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Shostakovich Against Stalin
Shostakovich Against Stalin
Actors: Valery Gergiev, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Flora Litvinova, Graham Haley, Dmitri Shostakovich
Director: Larry Weinstein
Genres: Indie & Art House, Music Video & Concerts, Musicals & Performing Arts
NR     2005     1hr 17min

The power of art to defy and even transcend politics and oppression is the theme of Shostakovich Against Stalin: The War Symphonies, director Larry Weinstein's documentary about Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the...  more »

     
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Movie Details

Actors: Valery Gergiev, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Flora Litvinova, Graham Haley, Dmitri Shostakovich
Director: Larry Weinstein
Creators: Larry Weinstein, Barbara Willis Sweete, Danny Irom, Eeva-Kaisa Nojonen, David New, Gemma van Zeventer, Solomon Volkov
Genres: Indie & Art House, Music Video & Concerts, Musicals & Performing Arts
Sub-Genres: Indie & Art House, DTS, Classical
Studio: Decca
Format: DVD - Color - Closed-captioned
DVD Release Date: 11/08/2005
Original Release Date: 01/01/2005
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2005
Release Year: 2005
Run Time: 1hr 17min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 2
Edition: Classical
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English, Russian
Subtitles: German, English, Italian, Spanish, French

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Movie Reviews

Excellent and could have been outstanding
Larry VanDeSande | Mason, Michigan United States | 01/18/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Arriving timely for the 2006 Shostakovich centennial -- or Shostakovich Year, as some call it -- this powerful documentary portrays the era of the 1930s and 1940s when Shostakovich was the Soviet Union's chief composer and the way he did battle with Stalin both inside and outside his compositions.

Using archival footage, modern interviews with purge survivors, musicians, composers and friends of Shostakovich, the 76-minute documentary paints a portrait of the repression, murder and totalitarianism of the Stalin regime during the years of the great purge and Great Patriotic War (World War II) and the way Shostakovich's "war" symphonies -- Symphonies Nos. 4-9 -- both portrayed Russia's struggles and the composer's disdain of Stalin and his era.

This is a very powerful film whose minutes are interspersed with bleeding chunks of the symphonies being played in both the foreground and background by Russian conductor Vaerly Gergiev and his two orchestras, the Kirov Orchestra and Rotterdam Philharmonic. Gergiev also contributes some on air comments about the music, Shostakovich and Stalin, often in interviews taped in the back seat of a moving car.

While the documentary itself is a five star production and a telling document of the era in question, what degrades this DVD is the obvious commercialism for Gergiev and his version of the Shotakovich symphonies.

The DVD was produced by Philips, the company that had recorded Shostakovich's symphonies under Gergiev's baton. While the documentary portion of the DVD is only 76 minutes duration, there are an additional 70 minutes of bleeding chunks from Shostakovich Symphonies 4-9, all conducted by Gergiev.

So is this really a documentary or is it a thinly-veiled advertisement for you to run out and buy Gergiev's Shostakovich recordings? I suppose it is both although I was very cynical about this for the first few minutes of the documentary, which features Gergiev conducting and talking about the Symphony No. 4.

I lost that cynicism later in the documentary, which is unlike anything you would have seen in recent years on this topic. It includes archival footage of Stalin, the composer, the elements of Soviet society in the war years, postwar patriotic movie clips and other echt-Soviet footage. The interviews are all with Russians and have easy to read and understand substitles.

Gergiev is going around the world this year with his symphonies playing the Shostakovich symphonies in concert. I receive the program of the University of Michigan Musical Society, where Gergiev will conduct three of the "war" symphonies later this winter on a weekend program.

While he is one of the biggest names in classical music and a bona fide star in that universe, I don't find Gergiev's way with the music of Shostakovich as compelling as Ormandy or Mravinsky, a pair of conductors that premiered his symphonies around the world. I have heard his versions of the Shostakovich Symphonies No. 4, 5, 7 and 9 and have found them wanting against other modern composers, not to mention against the two great deceased Shostakovich interpreters mentioned earlier, who both left wonderful recordings of this music in adequate to good modern sound.

So 5 stars for the documentary itself and something less for the commercial portion of this production gives it a solid 4 star rating. It is clearly a one of a kind document and a worthy addition to the collection of anyone that likes or collects DVDs of this composer, World War II or 20th century world history."
Powerful documentary with some splendid concert footage
R. Evans | Montgomery AL | 12/18/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This film is very powerful and moving. It contains extremely interesting interviews with people who knew Shostakovich, and it also features footage from the 1930s and 40s, including some footage of Shostakovich himself. The film is riveting throughout. Especially fascinating is the modern footage of snippets of performances of Shostakovich's works. The camera angles and other aspects of the photography make this footage some of the best I have ever seen of an orchestra playing. My only regret is that there is not a companion film featuring these performances in their entirety. I am hoping that such footage exists and that the filmmaker will someday make the complete performances available on DVD. In the meantime, though, it is a pleasure to have this excellent documentary."
Eerie, masterfully done
Kelly L. Norman | Plymouth, MI United States | 05/14/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Dmitri Shostakovich began life caught up in the excitement of the true believers of the Bolshevik Revolution, happily writing agit-prop tunes for the masses; but during the time of Josef Stalin, as his artistic star began to rise, he found himself under thumb of the dictator. From that vantage point could more easily see terror sweeping across the land courtesy of the "man of steel". Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" is generally thought to be the turning point, for it was after this opera's debut that a scathing review was printed in Pravda, condemning the piece as "muddle not music". A sort of wierd truce seemed to exist between the celebrated composer and the man Truman referred to as "Uncle Joe" during what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War, as the Germans lay siege to Shostakovich's hometown of Leningrad. Again Shostakovich was used as a mouthpiece (literally; he made some patriotic speeches) to engender hope and pride in a people clinging to the last thread of life. After Stalin's death, however, Shostakovich revealed some more satirical and "politically incorrect" works, such as his mournful Fourth Symphony.

