Review: ‘Rothschild’s Violin’

Dmitri Shostakovich Sergei Makavetsky

Dmitri Shostakovich Sergei Makavetsky

Benjamin Fleischmann Dainius Kazlauskus

Minister Tonu Kark

Moishe Vainberg Tarmo Mannard

Aunt Nadezhda Tamara Solodnikova

Shostakovich’s Wife Epp Eespaev

Maksim Shostakovich Kirill Shigayev

Fleischmann’s Wife Elina Reinold

In the opera:

Bronza Miklos B. Szekely

Rothschild Sandor Zsoter

Marfa Mari Torocsik

Shakhes Ferenc Javori

(Russian dialogue)

Rothschild’s Violin” is a slice of musical archaeology that ends up dwarfed by its wrapping. Argentine-born, Paris-based director Edgardo Cozarinsky, who last served up the deep dish on Paris Cinematheque cofounder Henri Langlois (“Citizen Langlois”), here resurrects an almost forgotten one-act Russian opera from the ’40s and surrounds it with a much more interesting portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich, its orchestrator and champion. Interesting but specialized result looks better fitted for play on arts webs and cable than in ticketed halls.

Benjamin Fleischmann (Lithuanian thesp Dainius Kazlauskus) is a serious, hotblooded student of Shostakovich (Sergei Makavetsky) at the Leningrad Conservatory in the late ’30s who has been laboring for years over an opera, “Rothschild’s Violin,” based on a Chekhov story. A Jew in Stalin’s Russia, he’s appalled by the German invasion of Poland and even more by the non-intervention of the Soviet Union. After sending his work to the Composers’ Union in Moscow, he signs up to fight and disappears in the Siege of Leningrad.

The manuscript eventually reaches Shostakovich, who prepares a proper edition and completes the orchestration but is dissuaded from pushing for its performance because it’s not considered kosher to the cause of Soviet reconstruction. (The opera eventually got one performance in 1968 and was promptly banned.)

Using a style halfway between docu and fully fledged feature, Cozarinsky contrasts Fleischmann the dreamer, given to grand heroic gestures, with Shostakovich the pragmatist, a survivor who bends with the wind but loses much of his self-respect along the way. The pic’s dodgier thesis is that, driven by some kind of guilt, Shostakovich started blending more and more Jewish musical material into his works as he got older.

That’s a maybe. What is most powerful about the pic, especially in Makavetsky’s quietly ironic perf, is its portrait of a world-renowned but weary composer who has backed down one too many times in his career and no longer understands the country whose revolutionary ardor he celebrated in music as a youth. (One nice scene has him visiting a theater where he once accompanied silent pics.) Pic ends on a poignant note as Makavetsky, shuffling along the street, is suddenly seen to be in contempo Russia, with Coke ads and all the bustle of capitalist life.

This is a far more touching story than that of Fleischmann, basically a one-dimensional figure as portrayed here, and whose 40-minute opera, shown in full in the middle of the movie, is nothing to write home about. Shot on exteriors in Hungary, with well-known local thesps (Miklos B. Szekely, Mari Torocsik), the “Fiddler on the Roof”-type one-acter is hardly helped by Cozarinsky’s flat and unmusical mounting.

Tech credits are sharp throughout, with clean lensing and a lively perf of the opera’s music under the baton of the famed Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. As well as Hungary and St. Petersburg, pic also shot in Tallinn, Estonia.

Rothschild's Violin



(FRENCH-SWISS-FINNISH-HUNGARIAN) An MKL/Lazennec Diffusion release (in France) of a Les Films d'Ici, La Sept-Arte, Imalyre-France Telecom (France)/ Cab Prod. (Switzerland)/Hansa Media (Finland)/Hunnia Film Studio (Hungary) production. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Serge Lalou. Directed, written by Edgardo Cozarinsky. Camera (color), Jacques Bouquin; editor, Martin Bouquin; art direction, Toomas Horak, Tamas Vayer; costume design , Mare Raidma, Zsuzsa Stenger; sound (Dolby), Jean Umansky, Jean-Claude Brisson; historical adviser, Emmanuel Utwiller; assistant director, Christophe Marillier. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival, Switzerland, Aug. 13, 1996. (Also in Montreal Film Festival.) Running time: 98 MIN.
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