Opera Meets Film: How Andrzej Żuławski’s ‘Boris Godunov’ Shows Past as Prologue

By John Vandevert

In January 1989, the Polish film director Andrzej Żuławski released his film “Boris Godunov,” a film that cost seven million dollars to create. It featured a live production of the monster opera conducted by the eminent Soviet cellist and conductor, Mstislav Rostropovich. The film would re-conceptualize the opera in a mise en abyme (self-reflection) style, layering the operatic performance inside a cinematic performance with shots of the camera crew and anachronistic clips of the Soviet life, thus destabilizing the identifiable barrier between the operatic universe and real-life.

Decrying the film as “anti-Boris Godunov,” Żuławski attempted to showcase the heinousness of the Soviet regime and, by extension, Communism itself. Poland (his native land) was steeped in the destructive ideology until the fall of 1989. The same year, the Berlin Wall fell after the revolutionary period known as the “Autumn of Nations,” effectively forcing the East Germans to capitulate. Thus, the film inadvertently becomes a premonitory symbol of the consequences of the abuse of power, the corruption of the soul, and the inevitable destruction of those in undeserved power. It reads as poetic justice.

Released only five weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall and preceded by the equally significant Polish Solidarity Movement, the fact that the film was released in 1989 with a plot that unambiguously highlighted the inordinate dreams of Tsarist grandeur by Lithuanian-noble Grigoriy Otrepyev (False Dmitry) is eerily akin to the entire length of Russian Sovietism, where barbarism, selfishness, and duplicity defined every leader. Such characteristics are also part of Polish Communist history. As soon as they expunged Nazism, Communism was piteously embraced. But in 1953, upon Stalin’s death, Poland’s own “Times of Trouble” would begin, and only in 1970 would modernism be attempted, and even then, it was half-hearted. In 1980, the first governmentally acknowledged sovereign trade union was formed. Yet, once Gorbachev introduced Perestroika in 1985, Poland again politically destabilized. This goes to show how unnervingly topical Żuławski had made his film. Despite nearly two-thirds of the opera being cut from the film (a point completely on-brand for the opera), any borders separating drama and life smudge. Because of the ongoing events unfolding in Ukraine, the narrative of “Boris Godunov” seems close to home.

Who Has the Power?

Żuławski, through his opera and its dramaturgical retelling of the tumultuous happenings during the Times of Trouble and the reign of the False Dmitry, attempted to convey through the film his animosity towards Russia following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Keep in mind that Andrzej Żuławski, a Ukrainian-born film director whose controversial and dense career inside Communist Poland was punctuated by the banned film “The Devil” (1927), a visceral and brutal allegory of the horrors brought about by the Communist regime. That film led to his extradition to France, and he knew first-hand the nefariousness of exploited power and man’s susceptibility toward corruption. Thus, when Communism officially ended in Poland as the result of the sweeping revolutionary movements in the fall of 1989, Żuławski’s film gained incredible significance. It became a palpable allegory against the fantastically dispassionate and utopian ideals created by not only Russian imperialism as the Soviet Union but the whole European project of totalitarianism itself.

While the film told the sacred/secular epic of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” it did so knowing that what was being portrayed was not some antiquarian historical occurrence but the allegorical representation of late-Soviet Russia. It foregrounded the consequential ramifications of its inordinately bestial ignorance of morals, ethics, and values. When the film was released, and likewise, when the opera was first performed, audiences would have been very apt to notice the work’s real-life teachings, with themes like Godunov’s descent into madness because of his plot, the blind faith of the masses in anyone in power, as well as their unquestionable loyalty.



As in Opera So in Life

It is helpful to give a brief synopsis of the opera, as correlations between the opera and their real-life counterparts remain ambiguous. In Act one, temporary Tsar Boris Godunov has retired. The coerced townspeople hampered this as they wanted Boris to reinstate himself as Tsar (in the original, the townspeople are hesitant to endorse this illusory ‘Dmitry’). Following his dubious ascendance, the people shout ‘Glory’ (Slava), all while the revolutionary whole-tone scale decorates the atmosphere—a never-before-heard phenomenon in Russian music at the time. A cut-away scene then depicts novice monk Grigoriy relaying his dream to the senior Pimen, who, in the original, tells of how Ivan IV’s son, the real Dmitry, was mysteriously murdered at the hands of an unknown assailant. Grigoriy gets the idea to pose as the Pretender (an unprovable heir to the throne) and exact his holy judgment upon Boris. Already, one can see how easily the divine can be corrupted and how quickly we give up the connection to morals and virtuous living in the pursuit of power. After a trip to a bar in disguise, a duplicitous police encounter, and a double-cross, the ex-monk Grigoriy vows to become Tsar of Russia and runs into the night with a knife in hand.

The whole of Act two is primarily spent spotlighting Boris and the many challenges of his gained status, including a Lady Macbeth “bloody dagger” moment in the spectral form of the murdered Dmitry. This pushes Boris into mania and frenzied desperation, begging on his knees for forgiveness for the unjustified killing. Here, we see what Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov from “Crime and Punishment” took an entire novel to do: confess his crimes. Yet, with Boris, he begs forgiveness but will not publicly denounce himself. We could draw parallels between the Ukrainian war and Putin. Responsibility for so much suffering does not come for free, and sooner or later one’s moralistic integrity catches up with the unrestrained and brutal ego. Once this occurs, the dispassionate facade crumbles.

