To tell the life story of one of the greatest writers in history in 30 minutes is no small feat. But Kultur Films’ new series on six Great Russian Writers attempts to do that, and for most of us who don’t have time to read the 500-page biographies, the summaries are informative and thought-provoking introductions.
Leo Tolstoy, b. 1828 in one of the most aristocratic families in Russia, is depicted as tormented soul throughout his life, disgusted with the luxuries his pedigree enjoys at the expense of the starving thousands. The film, with its peaceful piano backing the pastoral scenes of Tolstoy’s life on the Yasnaya Polyana estate, seems to almost intentionally avoid the controversy, complexity, and legacy of the writer’s philosophy. Instead, we get a succinct, clear (maybe too clear) version of “Tolstoy as tortured soul seeking to help the commoners”—managing to not once mention the word “communism” nor any religious or political term that might turn off the audience at whom this film seems to be aimed. While intriguing, you suspect that the man’s life wasn’t so simple.
Nevertheless, the 30 minutes is used well, attempting to tell a story rather than recite a list of facts. Viewers don’t need any background knowledge on the writer or his writings (which in this case include War and Peace and Anna Karenina). Aside from the detailed paintings and photographs of Tolstoy’s life, perhaps the most interesting parts of the film are quotes from his journals. “Peace of mind destroys the soul,” he wrote at mid-life. “To have thousands of people who are cold, hungry, and humiliated is a crime of which I am guilty” comes when he moves to Moscow and witnesses true urban poverty. From his experiences in the army, opening a school for common people, setting up 746 free food centers during a famine, and finally, at age 83, leaving to live in a simple peasant house but catching a fatal case of pneumonia on the train, we catch memorable glimpses of his actions and are compelled to learn more. Not bad for 30 minutes.
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