Whistling in the Graveyard? Or why did the Communists make four films of one Shakespeare play in four decades?

Par Ronan Paterson
Publication en ligne le 18 décembre 2018


In the former Soviet Union, the plays of Shakespeare were more popular than anywhere else in the world. Theatres all over that vast country produced frequent performances of the comedies and the tragedies. But in the cinema, although a number of Shakespeare films were made by Soviet film makers, with a very few exceptions the plays chosen were the comedies. This is completely at odds with the filming of Shakespeare elsewhere in the world, where the vast majority of films was based upon the tragedies. One play in particular was filmed more frequently than all the others. Much Ado About Nothing was filmed three times in twenty-three years in Russia, and when a fourth film, made in East Germany is added, Much Ado About Nothing on its own represents a significant proportion of the Shakespeare output of the former Soviet Bloc. Why was Much Ado About Nothing so popular? Why not Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It? The author examines the 1956 and 1973 films of Mnogo Shuma Iz Nichego, the 1964 film Viel Lärm Um Nichts and the 1983 version Lyubovyu Za Lyubov and tries to explain why this one play above all others should exert such a fascination for Soviet Bloc film makers.

En Union Soviétique, les pièces de Shakespeare furent plus célébrées que nulle part ailleurs au monde. Des théâtres situés sur toute l’étendue de ce vaste pays montaient fréquemment les comédies et les tragédies. Mais au cinéma, bien qu’il y ait eu certains films d’après des pièces de Shakespeare, à de rares exceptions près, les pièces choisies furent les comédies. Cela allait à l’encontre des choix filmiques dans le reste du monde où la grande majorité des films étaient les tragédies. Une pièce en particulier fut filmée plus que d’autres, Much Ado About Nothing. En Russie, il y eut trois films de Much Ado en vingt-trois ans, et lorsqu’un quatrième film, venant de l’Allemagne de l’Est, fut fait, Much Ado représenta alors une proportion significative de la production shakespearienne de l’ancien Bloc Soviétique. Pourquoi cette pièce a-t-elle été choisie ? Et non pas Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream ou As You Like It ? L’auteur examine les films soviétiques de 1956 et 1973, le film est-allemand de 1983 ainsi que la version russe de 1983 et cherche à expliquer pourquoi cette pièce-ci a tant fasciné les producteurs du Bloc Soviétique.


Texte intégral

1In 1966, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, commemorated two years before, a collection of articles was published in Russia, in English. Entitled Shakespeare In the Soviet Union, and edited by Roman Samarin and Alexander Nikolyukin, it explored the relationship between an English writer of the Renaissance period and the modern day Soviet Union. In the Preface, Roman Samarin says:

in April 1964 the whole of the Soviet Union celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth both as a great occasion for the whole world and as our own special occasion, a red letter day in the calendar of a country in which Shakespeare has truly found a second home1

2Others have made similar claims before, such as Schlegel, one of the authors of the most widely studied translations into German, the 19th Century Schlegel / Tieck whose purported claim of the author as “ganz unser” is quoted in literally hundreds of texts, if only sketchily attributed. But in evidence of his claim Roman Samarin cites millions of copies of Shakespeare’s works sold, in twenty-eight of the languages of the Soviet Union, as well as new translations, editions in English, and notably hundreds of productions of the plays in theatres all over that vast country, leaving every other country, including that of the writer’s birth, languishing in its wake.2

3Shakespeare had been revered in Russia long before the October Revolution. From the first translations – whether one accepts in primary position Alexander Sumarakov’s heavily adapted Hamlet of 1748, Nicolai Karamzin’s much more faithful prose version of Julius Caesar in 1787, or even Catherine the Great’s 1786 version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, (entitled This is What it Means to Have a Buckbasket and Linen), – the Stratford author has been admired, imitated and debated by scholars, students, actors, and writers. But this in no way guaranteed acceptance after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Artists of one kind or another had numbered among some of the most fervent supporters of the Revolution, and the period immediately following the disappearance of the Old Regime was enlivened by a positive flowering of new, experimental, exciting art, writers, painters, poets and performers sought to reflect a new society bursting out of the restrictions of Tsarist times. The fate of Shakespeare, along with many other writers, hung in the balance for a time. In fact, “some extremists, especially in the early years, questioned his very right to survival and asserted that writers of the old order would have no place in a classless community, which would require only classless literature, produced by its own writers free of the ballast of bygone days”.3 Shakespeare had powerful supporters, however. In the first instance he had always the approval of the fathers of Communism, Marx and Engels. Marx, for example entertained a “belief that Launce and his dog was [sic] worth more than all German comedies put together”4 and Engels wrote to Marx that “there is more life and reality in the first scene of The Merry Wives of Windsor than in the whole of German literature”.5 While these comments were part of private correspondences rather than considered public utterances, later Soviet critics frequently quoted them reverently as the opinions of the founding fathers. The same was true of the piece that Karl Marx wrote in which he quoted liberally from Timon of Athens in On the Power of Money.6 Perhaps it is not of primary significance, but it is at least an irony that Merry Wives of Windsor and Timon of Athens were the two plays which Catherine the Great had used as the basis for her adaptations, spreading the influence of Shakespeare in Russia under the Tsars.

4As well as the posthumous influence of Marx and Engels, Shakespeare also received more immediate support from the Revolutionary poet Alexander Blok, who was one of those put in charge of the theatre in Leningrad when it re-opened in 1918. He ensured that Shakespeare was represented in the repertoire, in the first season by Much Ado About Nothing, and in following seasons by Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, all within four years. Shakespeare was also defended by the foremost literary figure in Bolshevik circles, Maxim Gorky. Gorky was a crucial figure in the acceptance of the great writers of the past, and his views coincided with those of Lenin and Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar for Education. Lenin came from a cultured middle-class background, and his tastes in the arts were fairly conservative, but while he was supportive, the most important figure in keeping Shakespeare in a position of prominence was Lunacharsky. He was himself a writer and critic and had published a chapter on Bacon and Shakespeare’s Characters in 1934.7 Henry Chamberlin, an American journalist who was present in Moscow in the days after the Revolution, said that “credit is generally accorded him for preserving the old classical theatres from collapse under the first shock of the Revolution”.8 With such support Shakespeare’s place was assured.

5Throughout Russia the Civil War raged, one of the most vicious in history, but to the Communist government art and culture remained of fundamental importance. Theatres continued to produce plays, artists continued to create and exhibit, writers continued to publish. Trains and steamboats covered the enormous country bringing art (at the service of the Revolution) to corners of the former Russian Empire which had been starved of such opportunities before. Amongst the art forms one was particularly favoured, as offering strong propagandist advantages, not merely in content but as a representation of the new, modern, progressive technologies which would bring a better life to the workers and peasants. Lenin said to Lunacharsky “of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important”9 and the new government set about spreading cinema to the farthest reaches of the country. This cinefication of the Soviet Union was a huge project and was indeed only really approaching completion by the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War in 1941. As well as opening cinemas in towns and cities, party stalwarts bounced motorcycles across rutted dirt roads bringing kerosene powered projectors and scratched and worn prints of films to villages and hamlets. Initially they were determined to show the population the leaders of the country in far-away Moscow, and to use the medium to bind together the many disparate peoples of the largest country in the world into one nation.10 But in order to get them to come to see the propaganda, the government recognised that it was essential to offer the populace entertainment as well. While the definition of entertainment from the perspective of the audiences was similar to that of audiences anywhere else, the definition of entertainment from the perspective of the Soviet authorities included more classics of world literature than might have been expected in a Western country. This had been a feature of Russian film making before the revolution. Because Russia had entered the realm of cinema a little later than some other countries “Russian film skipped the entire period of tricks and chases which formed the basis of all other key national cinemas, and started by trying to match the success of the film d’art.”11 While Russian audiences tended to vote with their feet in favour of foreign films, their tickets paid for the making of home grown movies which contained amongst the output adaptations of not only Russian but also other European classics.

6Under Stalin the climate changed radically from the early days of the Revolution. Neither Lenin nor Lunacharsky had been great enthusiasts for the more experimental forms of expression. Lenin believed that artists should serve the needs of propaganda, and that the masses could not understand non-representative forms of art.12 But towards the end of the 20s, as the Soviets brought more aspects of life under ideological control, the sort of art which could be sanctioned became more and more prescribed. Stalin, as the new ruler, took a close interest in the artistic life of the Soviet Union, and he had strong opinions about what the proletariat needed from art. He was passionately interested in cinema. He entertained unshakeable convictions as to its value for political purposes, but he also enjoyed movies, and watched many in private screenings which he did not allow the Soviet population to see. He took a keen personal interest in films, and himself read the scripts for potential movies and personally “suggested” improvements as he saw them. But at this point censorship, which had existed previously under the Soviet regime, became far more comprehensive and far-reaching. Stalin’s regime took complete control of what the population could or could not see, and anyone hoping to make a movie in Soviet Russia, or after the Great Patriotic War anywhere else under Russian occupation or domination, would have to accord with Soviet criteria.

7What those criteria were to be soon became very unambiguously defined. It was at the Soviet Writer’s Congress in 1934 that the doctrine of Social Realism was really spelled out. At this conference Maxim Gorky, Andreï Zdhanov, Karl Radek, Nicolaï Bukharin, A.I. Stetsky, and others, spoke on the subject, and from this point onwards Social Realism, which was already prescribed, became doctrine and policy, and deviation from it was proscribed. Zhdanov, the Secretary of the Party’s Central Committee and a crucial figure in the history of Bolshevism, opened the conference, and set out the idea:

“Truth and historical concreteness of artistic portrayal must be combined with the task of ideologically transforming working people and educating them in the spirit of socialism. We call this method of writing Socialist Realism”.13

8It is interesting, although perhaps surprising, in the light of Western perceptions of Renaissance drama as a heightened, poetic rather than realistic form, that Shakespeare was given central eminence at the conference, a large portrait of him dominating the conference hall, “physical proof that on the 370th anniversary of his birthday Shakespeare had been assimilated into the ranks of Soviet writers”.14 It is unlikely today that Shakespeare would be claimed as a Realist writer, Socialist or otherwise, but with the active support of Marxist historians and critics, who saw in Shakespeare a chronicler of the transition from the feudal world to the next historical phase, that of the emergent Bourgeoisie, writers of the Communist regime were firmly claiming him as one of their own.15

