Most of the moving pictures I watch appear on a small tv screen. Television programming offers an overwhelming abundance of shows, which I can access almost any time I want. Sometimes it is hard to wait for Schitts Creek episodes which are doled out weekly, the old fashioned way. As a woman of a certain age, it is not second nature for me to know the myriad techniques to get to them. Even though I depend heavily on Netflix, I do not use Hulu, and resent having to use Amazon Prime, but eventually give in to it so that I can watch the Amazing Mrs. Maisel.
Going to the movies is a special pleasure. It takes me out of my living room, into a theater where I must sit in the dark with a bunch of strangers, and be quiet, and focus on the feast in front of me.
Going to see the spectacular epic Russian film that is now over fifty years old, and has been remastered and lovingly presented at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, reminds me of the way that film can draw people together, people who might not have anything else in common except the need to see greatness on the big screen.
The film’s director, Bondarchuk, plays Pierre, the central figure of Tolstoy’s novel. Pierre is a man in search of meaning. He drifts through a historical period in which emperors vie for territory and greatness. Frederick and Alexander and Napoleon stand in for the grand ambition somehow lacking in Pierre’s soul. Andrei, his close friend, as aide de camp to one of the generals at Austerlitz, confesses to his need for glory and risks his life to obtain it. However, on the small stage, in his marriage, he is an abject failure.
The brilliance of the movie comes from its balance of the grand spectacle of historical events and social occasions like balls, with the interior monologues of the major characters. Andrei, Pierre, Natasha each voice their inner thoughts, dreams, anxieties– allowing us viewers to understand them in a far more intimate way than most movie figures.
Part I. Andrei
Pierre and Andrei, Natasha and Maria, Kutuzov and Bagration, Helene and Liza, so many characters with their interwoven relationships to learn in 1805, just as Napoleon is at the peak of his power.
Fittingly the movie opens as the book does, with a party at the salon host’s house who knows how to mix up her guests based on politics, rank, and among the women, their beauty. Andrei is there, glum, ignoring, then being quite rude to, his wife who is visibly pregnant, who wonders why he has turned against her. We in the audience would also like to know, and the only evidence we have is that she is pregnant, but even so, she is still the most beautiful woman in the room, with a light in her eyes, and a kind manner.
Pierre is a bit of a bumbler, going out with a group of drunken soldiers who challenge each other to drink a whole bottle of liquor while precariously balanced on a window ledge high enough to ensure certain death if one fell. Pierre later attends a dance at a neighbor’s house even while his father lies on his deathbed, and wishes to say goodbye to him.
Natasha is pure spirit and capriciousness, bouncing around like a hungry sparrow, taking everything in, observing how lovers kiss so that she will be ready.
Visually the movie has grandeur and sweeping horizons. The opening scenes almost hallucinate the passage of time between peace and war, with jarring clashes, the sound of upset horses, gunshots, explosions, and then the grass coming into focus in close up as the camera lifts and moves away revealing a landscape near the river, and in the distance, plains, and a village with small houses.
Most epic are the battle scenes with the innate chaos that comes when men must play that game of chicken and decide who will fire first. Soon relentless firing of canons yields much more efficient harvesting of human souls. Andrei is an aide de camp to the general in charge of the attack at Austerlitz, and he is eager to be known for his courage, and yearns to gain some glory. Since Part I centers on Andrei, I found the actor a bit stiff in the beginning, inscrutable, and distant. As he begins to participate in the battles, his character becomes more knowable.
My trouble with Tolstoy is his treatment of women who exist to fall in love with, to be treated like doormats and playthings. Andrei’s relationship with his wife would be more tragic if we understood why he ignores her and treats her like dirt. But I suspect that is just the paternalistic society he lives in – nothing else is expected of him. It makes him rather a dull subject.
Still there are passages of the film full of suspense and pathos, like the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov over his dalliance with Pierre’s wife. One minute everyone is seated at dinner, about to read the menu, the next the piece of paper is torn from Dolokhov’s hand, and then it is dawn, there is a pair of pistols, and a surprisingly well aimed shot. Dolokhov wallows in the snow, red blood coloring the white ground. It has the feeling of authenticity. When Pierre realizes what he has done, he goes mad for a bit, and it is as if the audience were swept up into the soul of both opponents, part of us lying on the ground, bleeding, the other half wandering in a daze at the evil just done. The filmmaker knows how to thrust you into the action, and feel the pulse of the characters.
The costumes and sets are impeccable, the acting forceful and true. The cinematography is masterful, with all sorts of dissolves, including one where Natasha spies on a couple stealing a kiss, and the image remains frozen midair after the couple walks away and Natasha savors it.
Part II Natasha
Of course once Andrei’s wife dies in childbirth, he is eligible to marry. Not so lucky Pierre witnesses his wife’s infidelity and puts up with it, listens to his friend gush about Natasha after they waltz at a ball sponsored by the emperor. Bondarchuk, the director, immerses us in the spirit of Natasha’s immature, frivolous charm as she is swept away by Andrei’s gravitas, good looks and excellent dancing. The only problem is that he tells her he must wait one year for their marriage to take place, once he has spoken with her mother.
