Issue 24 (2009)
Peeter Simm: Georg (2007)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2009
Peeter Simm’s biopic recounts the life-story of the legendary Estonian opera singer Georg Ots (1920-1975), whose captivating baritone made him a household name throughout the former Soviet Union. Ots’s story is told from his former wife’s point of view in a chronological and linear style, beginning with his first wedding in 1941 and ending with his death in 1975. The film not only relates Ots’s stratospheric rise to fame, but also provides a vivid account of his turbulent marital life and his dealings with the Soviet state. Although it is clear that Simm pursued all of these story lines to provide a complex portrait of the Estonian artist, the three narrative threads unfortunately rarely come together. As a result, it often seems that Ots led three discrete lives: as a self-made man and cultural icon, as a self-styled political dissident, and as a man ultimately unlucky in love. Of these, the most successful narrative line focuses on his personal life.
Simm recounts Ots’s story from the perspective of his second wife, Asta Saar. They were married for twenty-two years before divorcing in 1964. The full title of the movie, Georg: The Story of a Baritone’s Wife, foreshadows Asta’s role as storyteller. Asta’s voiceover is interspersed throughout the film to both fill in the temporal and biographical gaps in the storyline and establish a narrative continuity. More than just a narrator of Ots’s biography, Asta herself becomes the focus of the film that is supposed to be about her husband.
As a character, Asta is depicted in a more nuanced way than Georg, so that by the end of the film the viewer has a much better sense of her as an individual. Asta’s alcoholism, erratic behavior, and embarrassing public outbursts are all an organic product of the difficulties she faced throughout her marital life. Before Asta met Georg she was part of Tallinn’s corps de ballet and thought of her union with Georg as a natural match. She expected that they would be partners in both career and marriage. Asta, however, eventually becomes almost entirely absorbed with raising their two children—daughter Ülle and son Ülo—and becomes simply a baritone’s wife, turning invisible whenever she appears in his presence. Even when she expresses her frustration of not being able to perform, Georg dismisses her frustration by joking: “Do you think that your absence is a loss to the Estonian theater?” Gradually, we see a woman more and more irritated by her invisibility. As Ots’s fame increases, so does her drinking and her alcohol-fueled public scandals. Through these episodes she continually begs him to notice her and demands attention from his adoring fans (especially female ones) in progressively more scandalous ways. But, in the end, Ots can neither muster any sympathy for Asta’s predicament nor grant her the attention she requires.
In a brief but telling exchange, Georg tells Asta that he is having trouble with his dramatic scenes since he cannot readily express pain on stage. She coaches him to think of unhappiness that weighed so heavily on him he could do little but cry. But because Simm’s Ots remains a figure too legendary to be affected by doubt, anguish, and/or confusion, his tears never materialize—on or off stage. Georg is either too stoic to experience pain or lives such a charmed life that pain is not a staple in his life. Only Asta’s outbursts visibly upset Georg. But even during these outbursts he never confronts her publicly, but instead punishes her by locking her in a bathroom, admitting her to a hospital/psychiatric ward, striking her, and throwing her out of the car. By avoiding dealing with the problems Asta causes, Ots slowly distances himself from his wife.
Asta not only struggles with Georg’s seeming inability to address her professional and personal dissatisfaction but also fights his family’s prejudices. Georg’s inner family and professional circle look down on Asta as a daughter of a gypsy woman and as a former child performer. One of the family friends exclaims in horror: “Her father was a drunk and her mother a terribly vulgar woman. Asta used to dance the Charleston when she was only nine years old while her father performed in blackface!” Although judged because of her career as a child actor, this part of her history becomes her only source of pride during her adult life. In a flashback, Asta recalls when she was at the center of attention and when crowds applauded her talents and skills. As an adult, she keeps looking back to the past to affirm her self-worth and drinks to both numb her sorrow and avert attention to herself.
