Saturday, April 14, 2018

Andrzej Wajda | Sibirska Ledi Magbe (Siberian Lady Macbeth)

a trapped woman
by Douglas Messerli

Andrzej Wajda (based on the novella by Nikolai Leskov), director Sibirska Ledi Magbe (Siberian Lady Macbeth) / 1962

The great Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 1962 film, Siberian Lady Macbeth, even from his point of view, was unsuccessful:

… the only lasting results of my labours are: the wonderful photography by Aca Sekulovic, the character of Sergei played by Ljuba Tadic with enormous commitment and talent, and the set decorations…. The film made me realise how difficult it is to adjust to a new and foreign reality. I understood that a little freedom abroad was not enough: I needed more freedom at home, in Poland.    

   Yet, this film, 56 years later, has very much stood the test of time. Yes, its sets by Sekulovic are crucial; the isolated village in which Katerina Izmilowa lives, with its whirls of blowing dust and the walled fortress of her home in which she lives with a missing and unloving husband and his terrifyingly crude father symbolizes her plight of being a handsome woman locked away from any emotional fulfillment.
     Is it any wonder that the moment she sets eyes on the iterant pig-tender Sergei—who himself has a brazen way with the women, worming his way into the Izmalowa fortress through his  attentions to the cook and servant (Kapitalina Erić)—should immediately be seen by Katerina as mysteriously attractive?  Besides, she is desperate to have a baby to whom she might be able to devote her love and life, something, evidently her husband cannot provide.
     And you have give it to this “Lady Macbeth,” although she is proud of her family’s wealth she has no scruples when it comes her position in this small village’s social world. What she seems most to want is simply a way out.
     Yet, one must ask, what is a woman of the latter 19th century to do to attain that? Surely, if she were simply to run away, as Sergei finally desires to, she would have a difficult time of it. She might hate the world in which she is imprisoned, but if she might control it, surely life would be different. And she has now discovered that she pregnant, at the very moment almost, when her step-father discovers her sexual peccadilloes, severely beating Sergei and threatening to send her of in social disgrace.
     The old man, who early in this film displays a fascination with killing the rats that inhabit his house, is himself killed off by rat poison cooked into mushrooms, reminding me a bit of the recent film Phantom Thread; beware of a spurned woman cooking up mushrooms, I thought to myself. In killing him, however, she can spend days in bed with her new lover, and, after nursing him to health she has ensnared him in her machinations. Sergei, in fact, plays a role that is usually assigned only to women: a figure so devoted to his lover that he cannot free himself from the enchantment. The swine can go hungry, since he has become a kind of dependent beast himself.

     While Sergei, the peasant, clearly feels guilt, Katherina seems to feel no remorse; she has freed herself from at worst one of her major tormentors. And when her husband returns home, forcing Sergei to temporarily flee her bed, she has little difficulty in planning the demise of Zinovij Izmailow (Miodrag Lazarević), who having heard rumors has returned home earlier than expected—although it appears that he might have intended to go away forever.
     But even his death cannot end the legions of those who descend upon this killer to claim their rights. Katerina’s aunt soon arrives with her mean-spirited little son to claim that a great part of the estate belongs to him. Like the young son it Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, one wouldn’t really mind if the little brat, who tortures the local animals, might be sent to heaven or worse. Of course, so many deaths, or, at least, attempted ones, in single family has to arouse suspicions.
     Eventually, the police arrive, arresting Katerina and Sergei, punishing them by banning them to Siberia, to which, with numerous other such criminals, they are forced to take a long and arduous march. Instead of the forest coming to them, they must march to the forest. 
    Despite Sergei’s relative innocence in the murders, we see him, once again, as a sexist monster, attempting to seduce another beautiful woman during the voyage. Strangely, by this time, we side more with the murderous Katerina than with her former lover. She, at least, is still loyal to him, ready to give up her own life for him. Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella, upon which this film was based, in its pre-feminist hero, might have been in league with Ibsen’s Nora of Ibsen’s A Dell’s House, written 14 years later. We sympathize with this intelligent and passionate woman, trapped in a society from which she had few alternatives to escape, although we might not wish to be left alone with her for very long for fear of our survival. Like so many strong women of film, literature, and opera, she is a seductress and monster both, just as likely, if she fell in love, to serve your head upon a plate.
     I should add that Wajda’s film also offers up a score by Dušan Radić that wonderfully incorporates many elements of Dimitri Shostakovich’s operatic treatment of this same work.

Los Angeles, April 14, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2019).

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