The entirety of Act three continues the “Macbeth,” parallel. Marina Mniszech, the daughter of prominent Polish nobles looking to control Russia any way they could, is depicted as conniving. She is morose in her boredom and unquenchable in her desire for power, She spars with the False Dmitry (Grigoriy) over how he will prove to her his devotion, and that proof is becoming Tsar. When she refuses him, he taunts her by having her publicly shamed for rejecting him once he’s Tsar. Yet, she becomes enraptured by him, and the couple sings an animalistic orgy of a duet about their ‘devotion’ to each other. The final Act sees the False Dmitry validated as the true leader of Russia by a group of men. The deacon does the opposite, creating a tension between the sacred truth and the secular lie—righteousness and deceit. Following a Duma session where the boyars (legislators, if you will) decide on the validity of False Dmitry’s claim to power, we are greeted by a disheveled Boris who, after a series of imbricated events, fails to deal with his guilty conscious and is convinced he is dying. The last scene sees the townspeople denounce Boris as Tsar, and endorse the False Dmitry as the true ruler of Russia, all while the “Holy Fool” sings a lament for the downfall of Russia. One doesn’t have to look very far to observe how little things have changed.

Nothing but a Chimera

One of the main problems with the film, at least from Rostropovich’s perspective, was the egregious amounts of cuts that Żuławski made to his performance, using only two hours of the work’s 3.5 hour run-time. Along with sound effects that cheapened the music and distracted from its beauty in the conductor’s mind. It was so bad, in his estimation, that Rostropovich argued that the film dirtied the “Russian soul.” Further, Żuławski used anachronistic references to Stalin’s Russia throughout the film in a narratival attempt to link the duplicity of the Stalinist regime to that of late-Sovietism and 19th-century Tsardom. The whole fuss ended in a controversial court case, with the judge ordering that the film must include a warning at the beginning, letting viewers know of the conductor’s disapproval. But the court also ruled that it was well within Żuławski’s creative control to alter the film any way he wished. The whole polemic of regierthatre and werktreue aside, the cutting of the opera for the film can be interpreted in many ways, among them the frank statement, “There’s nothing wrong with the cuts, as “Boris Godunov’s” very lifespan as an opera is one of cuts and then more cuts!”

While I agree, considering Mussorgsky’s 1874 premiere at The Mariinsky Theatre itself featured substantial cuts because of its appreciable length, larger cuts followed and occurred even more frequently following its premiere, most of which were politically motivated. It’s important to understand that it wasn’t just about the cuts but Żuławski’s purposeful denaturing of the opera through crass sound effects and intentionally radical correlations between Stalin and Boris that caused such consternation. As Żuławski admitted later on, because of his clear antagonism toward the pro-Orthodox status of the libretto, in Act three, the covert Jesuit Rangoni pleads with Lady Macbeth’s equivalent Marina to rid Russia of the heretics (Russian Orthodoxy) for the “true faith” (Roman Catholicism). This served as an allegory for the Western world’s malignant influence, seeking ostensibly to destroy Russia from the inside out. The entire opera, in fact, can be seen as Mussorgsky’s internal struggle to determine where his faith lies, in the West with its progress and innovation or the East, steeped in tradition and convention. Much like Żuławski in Poland, Richard Taruskin points out that Mussorgsky was “an institutional outsider and a rebellious rejector of European savoir-faire;” and yet, “he was more thoroughly and profoundly obsessed than any other member of his musical generation by narodnost [loosely translated to national pride].” Thus, to include scenes like 19th-century serfs behind modern barbed wire, with Soviet armed guards patrolling, unashamed female nudity, uncovered sexual intercourse, and epoch-destroying crosses show not only the paradox of opera [i.e. it’s fiction] but the faith we have in the phrase “things get better.” Żuławski may have cut the opera, but in the end, he revealed the plot far more accurately than the opera may allow for due to its complexity. By interpolating the decadence and horrors of Stalinist life onto the narratival battlefield of Mussorgsky’s “Godunov,” Żuławski destroyed the fickle idea that the Boris’ murder was absolvable.

The film is now secure in cinematic history, having served its socio-political purpose as intended. It acts as a reminder of the power of film to personify contemporary issues through the lens of historical revisitation, cautioning us about how close we are to repeating history if we are not careful. The film conjoins epochs, mashing together the serfish/monarchial reality of the Tsarist 19th-century with the destitute bleakness of the Stalinist 20th-century, this through the matured, commercialist vision of the Gorbachovian late-20th century, with nudity, sex, rubber duckies, serfs in barber-wire camps, and film equipment obscuring any easy idea of historical chronology. In the opera “Boris Godunov,” one of the many false claimants to the Tsarist throne following the death of Ivan IV (or Ivan the Terrible), is slowly revealed to have killed Ivan IV’s young son Dmitry Ivanovich in order to ascend the throne for himself. The whole opera revolves around him, coming to terms with his crime, while a flurry of subplots swirls around him. In history, it was never clear who killed him, and as soon as he came, Boris died and was replaced by his son, Fyodor II, who was likewise murdered.

Thus, to cinematize this opera is one thing, but merging Stalinist politics and meta-dimensionality into the mix is another thing entirely, something many mainstream filmmakers no longer do, as our desire to escape into the world of cinema is seemingly too great. Zulawski’s film epitomized in its castigation of Russian imperialism, Sovietism, Communism, and totalitarianism that the abuse of power does not belong to any epoch and is just as alive today as it was in the 19th century.


Opera Meets Film