Based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel recounting his youthful flirtation with socialism, which led to his near-execution and deportation to Siberia, “The House of the Dead” is a film of ideas shot in a landscape of the mind. To rebel against imperial tyranny and its crying injustices, or to submit to the will of God? — that is the question that torments young Dostoyevsky, brilliantly evoked in Nikolai Khmelyov’s inspired perf and director Vasili Fyodorov and d.p. Vasili Pronin’s stark, striking visuals.
Story is framed by a highly contrived lecture from a certain Prof. P.S. Kogan, explaining how the writer lost his chance for immortality by siding with the reactionaries. Pic, however, is far more subtle, painting a fairly human portrait of both Tsar Nicholas and Dostoyevsky, whose ideals as well as psyche are shattered by his brutal imprisonment.
Fyodorov, a pupil of Vsevolod Meyerhold and an acclaimed stage director, films the fake execution in tense real-time, with a frozen army standing at attention as a stuttering officer reads the sentence. Another unforgettable scene is set in a steaming bathhouse, where the din made by the naked, chained convicts crowded together reminds Dostoyevsky of hell.
Helmer exchanged bitter darts with pic’s renowned scriptwriter Viktor Shklovsky (who cameos here as the revolutionary Petrashevsky) over the film’s critical failure. It was accused of sentimentalism and formalism, but above all was faulted for not showing sufficient hatred toward Dostoyevsky, who was on the Revolution’s blacklist.
Vladimir Egorov’s stylized sets of St. Petersburg are memorable for their towering classical columns and friezes, symbols of empire, dwarfing the writer’s lone figure. One of the first Soviet sound films, pic is also notable for its imaginative use of sound and music.