Composers on Camera: Testimony

dmitri-shostakovich-1344850425-article-0It’s all about perspective. The true telling of a life story is always from the outside looking in, even for an autobiography. The person telling his life story is the prime source for memories of what was once a different human being, seeing things through a telescope smudged with age and out-of-focus through distance.

In the case of Testimony, a film about the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, there are many filters in operation. The first of which is that we don’t even know for sure if the source of this film’s perspective is a real representation of the composer’s point of view and reminiscences. It’s an irony that that Shostakovich himself might have found amusing. Solomon Volkov, a Russian musicologist and reviewer, defected in 1976 with what he later claimed to be a copy of Shostakovich’s dictated memoirs, published in 1979 under the title “Testimony.” There is endless controversy over this book: whether the dictated pages of handwritten first draft really bear the supposed signatures of the composer, or even whether Shostakovich had anything to do with its authorship whatsoever. Some of his surviving family repudiate it utterly, while others grudgingly accept it (notably his own son, conductor Maxim Shostakovich).

It’s beyond the scope of this quick review to examine those arguments, much less try to settle the debate. But for what it’s worth, the film itself is a much-abbreviated recounting of some of the best scenes in the book, put together more or less in historical order, with a dose of dreamlike surrealism and introspection. Tying all these vignettes together is Shostakovich’s powerful music, claiming the live events as context for its moods and declamations. It’s particularly powerful in the closing scenes of the film, as the atrocities of Stalin’s millions of murders is held to stark account by a montage over the “Fears” movement of Symphony no. 13 “Babi Yar.” The enormous sympathy and artistry of such editing is largely due to director Tony Palmer, whose sometimes controversial approach to the use of music in film serves him very well here.

The rather disjunct, collective anecdotes of an artistic life during nearly the entire span of Soviet Russia places the burden of the script directly on one actor’s shoulders: Ben Kingsley, who is superb as Shostakovich. At times, it feels like a one-man show, where an actor channels the life experience of a great personality, and relives the arc of their entire story in a couple of hours. But having said that, there are also many scenes with top-of-the-mark supporting actors, notably Terence Rigby as Stalin, and a scene-stealing Ronald Pickup as Shostakovich’s close friend and protector, Marshal Tukhachevsky.

So, essentially, this is a well-directed, beautifully shot and edited, and excellently acted film. But what does it really tell us about Dmitri Shostakovich the composer, or about music, or about being a composer as a person or professional? Actually, very little. The narrative that Palmer has chosen out of Volkov’s book is that of the heroic struggle against repression by a selfless true believer. And in some ways, the thread of that epic arc sometimes overwhelms the sense of true personhood, as if the character of the composer was being shaped to fit that archetype. For in all things, Shostakovich is portrayed as a hero, even when he’s forced to betray his own principles.

In such a storyline, the steps that shaped the subject are superfluous; his education, wooing and marriage, birth of his children, slow establishment of a career, all must be passed over. The story must start with Shostakovich’s first great victories, after which his sense of security, dignity, and finally even his very humanity, are slowly eroded – not to be eliminated, but transferred to a mighty expression of artistic defiance.

And yet…it’s interesting to note how much Palmer prunes Volkov’s text and anecdotes to fit this story. One thing the suspected memoir seems to get right by all accounts is Shostakovich’s intense pride of his schooling, and especially his great respect and awe for his teacher Aleksandr Glazunov. But in Palmer’s vision, Glazunov is a judgmental, half-crazy old drunk, babbling corrections and dropping rejected assignments into boxes marked with capital letters – “I” for “Insignificant.” The result is that the audience is taken one crucial step away from the real story of the composer, and one of his deepest marks of regard.

Another huge alteration occurs when Shostakovich finally meets his tormentor, Josef Stalin himself, during a concert in which all entries for a new Soviet anthem are performed. Stalin calls Shostakovich up to his personal box, and intimidates him with praise. Well and good – it’s a great scene, and in some ways the emotional peak of the film. But the actual event was that both Shostakovich and his co-anthem composer Aram Khatchaturian were called up to the box, praised, and assured of their victory. Stalin then tried to demonstrate his knowledge by pointing out some errors in the orchestration, and asking how long it would take to correct. Shostakovich answered “three days” – whereupon Stalin suddenly got huffy and asked to hear all the entries once more, then awarded the prize for the new anthem to another composer. Khatchaturian told him, “you fool, he thought you were patronizing him! You should have said three weeks!” And in actuality, it would have taken only three minutes to make the requested changes.

So a joke which Shostakovich must have found the height of ironic humor is changed into a chance for the actors to tell a different story. But the informed viewer must know that it’s not the story of Shostakovich, but some universal take on grace under fire (and in fact, the film never corrects the presumption that Shostakovich and Khatchaturian have walked away with the prize).

So while I loved this film, even more after a second viewing, I do have to say that this is anything but “The Story of Shostakovich.” No, it is an interpretation of how Shostakovich lived his life under the constant threat of Stalin’s wrath. To accept this as the end-all be-all of Shostakovich’s life story is to allow it to define who he was and what his music is all about. And the truth is so very much greater: Shostakovich’s music not only defied the psychological torments of his existence, but it also transcended them, so that its meaning could stand for all time. To interpret it as anything less is an act of terrible dishonesty to the legacy of all great music ever composed.

Historical accuracy: ***

Almost all of the events in this film more or less happened, but what Shostakovich really thought of them we cannot know, and it’s his perspective that’s presumed to be the film’s subject.

Educational value about its subject: ***

This is truly a great introduction to Shostakovich’s life, but should be followed by much reading and listening.

Narrative: ***

The story that the director has chosen to tell is very well told – even though it departs somewhat from the story of the real man.

Direction: ****

Nearly every emotional decision rings true, nearly every shot shows mastery.

Acting: ****

Excellent cast, great leadership by Kingsley, who makes you believe every frame.

Music: ****

Shows how cinematic the music of an ex-silent film accompanist truly can be, and leaves you wanting more.

Final Tally:

*** + 1/2 stars – excellent film in most respects

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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