9This was also a time of enormous change in the cinema. The arrival of sound had a huge impact. In Russia the process of getting silent projectors to the far-flung reaches of Siberia was still ongoing, and there were many problems in abandoning one of the advantages of silent cinema, the ability to play equally well to the speakers of the many different languages of the Soviet Union. Initially there were only two cinemas in the entire country capable of accommodating the new sound equipment, and indeed the Soviet film industry continued to make silent versions of their films in parallel to the sound versions for a number of years after the arrival of talking pictures. There had been many silent versions of Shakespeare on screen. Judith Buchanan talks of three hundred or so, but it was in America that the first spoken Shakespeare appeared on film, in MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929.16 In this movie, a collection of musical numbers and sketches designed to show the abilities of MGM’s stable of stars, Norma Shearer and John Gilbert, played the so-called “Balcony” scene from Romeo and Juliet as part of a sketch.17 It was almost immediately followed by John Barrymore performing a speech by Richard of Gloucester from 3 Henry VI as part of the equivalent showcase movie from Warner’s, Show of Shows (1929). The same year, Mary Pickford’s production company released a version of The Taming of the Shrew starring her real-life husband Douglas Fairbanks as Petruchio and herself as Katherine in what is the first feature-length sound film based upon a play by Shakespeare. Despite such a stellar pairing in the leads the film failed.18 There were two more spectacularly unsuccessful attempts to film Shakespeare in sound movies before the Second World War: Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and Paul Czinner’s As You Like It (1936), but these performed very badly. All three of those films were versions of Comedies by Shakespeare, but all failed. It was only when Laurence Olivier filmed Henry V at the end of that War that a Shakespeare film in the sound era achieved success with either critics or audiences. Since then in the West almost all of the films made of Shakespeare’s plays, and the highest proportion of those which have been successful, have been either Tragedies or Histories.

10Olivier’s film was a considerable success in the period immediately after the War. At a time when there were very few pictures being made in mainland Europe, the British and American industries were filling continental screens, and Henry V was well received in Germany. Its influence can be seen in the first Shakespeare-related film to be made in Communist Europe, Georg Wildhagen’s Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1950). The film, which is based on Otto Nicolai’s musical version of the play, shares with Olivier’s film a metatheatrical framework. Henry V opens with a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, gradually and in stages transforming into a realistic landscape for the Battle of Agincourt. Lustigen Weiber begins with a company of strolling players coming to town, setting up and beginning their performance in the marketplace, but soon the audience is taken away from the stage to a recreation of a more realistic country town of the seventeenth century. Interestingly enough, the Nazis had also made a film of Merry Wives, but Wildhagen’s version is far better. It was popular in East Germany and ranks ninth in the all-time box office chart for the DDR.19 It was unusual at the time because it was a comedy. In the West, in the next twenty years, Olivier followed Henry V with Hamlet (1947) and later Richard III (1955), Orson Welles made Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1955), Joseph Mankiewicz made Julius Caesar (1953), Renato Castellani made Romeo and Juliet (1954). Apart from textually faithful versions of Shakespeare’s plays there were also a number of adaptations, usually of the tragedies, such as Joe Macbeth (1955), A Double Life (1947) which was a variant on Othello, Les Amants de Verone (1949), Der Rest ist Schweigen, a 1959 film based on Hamlet, and in Japan Kurosawa’s Komunoso jô (1957), his Samurai take on Macbeth. Behind the Iron Curtain, the Communists made a number of Shakespeare films, but almost all of them were comedies. This reflected a trend in theatre production which had been evident during the Purges of the pre-War period.

11The role of the Comedies under Stalin’s Terror is a complex one. They had always been popular in Russia, and indeed Gorki had held them up as an example to be emulated by young Soviet writers, praising “particularly the gay heroes and lovely heroines of his comedies with their dauntless frankness in the face of their enemies and their readiness to stand up for their beliefs, if necessary by force of arms”.20 During the 30s, artists, actors and writers were being persecuted, exiled and executed along with everyone else, and the fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night and a trip to the Lyublianka was ever present. Even Vladimir Mayakovsky, one of the earliest and most vociferous of the artists to support the Revolution, met his death ostensibly by suicide but under the most dubious of circumstances. To express a controversial sentiment in public, or even sometimes in private, could be fatal.

