“For some reason, people think that music must tell us only about the pinnacles of the human spirit, or at least about highly romantic villains. Most people are average, neither black nor white. They’re gray. A dirty shade of gray. And it’s in that vague gray middle ground that the fundamental conflicts of our age take place.”
— Dmitri Shostakovich (Attributed, in the still-disputed 1979 memoir Testimony, edited by Solomon Volkov)
By Scott Ross
Thankfully, the Tony Palmer/David Rudkin film of Testimony (1988) is not notably gray, at least in its visual tone. In Nic Knowland’s sumptuous cinematography, it is for the most part brilliantly, adamantly, gloriously black-and-white. I doubt there had been a more strikingly lit and photographed monochromatic movie, at the time of Testimony’s late ’80s release, since Gordon Willis’ rapturous work on Manhattan nine years earlier. The film is also, despite some longueurs and a smattering of symbolic pretension, as strikingly and exhilaratingly cinematic as the best work of Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese.
I first saw Testimony on PBS in the spring of 1990 and was so taken with it I watched it over again when it was repeated a few days later. Seeing it a third time, I am fully persuaded that, if not the finest attempt to explicate that essentially unknowable enigma we call the artistic temperament, it is certainly among the tiny minority of victors in the field. What it is not is in any sense a standard, or even atypical, example of that almost entirely useless stock entity, the “biopic.” In my immediate experience as a moviegoer, only Warren Beatty and Trevor Griffith’s Reds and Scorsese and John Logan’s The Aviator truly broke out of that mold, even if the latter expunged the bisexuality of Howard Hughes and the former both obliterated John Reed’s similar eroticism and overdid the deathless heterosexual romance. Nor is Reds incidental to Testimony: In Reds the Revolution first inspires excitement then dismantles it as the Socialist reverie crumbles in internecine sectarianism and totalitarianist brutality. In Testimony, there is no passionate optimism; the dream has already soured to a waking nightmare.
Testimony is impressionistic, fractured and superbly aligned to the music of its subject, in a sense approximating its rhythms in optic/dramatic terms. What is also, unavoidably and understandably, black and white, are the crushing, homicidal Soviet system that encompassed the arc of Shostakovich’s life and career, and the chilling understatement of Terence Rigby’s Stalin, who more than represents it. Ben Kinglsey’s Dmitri sees his friends and neighbors disappear — or rather, doesn’t — with a hideous regularity and his own position as the primary composer of Soviet Socialism grandly raised and debilitatingly stymied depending on official whim and pleasure. That we never see Stalin give the order is incidental, and implicit; nothing that happened to Uncle Joe’s favorite composer, good or bad, could have without it.
Although Palmer and Rudkin (the latter of whom wrote the bracingly intelligent screenplay) eschew the overt depiction of bloodshed — Stalin was responsible for upward of 30 million murders of Russian citizens, effectively making Hitler a piker — the threat of it is seldom far from the surface, both in our minds and in the composer’s. Kingsley’s understated and ironic posthumous voice-overs fill in a few details, such as the arrest and execution of Vsevolof Meyerhold (Robert Stephens) and of the official purging of Shostakovich’s great friend Mikhail Tukhachevsky (Ronald Pickup) and his seeming detachment, coupled with an incisive visual or two, chills the blood far more effectively than would the display of viscera. Indeed, the movie’s most terrifying moment consists of a static shot of a lighted window and the retraction of all other sound as Shostakovich describes the horrendous murder of Meyerhold’s wife, her screams as her eyes are cut out by the knives of her sanctioned killers deliberately silenced just as they were undoubtedly heard but assiduously ignored by her neighbors, waiting in hushed terror for the midnight knock on their own apartment doors. The only exception to this assiduous avoidance of violence is Palmer’s use of documentary footage of Holocaust dead late in the movie, and that is as it should be: No depiction of screen violence, however realistic, could quite compare to that appalling reality, and might, by contrast, only seem obscenely trivial.
Palmer’s framing is uncannily apt throughout and his long, involved tracking shots are not mere technical ostentation; they capture the composer’s resolute, practiced treks through the grubby mazes of Soviet bureaucracy, accompanied, always, by perfectly selected excerpts from Shostakovich’s oeuvre. The director, who also edited, seems to have shot Testimony to music rather than the usual reverse. (The score was performed by the London Philharmonic and conducted by Rudolf Barsha, occasionally on-camera, and in color.) There are a few surreal moments, such as the composer playing a bizarrely Constructivist piano, and while these flights of fancy occasionally feel oppressively symbolic, they are less important than Shostakovich’s own fluctuating fortunes, and his ultimate survival of the Stalinist regime.
What Testimony gets absolutely right, in concept, design, and production and in Kingsley’s magnificent performance, is the everyday horror of a system that murders its citizens as effectively with words as with knives. The long central sequence of the official 1948 denunciation of Shostakovich and others by that uniquely dangerous and self-important ignoramus Zhdanov (John Shrapnel) and the composer’s own shamefaced and public self-censure, depicted on the movie’s poster, is perhaps the finest explication of helpless artistic degradation in Western movie history. The later, stomach-churning scene of Shostakovich’s squirming equivocation in America, then, is, despite its effectiveness, almost anticlimactic: The dirty gray death of his soul has already been accomplished; the rest is just the body’s discomfort at still having to go on.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross