“King Lear” - Grigori Kozintsev (1971)

Grigori Kozintsev’s five-decades-long filmmaking career in Russia stretched from the Eisenstein-Pukovkin era fertility of the 1920s to his final film in 1971.  Over much of that time, he, like other Russian cultural figures, struggled to work within the confines of a restrictive creative landscape that was dominated by the coercive Russian Communist government, wherein many social topics were out-of-bounds.  One way to try to evade such censorship was to make films of recognized world classics, such as the works of Shakespeare [1]. This he managed to do with his final two works, Hamlet (Gamlet, 1964) and King Lear (Korol Lir, 1971), which are now considered to be the greatest renderings of Shakespeare on film.  Indeed ‘rendering’ is the key term here, because Kozintsev said his Shakespeare films were
“renderings rather than translations. . . . The object of screen adaptation is to preserve not the text, but the metaphor."[2]
Kozintsev’s cinematic renderings delve more deeply into Shakespeare’s themes than most so-called “faithful to the original” theatrical stagings of Shakespeare’s work. 

Unfortunately, Kozintsev’s films, steeped in high production values though they clearly are, have not been widely distributed and are not so well known.  I was moved to track down and see King Lear because of the high regard in which the film is held by one of my favorite film critics, Jugu Abraham [3]. Indeed Jugu has ranked Kozintsev’s King Lear as the greatest film ever made [4]. 

Note that this film includes the artistic collaboration of two of the iconic cultural figures of 20th century Russia. Nobel Laureate Boris Pasternak translated Shakespeare’s play into Russian and Dmitri Shostakovich composed the film’s musical score.  But it is the mise-en-scene of Kozintsev, working with his cinematographer Jonas Gricius, that creates the moody, expressionistic tone that permeates the film and underlies its greatness.

Actually King Lear is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays – I find the story too complicated and the title character of King Lear too weak and pathetic for my taste.  So you might wonder how much of Shakespeare’s original work did Kozintsev alter in this film to make it so great.  As a matter of fact, Kozintsev preserves almost all of the events from the play, but he manages to convey them in an original and highly emotive way.

One key factor was Kozintsev’s choice of Jüri Järvet to play the lead role of King Lear.  Although diminutive in stature, Järvet is energetic and passionately expressive – just what is needed for this role.  The Estonian Järvet spoke little Russian and had to have his voice dubbed for this film; but even so, his expressive gestures and overall demeanor were effective for conveying the pathos that Kozintsev wanted.  I don’t know how connected Kozintsev was with Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, but both Järvet and Donatas Banionis, who plays the role of the Duke of Albany in this film, would one year later have the lead roles in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972).

Another key factor in Kozintsev’s film is the atmospheric black-and-white cinematography in cinemascope, which presents a grim landscape of frail humans struggling to gain their petty privileges in a fundamentally barren and forlorn world.  This is supported by effective diagetic noises that convey bleak, soulless mechanics of a heartless natural world.

The story of King Lear, which Kozintsev has divided into two equal halves, concerns what happens to an elderly English king of the past, and it moves through four general phases.

1.  Acquisitive Offspring 
The film opens showing impoverished peasants moving across a barren landscape and looking  up obediently at a massive castle.  This opening scene wordlessly conveys the great distance separating the peasants from their imperial overlords.  Inside the castle we are introduced to two family groupings:
  • King Lear and his three daughters:
    • Goneril, who is married to the Duke of Albany
    • Regan, who is married to the Duke of Cornwall
    • Cordelia, the youngest and unmarried
  • The Earl of Gloucester has two sons:
    • Edmund is the older son, but because he was born illegitimate, he is not the lawful heir to the earl’s estate
    • Edgar, the earl’s lawful heir.
For both these family groupings there will be unprincipled efforts on the parts of some of the offspring to increase their wealth and power.

