One Man's View of Shostakovich. British filmmaker Tony Palmer takes an admiring but distinctly unromanticized view of the Russian composer
`THE West wants a martyr, says British film director Tony Palmer. ``So it's very unpalatable to be told certain truths. But the fact is: Shostakovich was no goody two-shoes. In a world such as his [Stalinist Russia], saints, quite simply, do not survive.'' I managed to catch Mr. Palmer while he was working on ``Peter Grimes,'' the opera by Benjamin Britten set to open on stage later this month in Zurich. It was here, on a magnificent Swiss spring day with the Zurich Opera House providing the backdrop, that the director talked about ``Testimony,'' his strikingly original film dramatization of the life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. It airs tomorrow in the United States on PBS (see preview below) and is expected to be televised on Britain's Channel 4 TV later this year.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Palmer has a track record of much-lauded films on the lives of musicians - including Handel, Stravinsky, Wagner, and opera star Maria Callas. The shadow of Shostakovich, with the important questions his life raises regarding the role of the artist in society, has loomed large in his mind for a long time.
A number of Russian 'emigr'es in the West, including cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, insist on perpetuating a highly romantic view of Shostakovich. Yet from Shostakovich's own memoirs, as dictated to Solomon Volkov in the book ``Testimony'' (on which Palmer's drama is based), a much more complex picture of the man emerges.
``Of course, there is a martyr element to him,'' says Palmer. ``He paid an incredible price for the music he wrote. But that's not the whole story. There are also some pretty unpalatable things about the man, like the fact that he [betrayed] his friends. We know with absolute certainty that he did this. He was prepared to make any compromise he thought would allow him to stay alive.''
Shostakovich was brought up in czarist Russia and knew firsthand the corruption of that regime. Unlike some of his colleagues, this led him to choose to stay in the Soviet Union, both because he was enormously proud of being Russian and, equally important, because he didn't want to believe that all of the suffering after the revolution had been in vain.
``He wanted very much to believe that the communist system was a good system,'' says Palmer. ``And he absolutely saw himself as a good communist. He was a survivor, but he also very definitely believed in some of [the system]. He felt it was his job to serve the state; that was his job as a composer.''
Palmer is firmly convinced that his multi-layered portrayal of Shostakovich - warts and all - is on the right track, not only because it adheres to the spirit of the composer's memoirs, but because he managed to uncover an important additional informant - the composer's wife.
It was in 1986, when Palmer was just beginning work on the film, that a mutual friend arranged a meeting between the director and the third and last Mrs. Shostakovich, who was visiting London at the time. Following a longdiscussion with the director, she was satisfied that the film he planned to make would be an honest one. Yet, curiously, while this fact made her happy, it also heightened her sense of danger in talking with him. Palmer believes her wariness was well founded.
Indeed, even in the age of glasnost, the director has faced enormous opposition from Soviet officialdom over ``Testimony.'' Shortly after the film received its world premi`ere in the 1987 London Film Festival, for example, the city's Soviet embassy slapped a writ on the director. There were two charges - that Palmer had used Soviet archive film (not in copyright) and that some of Shostakovich's music heard in ``Testimony'' was in copyright but not paid for.