Scriptwriters: Viktor Shklovsky, Vasily Fedorov (?)
Director: Vasily Fedorov
Production designer: Vladimir Egorov
Cast: Nikolay Khmelyov, Nikolay Podgorny, Nikolay Vitovtov, Nikolay Radin, Vladimir Belokurov, Vasily Kovrigin, Grigory Sochevko, Gleb Kuznetsov, Vladimir Uralsky, Viktor Shklovsky
There have been plenty of discussions about the film over the decades. At the time of its release, it almost caused a scandal. But the fate of the "House of Death" is such that most of the disputes were not centered on being "for" or "against" it, but from what positions to be "against" it. Fedorov's "House of Death" has traditionally been considered a failure, but as the history of art shows, it is precisely a careful consideration of failures that can tell us much more about the time, about the layering of styles, and about the ambivalence of conceptions than the analysis of the most distilled masterpiece.
Undoubtedly, Nikolay Khmelyov’s major work in cinema, especially in the role of Dostoevsky, attracts attention in itself, as well as the fact that the scriptwriter is Viktor Shklovsky (who also plays the role of Petrashevsky, which is a completely unique occurrence), but all these things are fairly obvious. It would be more interesting, it seems, to talk about more sensitive, but no less significant features of the film.
For theater director Fedorov, "House of Death" was the first work in the cinema. By that time, he was already a former student of Vsevolod Meyerhold (like many, he had left the master, and it had happened as a result of a quarrel during the production of the play "Roar, China!"). Fedorov, as a director, sought to develop the tendencies of GosTIM (later - the State Theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold) of the early 1920s, while Meyerhold himself at the time was already looking for a different aesthetics.
In cinema, Fedorov tries to demonstrate his knowledge of the avant-garde editing aesthetics for which Soviet cinema of the 1920s was famous, and at the same time, his readiness to master various approaches to the use of sound.
But apart from the problem of cinematic style, the film found itself in an even more difficult situation related to the very fact that it addressed the personality of Dostoevsky. Is he a revolutionary or a mystic and a reactionary? To what extent can the interpretation be skewed in one direction or another? In historical and literary science, the beginning of the 1930s was a period of constant mutual reproaches with an aggressive political undertone. In addition, "House of Death" was released two weeks before the liquidation of the RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) and found itself in the midst of ideological controversy.
The film is accompanied by a lengthy commentary by the Marxist literary scholar Petr Kogan (6 minutes at the beginning of the film and 1.5 minutes at the end), who explains: “Dostoevsky, a rebel in his youth, a revolutionary, <...> became a friend of the executioners of the people, Pobedonostsev and Dubelt <...>, but he achieved this at the cost of a great inner shock. He, once a great writer, has ceased to be a great writer". However, neither this nor the very portrayal of Dostoevsky as a weak-willed man, suppressed by the tsarist officials, did not soften the semi-official ideologues, outraged by the condescending sentimental tone of the film. This is most clearly formulated in a review by David Zaslavsky: “The authors of “House of Death” followed the path of liberal sugary compassion for the “humiliated and insulted”, who later became triumphant insulters themselves. <...> They could not saturate their picture with active hostility to the political views of Dostoevsky, because they did not feel such hostility". (Zaslavsky D.I. Kinogroshik [A film penny] // Pravda. 1932. 137. 19 May. S. 4.) And half a century later, not long before Perestroika, Evgeny Gromov, who was quite ideologically "grounded", would be no less annoyed with the opposite: “The film’s conception is <…> completely wrong <…>. The great writer of the Russian land, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, is presented as a "lumpen intellectual", "an accomplice of reaction””. (Gromov E.S. Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov. M.: Iskusstvo, 1984. S. 268–269.)
Already in 1932, the authors had to make excuses. It is significant that Fedorov admitted ideological accusations: “all the defects (along the political line) of the film are, firstly, due to the leadership and, secondly, due to the organic properties of the script” (Fedorov V.F. Schet rezhissera [Director’s account] // Kino. 1932. 25. 30 May. S. 3.) (Meanwhile, in the catalog “Sovetskie khudozhestvenny fil’my” [Soviet Feature Films] (1961), Fedorov is named the co-author of the script, which is different from the credits). At the same time, he reacted badly to a review by Boris Alpers, without going deeply into the matter, but only specifying that the critic allegedly "does not understand anything". Meanwhile, Alpers was the only one who subjected the film to a detailed aesthetic analysis with very caustic conclusions: ““House of Death” is an example of a fake historical film, <...> no matter what faces the director pulls and no matter how meaningfully he winks at the audience”. (Alpers B.V. “Myortvyi dom” ["House of Death”] // Alpers B.V. Dnevnik kinokritika: 1928-1937 [Diary of a Film Critic: 1928–1937]. M.: Novoe tysyacheletie, 1995.)
Today, “House of Death” is valuable not only for its cast, but also for reflecting the conceptual contradictions of the early 1930s. The film provides an opportunity to a detached look at the historical poetics of Soviet cinema, not tied to a "neat classification" of stylistic tendencies but seen from the outside by a theater director. Giving the already mentioned excuses, Shklovsky wrote: “We do not know how to do an absolute, error-free thing <...>. We need to understand that we are still people on their way”. (Shklovsky V.B. “Kto vinovat?” [Who is to blame?] // Kino. 1932. 25. 30 May. S. 3.) This is what makes "House of Death" remarkable: it marks the way.