Yet precisely at the same time theatres, motion pictures, vaudeville, music and painting were producing the kind of art that radiated unshakeable optimism, sunlit joie de vivre. The merriest musical comedies, the most cheerful marches and the most colourful paintings were being created. Never in the history of the Russian theatre were so many classical comedies produced as in the thirties and forties.21

12It is easy, with hindsight, to represent this as a kind of denial, a whistling in the graveyard, but “significantly the authors of these works were neither fanatics nor self-servers. Huge masses of people accepted this art with great enthusiasm”.22 Shakespeare and other classics, and in particular the Comedies, were mounted in hundreds of productions all over the Soviet Union. It is glib to suggest that the tragedies asked too many awkward questions in the prevailing political climate. It must first be stated that many of the artists in the Soviet Union were filled with enthusiasm for the new state, and saw their attempt to build a newer, fairer world as something requiring their enthusiastic help and support. When Alexei Popov, one of a number of superb Soviet directors, mounted his legendary production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Central Red Army theatre in 1937, he wrote “No army in the world pursues such lofty humanistic goals as our Red Army. Shakespeare’s humanism is intimately understandable to our soldiers and commanders”.23 It is hard for readers from a more cynical age to keep a straight face, but Alexey Bartoshevich is quoting a 1940 version of Alexei Popov’s article. When virtually the same article was republished in 1966 in the collection referred to above, edited by Roman Samarin, it is interesting to note that this sentiment had been removed. Alexey Bartoshevich goes on to make the point that many artists shared “the same social illusions and faith in the great utopia as the overwhelming majority of the people”.24 Not that there is anything wrong with Shakespeare’s Comedies. They are not inferior to, or less than, his tragedies. There were artists who were only too happy to work on plays by great writers, in completely subsidised theatres, and to use those plays, approved by Marx, Engels, Gorki and others, to mount work of significance. But there is another answer too. While some artists undoubtedly fitted into this category, others operated in a different way. For centuries artists have used classical plays, themes and stories in an Aesopian fashion.

13Theatre in itself is ideally suited to Aesopian meanings. A person can say one thing but clearly demonstrate that he or she means something entirely different. The visual can counterpoint or undermine the verbal. In Shakespeare’s own day, the plays he wrote were subject to vetting by the Master of the Revels, and censored. But what the audience in the Globe saw was different from that which had been passed by Edmund Tilney. Where Shakespeare almost invariably set his plays at a safe distance, either geographically or temporally, what the groundlings saw was a play dressed and performed in the manner and theatrical style of contemporary London. Thus, a play-text to which no objection could be raised, set as it might be in Ancient Rome or far-off Cyprus, about long-dead persons in a context very different from the contemporary, became for its audience, when enacted by Shakespeare’s actors, a play which looked and sounded like a depiction of the world of the city around them. Generally speaking this worked, but not always. Sometimes it could backfire. When the Earl of Essex requested and paid for a performance of Richard II the day before his uprising, (7th February 1601) everyone including Queen Elizabeth herself recognised the parallel being drawn, and Augustine Phillips had a very uncomfortable interview with the authorities before eventually the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were cleared of collusion in Essex’s Rebellion.25 But the telling of one story and its interpretation in a different manner by those predisposed to look for hidden meanings is as old as theatre itself, dating back to the time of Aristophanes. In medieval Europe, the Italian giulari and their descendants among the Commedia dell’ Arte troupes took things to another extreme when they performed in gramelot, an invented and improvised gibberish, which in performance conveyed meaning clearly without a single word being intelligible, and therefore actionable.

14In Russia, Aesopian literature and performance had been a central part of the artist’s armoury since the days of the Tsars. As Lev Loseff says, “Strictly speaking, from the era of Peter the Great on, the entire history of Russian literature is to a significant degree also the history of Russian censorship”.26 Audiences and readers had long been accustomed to reading Aesopian meanings, and artists to implanting them. Loseff defines Aesopian language as “a special literary system, one which allows interaction between author and reader at the same time that it conceals inadmissible [sic] content from the censor”.27 But the Soviet authorities were accustomed to seeking out such hidden messages. They were not naïve. They could understand the juxtaposition of images, and could find Aesopian messages frequently, even when they had not necessarily been intended. The paranoia of this time has been extensively described in works by Robert Conquest, Orlando Figes and others. But it is too easy for outsiders to lump artists together as either dissidents and rebels, or as apparatchiks, apologists, deniers or cowards. The threat of arrest, imprisonment, exile or death, was real and constant throughout this period, and if the European classical repertoire provided a valve for that society it is disingenuous to suggest that a lack of principle was all that lay behind the explosion of productions of Shakespeare’s comedies. The plays are complex, multi-faceted and challenging, as well as entertaining. No doubt for some artists it was a case of evasion and denial, but not for all. Some productions created at this time became epoch-framing. Alexei Popov’s Shrew, referred to above, became legendary in Russia, and was turned into a film as late as 1961.

