Hold everything–there’s a silent film version of Dostoevsky’s riveting classic Crime and Punishment that is German Expressionist, is very faithful to the text, has Russian actors, and was directed by the same guy responsible for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Is this the recipe for a perfect forgotten classic?!
If you’re a regular reader you might recall that my review for Genuine (1920), another German Expressionist film by Robert Wiene, began pretty much the same way. Now, in Genuine‘s case rosy expectations were, uh, not met (really not met). But in the case of the overlooked Raskolnikov (1923)? Circulating prints have their drawbacks, but from what I can (sort of) see it’s a pretty darn good adaptation. It could well be a minor classic of the German Expressionist era–but funnily enough, not really because of its German Expressionist sets.
Even the monumental books From Caligari to Hitler by Siegfired Kracauer and The Haunted Screen by Lotte Eisner (praised be the authors’ names) don’t discuss Raskolnikov in much depth. Perhaps it’s partly due to the two widely-circulating prints, which are pretty sad–one is fairly clear but very choppy, and the other is more complete but annoyingly fuzzy and a garish green (copies on YouTube were probably recorded off an old TV). There’s supposed to be a better print in the Netherlands, but good luck finding a screening. When it does come up in books on German Expressionism it’s usually dismissed as one of Weine’s several so-so Caligari follow-ups. I sure agree that Caligari stands alone, but Raskolnikov is hardly in Genuine‘s so-so league.
Fortunately I did find one book that takes a good long look at Raskolnikov, and that’s Beyond Caligari: The Films of Robert Weine by Uli Jung and Walter Schatzberg. This in turn references the helpful German work Der expressionistiche Film by Jurgen Kasten. Which all helped me piece together a more detailed background on the film than I could find before:
Raskolnikov was the brainchild of the members of Konstantin Stanislavski’s influential Moscow Art Theater, who wanted to debut their acting techniques onscreen by bringing Dostoevsky’s famous novel to life. For this experimental task they hired an experimental director, Robert Wiene, feeling he was someone “whose art holds the prerequisites for achieving a production that will transcend dry reality, based on his previous creations and their break with naturalism.” Sets were designed by the brilliant Andrei Andreyev, and the finished film ran about 2 1/2 hours long. It apparently was a success, with reviews lauding its acting and careful handling of the powerful source material. And it seems to have been more or less obscure ever since.
If you’re unfamiliar with Dostoevsky’s novel (and that’s a shame), it’s about the former law student Raskolnikov who becomes obsessed with the idea of the “superior man,” someone who’s “allowed” to justify using unsavory means in order to achieve noble ends. Partly prompted by his family’s financial struggles and the plight of the poor he sees around him, Raskolnikov decides to put the theory into action (and test his own resolve) by murdering a reprehensible old pawnbroker for the money she’s been hoarding. He manages to carry out the dark deed and apparently gets away with it, but despite his lofty theories he finds he can’t escape his conscience. The “superior man” or “Ubermensch” theories were all too real in intellectual circles at the time, and the ever-observative Dostoevsky wanted to illustrate their inevitable flaws.
Raskolnikov’s dark theory and his mental struggles both before and after the murder seem tailor-made for German Expressionism, where the sets reflected the psychological themes of the stories and where inanimate objects seemed to have lives of their own. Weine was a bit more interested in the psychological effects of the murder on Raskolnikov rather than exploring controversial “superior man” theories, but after all, this was a film. The brooding Gregoria Chmara does an impressive job playing Raskolnikov, reflecting his anguished interior struggles intensely but always with restraint. I’ve seen another reviewer compare his final shot in the film to shots in The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Other actors are also well-cast, particularly Mikhail Tarkhanov as the eloquent drunk Marmeladov. As far as any Expressionist acting goes, the closest performance is probably by Toma, the wizened-looking player who portrays Aliona the pawnbroker. (Someone help me–is Toma an actress, or actually an actor in drag?) For the most part, however, everyone wouldn’t be out of place in a regular period drama.
And that’s probably why Raskolnikov strikes me as a good drama first, and a German Expressionist film second. Andreyev’s sets were beautifully done and evolve a bit from the deliberately flat sets of Caligari–this time dramatic lighting plays a bigger part of the effect. The winding, jagged staircase to Raskolnikov’s attic room is a standout. Lotte Eisner approvingly noted that the film “contains certain shots in which sets and characters really seem to stem from Dostoevsky’s universe and act upon each other through a sort of reciprocal hallucination.” It would’ve been interesting to see what would’ve happened to German Expressionism if it kept evolving along those lines, instead of being absorbed into other influences (milestones like Metropolis and Sunrise are considered Expressionist but not examples of the original, short-lived German style).
But even critics at the time noticed how Wiene’s Expressionism was “more cautious and restrained” this time around, and not always consistent in the film as a whole. To me some of the most striking shots have little to do with the sets: the one where Raskolnikov turns his back to the camera as he advances on the pawnbroker, axe in hand; the one where people in the background grow blurry as Raskolnikov is fainting in the foreground; and the shot where he’s leaving a police station and walks slowly off into a shadowy hallway. The Expressionism does work beautifully in Raskolnikov’s feverish dream sequences, where he’s mocked by the ghoulish, laughing head of Aliona–fancy that!
This made me ponder: why does Caligari seem to be the superior example of German Expressionism? Why does its style seem to “work,” while Raskolnikov‘s seems more superfluous?
I’d say that in Caligari, not only does set design go the limit (even painting light and shadows on the floors and walls), but the actors’ clothes, makeup and acting styles follow suit. Inhabitants of a topsy-turvy world like the town of Holstenwall wouldn’t behave like we “normals,” after all. In Raskolnikov the acting is more naturalistic, and the costumes are normal for Crime and Punishment‘s time period rather than the mishmash of styles (some 19th century, others indefinable) in Caligari. It’s also hard to forget that Raskolnikov‘s setting is the very real city of St. Petersburg, now made unrecognizable, rather than a vague idea of mitteleuropa like Holstenwall, which is easier to accept.
Then there’s the difference in the way the two films begin: Raskolnikov begins with a closeup of the main character, clearly in an agonized mental state. The next shot pulls back and shows him in Expressionist-styled surroundings. In Caligari the title cards themselves even look Expressionistic, and after a prologue with the main characters in their pale makeup a shot introduces Holstenwall in the form of a painted scene. So in Raskolnikov you suddenly find yourself having to get used to the German Expressionist sets. In Caligari the Expressionism is introduced almost like a character, an integral part of the film right up front.
Beyond Caligari noted that when all is said and done: “…The main problem was, of course, adapting the Stanslawsky method for stage actors to the completely different demands a film actor has to fulfill…From today’s point of view, the authenticity of the entire enterprise is due mostly to the endeavors of the Russian actors.” I would have to agree. While you might come to Raskolnikov for the German Expressionism, you might find yourself staying for those performances.
Eisner, Lotte H. The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. London: Thames and Hudson Limited, 1969.
Jung, Uli and Schatzberg, Walter. Beyond Caligari: The Films of Robert Wiene. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999.