DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH: SONATA FOR VIOLA
(Altovaya Sonata, Dmitriy Shostakovich)
dirs. Alexandr Sokurov and Semyon Aranovich, 1981-1986
Russian Federation. 74 mins.
In English with Russian subtitles.
SATURDAY, MARCH 5 – 7:30 PM
THURSDAY, MARCH 17 – 7:30 PM
MONDAY, MARCH 21 – 10:00 PM
TUESDAY, MARCH 29 – 7:30 PM
Special thanks to Facets.
Culled almost entirely from archival footage, SONATA FOR VIOLA is a masterfully hushed essay-portrait of Russia’s most famous modern composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Co-directors Sokurov and Aranovich balance a pictorial history of 20th century Russia against their subject’s own trials and travails, without talking-head interviews or in-hindsight reconsiderations. Beyond clips from propaganda films and contemporaneous newsreels, Aranovich and Sokurov bring to light an invaluable wealth of primary sources: photos and home movies from Shostakovich’s own life, and a bittersweet audio recording of a brief phone call between Shostakovich and his colleague David Oistrakh – the only instance of the composer’s voice in the film, outside an anti-fascist speech made during the war.
Made while the filmmakers were at Leningrad’s State Documentary Film Production studio (LSDF), SONATA carries a scathing critique of Shostakovich’s state persecution which was, unto itself, couched in a language of aesthetics: following Russian victory in WWII, Shostakovich’s beloved symphonies were disowned by state-favored composers for their excess “formalism” and alleged disconnection from the proletariat. For this issue – delicately parsed in the narrative, as this was a state-financed documentary – Sonata for Viola was nevertheless confiscated by KGB and suppressed until the perestroika years; upon its completion, the filmmakers were told by the authorities that “Shostakovich is far from being forgiven.”
Sokurov split up the reels and stashed part of the original cut at his own apartment, the rest in a friend’s countryside dacha. Elegaic but never gimlet-eyed to the point of nostalgia, SONATA FOR VIOLA plays its subject’s grand stature against the inexorable creative silence that followed his persecution, prompting essential questions about politicalized norms, the waxing and waning of Kremlin-approved aesthetics, and the pursuit of sublimity under totalitarianism. If the music is what looms largest, that’s the film’s inevitability: Shostakovich made all the more enigmatic as a cornered antihero, glimpsed almost entirely in one of history’s least-forgiving limelights.