Grigori Kozintsev’s “Hamlet”

 Hamlet. Directed by Grigori Kozintsev. Lenfilm, 1964. DVD release RUSCICO, 2000.

Tech specs. Video: 140 (70+70) min, b/w, 16:9, NTSC/PAL. Sound: Mono & Dolby Digital 5.1. Made in Russia, region-free.Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet was released in 1964. The film has won several international awards, including the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival,and has become a classic in the world of cinematography, having secured Kozintsev a place in the history of the Hamlet canon. The fact that Kozintsev’s masterpiece appeared on DVD, with restored video and audio, is absolutely thrilling. To my knowledge, this is the first digitally restored copy of the film. We have to thank Russian Cinema Council (RUSCICO) for preparing this two-disc release; RUSCICO provides many high quality films, both Russian classics for the international audience, as well as foreign masterpieces for the Russian public.

The most important achievement of this release is the quality of the film’s digital remastering. The video allows the viewer to fully appreciate Kozintsev’s use of light: the play of shadows in richly contrasted black and white images, the gloomy northern landscapes of the Estonian shore where the shooting took place; all the visual effects serve to create the very atmosphere of ‘Denmark, the prison’. However, to be objective, I should note that some indoor scenes became slightly over-contrasted after the remastering, which made the actors’ faces gleam like torches.

The variety of audio tracks in the DVD is amazing. They include two original Russian tracks (a mono and a DD 5.1 remix), plus English and French two-voiced (male and female) voice-overs, encoded in six-channel Dolby. The quality of the DD remix is very high and allows audiences to really enjoy the powerful score of Shostakovich.

The choice of subtitles is even more impressive. They are available in Russian, English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian. Moreover, it is possible to watch the movie with both the primary and secondary subtitles simultaneously (the secondary sub is placed on the top of the screen); a handy feature for international audiences. Nevertheless, when I tried to listen to the English voice-over translation, I had my first disappointment. The volumes of the translation and the original audio track are misbalanced. Normally, the voiceover is supposed to be louder than the original sound so that one can actually hear the translation, but in this DVD, it is not. As a result, the tracks overlap, producing an indecipherable mumble.

Another annoyance regarding voice-over translation is that the actors reading the English text are definitely not native speakers, hence the unclear pronunciation and sometimes unnatural intonation. In addition to this, one of the dubbing actors made a funny mistake and somehow exchanged the last two words in Hamlet’s sentence. The phrase ‘Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!’ became ‘Thou wretched, rash, intruding farewell… Fool!’ In that sense, the French voice-over version was much better.

Special features

At first impression the DVD offers plenty of special features on both discs: interviews with the director Grigori Kozintsev and the leading actor Innokenti Smoktunovsky, Shakespeare’s biography, filmographies, photo albums, etc. This list was one of the reasons why I rushed to order the DVD from Russia. The material is quite unique and not easily accessible, especially in digital format. Let us see the extras in detail.

1. A very concise biography of William Shakespeare, text version.

2. ‘Making the film’– A short video (2:44 min.) about the making of the movie, which was probably an original TV news report. The report shows some actors preparing for the film, an episode from the rehearsal of the Mousetrap scene, and the director instructing the actors–not very informative but still an interesting video.

3. Filmographies, text version. Lists:Grigori Kozintsev, director; Dmitri Shostakovich, composer; Jonas Gritsius, director of photography, and Yevgeni Yenej, art director (called here a ‘production designer’).

4. Photo albums. The first one is called ‘Hamlet: Unity of a Multiplicity’ [sic], (13:39). This album contains a collection of portraits and photos of actors who performed Hamlet in theatre and cinema, with names and dates. The second album presents the stills from the film (2:16 min). beat the risk of sounding critical, I must nevertheless add that most of the images are of a poor quality, obviously scanned and not very well digitally processed. Both albums are accompanied by the score of Shostakovich from the film.

5. Interviews with Kozintsev and Smoktunovsky (3:19), probably made for a TV program. This is the most interesting video among the extras.

6. A Sixteen-second video where Smoktunovsky receives the award on the Moscow Cinema Festival.

7. Filmographies of the main ten actors of the movie, text version.

8. ‘The World of ‘Hamlet’ [sic]– another photo album about the illustrative material of Hamlet in different epochs (2:35). Surprisingly, there is no commentary available; no dates, no names. The viewer can only guess who painted this or that picture and what exactly is depicted there.

9. Two more photo albums: Photo gallery with some pictures from the movie sets (1:17) and the sketches (20 images) [by Yevgeni Yenej]. Again, most images are poorly remastered, the photos and sketches are not commented upon, and there is no information on their creator(s).

10. ‘Coming soon on DVD’. Here RUSCICO presents six other films in their series of cinema adaptations. The trailers are: Anna KareninaThe English translation of the Russian classic is of course Anna Karenin (as Anna Karenine in French), but the wrong spelling of the name has unfortunately become a sort of bad tradition.  (1967, dir. Aleksandr Zarkhi), War and Peace (1968, dir. Sergei Bondarchuk), King Lear (1969, dir. Grigori Kozintsev), Ashik Kerib (1988, dir. Sergei Paradjanov), The Lady with the Little Dog (1960, dir. Iosif Kheifits), and A Cruel Romance (1984, dir. Eldar Ryazanov).

An interesting feature of these trailers is that most of them are original, made during the respective periods. Anna Karenine, for example, is a Sovexportfilm production, with intertitles in French. The trailers are definitely worth seeing as artefacts of the past, but unfortunately we encounter some technical problems in this section, as well. Some trailers have English and/or French subtitles, some are excuted poorly, and some have absolutely no language support at all. In the trailer of The Lady with the Little Dog, for example, there were supposed to be some intertitles, but the text failed to appear on the screen, leaving the background blank.

Final remarks

Apart from the film itself, none of the other material in the DVD is restored, and the quality of the sound, especially in the interviews, leaves much room for improvement. Also, the lack of commentary almost nullifies the value of the visual data, making the DVD quite viewer-unfriendly. Of course, none of these details are of paramount importance, but they do show the attitude of the producers.

In conclusion, I may say that the good impression from the film was plagued by the unprofessionalism with which the special features section was handled. The only question I had after having watched the extras was: Who are they made for? Obviously not for scholars, because the producers did not even pretend to provide any (scientific or other) commentary and/or sources. Maybe the special features were targeted at ‘ordinary’ viewers then? But tons of uncommented images fail to tell much about the movie and only evoke more and more questions. In other words, the presentation of the extras needs a more systematic approach and much more attention. I only hope that the RUSCICO producers will be more audience-oriented when making their coming ‘extended feature’ releases. But for the film itself, speaking in Claudius’s words, ‘our thanks’.