At the outset the elderly king summons his three daughters and announces his decision that, in order to avoid family squabbles concerning the division of his kingdom after his death, he intends to retire now and divide up his kingdom equally among his three daughters.  But first the vain monarch wants his three daughters to individually swear how much they love him.  Goneril and Regan each make ridiculously exaggerated claims of their love for their father, while their more sincere and honest sister Cordelia makes only a modest, dutiful claim.  Disappointed at not hearing more extravagant flattery from Cordelia, he petulantly disinherits her on the spot and banishes her from his kingdom.

Elsewhere we see the unscrupulous Edmund plotting to sabotage his brother Edgar by falsely attributing traitorous activity to him.

So early on we see that Lear and Gloucester are surrounded by two contrasting types of individuals seeking their favor:
  • the sincere and honest – Cordelia, Albany, Edgar, and the loyal Duke of Kent
  • the dishonest and corrupted – Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund
The rest of this story is not just a melodrama concerning these two types but more of a deeper examination of how society is organized in the face of such social complexity.

2.  Falling out with Goneril and Regan 
The next part shows how contemptuous and mean-spirited are Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund.  The truly loyal Kent is captured by Cornwall and the fleeing Edgar has to find refuge out on the heath among a band of mad beggars.  Meanwhile instead of the veneration that he expects from his two supposedly loyal elder daughters, Lear finds himself dismissed as a useless and unwanted old man.  In despair, Lear, too, runs out onto the heath, accompanied only by his loyal jester, The Fool.

3.  Chaos and War
Due to Edmund’s boundless avarice, Gloucester is captured as a traitor by Cornwall.  After having his eyes gouged out, Gloucester, too, is sent out to wander on the heath.  So our protagonists – Lear, Gloucester, Kent, and Edgar – have all been cast out of human “civilization” to wander in the wilderness.

Meanwhile Cordelia, who had earlier gone off and married the King of France, arrives with a French military force bent on restoring Lear and true, principled civilization to the English throne.  At this point Lear is taken to Cordelia, and the repentant Lear tearfully expresses his love for his daughter.  However, when the battle is engaged, the English army, led by the nefarious Edmund, wins, and both Cordelia and Lear are taken away with orders from Edmund that they be executed.

4.  Aftermath
Cornwall had earlier been killed, so the honest Albany is now the ruler.  But the evil coalition of Edmund, Goneril, and Regan falls apart. Albany has Edmund arrested on suspicion of treason, and a duel is arranged between Edmund and a masked Edgar to decide the result.  In the event, Edgar fatally wounds Edmund.  Regan and Goneril, who had both lusted after Edmund are now in despair, and so, offscreen, Regan fatally poisons Goneril and then herself.  With his dying breath Edmund repentantly tries to rescind his death sentence of Cordelia, but he is too late.  Lear discovers her corpse hanging from a noose, and he soon dies, himself, of grief and weariness. 

At the close, the saddened Albany, Kent, and Edgar are left to try to pick up the pieces and restore social order.

As the story of King Lear unfolds, it becomes deeper and more moving.  The first half of the film is somewhat bogged down by relating the perfidious machinations of the various antagonists.  It was only in the second half of the film that I began to get the feeling I was watching something great.

There are several interesting themes of King Lear that Kozintsev has effectively highlighted.  Overall we have a picture of dystopia – "a generalized picture of a civilization heading towards doom", as Kozintsev put it [3].  The general problem here is how to maintain a civilized social order in the face of rampant, unprincipled predators. The traditional approach uses loyalty, and that works with the dutifully loyal Kent.  But loyalty is easy to break down when notions of pride and dignity come to outweigh feelings of human compassion.

Anyway, loyalty is not enough to ensure a humane and well-functioning social order.  What is needed is a commonly agreed upon collection of social narratives within which people can find their own proper roles.  Various people in this story find themselves bereft of any role and thus are on the verge of madness.  At the beginning of this story, Edmund finds himself excluded from the role he wants in order to establish his dignity, and he is unscrupulously willing to go to any lengths to secure a higher role for himself.  In a certain sense we could see Edmund as a ruthless  utility-maximizing modernist, who is outside the scope of human morality.  Edgar, on the other hand, finds himself so deprived of any social identity that he becomes a madman.  However, he does recover his role and his sanity in the end.