This DVD tells the story above in a bleak, eerie manner. One comes away feeling haunted. The most moving and horrific scenes (and reasons to think twice about letting the younger set watch--it gets gory!) center around the Siege of Leningrad. After Shostakovich wrote his 7th Symphony, "The Leningrad", stalwart members of the Leningrad orchestra determine to play it for him. In the film, some of these survivors are interviewed as the camera sweeps the Great Hall of the Conservatoire. Their descriptions of themselves and their friends in their emaciated state, their dusty, neglected instruments, and the half of the orchestra that was gone--dead--is chilling. By this time the filmmakers have spoken to other survivors who remember life (and death--actually, mostly death) during the siege, so they have already set the scene for the resistance and the hope embedded in this great work.

It is interesting to note the effect the Ken Burns multimedia/creative anachronism style has had on filmmakers world wide. In this case, the Canadian and Dutch documentarians use reenactments, the compulsory newsreels featuring the Great Leader, snapshots, and readings from Shostakovich's memoirs. These are interspersed with interviews with family members, friends, colleagues of Shostakovich, as well as, of course, Valery Gergiev. We also see the Rotterdam Philharmonic in rehearsal with Gergiev working on several pieces, as well as Gergiev (on a tinny sounding upright piano) and actors using goofy masks acting out "Rayok", an opera that cannot be mistaken for anything but satire of Stalin's dictates.

This is undoubtedly a showpiece for Gergiev and his Shostakovich recordings. And Shostakovich performances with the Kirov (coming soon to a town near you...a limousine dash away from the nearest airport). But this is a minor flaw. While he may not be the greatest expert on Shostakovich, Gergiev knows his stuff. He clearly wants his musicians and his audience to understand this music and the emotions sewn into it, and it's enjoyable to hear him talk about it. (And OK, I'll admit, he's pretty easy on the eyes of this L'il Rock & Roller).

What did disappoint me was the lack of explanation or rebuttal of the controversy surrounding "Testimony", Shostakovich's memoirs, used liberally during this documentary but criticized by some as forged. Having heard the works in this documentary, I'm convinced Shostakovich was one who tweaked his nose at the Communist leadership, with great courage; but a back and forth debate or even a cursory reference to the controversy would have been welcome."
A Magnificent Documentary
D. A Wend | Buffalo Grove, IL USA | 05/05/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I have had a life-long interest if Dmitri Shostakovich so when I first read about this documentary I knew that I had to see it. Briefly, Shostakovich Against Stalin: The War Symphonies is a 76 minute film concentrating on the years 1936 through the death of Stalin in 1953, when Shostakovich wrote his Fourth through his Ninth Symphonies. The director, Larry Weinstein, has set out to show us how Shostakovich's art transcended the tyranny of those terrible years when so many of Shostakovich's associates disappeared into labor camps or were killed. The Second World War, ironically, brought with it a brief time allowed some freedom of expression but the post-war period saw renewed repression of the arts. For me, the creepiest part of the documentary was the excerpt from the film Fall of Berlin (for which Shostakovich was "assigned" to write the score) with an actor playing Stalin who looked like a painted statue.

Mr. Weinstein does not address the contrary view that Shostakovich was merely a good Communist and not at all heroic. This is a point of view that I do not accept because after listening to the symphonies for over 30 years and reading the remembrances of Shostakovich's colleagues and friends I cannot believe that the writer of the Babi Yar and the Fifth Symphony was celebrating Communism; this music is personal and obviously not a reflection of politics.

The archival footage is very impressing, particularly the film from the 900 day siege of Leningrad and I found the film of Shostakovich playing the piano and speaking in public to be highly interesting. The film skillfully combines the history of the period with many interviews of musicians and friends of Shostakovich (including his daughter but not his son Maxim or his widow) with the words of Shostakovich spoken by an actor: Mr. Weinstein has done an excellent job in bringing the events home. I was particularly impressed with the description of the Seventh Symphony in besieged Leningrad, an almost impossible task given the musicians who were still alive to perform.

The symphonies are nicely performed by the Kirov Orchestra and Rotterdam Philharmonic under Valery Gergiev. I have not heard all of the recordings of the "War" symphonies by Gergiev but the ones I have heard, the Fourth and the Seventh, have been very good. I did not find that the film was a promotion for Gergiev's recordings of the Shostakovich symphonies. However, I found it odd that he would be interviewed in the back seat of a car. I know Mr. Gergiev is a very busy man but I was wondering why he could not sit down and be interviewed. Maestro Gergiev is also the only conductor who was interviewed for the film; I would have liked other conductors (Rostropovich would have been my choice) to have given their opinions.

I would like to hope that Mr. Weinstein would make an additional documentary about Shostakovich picking where this one left off. Such a film would have the drama of the Cold War and the thaw in Russian arts culminating with the Babi Yar Symphony. Shostakovich Against Stalin will be a film that I will certainly be viewing again.
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