The Nikolai Leskov novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, published in 1865, is more famous for its 20th-Century adaptations than for its literary merits. It's a bit like The Brothers Karamazov if Grushenka were the central character and if she had been sexually insatiable. How refreshing, though, to find sex treated as it is in Leskov, and not as part of some moral agenda in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. (Turgenev was virtually asexual, which is probably why Henry James admired him so much.) "Oh! Oh! Let go of me, Katerina Lvovna moaned softly, weakening under Sergei's hot kisses, and involuntarily pressing herself to his powerful body." Not what students expect to encounter in a Russian Lit. class.
The brilliant 29-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich chose Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as the subject of an opera that not only altered the course of his career but radically changed the course of all "official" artistic expression in Stalin's USSR. Composed in 1932, the opera was already phenomenally successful when Stalin decided to go and see it in January 1936. After storming out of the performance during the last act, the opera was denounced in Pravda (the USSR's official news source) two days later. The opera closed and Shostakovich expected to be arrested and possibly sent to Siberia. Stalin imposed strict guidelines on artists, insisting that their work reflect the ideals of "Socialist Realism," keeping far from modernist abstraction or, in the case of composers like Shostakovich, atonality. Shostakovich survived and eventually managed to be rehabilitated in the eyes of Stalin. His opera, however, was never performed again in its original form in Shostakovich's. After Stalin's death, he reconstituted the opera and called it "Katerina Izmailova". It was first performed in Moscow in 1963. On being expelled from the USSR, Mstislav Rostropovich smuggled the manuscript of the 1932 opera to the West and recorded it in 1979.
The memory of the original opera outlasted Stalin's censorship. In the opening credits of Wajda's film, Dušan Radić is credited with the music, "based on the motives [sic] of the opera 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' by Dmitri Shostakovich". Even filmmaking with such broad strokes as Wajda uses in Siberian Lady Macbeth, the use of Shostakovich's music is not intrusive but quite effective, especially the scene in which Sergei and Katerina dispose of her husband's dead body in a pigsty full of strange woolly pigs.
We are introduced to the precincts of a well to do merchant named Boris Izmailov, whose son Zinovy is away assessing the damage to a mill by a recent dam burst. It seems the old man has nothing to do all day but shout orders to his serfs, collect dead rats that have eaten the poisoned bait he leaves for them under the floor boards, eat and drink tea. Katerina, his daughter-in-law, who has failed to give his son a child, has even less to do with her husband away but walk around the house like a panther pacing her cage. Nothing to do, that is, until a strapping young swineherd named Sergei sallies forth.
In the opening shots, the setting looks like something from a Western - plain, makeshift buildings in the middle of a flat, dusty landscape. The widescreen photography, by Alexander Sekulovič, reinforces the impression that we are on a frontier where domesticated animals outnumber people. It is all exactly as Leskov describes in his novella:
"It was clean everywhere, it was quiet and empty everywhere, icon lamps shone before the icons, and nowhere in the house was there a living sound, a human voice. Katerina Lvovna would wander and wander about the empty rooms, start yawning with boredom, and climb the stairs to her marital bedroom in the small, high mezzanine. There, too, she sat, looked at how they hung up hemp or poured out flour by the storehouse again she would start to yawn, and she was glad of it: she would doze off for an hour or two, then wake up again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant's house, from which they say you could even happily hang yourself."(1)
Sergei no sooner meets Katerina than he changes into a proper shirt and heads straight for Katerina's bedroom. She feins indignity at his advances, until he's on top of her in her marriage bed. Afterwards (and there never was a more disappointing segue), her father-in-law enters downstairs, Katerina tells Sergei to scram and the old man catches him climbing down from the bedroom window. Old as he is (in the novella he's supposed to be 80), Boris hauls Sergei to the barn where he beats him mercilessly. Katerina covers her ears, but Sergei stifles his own cries by biting into his nice shirt (a nice touch Wajda copied from Leskov). Finished beating Sergei, Boris, exhausted, returns to Katerina and threatens to drag her naked through the streets. Without hesitation, she poisons his soup.
After the funeral, Katerina and Sergei spend all their time in bed until, without warning, her husband Zinovy returns. Having heard of his father's death and the rumors of his wife's infidelity, Zinovy confronts Katerina. Emboldened by the poisoned tea he has just drunk, Katerina, instead of denying the accusations, brings in Sergei (who was hiding outside) and, when Zinovy attacks him, together they finish off Zinovy.
There is an ecstatic scene in which Katerina and Sergei are riding in a horse-drawn wagon with Sergei joyously whipping the horses onward and Katerina lying back on the sacks of flour. But Katerina's problems are far from over. A relative arrives with claims on her estate. Another murder must follow. Wajda planned to tell the story in flashbacks as Katerina and Sergei plod on their long journey to Siberia. Incidentally, Mtsensk in a city in Ukraine. Siberia is where Katerina is exiled after her trial. I think Wajda was right to abandon the idea and tell the story straightforwardly. It gives the film a cumulative effect that is far more satisfying. In fact, when the two are at last caught and sentenced to life in exile, I thought, "the film should end here. Why continue?" But the final moments of the film are worth waiting for, as Katerina drowns Sergei's new girl and then herself in the river as the ferry drifts away behind the rain. It's a spectacular ending to a shamefully neglected film.
Special mention must be made for Ljuba Tadic as Sergei. He is almost pitiable in the final sequence, subject to his own nature, acquiring socks from Katerina to warm his feet on the road to Siberia, only to trade them for the favors of a pretty blonde in the group of exiles.
One searches in vain for antecedents for this film. Bergman's The Virgin Spring, made just two years before Wajda's film, comes close - except there is no violated virgin in Mtsensk. The violation(s) are all committed by Katerina Lvovna. There is also a spooky scene in which Katerina and her maid invoke the fertility of a pregnant mare. I have to admit that I found Katerina's (Olivera Markovic) arms around the mare's belly, pressing her breasts against it and kissing it, disturbingly erotic. The scene corresponds to the witch's (Gunnel Lindblom) appeal to Odin in The Virgin Spring. Bergman tried to repudiate his film by claiming he was heavily under the influence of Kurosawa. Kurosawa, to bring influences full circle, was deeply indebted to Russian literature, particularly Dostoevsky.
As for the influence of Siberian Lady Macbeth on subsequent films, the two most famous Bulgarian films, The Peach Thief (1964) and The Goat Horn (1972), show clear echoes of Wajda's film. Harold Bloom once claimed that Kurosawa's Throne of Blood was the greatest "Shakespearean" film ever made. Bloom had probably never seen Siberian Lady Macbeth, but using his definition of "Shakespearean" (Kurosawa's film, coincidentally based on Macbeth, had to dispense with all of Shakespeare's text), there are very few films that come as close to the spirit and power of Shakespeare as Siberian Lady Macbeth.
(1) Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.