15The first Russian Soviet Shakespeare films appeared in 1955. They appeared two years after the death of Stalin in 1953. Osborne suggests that their appearance was a sign of “The Thaw”, the brief period of the relaxation of some of the most stringent restrictions during Nikita Khrushchev’s time in power, but this is difficult to argue.28 In the period immediately following Stalin’s death, there was a power struggle behind closed doors, ending with Khrushchev’s ascension and the elimination of many of Stalin’s henchmen, such as Beria, the terrifying head of the KGB. The power struggle took time to produce its result, and it was only some time later that the effects became gradually more apparent. Although it took its popular name from a 1954 novel by Ilya Ehrenburg, The Thaw is generally considered to have begun with Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956.29 The return of exiles from the gulags, the denunciations of Stalinism, the opening up of Russia to foreign books, films and music, and the short period of liberalisation under Khrushchev, really took place after the speech in 1956. The first Soviet Shakespeare films, which took some time to shoot, edit, dub and release, appeared before the speech at the Party Congress. The opinion of most critics, such as Johnson, is that the first “Thaw films” did not appear until 1956.30

16The first Russian Shakespeare films were Yakov Frid’s version of Twelfth Night, Dvenadsataya Noch (1955), Sergei Yutkevich’s Otello (1955), and the 1956 Mnogo Shuma Iz Nichego, (Much Ado About Nothing) directed by Lev Zamkovoy There was one tragedy to two comedies, but by the time another tragedy was filmed anywhere in the Eastern Bloc there had been five films of the comedies in the meantime. Frid’s version of Twelfth Night is colourful, spectacular, generally well acted, and is a very commendable version of the play, with the delightful Klara Luchko as Viola/Caesario and also Sebastian. The Yutkevich Otello was a prize winner at Cannes in the year of its release, and was seen by many more people than Orson Welles’ Othello (1952), far better known today, but it was hamstrung on its commercial release in the West by a very inferior colour print and a soundtrack which was dubbed into English by voices who sounded like they were reading the phone book. It is a pity, because the film has many fine elements. In particular Andrei Popov, the son of theatre director Alexei, is excellent as Iago. These two were spectacular colour films, filmed amidst attractive Black Sea locations where the Soviets had sought to create a Russian Hollywood, with a climate and scenery to rival California, but with genuine historical buildings. These two were aimed not only at a Russian but also at an international market, but the third Soviet Shakespeare was very different. Mnogo Shuma Iz Nichego (1956) (another Much Ado) was filmed in black and white and recorded entirely in the studio. Based upon a theatrical production at the Vakhtangov Theatre, it stars Yuri Lyubimov and his then partner Lyudmila Tselikovskaya as Benedick and Beatrice. The two lived in an apartment which was something of a magnet for artists who were critical of the regime, such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Boris Pasternak. Yuri Lyubimov’s parents had been arrested under Stalin, and he himself was exiled and stripped of his citizenship later in his life. Lyudmilla Tselikovskaya had appeared in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible part 1 (1945) and had been nominated for the Stalin Prize for her performance, but Stalin himself intervened to cancel her nomination. The pair were a controversial couple, but they were both highly regarded by the public, who continued to support them despite official disapproval.

17That said, the film is uncontroversial.31 The play is given in a very straightforward rendition, so straightforward that the few Western writers who have noticed the movie dismiss it as a recording of the theatre production. In fact, this is not a meaningful distinction to draw. Mnogo Shuma (1956) is shot in the studio, as indeed were many films at that time. It is shot in a way that was still widespread twenty years later, when the BBC recorded all of Shakespeare’s plays. Although the BBC versions included occasional exterior shots (the first one, As You Like It, being filmed in 1978 at Glamis Castle in Scotland, of all places) most of them were filmed in a style which showed little or no development from the 1956 version. Theatrical productions of opera and ballet were being released by the Soviets at this time, as they sought an international audience (and foreign currency) through cultural exports. Mnogo Shuma (1956) is very different from those. The BBC versions are often classified as TV movies, and there is no reason not to classify Zamkovoy’s film in the same way. The central performances, particularly that of Yuri Lyubimov, who became a highly influential director in later years, are good, and while the film is both static and dated it is by no means insignificant.

18Following Mnogo Shuma (1956) the Czech animator Jiri Trnka released a delightful version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1959, and Alexei Popov’s legendary rendering of Petrucchio in The Taming of the Shrew (Ukroschenie Stroptivoy) was turned into a film in 1961 by his former assistant Sergei Kosolov. In 1964, the next Russian Shakespeare was Grigori Kozintsev’s Gamlet, (Hamlet) highly regarded and widely known in the West. This film is one of the only Soviet Shakespeares to be widely known outside Russia, another being the same director’s Korol Lir (1974), but it is by no means typical of the Soviet approach to Shakespeare. In the same year in East Germany another version of Much Ado was released, directed by Martin Hellborg as Viel Lärm Um Nichts (1964). This version starred Rolf Ludwig as Benedick, and Christel Bodenstein as Beatrice. Bodenstein achieved cult status in the West following her performance as the Princess in East German television’s Das Singende, Klingende Baűmchen in 1957, a series which still has a significant cult following sixty years later. The film is primarily shot in the studio, in colour, with occasional stock footage shots and a few shots with body doubles obviously filmed at a different time and place from the rest. The film takes some trouble to underline the Sicilian setting, including ominous rumblings from Mt Etna, but the costumes are a strange eclectic mixture. The soldiers wear uniforms which suggest an Italian operetta, with short capes as a period detail (although which period is perhaps moot), Leonato and Antonio wear 19th-century costumes, and the women wear everything from medieval dresses to 1960s frocks.

