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Testimony - The Story of Shostakovich
Tony Palmer’s film about Shostakovich starring Ben Kingsley

Ben Kingsley ... Dmitri Shostakovich
Sherry Baines ... Nina Shostakovich
Magdalen Asquith ... Galya Shostakovich
Mark Asquith ... Maxim Shostakovich
Terence Rigby ... Joseph Stalin
Ronald Pickup ... Marshal Tukhachevsky
John Shrapnel ... Andre Zhdanov
Robert Reynolds ... Brutus
Vernon Dobtcheff ... Gargolovsky
Colin Hurst ... Stalin's Secretary
Joyce Grundy ... Stalin's Mother
Mark Thrippleton ... Young Stalin
Liza Goddard ... The English Humanist
Peter Woodthorpe ... Alexander Glazunov
Robert Stephens ... Vsevolod Meyerhold
William Squire ... Khatchaturyan
Murray Melvin ... The Film Editor
Robert Urquhart ... The Journalist
Christopher Bramwell ... Vanya
Brook Williams ... H.G. Wells
Marita Phillips ... Madam Lupinskaya
Mitzi Mueller ... The Nun
Tracey Spence ... Tsvetayeva
Akhmatova ... Dorota Rae
American Commentator ... Ed Bishop
Christian Woman ... Margaret Fingerhut
Produced by
Michael Henry ... executive producer
Grahame Jennings ... executive producer
Michael Kustow ... executive producer
Maureen Murray ... associate producer
Tony Palmer ... producer
Solomon Volkov ... consultant
Writing credits: Tony Palmer and David Rudkin
Director: Tony Palmer
Region Code: 0; PAL only; Stereo; Anamorphic 16:9; Panavision in black and white, digitally remastered by the director
Isolde Films: 1987 and 2006



Tony Palmer’s 2½ hour film relates the life story of Shostakovich principally by reference to his relationship, distant and occasionally fearfully close with Stalin. Contact here includes not just face to face encounters but generally the effect of Stalin upon Shostakovich’s mind and music. These two figures stand at centre-stage with everyone else as bit-players. Even after Stalin’s death the USSR’s Grand Marshal haunts and sometimes taunts the composer - conscience and torturer. Shostakovich is also portrayed as wondering if after all Stalin did know best what was for the good of the Soviet Union.

The acting is uniformly gritty and full of stern conviction. There aren’t many laughs in this and those that you may encounter are grisly. The effect is enhanced by the graininess of the black and white film and the unhurried pacing. Ben Kingsley plays the sombre and earnest young composer and the passage of the years is well handled especially in the period post-Stalin from 1953 until the composer’s death in 1975. While it hardly seem to matter, Kingsley cannot convince us that the callow composer lionised after the premiere of the First Symphony is sixteen years old. Otherwise the locations and the people have the correct specific gravity. Just look at the cannily chosen locations (Wigan, Bradford, Sheffield, Wembley Stadium) and be surprised that they were shot there. There is one scene towards the end where Shostakovich is seen pounding down a precipitous external metal staircase on a mill-like Lubianka style building. Wonderful choice.

The joys and solace of the composer’s family life are touchingly put across - even if he must also apologise to his family after the Zhdanov condemnation. These contrast with the traumas. There are the projects intended but frustrated when artist collaborators are purged. There are the two climaxes of criticism: once in the 1930s in connection with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the Fourth Symphony and again and most humiliatingly in 1948 where we see Zhdanov’s public diatribe against formalism and Shostakovich’s meek acceptance. The condemnation is accentuated by the ripping up (by Khrennikov?) of the full score of the Ninth Symphony on the conference podium.

This is a long and transfixing film. Other episodes nestle in the memory. The 1940s issue of Time Magazine on the front cover of which Shostakovich is portrayed in a quaint fire helmet coincides with the roaring success of the Leningrad symphony across the USA. The devastating cross-examination of the composer by an American journalist forcing him to condemn his colleagues for formalism. There’s the initial refusal to believe Stalin has really died; that it’s not some macabre trap to flush out dissenters. The trip to the grim gorge at Babi Yar. The scenes in Shostakovich’s bedroom as the family waits to hear if the knock at the door in the middle of the night will be theirs or their neighbours. Stalin’s scary confiding in the composer that he does not like music that smacks of sarcasm. Stalin is a constant presence although surprisingly and effectively he says little.

The film is heavy in symbolism and certain sections are quite surreal. The image of the colossal toppled stone head of a Stalin statue rolling towards the composer and threatening to crush him is vivid. There are in fact quite a few Ken Russell moments along the way. The burial of Shostakovich at the start before the flashbacks begin prompts thoughts of Russell’s Mahler biopic. Then there’s the scene with the composer playing a dance band piano on a raft that gradually sinks into the same water that reflects the burning of a massive effigy head of Lenin.

News-reel and other actuality are inter-cut with the dramatisation. So we get snippets of silents and sound films for which Shostakovich wrote the music, shots of Lenin exhorting and gesticulating, banners flutter and snap in the wind, Nazi tanks and serried ranks of storm troopers, Khruschev and the post-Stalin old guard and ranks of the elderly communist elite. There’s also an American newsreel charting the journey of the microfilmed score of the Leningrad symphony from the USSR across a war-torn world to the USA.

The soundtrack includes excerpts from symphonies 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14. Other works part represented are the Violin Concerto 1, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Michelangelo Sonnets; Jazz Suites 1 and 2; Piano Concerto No. 2 and String Quartets 8 and 10. The music on the soundtrack is played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Barshai with David Nolan (leader). The soloists are Yuzuko Horigome (violin concerto 1); John Shirley-Quirk (Michelangelo Sonnet and Symphony 13) stunningly portrayed in a close-up so close that the spittle flies from his mouth in the vituperative stress of delivery; Felicity Palmer (Symphony 14) sounding strikingly similar to Janet Baker; Howard Shelley (Piano Concerto 2); Margaret Fingerhut (Mozart Concerto 23) and the Chilingirian Quartet (string quartets 8 and 10). Not that the orchestra and these soloists are always seen on screen even when they are playing. But when they are portrayed they are filmed in colour and there are several shots of Barshai conducting. The rest of the film is in monochrome with the exception of some telling coups-de-théâtres such as the point at which blood oozes down the screen.

While the music is predominantly provided through new recordings made specially for the film Palmer also uses some classic versions for audio only . These include Svetlanov conducting symphonies Nos. 5 and 11 and Ancerl conducting symphony No. 10.

The soundtrack is clarity itself. There’s none of the nonsensical mumbling you encounter in Hollywood films.

Shostakovich ‘s deathbed conversation with the shade of Stalin is made the more poignant by the romantic middle movement of the Second Piano Concerto. As to authenticity ... who can tell. In fifty years time this film may be seen as hopelessly far from the mark as biography. However as the image of an age and of a composer under the most torturously stressful circumstances it convinces without doubt. The appearance of honesty is magisterially put across by the heavily bespectacled face of Kingsley as Shostakovich. At the end as he is seen playing the second movement of the Second Piano Concerto (an untypically sentimental piece) looking slightly to one side from the viewer and then slowly turning his gaze to confront you. ‘Ask me nothing any more - ask the music.’

This sombre piece of cinema is stunningly done with enormous integrity.

Rob Barnett


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