Issue 34 (2011)

Vladimir Khotinenko: Dostoevskii (2011)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2011

Russian culture is traditionally very sensitive to anniversaries, even to those that in other countries probably would go unnoticed. This year marks the 190th anniversary of Fedor Dostoevskii’s birth and the 130th of his death. The dates have inspired two biopics, one by Evgenii Tashkov that flopped on arrival; and Vladimir Khotinenko’s mini-series Dostoevskii, commissioned by Rossiia 1 television channel and co-sponsored by the administration of St. Petersburg.

dostoevskyIn scope and quality, Khotinenko’s 7-part biopic can be compared to the best HBO and Showtime history dramas, such as John Adams (2008) and The Tudors (2007-2010). The craftsmanship demonstrated by the crew of Dostoevskii is superb throughout, including elaborate set designs, striving for authenticity (many episodes, including those in Western Europe, were shot at the original locations), sophisticated indoor lighting, and cinema-style editing, as well as an overall high caliber of acting. Despite the fact that TV audiences are typically treated with less regard than moviegoers, it is clear that Khotinenko did not compromise on quality and was motivated by more than just professional standards or ratings: his awe for his subject is implicit in every aspect of this film.

dostoevskyDostoevskii does not cover the writer’s entire life but reconstructs the major episodes of a thirty-year period extending from his 1849 mock execution to the beginning of writing The Brothers Karamazov in 1878. Eduard Volodarskii’s screenplay combines well-known events with episodes that are far more obscure. One such episode is the infatuation of 13-year old Sof’ia Korvin-Krukovskaia (who later became famous under her married name Kovalevskaia as Russia’s first female mathematician) with the writer, who was courting her older sister at the time. Save a few minor exceptions, all of these lesser known events have been historically documented. The main strength of the screenplay is its ability to mould genuine, recognizable characters who convincingly represent various milieus and convey essential conflicts. Thus the superb ensemble of performers was able to work with solid if not brilliant writing, and the result is highly presentable.

It is safe to say that the filmmakers have captured major aspects of Dostoevskii’s biography, and only nitpickers can fault them for slight deviations from established facts. Indeed, the loyalty toward documented events comes at a price: a viewer unfamiliar with Dostoevskii’s life—and their number is increasing thanks to the ill-fated reformation of Russia’s educational system—might hardly make sense of certain plot turns. The most appreciative viewers of this film will likely be those who are intrigued by its subject and have heard about some of the tragic events of Dostoevskii’s life but are eager to know more. At least with respect to historical atmosphere and psychological truth, they will be well served. 

dostoevskyHowever, the paramount achievement of this film is Evgenii Mironov’s performance in the title role. With unrivalled empathy, mutability, and precision, he conveys an astonishing spectrum of emotions comprising the extremes that are usually associated with Dostoevskii—pride and humility, recklessness and pensiveness, brutality and tenderness, crude sensuality and empathy—to subtle expressions of doubt, shame, and compassion. While the plot, naturally, focuses more on dramatic situations than the ostensibly undramatic periods of creativity, Dostoevskii’s moments of inner debate and reflection become so visible through Mironov’s acting that the viewer can sense an uninterrupted thought process within the character, whereas verbal utterances reveal a mere tip of the iceberg. Most biopics suffer from an inadequacy between the performers’ depth of intellectual and psychological penetration and the enormity of the oeuvre, leaving the enigma of creativity largely obscure. Mironov’s performance not only captures Dostoevskii’s outer features, his often described hoarse voice, the subtle aging process, and the many turns between ailment and triumph, but allows the viewer to feel the writer’s intellectual intensity.

dostoevskyVladimir Khotinenko’s career has had its ups and downs, peaking, paradoxically, in the mid-1990s when the overall state of Russian cinema appeared hopelessly moribund. Makarov (1994), The Moslem (Musul’manin, 1995), and the short “The Path” (“Doroga,” in the almanac Arrival of a Train [Pribytie poezda, 1996]) were among the wittiest and most original contributions to a cinematic decade marked by panic and confusion. Strangely, the revival of Russian cinema in the new millennium did little for this director, who seemed intent to settle for flatly patriotic speechifying and conspiratorial interpretations of history. More recently, The Priest (Pop, 2010) was controversial for its subject-matter but at the same time revealed a reasserted artistic surefootedness. If Dostoevskii is any indication, we can expect more solid work from this filmmaker, whether for the big or the small screen.

