Reviews

Russian Writers - Fyodor Dostoevsky (2007)

Matthew Stern

A whirlwind of omissions that doesn't have much to offer anyone with even a passing interest in Russian literature or its history.


Russian Writers - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Distributor: Kultur
MPAA rating: Unrated
US DVD Release Date: 2007-05-29
First date: 2007

The story of Fyodor Dostoevsky is filled with the kind of trivia Russian history buffs never stop talking about. To name a few: there’s his involvement with the revolutionary socialist group the Petrashevsky Circle; his being condemned to execution and then having his sentence commuted at the last moment; the epileptic fits he suffered, and; his post-imprisonment shift against the leftism of his youth. It’s as if every experience that the guy had was naturally imbued with some heavy existential import.

The stories of his life; his imprisonment, his epilepsy, his shift away from radicalism, all found their way into his novels. A few of his characters are epileptic. A few of them act like the political radicals he ran with in his youth. In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin retells the story of a man who believes he’s going to be executed, a tale that refers surreptitiously to the author himself. The worldview that stemmed from his experiences informed all of Dostoevsky's post-imprisonment work, including his obsession with any number of “big ideas” not limited to youthful monomania, existential despair, the ways that reason fails to adequately explain the human condition, and the complexity and counterintuitivity of basic human interactions.

His first "mature" work, Notes from the Underground, famously depicts man as the complete opposite of a reasonable revolutionary. The unnamed protagonist of Notes from the Underground is a self-obsessed hypochondriac, constantly and rigorously questioning himself, trapped and paralyzed by his own idiosyncrasies and insecurities. The character's universality, regardless of its original political context in 1860s Russia, remains unbelievably striking to a contemporary audience. So deeply and realistically does the character resonate that one could imagine him alive today; virtually unemployable, constantly burdening those around him with his paranoid ideations ... perhaps even writing DVD reviews for PopMatters.com ...

This self-consuming, circuitous thought process is found throughout Dostoevsky's oeuvre. His characters commit murder (Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment) and suicide (Kirillov in Demons) purely to prove a philosophical point, to transcend ethics and reason. They are so overwhelmed with life's inherent meaninglessness that they fall into near-mad bouts of "nervous fever”, in which they’re one vicissitude away from chewing off their own tongues (in the case of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov's post-murder nervous break takes up about 90 percent of the book.) They get married because they hate each other and resolve never to speak to each other again because they’re in love. They have (in the case of Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov,) intricate arguments about faith, morality, and reason that never quite reach discernible conclusions, opening up an entire conversation about what exactly Dostoevsky was trying to say, as his inner philosophical struggles played out through his characters.

It's possible, as the body of criticism surrounding his work shows, to refract Dostoevsky's work through many different lenses: through that of his unique insight into the human character; that of the particulars of political ideology in 1860s Russia and; that of his own (quite tortured) experience of life. That's probably part of the reason it took Joseph Frank five hulking volumes to write a biography of the man.

That’s five volumes of in-depth biography on a man whom was called, by Nietzsche, "the only psychologist from whom I have something to learn" and who is cited as an influence by countless writers (with the glaring exception of Vladimir Nabokov, an infamously obstreperous critic of Dostoevsky's work). In the recently re-released Great Russian Writers series, Dostoevsky gets a half hour.

To be fair, every writer in the Great Russian Writers series gets a half hour. There’s not much information out there about this series. It’s British, as evinced by the dramatic, erudite Masterpiece Theater-style narration. Press material seems to indicate, though, that this is a British translation of a piece that ran in Russia at some point. It was originally released on VHS at some point in the ‘90s, and has been re-released in one of those packages where the owner of the rights transfers it to DVD and adds absolutely nothing outside of a crappy menu. This would be fine if the documentary offered a half-hour of scintillating analysis, or even a decent introduction to Dostoevsky's works. Instead, it's kind of boring and weirdly incomplete.

The entire lack of scholarly criticism, analysis, interviews, or anything else you’d expect from the documentary gives it the feel of being the type of film a Literature teacher leaves for a substitute teacher to show to a class of uninterested 10th graders. The documentary is just a montage of clips and images of St. Petersburg and Moscow over which a narrator recites a spotty retelling of Dostoevsky’s life. Within the first few minutes of the documentary, the narrator anglicizes the name of the novelist’s father from “Mikhail” to “Michael”, which grates like the sound of nails scratching a chalkboard. Thankfully, at no point is Dostoevsky referred to as “Theo”.

Despite the original US VHS release date falling at some point in the late ‘90s, you get the impression that this is probably much older; probably a direct translation of something from the late-Soviet era. That seems like the most obvious way to explain a slew of gaping omissions. For example, the author's religious awakening in Siberia and the preoccupation of his major works with questions of religion just aren't mentioned. The lack of any reference to religion -- at all -- gives the impression that this documentary is as shady an exported Soviet relic as a vial of weapon's grade Anthrax or a dusty, unmarked jar of tainted borscht. The most scintillating details of Dostoevsky’s life are either glanced over or not mentioned.

But by far the weirdest omission is the fact that Notes from the Underground isn't mentioned at all. To say that this is like making a documentary on The Beatles and forgetting to mention Sgt. Pepper is an understatement. It's like making a documentary about John Lennon and forgetting to mention that he'd ever started a band. The only explanation seems to be that this particular seminal work, with its depiction of man as fundamentally irrational, got cut for not jiving with the doctrine of historical materialism.

Great Russian Writers as a collection of documentaries makes some bizarre omissions of its own. Pioneering absurdist Nikolai Gogol, whose work is constantly referenced throughout Russian literature, doesn't get a documentary. Also neglected is Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov, would-be great novelist who was killed in a duel after writing his lone novel, A Hero of Our Time. Dostoevsky’s more flowery contemporary and political rival Ivan Turgenev doesn't get his own documentary, nor does dissident Mikhail Bulgakov, author of the brilliantly hilarious and deeply complex The Master and Margarita.

Great Russian Writers: Fyodor Dostoevsky is a whirlwind of omissions that doesn't have much to offer anyone with even a passing interest in Russian literature or its history. If there's anything worthwhile about this re-release, it's that it points out the necessity for an A&E Biography series on Russian authors. They did, after all, do a fantastic job with Rasputin, even going as far as to discuss the Mad Monk's mythical wiener. That's the kind of in-depth scholarship that should be applied not just to Russia's historical figures, but to incredibly influential and idiosyncratic microcosm of writers as well, especially Dostoevsky.

3
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