Thanks to Neil McGlone for RASKOLNIKOV, admittedly jumped-around by random splices that teleport its cast short distances, and intertitled in a schizoid mix of Russian and Italian, just two of the many languages I don’t speak. But this film is so consistently hard to see, I’m grateful for an opportunity.
Robert Weine’s expressionist take on Crime and Punishment suffers an almost unique disparity between its prominence in all the literature on German cinema, and its frustrating unavailability on DVD and on the repertory circuit. Is this the result of some unspoken value judgement, silently declaring the film to be less interesting than its design, less significant than its place in history? A possible basis for such a dismissal lies in the undoubted fact that German expressionism and Dostoevsky are unlikely bedfellows. True, one must accept that the movie adopts the bare bones of the novel’s plot and doesn’t really attempt its nuance or depth: that being the case, we have to overlook its failings as an adaptation and consider what it achieves in its own right.
And what is that? Given my inability to read the intertitles, my findings are only preliminary, but I’d hold the film’s sheer visual beauty up as its prime virtue. More solid and less painterly than Weine’s earlier CALIGARI, it serves up a constant stream of striking images, setting its tale in an expressionist-constructionist St Petersburg of jumbled, off-kilter shapes. The actors hue to a roughly naturalistic style, somehow moving through the jutting diagonals without producing too violent a clash, although all interaction with the zany UPA-meets-UFA doors is fraught with peril. The Big Idea is obviously to portray Raskolnikov’s world as a nightmare, a slightly inflexible approach which struggles to accommodate subtleties —
For instance, here’s the stairway to the pawnbroker’s flat (above).
And here’s the same stairway in Raskolnikov’s nightmare, after he’s murdered the pawnbroker. Both sets and shots are wondrously striking, of course, but there’s something oddly unsatisfactory about the very idea of an expressionist nightmare version of something that’s already an expressionist nightmare.
By contrast, the scenes involving Detective Porfiry are relatively restrained — the angles are still skewed, but the structures within the police station mainly look as if they might actually belong to a real, non-avant garde building, reflecting the character’s status as an avatar of rationality. While outside, all is chaos ~
I guess the problem with all of this is that it’s vague and amorphous where the novel is clear and specific. In the book, Raskolnokov’s troubles stem from poverty (or that’s certainly how he sees it), which Weine can’t convincingly evoke on his shattered-mirror stages. The novel’s character has nightmares that reflect upon and deepen the central narrative in the allusive way typical of real dreams, while the movie’s character has nightmares which replay scenes we’ve already witnessed, only with even wonkier walls.
None of which stops the film being a jagged visual feast, and more than worthy of a full Institute Murnau-Stiftung type restoration and re-release. Are you listening, Herr Stiftung?