As for the usual handicaps of television aesthetics, Khotinenko has done his best to treat Dostoevskii as if it were made for cinema: from utmost attention to period details (money, suitcases, wallpaper, attire, and interiors – including train compartments) to the careful selection of extras that are perceived as typical for the time period. It is an intriguing question why certain faces seem to legitimately belong to a historical epoch while others do not; our criteria for judging this legitimacy may be rooted in visual memories from contemporary illustrations and museums. Be that as it may – many directors, particularly those working for TV, pay scarce attention to facial authenticity, while in Khotinenko’s film, extras with the “right” faces populate Siberian prisons and Baden-Baden roulette, St. Petersburg lecture halls and Geneva cafés. 

dostoevskyDostoevskii, like other quality Russian TV productions, has had to endure its share of criticism, from factually corroborated objections to hysterical innuendo. As several interviews indicate, Khotinenko seems to be sufficiently thick-skinned to brush these off. However, it is a shame that films made with such exemplary care and respect for its subject find so little appreciation in the Russian media. The blatant unwillingness to approach such films with minimal benevolence reveals a lacking culture of discourse that is both frustrating and discouraging. 

Of course, one can imagine a different film in which, for example, Dostoevskii’s childhood experience of poverty in his father’s Moscow hospital, or his suffering from paternal tyranny become narrative points of departure. Equally tempting would be a plot arc beginning with the writer’s socialist ideas – the Petrashevskii circle with its many colorful characters – to the crushing of utopian illusions with the onslaught of katorga, finally arriving at a conservative worldview proclaiming Russia’s envisioned global mission, with the Pushkin speech as the appropriate finale. But would those versions be more fortunate with self-righteous, snobbish critics?

dostoevskyPerhaps in anticipation of forthcoming allegations, Volodarskii and Khotinenko chose a less ideological approach, instead visualizing major emotional traumas, especially in Dostoevskii’s relations with women, and depicting the writer’s political views only in passing. This preference for a “consensus” image of Dostoevskii the thinker implies a certain softening of the edges and a harmonizing of his complex worldview, sometimes at the expense of the views of others. The most prominent example is that of Turgenev, who is portrayed as an elegant and arrogant Teutonophile and outright traitor of Russianness, reducing the complexity of his oscillating worldview to a mere caricature. Surely, Turgenev’s utterances during his encounters with Dostoevskii are documented, but their reconciliation following the 1880 Pushkin speech demonstrated that their relationship went beyond the mere clash of Westernizer vs. Slavophile. At the same time, while Dostoevskii in several such cases takes its protagonist’s point of view, admittedly to the detriment of objective truth, it takes no prisoners when dealing with the writer’s personal weaknesses: his impatience, irritability, and cruelty are depicted with a mercilessness that at times is painful to watch.    

Of the many miniseries coming out of Russia, Dostoevskii is doubtless one of the very best: historically grounded, psychologically serious drama that, when confronted with a choice of keeping or sacrificing historical accuracy for entertainment, chooses the former – no small achievement in a ratings-obsessed, all-too-often ignorant media environment. The fact that projects of such caliber can get financed in Russia today is remarkable in itself.

Peter Rollberg
George Washington University

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Dostoevskii, Russia, 2011
Color, 7 parts, 375 minutes
Director: Vladimir Khotinenko
Screenplay: Eduard Volodarskii
Director of Photography: Il’ia Demin
Composer: Aleksei Aigi
Production Designer: Vladimir Donskov
Cast: Evgenii Mironov, Chulpan Khamatova, Ol’ga Smirnova, Alla Iuganova, Aleksandr Domogarov, Dmitrii Pevtsov, Dar’ia Moroz, Vladimir Simonov and others

Vladimir Khotinenko: Dostoevskii (2011)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2011

Updated: 09 Oct 11