The tacit withholding of information or reasons why this long an engagement must take place is frustrating to Natasha and to the audience who is equally left in the dark. This technique of having the audience embrace the point of view of the main character is very effective. Natasha is only too human, and once a dashing young man comes along, seemingly deliberately planted there by the sinister Helene, Pierre’s two timing wife, Natasha succumbs to his charms. So she has had three infatuations in one year, beginning with Boris, continuing with Andrei, and lastly, with Kuragin, who really does look good in uniform.
These quick reversals show Natasha’s lack of depth, and unreadiness for marriage. When Pierre brings her the news of Andrei’s break with her, he is equally effected by the sorrow she feels.
So there are three kinds of men in Tolstoy’s world: the man of action, the man of greed, and the man of decency. It would be nice if there were a little more mixing and matching, not that each of the three characters – Andrei, Kuragin, and Pierre, lack complexity—but still, it is clear that Natasha will eventually choose the man who has virtue over the other two.
The ballroom scene trembles with excitement. The camera is everywhere, crowded with onlookers hoping for a glimpse of the emperor, stuck on the sidelines with Natasha who worries that no one will dance with her, even spying down from the ceiling, watching the whirlwind of dancers take their places on the dance floor.
Other episodes beautifully crafted are the hunt of the wolf, with its subtle soundtrack and gorgeous wolfhound dogs, and the mummers dashing through the snow, then hoping they learn the future with various spells. After this particular episode, absorbing things from Natasha’s point of view, watching her dance at her uncle’s lodge, having her declared a genuine Russian dancer, I feel as if I have lived in the country, and begun to understand, or at least had a taste, of the glories of the culture.
When 1812 comes, a year that is infamous in Russian history, and the battalions form again at the border where the French have invaded, a feeling of dread comes. Other things we learn: Andrei’s father has gone mad. Natasha’s brother and sister are close, though we barely get to know Nikolai, let alone Petya.
The battle of Borodino ends in bloodbath with at least 70,000 casualties. Treatment of such massive carnage on screen requires large numbers of soldiers, none with any distinguishing features, trampling, shooting, stabbing each other, loading cannons, leaving massive quantities of smoke, mud, blood, and corpses. You wonder who gets to clean up this mess? Trenches are dug not for the protection of the men so much as for their quick burial.
After a while, the soldiers get tired, begin to flag, the look in their eyes dims, they wonder when they will go home. Yet only Kutuzov stands out as an individual because he is the general in charge whose strategy and belief in his mission fuels the rest of the men’s resolve to win.
There is a tender reunion between Andrei and the general before the battle begins, and the general requests the nobleman to return to his side as his aide again. Andrei has a regiment of his own by now, so much decline, but the embrace of the two men is heartfelt.
Andrei’s inner thoughts make him realize he faces certain death. In the middle of this reverie Pierre arrives, wanting to witness the battle. Dressed in his civilian clothes in great contrast to the military uniforms, he looks ridiculous. White top hat, beige tailored three pice suit, fine leather boots, do not fit on the battlefield. The soldiers laugh at him, call him doctor.
Pierre, who in the beginning of the film was praising Napoleon for his honor in the face of the revolution, now would like to assassinate the man who has invaded Russia.
The battle takes up all of Part 3, and has moments of redundancy, but is full of rapturous cinematography, ravishing to the eye. Why is it that the orange smoke that plumes above the recently set off cannons has an ethereal beauty? Or the formations of men as they obey the commands of their superiors, no matter how suicidal, look heroic? Bondarchuk successfully captures the momentous events of war, but as the movie wore on, I grew hungry for the individuals I had learned to care for in the earlier chapters.
Part 4 begins with the decision to retreat from Moscow, which results in the whole city evacuating, leaving Napoleon an abandoned, silent bauble to claim as his empty prize. Now Pierre stays on with the singular intention of assassinating the emperor of France, but instead is himself taken prisoner. Pierre witnesses atrocities and tragic injustices, including the execution of innocent people and the burning alive of children.
Natasha tends to her wounded Andrei– one of the more frustrating romances in literature– Andrei so reserved and undemonstrative until it is too late, Natasha just a bundle of feelings and quivering lips. No intellectual content at all. All the women are ciphers, including Andrei’s long suffering saintly sister, Maria, and Natasha’s mother who howls like a wounded beast when her son is killed.
The movie’s set pieces swallow up the characters and leave you wondering why you don’t feel as much sympathy for the characters as you do awe at the brilliant photography of battles. Every once in a while a person comes into focus, for instance, another prisoner who along with Pierre, must occupy an old barn. He offers Pierre a potato, and instructs him how to eat it for maximum satisfaction. That prisoner has a dog, and when he is executed because he is weak, his dog goes to Pierre. This is one of the more tender moments in the film. I wish I could have seen Pierre escape from his captors which happens off camera.
There are many other strengths throughout the film: the singing and music, the sense of place, the costumes. And then there is Napoleon, always appearing at the center of things, he who set the whole thing in motion, with his driving ambition, and thirst for power.
I will never forget the experience of going to this movie, partly for the grandeur of its scope, partly for the reverence with which the audience watched it. At one point, I wanted to eat a mint, but was afraid to make a sound as I fished for it in my bag. A woman warned us in a loud voice before the lights went down, “Please if you have to cough, keep it inside of you.” I never heard a single cough throughout the seven hours of War and Peace at Lincoln Center.