However nuanced the film’s treatment of Asta, Georg ultimately does little to provide a sense of who Ots was as a man. Unlike Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose (La Môme, 2007), which does a masterful job of uncovering Edith Piaf’s evolution as both a person and an artist, Georg falls short of creating an intimate and personal portrait of Ots. In fact, the protagonist seems to change little from beginning to end; his mannerisms, comportment, and reactions all remain static throughout the twenty-five years the narrative covers. It is almost as if the movie was intended to simply affirm Georg’s legendary status rather than complicate it by adding depth and dimension to a celebrated icon.
At times it appears that the movie is less interested in exploring Ots as a person than it is in making him out to be a national hero. During the heady 1990s Ots was seldom recognized and celebrated publically in Estonia because of his Party affiliation and because of his ties to the secret service. Several highly stylized scenes focus on clearing Ots’s name from charges that he was a loyal Party man and an NKVD/KGB informer. In the first scene, his decision to cooperate with the NKVD in 1943 was involuntary insofar as he was choosing between life as an informer and certain death. By the time Ots becomes a Soviet super-star in the early 1960s, he not only fearlessly defies the orders of a KGB agent but also disobeys Nikita Khrushchev himself. At a dacha gathering, Ots refuses Nikita Sergeevich’s request to sing to the assembled Party elite because he was grieving for his dying father and because, on principle, he never sang at a table. Rather than berate him for disobedience, the Party Secretary lauds Georg for his sincerity and integrity. Simm thus schematically portrays Georg as not only an iconic artist but also paints him as a national hero who valiantly defies the corrupt and sinister forces that ruled the land. Ultimately, however, this allows for little to no nuanced insight into Ots’s personal views on communism, Party control of the arts, and his views on Russian rule of Soviet Estonia. There is a vague sense he was forced to compromise because the oppressive regime made alternatives impossible, but this part of his biography remains undeveloped.
Much of the same can be said of the way Simm depicted Georg’s road to fame. Unlike Asta, for whom her husband’s fame clearly came at a high price, Georg seems to be impervious to any of the trappings celebrity status carries. The social and political star status, the adoring audiences, and the unending press coverage leave the baritone untouched. Georg’s father, who was himself a renowned tenor of the Estonian theatre, is the only character who consistently expresses doubt about his son’s talent and abilities, insisting that Georg would have made a much better engineer. But paternal disapproval seems to have been the only obstacle Georg faced as he pursued his career. Even infighting within the leadership of the Estonian theatre is but a minor obstacle to Georg’s predestined preeminence. The opportunity to explore Ots’s psychological sensibilities or the nature of stardom in the Soviet context remains, however, unrealized.
Considering that the focus of Simm’s biopic was supposed to be Ots, it is ironic that Asta’s life story is, in some ways, more compelling than her husband’s. Although one could argue that depicting Ots as larger than life is a way for Asta, as narrator, to honor her ex-husband’s memory and maintain his legendary status, it is unclear how constructive this tactic is. At the end of the film, Asta emerges as a multidimensional character while Georg inner life remains an enigma. And while it is perhaps fitting that Ots remain as mysterious as the most famous role he played—Mister Iks (Mr. X)—it is questionable whether this approach was worth the cost. Ultimately, the film would appear to resurrect Ots as a sanitized national hero rather than reflect critically on the momentous paradoxes and internal struggles he must have experienced as a living legend to millions who revered him.
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Georg: The Story of a Baritone’s Wife, Estonia/Finland/Russia, 2007
Color, 107 min
Director: Peeter Simm
Script: Aleksandr Borodianskii, Mati Põldre
Cinematographer: Rein Kotov
Production Design: Kalju Kivi, Eugen Tamberg
Costume Design: Mare Raidma
Composer: Iurii Poteenko
Cast: Marko Matvere, Anastasiia Makeeva, Renars Kaupers, Elle Kull, Tõnu Kark, Mirtel Pohla, Karin Touart
Producer: Märten Kross
Production: Allfilm, Tsentr natsional’nogo fil’ma, Matila Röhr Productions, Lege Artis Films
Peeter Simm: Georg (2007)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2009