19There are some good performances, although the direction is somewhat leaden, and contains one or two unusual choices. Christel Bodenstein is lovely, and she and Rolf Ludwig, a Swedish-born actor who made his career predominantly in East Germany, play off each other well, but Martin Hellborg is sometimes unable to leave well enough alone. In the first bantering exchange between Beatrice and Benedick, he feels compelled to underline Beatrice’s put down by pinwheeling the camera on Benedick’s face, which is not the feeling the scene actually ends with in the original play. The other characters give good support: Don John, Conrad and Borachio are less cardboard than in many productions, and Claudio and Hero do well enough, but a considerable strength of the film is the portrayal of Dogberry and the Watch. Gerhardt Bienert as “Holzappfel”, the Dogberry character, is wonderful, giving a finely nuanced performance of a petty bureaucrat instantly recognisable in the DDR, and allowing the pedantic and bombastic officer a considerable warmth as well. In this he is amply supported by Rudolph Ulrich as the Verges character Schleewein, and by the extremely tall and extremely short Eberhardt Wintzen and Fred Delmare, respectively, as two of the Watch, who make a wonderfully comic contrast as a double act. The masked ball is entertained by a troupe of travelling players, who perform balletic sequences covering many of Shakespeare’s other plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and The Merry Wives of Windsor,which allow for some glamour and some spectacle but add little to the story. The film is somewhat slow, but the performances make up for a lot. Even so, when the next Soviet Shakespeare film was released, in 1973, it was once again a version of Much Ado, the third in seventeen years to be released behind the Iron Curtain.

20Mnogo Shuma Iz Nichego (1973) could not be more different from the preceding versions. Filmed in 70mm Sovscope, the movie is beautifully shot on location, the large frame filled with colour, movement and incident. The locations, along the Black Sea coast, are very photogenic, the costumes are lavish, the period setting being broadly speaking a medieval one. The frame is filled with horses, Borzois, doves, peacocks and a young fawn, which wanders tamely throughout Leonato’s house at various points in the film. There is a large cast of extras, and no expense has been spared in making the film. The stars, Galina Loginova and Konstantin Rajkin, give the production a more contemporary feel. Konstantin Rajkin is known primarily as a comedian, and he is far from conventionally handsome. His Benedick is played more broadly than the character is usually portrayed. Galina Loginova has a resolutely 70s hairstyle throughout, and her costume at the ball owes something to contemporaneous fashion.32 There is a lot of music in the film, including a number of excuses for dance numbers, and when Benedick and Beatrice separately realise their love for each other, they dance their feelings out in an almost frenzied fashion more reminiscent of a 70s party.

21The director, Samson Samsonov, has introduced one excellent device. The gulling of the two lovers, where they overhear other characters talking of each one’s love for the other, takes place during the ball. All the scenes are interwoven into one long sequence, and instead of taking place over days they take place in a crowded, noisy party, where people are coming and going, and the partially heard information is all the more convincing. This is a successful device, and the whole feel of the evening, with people slightly drunk, not quite sure who is talking to or about whom, works well. The whole event takes on a rather bacchanal atmosphere and gives plenty of opportunity for spectacle. The story is trimmed down, to make the film fit in with the programming requirements of the Soviet cinema at that time, where films had to come in at or under 90 minutes, and the subtleties and nuances of the plot are occasionally sacrificed in favour of music and spectacle. The saddest loss is a large part of the Dogberry/ Watch storyline. Pavel Pavlenko plays Dogberry as an old soldier, as indeed are all of the watch, and this gives a poignancy and a dignity to the characters which suggests that, given more scenes to work with, they could have given memorable performances. The capture of Conrad and Borachio takes place literally in a heap of bodies. After the bacchanal referred to above, the two wake up on top of a heap of drunken bodies, and talk openly of their villainy, not realising that the Watch are underneath them, listening to every word. The whole film ends in a flurry of folk dancing.

22There was to be another film based upon Much Ado, ten years later. Tatyana Berezantseva directed a version entitled Lyubovyu Za Lyubov (1983), which roughly translates as Love for Love. While the 1973 version was Shakespeare played to a slight extent as if it were musical comedy, the 1983 version goes much further down this road. In fact, the plot is curtailed to allow for time for extraneous musical numbers from well-known singers, Yevgeny Nesterenko and Alla Pugacheva. It is disappointing that the story is reduced to such an extent because Larisa Udovichenko and Leonid Yarmolnik, as Beatrice and Benedick respectively, are potentially the best pairing in any of the film versions, but sadly their opportunities to let the wit sparkle are cut away to almost nothing. There are some good moments in spite of this, and the studio-bound production has nice costumes and lots of spectacle, but this is at best a pedestrian effort. By 1983 the Soviet cinema was suffering from diminishing resources, and the director, who had not directed a film for nearly twenty years, was at the tail end of her career.

23Thus, in the Eastern Bloc countries, the number of films based upon Shakespeare’s Comedies far outnumbered those based upon the Tragedies by a ratio of three to one. At the same time (1950-1989) the rest of the world was producing dozens of films based upon Shakespeare, with a ratio in the opposite direction of nine to one, Tragedies to Comedies.33 Out of those Soviet films, four were versions of Much Ado About Nothing. Immediately this raises a series of questions as to why this should be. There was no film of As You Like It, no live action version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, no Love’s Labour’s Lost.34 Despite the success of Yakov Frid’s Twelfth Night there was no remake. Much Ado was singled out for special favour amongst all the plays which Shakespeare wrote.

