One Man's View of Shostakovich. British filmmaker Tony Palmer takes an admiring but distinctly unromanticized view of the Russian composer
ZURICH — `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.
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.
Both charges were ``nonsense,'' states Palmer. Rights to Shostakovich's work are a complicated business, he says. Only 71 of the composer's 140-plus pieces are currently covered by copyright, because the Soviet government still refuses to admit to the existence of the others. It is from those ``non-existing'' compositions - Shostakovich's controversial works - that Palmer chose music for his film score.
The Soviet officials later dropped their legal action. But there was yet another problem with the film that made it unacceptable in official Soviet eyes. Palmer's presentation of Stalin is that of a distant figure who was personally responsible for the murder of some 30 million innocent lives. ``He is like God; no one knows his face,'' observes Shostakovich in ``Testimony.''
``In November 1987, on the 60th anniversary of the revolution,'' notes Palmer, ``[Mikhail] Gorbachev made a speech in which he said, `We now admit Stalin - bad man. We now admit, yes, Stalin killed people; but these are to be numbered in thousands, not millions, which is Western propaganda.' Even with the dramatic changes that have recently occurred in that country, Gorbachev still couldn't bring himself to admit that Stalin killed as many people as he did.''
When ``Testimony'' was mysteriously withdrawn at the last minute from the 1988 Berlin Film Festival, where the Soviets have a strong presence, nobody could believe it, recalls Palmer, ``until I got a copy of the letter that had gone from the burgomaster's office to the head of the festival, which says that it would be `politically unwise for you to show this film.'''
Not surprisingly, ``Testimony'' was also flatly refused entry in last year's Moscow Film Festival. But things do move on. Indeed, Palmer is heartened to have been advised, only a few weeks ago, to reapply for entry in this year's Moscow Film Festival in July, and is still awaiting word.
Palmer is well aware that some people will construe as gratuitous gore his use of never-before-screened Russian footage of the period that somehow surfaced in London. But he believes such tactics are necessary if he is to make the desired impact on audiences who have become somewhat inured to violence and suffering.
Shostakovich's music is not easy for everyone to listen to. Palmer is convinced, however, that the key to his widespread popularity lies in the fact that his music speaks from the heart of the Russian people, the one truly expressive voice the ``silent masses'' had during a period of extreme torment. ``Stalin got his hands on everything,'' Palmer remarks. ``If I write a line of poetry that says, `Stalin, bad man,' you can ban that line. ... But if I whistle a tune and you know it says, `Stalin, bad man,' and I know it, because I wrote it, then the word is out; the game is up. And that's why Shostakovich's music was so popular, because it describes the feeling of that time with incredible and unswerving accuracy.''
Intriguingly, ``Testimony'' ultimately posits that, although Shostakovich is portrayed as flailing against Stalin for ``hijacking'' his soul, it was actually Stalin who helped make the man the great composer that he was. ``Something happened to your music when I died,'' intones Stalin's ghost to the composer on his own deathbed. ``You stopped speaking to the people: I am the enemy you loved.''