soon.

I can almost understand what that music is doing there, because of the totalitarian overtones in Schiller’s poem. I had only a vague idea of what was totalitarian about it, though, so I went to google to see if anyone else ever had the same thoughts. In doing so, I found the following in the book, “Sound matters: essays on the acoustics of modern German culture” By Nora M. Alter, Lutz Peter Koepnick (2004).

It talks about the “Enlightenment project of universal harmony [which] at once needs and loathes the dissonnant in order to define itself. The construction of hegemony through harmony cannot do without separating the world into friend and foe, self and other… “[T]he passage from Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy,’ in which those who are not accorded all-embracing love are banished from it, involuntarily betrays the truth about the idea of humanity, which is at once totalitarian and particular.”

“At once totalitarian and particular,” it says. If that isn’t a good description of what’s in this movie, I don’t know what is.

But what about the other music? How about that brief showing of partygoers arriving with music and booze, to the accompaniment of Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny.” Is that merely meant to be ironic, given what’s happening? Or am I too dense to catch a deeper meaning?

And what about those Italian opera segments sung by Varlam and his flunkies. Those, too, are in a sinister setting. But I don’t recognize them from anywhere, mainly because I’m ignorant about opera. What do they mean?

And what about that Wagner duet on the white piano? I’ll bet there is some meaning to it, but I don’t know what it is.

Apr 232009


Tonight I finished the first watching of Pokayanie.

If I hadn’t been told that this film was produced in 1984, I would have guessed it was a production from the mid 1990s or so. It’s that prophetic.

Most of the way through, while being surprised that such a film had been produced at all, I kept telling myself that it certainly wasn’t subtle. Yes, the guards are dressed in medieval armor, the jurors and lawyers have medieval clothing, and there are other surreal elements to keep this from being any kind of docudrama. But it was pretty obvious what piece of Russian history was being represented here. In fact, the above scene sounded just like something I had read in Robert Conquest’s, “The Great Terror.” The character has confessed to being a spy and to being in charge of building a tunnel from London to Bombay. He thought that if the prisoners made their confessions even more ridiculous and outlandish than they were being tortured and manipulated to make them, that it would somehow bring it all to an end. (It didn’t work.)

Then, the last scenes in the movie started to reveal that maybe it’s more subtle than I had thought. And the final scene went a step further and made it all more complicated. And instead of my viewing it as an outsider — after all I’m not Russian — all of a sudden it seemed I was drawn in to be part of that story, too, even though I’d rather not be.

I’m not sure everyone would have the same reaction.

The end of that movie upset a lot of things. I’m still not sure where they all landed. I need to think about it more before I try to explain.

Apr 192009


I’ve started to watch Repentance (Pokayanie). Unfortunately, the language spoken is Georgian, not Russian. Nothing wrong with that, but I understand not a syllable of Georgian, so I’m listening to the Russian overdub while reading English subtitles. I’ve had a little practice in watching movies this way, but not enough to be entirely used to it.

I got about as far as the above scene, at about 41:50. A delegation of people has come to the mayor (a Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini character) complaining that the scientific experiments are destroying the church. The mayor is all smiles and accommodation, and then asks the young father in the delegation:

You live on the town square in a two-story house, don’t you? During the ceremony a girl was blowing soap-bubbles from the window. Was that your apartment?


I see everything, I notice everything. So beware of me, be careful.

And if he saw that, he of course also saw what isn’t stated, that the father pulled the girl back and shut the window.

(It reminds me that in the early days of the Clinton administration it was announced that the President would be coming to Battle Creek. On a local online forum I said it would be a good time to bring the family inside to safety, shutter the windows and lock the doors until he had gone. I was surprised at the number of people who were extremely offended that I would talk that way. Maybe they had been characters in this same movie, which btw was released in 1987, after being suppressed for a few years.)


The mayor notices everything, but during that ceremony, nobody dared spoil the festivities by noticing that workmen had accidentally broken a water main which was drenching the speakers who were honoring the mayor, as well as the typist-clerk who kept on typing.

It kind of reminds me of how nobody is supposed to notice the government policies that brought on our current financial crisis, and that we are expected to respond by enacting more of the same.

There is very little about this movie on Wikipedia or any of the usual places. Anna Lawton wrote about it in one of her books, but I’ve already forgotten much of what she had to say. After I finish watching I’ll go back and find what she had said.

I understand it’s the third in a trilogy. I suspect I’ll want to watch the two movies that preceded it, too.

Mar 222009

This Family Circus cartoon for March 22 reminds me of me when I’m reading anything in Russian. The little girl goes on for 7 frames reading her book — sitting up, lying down, shifting positions, enjoying herself all the time. Then she reports to her mother: “This is a GOOD BOOK! I’ve been reading the first sentence and it’s interestin’ already!”

I’ve sometimes wondered whether I’ve already seen most of the good Russian movies. But in reading Anna Lawton’s book, Kinoglasnost, I’m learning that there are a lot of good ones in store for me. I’m especially interested in seeing more of those from the glasnost years. I need to become more proficient at reading and understanding Russian if I’m going to be able to take all of them in — maybe a little beyond the skill level portrayed in the cartoon.

In the part of her book on the mid-late 1980s, Lawton has helped me understand why My Friend, Ivan Lapshin is considered such a great movie. There is one piece of information I haven’t been able to reconcile with what I’ve read on the web, though. I’ve read that Ivan Lapshin was produced in 1971, and was not allowed to be released until 1985. Lawton says it was made in 1983. It’s not a huge point, but 1971 was a very different time from 1985, and it would be nice to know which period it came from.

I recently purchased a download of Repentance from Memocast. Lawton tells how it portrays a dream within a dream within a dream. “The way the narrative is constructed is disorienting because of time discontinuity and unclear transitions between reality, dream, memories, and fantasy.” Lawton then goes on to give a synopsis. In this case, I think I’ll be glad to have read it before watching it the first time.

It seems I made some lucky choices in my last purchase from Memocast. But Lawton tells about many, many films that I had never heard of that I now want to see, including some that deal with gulags and prisons — always a topic of morbid fascination to me. What else would you expect from a person who predicts that he’ll end his days in one of Hillary’s internment camps?