Dmitrii Svetozarov: Crime and Punishment (Prestuplenie i nakazanie, 2007)

reviewed by Ulrike Hartmann © 2008

With his adaptation of Dostoevskii's Crime and Punishment , Dmitrii Svetozarov commenced what can only be called a Dostoevskii Season on Russian television. Although recent years have seen a general increase in TV adaptations of literary classics, no single author has featured as prominently as Dostoevskii. Three TV serials have been based upon Dostoevskii's works in the past two years alone and aim to repeat the success of Vladimir Bortko's The Idiot (2003): Svetozarov's Crime and Punishment , Iurii Moroz's The Brothers Karamazov (to be released in 2008), and German director Felix Schultes' Russian production of Demons (Stolitsa channel, December 2007). This recent popularity of Dostoevskii can be understood as part of what Elena Prokhorova ironically calls a “campaign” to adapt the canonical texts of Russian literature for television in order to introduce them to a new generation not familiar with the Russian classics, as well as a sign of the attempt to re-assert a Russian identity based on the values proclaimed in Dostoevskii's work as Konstantin Klioutchkine argues in his essay on Bortko's The Idiot.

Any adaptation of a Dostoevskii novel inevitably raises the question of “fidelity” to the material. The main concern is whether any understanding of the metaphysical issues raised in the material can be gained from a television adaptation and how the director aims to rise to this challenge. Anat Vernitski understands modern Russian literature adaptations for cinema or television as providing “a dialogue rather than a translation”; any adaptation “is bound to reflect the changing social and cultural conditions, as well as afford a comment on the interrelations between the three key periods in modern Russian cultural history: the nineteenth-century, the Soviet period and the post-Soviet period” (194-5). Whereas, as Klioutchkine argues, Bortko's adaptation of Dostoevskii's The Idiot can indeed be characterized by this revisiting of “intersections” in the Bakhtinian sense and engages in a threefold dialogue with the original text, the Soviet period, and Russian society under Putin, Svetozarov explicitly rejects any notion of dialogue or discourse. His approach could be described in contrast as resurrecting Soviet adaptation ( ekranizatsiia ) in the sense that his understanding of literature adaptations reflects what Birgit Beumers calls the Soviet era's “concern, almost obsession, with ‘fidelity'” (137).

Having previously touched upon certain motifs that feature in Dostoevskii's Crime and Punishment in his film Arithmetic of a Murder (Arifmetika ubiistva, 1991) or even in episodes of the television series Streets of Broken Lights (Ulitsy razbitykh fonarei; various directors, 1998- ), Svetozarov's interpretation of the classic raised great expectations. Svetozarov himself is very candid when it comes to the reasons for his decision to focus on the small screen instead of cinema and elaborates on them in an interview with Svetlana Mazurova. His view of contemporary Russian cinema is deeply pessimistic. According to Svetozarov, Russian cinema is currently characterized by a “lack of heroes and a lack of professionals.” Films are being made by people he describes as essentially illiterate, who, in his opinion, do not seem to know the first thing about film, directing, or cinematography. Furthermore, he disapproves of the more commercial nature of cinema in comparison to television and the difficulties involved in obtaining funding for cinema projects. He also raises the question of audience: at the age of fifty-six, Svetozarov finds himself to some degree alienated from the average Russian cinemagoer—that is, “young people between 15 and 25 years of age who have a very specific taste in film.” Considering these factors, television presents itself as a more advantageous partner, with whom financial success is less risky and whose audience is much more diverse. Svetozarov himself suggests in the same interview that he would have never been able to adapt Crime and Punishment for the big screen at all.

The last statement seems somewhat contradictory in itself given that a two-hour long condensed version of the television series has been produced and, according to Svetozarov, will be shown at festivals in the hope of finding a distributor. This seems highly unlikely for the domestic market considering that interested viewers will already have seen the material and are unlikely to watch it again in cinemas, but he seems to hold hope for the foreign cinema market. [1] At the same time, the TV series itself might very well be marketable internationally considering that it has been nominated for an award at the Monte-Carlo Television Festival 2008 in the category Mini Series.

Svetozarov's main ambition for the project is to deliver what he describes as an “authentic” adaptation: “Why have I started a screen version of Dostoevsky's novel? First of all, it is an opportunity, from the point of view of an inner production analyzer, to appreciate the work with the classic and its true value. Secondly, a desire to lock in an image of outgoing Saint-Petersburg” (official translation). In the same press release, Svetozarov explains that he does not feel that he has any right whatsoever to challenge the author's interpretation of the material and sees his task as providing an intermediary between the book and the reader—that is, between the classic novel and the television audience. He is aware that nowadays only a small part of the audience will be familiar with the detailed substance of the novel. He rejects any notion of “modernizing” the material or linking it in any way to modern-day society or modern-day Russia. He also considers such aspirations the work of “provincial directors” and aims to be “truthful to the material” instead (qtd. Mazurova). This understanding of authenticity and refusal to engage in any dialogue with material involves not only as little deviation from the plot and the original dialogue as possible, but also very careful selection of cast, location, and color schemes to remain in maximum proximity to Dostoevskii's novel. Crime and Punishment was mostly shot on location in central St. Petersburg near Koniushennaia Ploshchad', where the production company stumbled upon old Tsarist stables, which had not been renovated for the past two hundred years and provided an ideal backdrop for Raskolnikov's room and the lodgings of the Marmeladovs. Other scenes were shot outdoors in St. Petersburg and were later digitally altered to remove all signs of 21 st century modernity such as satellite dishes or advertisements.