24There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. The Soviets wanted to film versions of the Comedies. Some of those Comedies presented greater difficulties for Soviet film makers than others. In filming, for example, Twelfth Night, the director has to make a creative choice. Identical twins of opposite sexes do not exist in nature. Therefore, the director must either cast two actors who are not identical and show them in close-up as being non-identical while everyone around them comments on how indistinguishable they are (as Trevor Nunn did in the English film of 1996) or cast one actor to play both Viola and Sebastian. If this is the choice made, there follows a further decision. This is whether to cast that actor with a man or a woman. Frid chose a woman, and Klara Luchko is delightful as Viola, wonderful as Caesario and adequate as Sebastian until the point where Sebastian and Olivia are about to kiss. At this point the camera seeks out a flock of birds flying past, rather than show two women kissing. In Soviet Russia the idea of two men kissing on screen would be even more questionable. As You Like It, dealing as it does with usurpers, exiled dissidents and gender fluidity, was never filmed; the effete pleasures of cloistered intellectuals in Love’s Labour’s Lost never attracted a film maker; and although the animated version from Czechoslovakia is beautifully realised the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream fitted uncomfortably into a world of Socialist Realism.

25This may be in part an answer as to the attraction of Much Ado. Gorki, as quoted earlier, praised particularly “the gay heroes and lovely heroines of his comedies with their dauntless frankness in the face of their enemies and their readiness to stand up for their beliefs, if necessary by force of arms”.35 Beatrice epitomises that. In Much Ado, the boys are boys and the girls are girls. There are no twins. There are no fairies. Love triumphs, virtue is rewarded, and there are opportunities for celebration, for music and for spectacle. Of all of Shakespeare’s Comedies this play is the easiest to adapt into the world of Socialist Realism.

26Socialist Realism made other demands of Shakespeare productions. For Marxist theatre and film critics, Shakespeare’s importance was rooted in a specific time and place, a particular point of historical and political transition. This allowed such a writer, a member of the rural middle classes, to be held up beyond criticism. He lived at a time when the old feudal order was dissolving, and the aristocracy was being replaced as the dynamic force in society by the bourgeoisie. Shakespeare lived at the birth of capitalism. But the historical process of evolution from feudalism to capitalism to the dictatorship of the proletariat was documented, observable and part of an inevitable historical progression which would end up reaching supposed perfection in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and allied nations.

27Socialist Realism had been compelled to deal with a number of other difficulties in assimilating Shakespeare. Whatever else he is, Shakespeare is not a Realist playwright: he is a dramatic poet, and his plays are often set in a world of ghosts, fairies, gods and goddesses, monstrous creatures, witches and sorcerers. But Soviet critics focussed more upon Shakespeare’s importance as a humanist, as the foremost commentator on his own time, and of the ways in which rulers are portrayed and power relations depicted. His importance is as the observer of a point in the history of the transition of power between the feudal aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie and depends upon him being located at that precise point in time. The value of Shakespeare is profound, but it depends upon him being firmly placed in that point of the “truth and historical concreteness” which Zhdanov mentions above.36 One thing that the differing shades of Soviet criticism had in common was a belief that to present Shakespeare in modern dress or in settings other than either his own time or those in which the plays were set was to render him meaningless. In opposition to the growing trends in England, Sweden or America, where modern dress Shakespeare was becoming commonplace, the Russians were saying that it was entirely wrong to put Shakespeare into other times and places. The Russian films of Much Ado do not, however loosely they realise that period. They all attempt Medieval or Renaissance settings. The East German film creates a kind of eclectic, vaguely period feeling, which would not have accorded with the pronouncements of Soviet critics like Mikhail Morozov, the doyen of Russian Shakespeareans.37

28But overall Much Ado About Nothing gave the Eastern Bloc film makers an opportunity to make movies based upon a wonderful play, a well-known and much loved classic, approved of by the founding fathers of Communism, a vehicle with good parts for star actors, which could accord with official strictures in an unthreatening way, without having to make political compromises, and enable those film makers to get their work in front of potential audiences of millions.


1  Roman Samarin and Alexander Nicoluykin (eds.), Shakespeare in the Soviet Union, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1966, p. 14.

2  Ibid, p. 7.

3  George Gibian, “Shakespeare in Soviet Russia”, Russian Review, vol. 11, n°1, 1952, p. 24.

4  Kark Marx, quoted in George Gibian, op. cit., p. 26.

5  Friedrich Engels, quoted in Alexander Shurbanov and Boika Sokolova (eds.), Painting Shakespeare Red: An East-European Appropriation, USA, Associated University Presses, 2001, p. 45.

