Based on Testimony, the memoirs of Shostakovich as dictated to Solomon Volkov.
1987 Isolde Films.
Director: Tony Palmer.
Shostakovich: Ben Kingsley
Stalin: Terence Rigby
1987 New York Film Festival Gold Medal for Screenplay.
I researched for the screenplay with Volkov himself, an exile living in New York by now; he had been a composition student, to whom Shostakovich had confided his memoirs, entrusting them to him to smuggle out of Soviet Russia to the West. The authenticity of these memoirs was bitterly disputed at the time (particularly by Westerners with an ideological axe to grind), but they speak in unarguably the same voice as the music, and are more generally - though still not universally - accepted now.
My other research field was inevitably the music itself, in particular the 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets - the public and the private man. Long close listening here, and pondering on his inner, incorruptible voice. Music may try to lie; but it cannot: something else in it will always give the lie away. And to enhance my research, Russian friends and experts educated me in the mysterious traditional figure of the yurodiv - the Tsar's Fool, whom even the most tyrannical tsar would superstitiously dread to harm. Some insight here, into why perhaps it was that Shostakovich never, like so many others, 'disappeared'.
I felt honoured to be chosen as screenwriter for this historic project - and daunted too, for it required me to 'access' the inner lives of two giant figures of our formative history: Shostakovich, the most humanly significant composer of his age; and Stalin, the definitive totalitarian, who murdered some 30 million people. I don't claim the film is flawless, but I rejoice in its passion, its bold expressionism and its headlong epic charge. These are not very 'English' cinematic qualities, which may partly explain why critical response here was somewhat inaccurate and sniffy. It's worth recording, too, that the British member of the Berlin Film Festival jury found the film politically offensive and refused to have it even discussed. It was a refreshing contrast for me more recently (April 2006) to introduce Testimony to a Polish audience at their National Film Theatre in Warsaw, and meet there with an engaged and pasionate response. They found it recognizable. It's a film that matters.
The music, by turns jagged and searing, always torn from bitter and bloody experience, is not merely used as background score, but is a functioning narrative presence, the man's inner life (and the tragic Russian experience) made audible. In some sequences, the outer narrative, often intercut with harrowing archive footage, gives way to filmed performance of the music in its own right.