Overall, this adaptation of Crime and Punishment distinguishes itself from other TV adaptations of literary classics, such as Vladimir Bortko's Master and Margarita (2005) or The Golden Calf (Zolotoi telenok; dir. Ul'iana Shilkina, 2005), very much through its aesthetics: whereas other productions have been described as cheap-looking and somewhat too glossy for comfort, Crime and Punishment features a rather gloomy and gritty look. Svetozarov interpreted Dostoevskii's descriptions of Raskolnikov's surroundings as claustrophobic, somewhat coffin-like, and generally dark and depressing. Shot on 35mm, the very muted color scheme with sepia tones as its dominant palette was achieved through filters and contributes to this sense of a distinctly unglamorous setting and storyline, as well as resembling 19 th century photography and, thus, enhancing the “authentic” feel of the series. This very carefully executed visual restraint seems quite uncharacteristic of a modern Russian television adaptation, a genre whose motto could be best described as “more is more” when it comes to costumes, décor, and setting. Ironically, the cheapness of most previous television productions resulted in a visual overkill, tackiness, and in what David MacFadyen describes as an inability to look sophisticated, whereas Crime and Punishment , a series with a much higher than average budget per episode, manages to convince with its minimalism and visual restraint. [2]

Svetozarov's aspirations to authenticity were not limited to the location and general décor, costume design, and color scheme mentioned in the original. He also tried to cast his actors according to Dostoevskii's descriptions wherever possible. Supported by experienced actors such as Andrei Panin, Aleksandr Baluev, and Elena Iakovleva, two newcomers were found for the roles of Sonia and Raskolnikov. Young actress Polina Filonenko, who had not even graduated when she was cast for the series, gives an excellent performance as Sonia Marmeladova despite her lack of experience. She very convincingly portrays Sonia as characterized by a combination of youthful innocence and absolute strength of character founded in her religious beliefs.

With the second newcomer, Vladimir Koshevoi, Svetozarov has found an actor who resembles Dostoevskii's remarks on Raskolnikov's appearance quite closely: Dostoevskii describes Raskolnikov as “romantic”-looking man, an image that Koshevoi fits with his aquiline features and slenderness, which make him look like the very incarnation of German romanticism. In his TV debut, Koshevoi's feverish eyes and his unruly mop of hair are used with much effect to portray Raskolnikov's poverty and physical deterioration, as well as his troubled soul and turmoil in a series that relies much more on glances and gestures than dialogue. Yet the audience does not and cannot (unless familiar with the novel) know why Raskolnikov is in such turmoil. Very little is revealed about the protagonist's morals, opinions, or any of his thoughts through dialogue, while the dream sequences that are essential to any interpretation of the novel have been left out entirely. Arguably, this ignores the metaphysical or moral subjects raised in the novel, such as atheism, elitism, or revolutionary activity. This “reduction to melodramatic criminal plotlines,” which according to Polina Barskova also characterized Bortko's adaptation of Dostoevskii's The Idiot , can also be seen in Svetozarov's Crime and Punishment , but it achieved a different effect. Bortko set out to create a television series that was popular and serious at the same time without compromising the literary text too much. The result was typical of such attempts, in that everyone was equally disappointed. Svetozarov's series, by contrast, is more universally appealing in that viewers familiar with the material will see it as a successful illustration of the novel aided by a minimalist aesthetics and an excellent cast, whereas viewers previously unfamiliar with the novel will find it compelling to follow the melodramatic developments surrounding the Raskolnikov family.

The most interesting aspect of this adaptation of Crime and Punishment is its ending: the series ends with a long shot of Raskolnikov and Sonia sitting on a bench in the snowy landscape of Siberia with the prison camp visible in the background. The scene is completely silent. The couple sits on the bench while the camera zooms out, rendering more and more of the snowy surroundings visible. Svetozarov chose to ignore completely Dostoevskii's epilogue to Crime and Punishment and, most importantly, the question of religious redemption it raised. Whereas it was unsurprising that previous Russian or Soviet versions of Crime and Punishment could not place any emphasis on the religious connotations and subtext of the novel due to ideological constraints, it seems astonishing that Svetozarov chose not to incorporate these issues into his new interpretation of the material. Raskolnikov's re-connection with humanity as described in the epilogue does not feature in Svetozarov's version and leaves the audience, in a sense, without a satisfying conclusion to the story: “It all turned out somewhat unpersuasive and even false” (qtd. Krainer). Spectators unfamiliar with the novel could be led to believe that Dostoevskii simply wrote “about a weak man in unfortunate circumstances,” as TV critic Anna Narinskaia argues.

These issues were brought to Svetozarov's attention: critics have accused him of having stopped reading the novel “two pages before the end” (Vail) and, thus, leaving out a vital part of the book's plot and subtext. Svetozarov feels that he has absolutely no right to interpret or even modernize Dostoevskii's work and does not feel that he is doing this literary classic any injustice by leaving out the epilogue. In his opinion, the epilogue does not fit with the rest of the novel, either stylistically or plot-wise, which is why he decided to ignore it (Mazurova). This omission of the epilogue can be understood as the only bold decision Svetozarov was prepared to make in the course of his adaptation.

In conclusion, it is debatable whether Svetozarovs's Crime and Punishment can even be considered a genuine interpretation of Dostoevskii's novel or merely provides an illustration of the literary classic. The series' cast and visual appeal render it very watchable indeed and to some extent less alienating than most other literary adaptations for the small screen, but it does little to further the understanding of the material. It seems that Svetozarov, a more than experienced director, has played it very safe and created a doubtlessly successful but somewhat unexciting—and to some extent timid—series in its refusal to link the novel to modern day Russian society.

Ulrike Hartmann
University of Bristol

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Notes

1] Kingisepp claims in an earlier article that the film studio was planning on re-shooting Crime and Punishment with international actors such as Gerard Dépardieu instead of condensing the televised version into a feature length film.

2] According to Den' the production of an average TV series costs about US$ 200-250,000 per episode, while the making of Crime and Punishment came to US$ 350,000 per episode.

 


Works

Barskova, Polina. “As if from a Lost Culture: Musings on Vladimir Bortko's Master and Margarita. Dir. Vladimir Bortko. Kinokultura 13 (July 2006).

Beumers, Birgit. “The Mikhalkov brothers' view of Russia.” In Russian and Soviet Film Adaptations of Literature, 1900-2001. Screening the Word. Ed. Stephen Hutchings and Anat Vernitski. London: Routledge, 2005. 135-152.

Kingisepp, Maria. “Dostoevskii i Depardieu”. Peterburgskii Dnevnik (18 September 2006).

Klioutchkine, Konstantin. “Fedor Mikhailovich Lucked Out with Vladimir Vladimirovich”:  The Idiot Television Series in the Context of Putin's Culture.” Kinokultura 9 (January 2005).

Krainer, Anastasiia. ‘Prestuplenie i nakazanie': Dostoevskomu i ne snilos'”.

MacFadyen, David. “Literature Has Left the Building: Russian Romance and Today's TV Drama.” Kinokultura 8 (April 2005).

Mazurova, Svetlana. “Nikto v mire ne snimaet London Dikkensa v Londone.” Kul'tura (31 January-6 February 2008).

Narinskaia, Anna. “Serial'nii ubiitsa. Rossiskomu telezriteliu ugotovano ‘Prestuplenie i nakazanie'.” Kommersant? Weekend (9 November 2007).

Prokhorova, Elena. Review of First Circle . Dir. Gleb Panfilov. Kinokultura 15 (January 2007).

Vail, Petr. “Pravda i pravo.” Rossiiskaia Gazeta (21 December 2007).

Vernitski, Anat. “Post-Soviet film adaptations of the Russian classics.” In Russian and Soviet Film Adaptations of Literature, 1900-2001. Screening the Word . Ed. Stephen Hutchings and Anat Vernitski. London: Routledge, 2005. 194-205.

“Vyshel serial ‘Prestuplenie i nakazanie': vo vremia s?emok akter padal v obmorok.” Den' (5 December 2007).

 


Crime and Punishment, Russia, 2007
Color, 8 episodes; 52 minutes each
Director: Dmitrii Svetozarov
Screenplay: Dmitrii Svetozarov, Mikhail Smolianitskii
Cinematography: Aleksandr Ustinov
Composer: Andre Sigle
Cast: Vladimir Koshevoi, Polina Filonenko, Andrei Panin, Aleksandr Baluev, Elena Iakovleva, Iurii Kuznetsov, Andrei Zibrov, Sergei Peregudov, Svetlana Smirnova, Sergei Bekhterev, Katerina Vasil'eva
Producer: Andre Sigle, Dmitrii Svetozarov
Production: AC/DC Film Company

 

Dmitrii Svetozarov:Crime and Punishment (Prestuplenie i nakazanie , 2007)

reviewed by Ulrike Hartmann © 2008

Updated: 21 Jul 08