The Second Dynasty (1613-1917)
Russia endured its Time of Troubles after the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584, leading ultimately to the end of the Ruriks and the founding of the Romanov Dynasty in 1613. The primary ruler of Russia between the two dynasties was Boris Godonov, who is better known today for the opera that bears his name than for the quality of his government. He was suspected in the murder of poor little Dmitri but there has never been verification. The first of the Romanov tsars was the grandfather of Peter the Great. Many more films have been made about the 300 years of the Romanovs than were made about the Rurik Dynasty, which lasted for over 600 years. With the crowning of Peter, and the founding of splendid St. Petersburg in 1703, Russia became avid for European culture.
Surprisingly, there is no Hollywood-style movie about the eccentric and highly ambitious Peter the Great. There is, however, a TV series of very high production values, filmed in Russia, starring Maximilian Schell as Peter. Hollywood made two films about Catherine the Great, who came to the throne following Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth. These are broad brushstrokes. Both of the Catherine movies are rigorously sanitized to better suit the dignity of their lead actresses, Marlena Dietrich and Catherine Zeta Jones. Each film follows Catherine in her years of youth and beauty until she gains the crown and reigns from 1762 to 1796. Neither film offers an adequate trailer. Like Marie Therasa of the Habsburgs and Queen Victoria of England, Catherine the Great became an embodiment of her times. Her cinematic legacy, from the century before the Revolution, reflects her love of grand ballrooms and great art. It was the belated Russian Renaissance. There are no mainstream movies showing the suffering of the common people while the aristocrats danced.
The 19th century in Russia is best remembered for the invasion by Napoleon in 1812. The remembering was done most notably by Count Leo Tolstoy whose novel, War and Peace (1869), stands for many as one of the world’s great works of literature, second only to his later Anna Karenina (1877). This was the end of the era, when a land-owning count could champion the rights of the peasantry (though certainly not in his best-known novel). Tolstoy’s literary compatriot, a novelist of comparable stature, was Feodor Dostoyevsky (1821-81), who has had less luck with the movies.
Peter the Great (1984) – TV Miniseries
Clocking at over six hours, this is the sweeping saga of Russia’s emergence into the modern world despite the fierce opposition of the majority of its populace. Lead roles are played largely by European actors. Beginning with the regency of Peter’s older sister, Sophia (Vanessa Redgrave), the stage is set for the flourishing of the Empire characterized by its obsession with the European model of Civilization. He is best known for founding the resplendent city of St. Petersburg in 1703. Peter (Maximilian Schell ) died sad and alone in 1725, and was followed on the throne by a series of remarkable female rulers through the end of the 18th century. No trailer is available.
War and Peace: Russian and American Versions
There are two easily available movie versions of Tolstoy’s magnum opus, War and Peace. One is American, in the best and worst sense, and the other is Russian, as it should be. Tolstoy’s original ran to 1,440 pages in the paperback edition. He employed what might be called a Ballroom and Battlefield motif in the writing, which is reflected in the title and even more graphically in the movies. It seems that anyone undertaking to film this work would have to sit down at a conference table and answer two initial questions: how much do you want to spend on the ballrooms and how far afield do you want to go for the battle locations? By today’s standards, the American version is too short and overpopulated with miscast movie stars: the Russian version is too long, of course.
Anna Karenina (1935 / 1948 / 2012)
Tolstoy’s most popular novel received two major movie treatments in the 20th century. The first starred Greta Garbo in 1935, and has every right to be called a classic, but it is very difficult to find. The second one featured Vivien Leigh in 1948, at the height of her fame in the decade after Gone with the Wind. Keira Knightly stars in a highly embellished new millennium Anna Karenina.
The Last Station (2009)
This is an exuberant biographical picture, which wisely choses to focus on the final year of Leo Tolstoy’s life. The central source of the exuberance is the author’s wife (played by Helen Mirren) who is a tornado of sexual, irrational, and vindictive energy. The beleaguered old man attempts to escape this bad weather and dies in an isolated railway station. The year is 1910, in the midst of revolutionary fervor in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Somehow in the mix, this film manages to create a summation of Tolstoy’s life and work as well as a metaphor of unstable times in Russia. No doubt there has been some embroidery from the filmmakers, but there is the ring of truth in this film.
Anton Chekhov gave the world four classic plays in the years spanning the turn of the century from 1894 to 1904, in which year he died of tuberculosis at the age of 44. He was revered in Moscow, worshipped in London, and over-analyzed in New York. The four profoundly Russian plays have not done well in the movies, but they endure in the West nonetheless as elegies to a lost world of aristocratic culture under siege by the legions of egalitarianism (a foretaste of the century to come). He was a friend to the older Tolstoy, who survived him by six years.