6  Karl Marx, On the Power of Money, 1844, available: https ://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm

7  Anatoly Lunacharsky, On Literature and Art, (1934) available: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lunachar/1934/bacon-shakespeare.htm

8  Henry Chamberlin, https://www.marxists.org/archive/chamberlin-william/1929/soviet-russia/ch04.htm

9  Lenin, quoted in Richard Taylor and Derek Spring (eds.), Stalinism and Soviet Cinema, London, Routledge, 1993, p. ix.

10  The great advantage of the silent cinema was that there was no necessity to make different language versions of the films. Russia has more than a hundred spoken languages.

11  Yuri Tsivian, op. cit., p. 161.

12  Werner Haftmann, Painting in the 20th century, Vol I, transl. Ralph Manheim, London, 1965, p.196.

13  Andreï Zhdanov, quoted in A. Ostrovsky, “Shakespeare as a Founding Father of Socialist Realism”, in Irena Makaryk and Joseph G. Price (eds.), Shakespeare in the World of Communism and Socialism, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2013, p. 56.

14  A. Ostrovsky, idem.

15  Let Mikhail Morozov, the most widely read and cited of Soviet Shakespeare scholars serve as an example of this kind of criticism.

16  Judith Buchanan, 2009. Shakespeare on Silent Film: An Excellent Dumb Discourse, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 1.

17  Shakespeare never mentions a balcony but Act II scene 2 is almost universally referred to in this way.

18  Indeed, it failed so badly that Mary Pickford gave up the film business. The film was eventually re-released in the wake of the success of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of the same play, and in the end just about covered its costs forty years later.

19  Such figures must always be treated with caution, but it is a fun, lively musical, of a kind which was popular in East Germany, and allowing for such anomalies as busloads of miners being taken to see such films as cultural outings organised by The Party, in much the same way that parties of schoolchildren in the West are taken to see Shakespeare films which are part of the syllabus, it was shown widely and received a generally favourable response.

20  Maxim Gorki, 1932, quoted in Roman Samarin and Alexander Nicolyukin, op. cit., p. 12.

21  Alexey Bartoshevich, op. cit., p. 105.

22  Ibid.

23  Alexei Popov, quoted in Alexey Bartoshevich, op. cit., p. 107.

24  Alexey Bartoshevich, idem, p. 108.

25  For transcript of this interview see https://shakespearedocumented.folger.edu/exhibition/document/examination-augustine-phillips

26  Lev Loseff, On the Beneficence of Censorship: Aesopian Language in Modern Russian Literature, Munich, Otto Sagner, 1884, p. ix. Available at http://repository.kubon-sagner.de/vosoa/pdfx2/ats31_9783954794355.pdf

27  Ibid.

28  Laurie E. Osborne, “Filming Shakespeare in a Cultural Thaw: Soviet Appropriations of Shakespearean Treacheries in 1955-6”, Textual Practice, Vol. 9, No 2, London, Routledge, 1995, p. 325-347.

29  Ehrenburg’s book appeared in 1954 but was heavily criticised at the 2nd Congress of Soviet Writers that year. It sold out in a day (45,000 copies) but the official machinery of government was still vehemently opposed to such work for some time afterwards.

30  V. Johnson, “Russia After the Thaw” in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.), The Oxford History of World Cinema, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 641.

31  At that time, it was extremely difficult if not virtually impossible to make a controversial film in Russia. The cost of making a film is so high, access to resources strictly controlled, distribution entirely in the hands of the State. There was no other place from which to seek support for making a film in the Eastern Bloc than the State, which censored all scripts, monitored all productions, and only distributed those which had been approved.

32  Galina Loginova eventually left Russia, where she had been persecuted for marrying a foreigner, Serbian doctor Bogdan Jovovich. When she left Russia after the birth of her daughter her films were banned by the Soviet authorities. She eventually ended up in Los Angeles, where she originally worked as a cleaner, but later as an agent for her daughter, the current film star Milla Jovovich. She also subsequently undertook some acting roles. See https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0431363/bio?ref

33  In the Eastern Bloc there were nine comedies to three tragedies, in the rest of the world there were fifty-five films based upon the Tragedies and Histories (according to Pitcaithly’s Encyclopedia), to thirteen versions of the Comedies and four Tempests. There were also a number of television versions, such as the 1978 Twelfth Night directed by Viktor Khramov, which were so clearly theatrical productions recorded in the studio, showing scene changes and backstage areas, that they have not been included.

34  In addition to those films discussed above there was a 1978 Georgian version of Comedy of Errors, a TV movie entitled Komodiya Oshibok. [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=19422, accessed 11 January 2018.]

35  See footnote 20.

36  See footnote 13.

37  Mikhael Mikhaelovich Morozov (1897-1952).

Pour citer ce document

Par Ronan Paterson, «Whistling in the Graveyard? Or why did the Communists make four films of one Shakespeare play in four decades?», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], N°13 - 2018, Shakespeare en devenir, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=1498.

Quelques mots à propos de :  Ronan Paterson

Ronan Paterson has been an actor, director and producer, mounting or appearing in productions of Shakespeare’s plays all over the UK and in nine different European countries. Eventually he moved into the teaching of actors, directors and film makers. He has taught in Universities and conservatoires all over the UK and is currently Principal Lecturer in Performing Arts at Teesside University. A frequent speaker at conferences around the world he also organised the William Shakespeare: The NEXT 40 ...