“Hamlet” - Grigori Kozintsev (1964)

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, like many of his works, is rather complicated and has been difficult to film for presentation to general audiences.  There are multiple threads of revenge, and the main character is persistently morose and obsessed with his own futility.  On top of that, most staged versions of the play last four hours, which is a long time for an audience to sit through.  And yet Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s most famous and popular work, which is probably due to the play’s profoundly existentialistic tone and theme.  Capturing this melancholy and thoughtful tone is the principal challenge of anyone who films Hamlet, and this would presumably require someone very sensitive to the nuances of the main character’s moody and pensive soliloquies.  Nevertheless, probably the best job has been done, not by an English-speaking creative team, but by Russian filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev and his production colleagues.  Kozintsev’s Hamlet (Gamlet, 1964), which he adapted from Boris Pasternak’s translation of Shakespeare’s play, is an expressionistic tour de force that is likely to enthrall most viewers.  And Kozintsev managed to cover all the material in a relatively brisk two hours and twenty minutes.

Shooting the film during the “Khrushchev Thaw” (1954-64), when Russian censorship was somewhat more relaxed, and having by this time considerable cultural stature of his own, Kozintsev had relative artistic freedom to pursue his own goals and make a truly expressive film [1].  The film’s production values under Kozintsev’s supervision – including the cinematography by Jonas Gricius, the music by Dmitri Shostakovich, and the acting performances – are excellent throughout. 

Following his own instincts, some of Kozintsev’s artistic modifications to the play are notably well conceived.  For one thing, the nature of the film medium enabled him to stage some of Hamlet’s soliloquies more appropriately as thoughtful meditations in voiceover.  More importantly, Kozintsev chose to stage a number of key scenes outside , in front of his castle and by the shore near a turbulent sea [2].

Indeed, the many shots of the relentlessly churning sea provide a key visual metaphor for man’s existential loneliness in the face of a universe of surrounding nothingness and an inevitable fate of meaningless oblivion.  Hamlet feels this all-encompassing sense of meaninglessness to the world – not only as an absence of justice and love but also a meaninglessness to life, itself.  This was a truly modern sense of despair and alienation that we, immersed in our conventional materialistic understanding of reality, can all feel.  In this connection Saviour Catania observed [2]:
“Worth mentioning is that Kozintsev settled for the beach as the setting for the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy after experimenting with various other locations.  His choice was finally determined by his belief that the rocky Crimean beach could be made to embody and partake of the metaphysical issues at stake.“
In addition, Kozintsev uses images of the turbulent sea to separate the theatrical acts that make up Shakespeare’s narrative. 

The five acts encompass a story that tells of nine murders, including one suicide, which engender compulsive desires for “justice” and revenge.

Act 1

At the outset, Prince of Denmark Hamlet (played by Innokenty Smoktunovsky) is shown grieving over (a) the recent death of his father, King Hamlet, and (b) the fact that within an unseemly two months his widowed mother, Gertrude (Elza Radzina), had married his uncle, the deceased king’s brother, Claudius (Mikhail Nazvanov).  This means that Claudius has now assumed the throne.

New King Claudius has an elderly advisor, Polonius (Yuri Tolubeyev), whose two children, Laertes (Stepan Oleksenko) and Ophelia (Anastasiya Vertinskaya), are shown discussing Prince  Hamlet’s romantic overtures to Ophelia.  Laertes warns his sister to keep a distance from Hamlet, but Ophelia insists that Hamlet’s expression of romantic interest have been sincere.

Then Hamlet is informed by his friend Horatio (Vladimir Erenberg) that last night he saw the ghost of Hamlet’s father on the ramparts outside the castle.   They arrange to see if they can see the ghost the next night, and when they do so, the mournful ghost informs his son that Claudius had murdered him and that Hamlet should avenge his death. 

Not sure whether to believe this apparition or not, Hamlet tells Horatio that he will investigate the truth of the ghost’s claims and that for the time being he will feign madness in order to facilitate his investigations.

Act 2
With Hamlet now showing signs of madness, the suspicious Claudius urges two of Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz (Igor Dmitriev) and Guildenstern (Vadim Medvedev), to spy on his nephew.

Hamlet, for his part, comes upon a traveling theater troop and arranges for them to soon stage a play, The Murder of Gonzago, which will have some of Hamlet’s own words inserted into the dialogue of the murder scene, which will feature details in accordance with what the ghost told him about his own murder.  Hamlet’s intention is to see if upon watching this scene performed, Claudius will react guiltily.

Act 3 
Walking alone outside near the water, Hamlet has his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, during which he questions the meaningfulness and unlikely persistence of life.  Then Hamlet and Ophelia have a conversation, during which Hamlet, still feigning lunacy, furiously rejects her love. 

