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The Forgotten: Andrzej Żuławski’s “Boris Godunov” (1989)

The late Andrzej Żuławski’s filmed opera is at once more theatrical and more cinematic than anything one can conceive of while watching it.
It was Michael Powell who proposed the idea of the composed film, in which movement, color and framing are all synchronized to music to create a seamless work of art, and he began putting it into practice in Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, before going all-out with Tales of Hoffmann and Bluebeard's Castle. Few have followed in his steps. One who did was the late Andrzej Żuławski, whose filmed opera (music by Mussorgsky, lyrics by Pushkin) Boris Godunov (1989) is one of the most relentlessly and astonishingly beautiful cinematic artifacts I have ever seen.
It is in the nature of these things that when watching the film it is quite impossible to think of anything which comes close. After the end titles have rolled, one may begin putting things in perspective, but while you're looking at Żuławski's images, nothing finer can be imagined.
Shamelessly theatrical in its design, the film begins with an audience attending a performance in a nineteenth-century opera house, before exploding the fourth wall and the viewer's mind, bursting out onto giant sets and exteriors which could never be contained within a proscenium. Yet the stylisation of the stage is never abandoned, with real landscapes transformed by carefully placed fake buildings, and trees and rocks painted, in the manner of Antonioni, to impart the richness of a Van Gogh. All this is shot by Żuławski's ceaselessly, aggressively roving camera: you have to imagine the Scorsese of Goodfellas doing one too many lines of coke and going all Mad Max, determined to drive his dolly crashing through the cinema screen and into the audience's laps.
Nobody ever moved the camera like Żuławski: in his first feature, The Third Part of the Night, he swung a hand-held camera as if attempting to stove the actors's skulls in, making us feel the weight and threat of each lurch and lunge. In many of his later films he swooped a Steadicam at high speed, compensating for the device's frustrating weightlessness with sheer ferocity, until again the lens came to feel like a missile. Here he's on tracks, and finds just the right pace to make you feel the thing isn't going to be able to stop, but it does, with a hairy sense of straining against its own momentum.
The whole thing has a manic recklessness. Characters sing while rutting vigorously, and one character completes an aria while plummeting from a minaret. There is blood, some of it blue (because red would clash with the costume) and grit, but also lunatic unreality. Żuławski even shows the camera crew filming his spectacle, under vibrant red and yellow umbrellas, and drafts in twentieth-century barbed wire and soldiers: unsubtle Brechtian techniques which are not my favorite devices by any means, but they add to the anything-goes intensity, the mania.
I haven't talked much about the film's narrative because, as is often the case with Żuławski, it isn't very clear. One feels somehow the subtitler is falling down on the job, but it may just be the overload of visual and musical stimuli leave the viewer with only a handful of neurons free for assembling events into sequence, filling in ellipses, remembering which bearded goofball is which. Mostly one reels at the Ivan-the-Terrible-on-acid aesthetic.
Behind the scenes of Boris Godunov.
Someone once said that we could imagine Jodorowski's unfilmed sci-fi epic Dune by looking at Żuławski's unfinished sci-fi epic On the Silver Globe. To that I add that we can imagine On the Silver Globe completed, by looking at Boris Godunov, whose immersive foray into a frightening, beautiful, strange and utterly alien world is a kind of historical science fiction film on a par with Fellini Satyricon.

The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
Thank you for this great article. Agreeing that it is a neglected genre, there are just a few more entries worth consideration in the operatic cinema hall of fame. Götz Friedrich directed Richard Strauss' violent pair of early operas, "Salome" and "Elektra," in full for-camera productions on celluloid with unforgettable visual compositions and faithfulness to the sources. Much more recently, documentary filmmaker Penny Woolcock created a cinematic for-camera production of John Adams' controversial "The Death of Klinghoffer" that speaks powerfully to our era of terrorism while transforming the genre visually. I am dying to watch these Mussorgsky and Bartok operas on film that you mentioned, and can't seem to find any retail media to watch. I hope that one day Criterion or the like will see fit to re-master and release these!
Thanks! Powell's Bartok film, made by many of the same crew as The Red Shoes, has always been hard to see, but the Zulawski/Mussorgsky is available in France at least. Penny Woolcock is great: had forgotten she did a Klinghoffer.
Hello David, Powell's "Herzog Blaubarts Burg (1963)" [AKA "Bluebeard's Castle"] is available on YouTube at Sadly not yet available for commercial home viewing Steve
''Mostly one reels at the Ivan-the-Terrible-on-acid aesthetic.''. Priceless.

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