Lear and Gloucester, our protagonist social commanders, are more or less lost in the face of all the disloyal perfidy around them.  Gloucester, blinded and ruined, ultimately loses faith in any salvation, ultimately lamenting to Edgar out on the heath that
“as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.”
Lear, however, never gives up and is the ever-struggling thinker in this story; his ruminations about his frustrations with life are always fascinating.  These are enriched by the sarcastic commentary of Lear’s prankish companion, The Fool, whose caustic remarks may reflect Lear’s own guilty conscience. 

In fact at one point out on the heath, Lear comes across the wandering band of poor, half-mad and naked wretches, and he says to himself,
“Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
 That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
 How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
 Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
 From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta'en
 Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
 Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
 That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
 And show the heavens more just.”
Thus there is a glint of social compassion in this soliloquizing statement that points the way to Lear’s belated enlightenment.  This is further confirmed when he later expresses his simple, unqualified love for Cordelia.

All of these thematic elements are well presented by Kozintsev’s expressionistic mise-en-scene.  He shows the chaotic destructiveness of nature  always lurking in the background.  This brings about a feeling of alienation that is further brought about by Kozintsev’s pictorial emphasis on depth and separation – there are so many scenes that depict people separated by great expanses of space.  In particular, the battle scenes are especially effective in visually depicting in just a  few shots the stressful clamor of war. 

I have already mentioned the crucial acting performance of Jüri Järvet in the role of the king, but there were other commendable performances, too, for example in the roles ot Lear’s daughters – Elza Radzina (as Goneril), Galina Volchek (as Regan), and Valentina Shendrikova (as Cordelia).  It was good that Kozintsev presented the two older sisters as unglamorous, middle-aged matrons, which cast the exploitative Edmund’s positive responses to their romantic entreaties in an appropriately cynical light.  And the presentation as a whole is generally enhanced by Shostakovich’s music, which though sometimes noisily intrusive, is often evocative of the film’s fatalistic and melancholic mood.

Overall, I would say this is the way Shakespeare’s rich social tapestries were meant to be presented – not as the stentorian declamations of over-heated theatrics, but instead as a fully expressionistic rendering of an entire view of the world.  Perhaps we could even say that Kozintsev’s way of presenting the Bard’s work stands as an original contribution on his part.  In any case, I would say that Kozintsev's King Lear is the best film of a Shakespeare play that I have seen.

  1. Peter Sellars, “Peter Sellars on Grigori Kozintsev”, King Lear (DVD), Facets Video, (2007).
  2. Michael Walsh, “Rendered, not translated, the Screen's greatest Lear speaks Russian“, Reeling Back (1981/2014).   
  3. Jugu Abraham, “64. Russian (former Soviet) director Grigory Kozintsev’s 'Korol Lir' (King Lear) (1971): An unsung masterpiece on 'civilization heading to doom'", Movies that make you think, (27 May 27 2008).    
  4. Jugu Abraham, “The Author's Favorite Top 10 Films”, Movies that make you think, (2017).  


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Great analysis of a truly great film... bravo!

The Film Sufi said...

Thanks, Murtaza. I appreciate your comment.

Jugu Abraham said...

Thanks. Good to note that you liked the film. Hope that you will have the time to look at the restored version of Kozintsev's The New Babylon (1929), which no one mentions when they discuss great films of the silent era.

The Film Sufi said...

Thanks, Jugu. Is the restored version of The New Babylon (1929) the Youtube version you have posted a link to at the end of your review of that film?

Jugu Abraham said...

Yes, that's the one.

tooearly said...

i tried to watch this on Amazon Prime which sadly has an absolutely AWFUL voice over which is beyond disgraceful.
Where can i see a version with just subtitles?

tooearly said...

where can i see a version without the AWFUL voice over that Amazon Prime has?