Later The Murder of Gonzago play is performed before the royal family and entourage, with Hamlet and Horatio checking Claudius’s reaction to the murder scene.  Sure enough, Claudius is seen clearly to be upset.  

(This is the end of Part 1 of this two-part film.)

Now Gertrude, upset over her son’s seeming madness, summons Hamlet to her chamber.  But Polonius, just to help ensure Gertrude’s safety, decides to hide behind a curtain in her room.  When Hamlet arrives, he gets into an intemperate argument with his mother.  In the ensuing commotion, he hears a noise from behind the curtain, which he assumes must be Claudius, and he thrusts his knife into the curtain, killing Polonius.

Act 4
To get his erratic nephew out of the way, Claudius sends Hamlet, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, off to study in England.  However, on the way, Hamlet discovers that his two erstwhile friends are secretly carrying an official letter ordering the execution of Hamlet upon arrival in England.  So Hamlet manages to surreptitiously exchange this letter with a forged one of his own condemning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, instead. 

Meanwhile Ophelia, with her father murdered and the one she loves, Hamlet, having rudely rejected her, goes mad, herself.  She eventually commits suicide.  Also, her brother Laertes returns from studying abroad and finding his family in ruins, demands revenge.

Act 5 
The still brooding Hamlet now returns to Denmark and hooks up with his friend Horatio outside the castle.  They soon encounter a funeral procession for Ophelia, which is how Hamlet shockingly learns of his beloved’s death. 

Also, Laertes is seeking revenge for what has happened to his family, so Claudius arranges for Laertes and Hamlet to have a “sporting” honor duel with swords.  However, he will ensure that Laertes’s sword is poison-tipped, and just to make sure that Hamlet dies, he also prepares a poisoned goblet for Hamlet to drink from.

When the duel is formally conducted with Claudius, Gertrude, and other courtiers in attendance, a sequence of deadly events quickly ensues.  Gertrude mistakenly drinks from Hamlet’s poisoned goblet, and both Hamlet and Laertes get fatally wounded by the poisoned sword.  And when Hamlet then learns from Laertes’s dying words about Claudius’s perfidy, he fatally stabs Claudius.  But Hamlet, himself, is dying, and with his last strength, he staggers outside and looks out onto the sea’s waters of oblivion as he dies.

The image of Hamlet as the existentially lonely protagonist is again metaphorically emphasized with these last shots, as Saviour Catania has observed [2]:
“For Kozintsev’s is a world where Hamlet wanders for the most part lonely in a crowd. Significantly, there is a dire need in Kozintsev’s Hamlet to return to the rocky beach whose comfort he seeks in his death-scene. Admittedly, Horatio does accompany the dying Hamlet to the beach, but the focus is not their relationship. Kozintsev’s interest lies in considering Hamlet as a figure apart.”

Indeed, the film’s expressionistic cinematography is expertly crafted to conjure up this feeling of Hamlet’s doomed isolation.  The film was shot in cinemascope, whose wide-screened imagery makes the subjects in the frame surrounded by the bleak surroundings and therefore less visually significant.  In addition, there are few closeups throughout, which further de-emphasizes the importance of the individual in the frame.  Many of the shots of figures are taken from a low angle, with the high, dark, and forbidding walls of the castle in the background, and this also conveys a mood of people at bay and continually threatened by unknown forces that are “out there”.

I also thought that the slight alterations that Kozintsev made to Shakespeare’s script were beneficial, particularly the enhancement to Ophelia’s presence, the emotive acting for which was exceptionally well performed by actress Anastasiya Vertinskaya.

In the end, the so-called quest for “justice” in Hamlet has had dire consequences and has only worsened the main character’s feeling of existential loneliness.  Overall, nine people have been killed – Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Hamlet Sr. – and Hamlet, himself, bears responsibility for six of these deaths.  There is greed, guilt, and vengeful resentment, but no salvation.  The story does not offer a way out of the existential mystery that it explores, but it does convey and evoke feelings that we, ourselves, often have about the futility of human existence.  Kozintsev’s rendition of Shakespeare’s work does a good job of evoking these feelings that go beyond their textual presentation, as well as our textual understanding of our own experiences.

  1. Peter Sellars, “Peter Sellars on Grigori Kozintsev”, King Lear (DVD), Facets Video, (2007). 
  2. Catania, Saviour, "The Beached Verge": On Filming the Unfilmable in Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet", Enter Text: An Interactive Interdisciplinary E-Journal for Cultural and Historical Studies and Creative Work, Brunel University. 1 (2): pp. 302–16, (2001).

No comments: