Tolstoy's famous novel (if you don't remember the story, don't read too far down, or the ending will be spoiled for you) tells the story of beautiful Anna Karenina, who is trapped in a loveless marriage with passionless Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, an influential politician and bureaucrat. Anna is called from St. Petersburg to Moscow, by her brother, Prince Stiva Oblonsky. He has been unfaithful to his wife, Dolly, and he wishes Anna to talk her out her plans to leave him. At the Moscow train station, Anna meets Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a dashing officer who is engaged to marry Dolly's younger sister, Kitty. However, he has no intention of marrying her, because he has fallen instantly in love with Anna. This is, eventually, good news for Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a childhood friend of Stiva, who loves Kitty. Vronsky follows Anna to St. Petersburg (after she leaves Moscow, afraid of her feelings for Vronsky). Despite her husband's warnings (based mostly on how it would appear to society, not out of jealousy), Anna returns Vronsky's love, and she becomes pregnant with his child. A divorce is almost granted to Karenin, yet he relents when Anna almost dies during childbirth. Anna, in her delirium, makes Karenin and Vronsky reconcile. Vronsky, overcome with guilt after momentarily bonding with Karenin, attempts suicide. Despite her own child with Karenin, and her attempts to lead a proper life as a good wife to Karenin, Anna eventually abandons her family, and runs off with Vronsky, becoming the scandal of Russian high society. Anna and Vronsky, without friends and limited within their society that spurns them, eventually understand that they cannot go on together. Anna leaves Vronsky, and commits suicide.
By the time that Anna Karenina went into production in 1965, Soviet cinema (which had flowered again after the fall of Stalin and the relative artistic "freedom" of Khrushchev's reign) had again become fodder for state control, when Khrushchev resigned (by force) in 1964. As well, there was an increased movement to re-visit the early traditions of Russian cinema that emphasized naturalistic, recreated realism, married to epic tragic romances and dramas - all of which were considered "safe" compared to the anything that smacked of artistic individualism that challenged the social conventions of the current Soviet order. That kind of film would be drastically altered by the State, or suppressed altogether. Therefore, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina seemed like a natural for director Aleksandr Zarkhi, a director never known for rocking the Soviet boat in the first place. I don't think it's a stretch to imagine that the Soviets, seeing the enormous international success of one of their own homeland works, Doctor Zhivago (no matter how politically suspect it may have been to the politburo) by David Lean, may have been goaded into making their own grandiose, epic love story for the international crowd.
It's difficult to tell what director Zarkhi intended with Anna Karenina, not only because the print here is questionable, with what looks to be missing scenes (more about that later), but also Zarkhi's own shaky execution of the production at the time. If one listens to the interviews (on disc two) with some of the actors involved in the production, it becomes apparent that Zarkhi himself wasn't sure how to approach the material. Their were numerous casting changes up until the day of production (always a bad sign), the script wasn't finished by the first day of shooting, and indeed, was being written and re-written during production (an even worse sign), and once production began, many involved in the production felt that cinematographer Leonid Kalashnikov had a firmer grip on the material, than Zarkhi (Kalashnikov was the sole director of the two best sequences in the film: Vronsky's horse race, and the tragic finale).
Key scenes integral to the plot seem to be missing here, and it's difficult to say whether Zarkhi decided not to shoot them, or he did shoot them and then cut them (according to one of the actors, an expensive subplot concerning Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin's brother, played by a big Soviet star, was shot, and then dropped), or that they've been left off this terrible print. The most glaring omission is any scene explaining Vronsky's sudden infatuation with Anna. He meets her at the station, and there's an obvious initial attraction, and the next we see them together, he's passionately telling her that he loves her, and what's more, she already knows it. Huh? Where did that come from? If you already know the story, you know where it came from, but not here. We never see the most critical underpinning of the story: their descent into love. It's just blatantly stated, after the fact. Boom. Done. There's a hint of a love scene (just a hint, and it's too bad, because Tatiana Samoilova, partially nude from behind, looks stunning), but trust me: you can't figure out if it's a dream of hers, a wide-awake fantasy, or an actual remembrance of what happened with Vronsky. Poor screenwriting? Poor direction? Poor editing? Or poor print? It's almost impossible to tell from this DVD.
There are many pleasures to be found here, despite the above problems. Chief among them are the performances and the cinematography. Tatiana Samoilova (Cannes favorite The Cranes Are Flying) is affecting as Anna; it's a different portrayal of this famous character than you're probably used to. By design by both the director and actress, she's a much less sympathetic Anna (as Tolstoy would have wanted it), alternately flighty and willful, desperately romantic, and yet, needy to the extreme of pushing Vronsky away (who doesn't come off very well as a hero, either). It's not an overly dramatic performance, but Samoilova accomplishes much with just her eyes (as all great actors do), and she makes interesting choices throughout the performance. Vasili Lanovoy as Vronsky cuts an appropriately dashing figure as the aristocratic army officer. But Lanovoy (interestingly enough, Samoilova's real-life ex-husband at the time of filming), doesn't play Vronsky as a tragic figure, either. Vain, selfish, wrapped up in his own needs and wants, once he has made Anna his own, he comes to realize that he's abandoned all of the principles and norms of his class, and rejects Anna in favor of them. It's an unheroic hero performance that lends depth to the proceedings.
Cinematographer Leonid Kalashnikov achieves some amazing effects - both large-scale and small -- with his restless, tracking camera and frosty palette of colors. Vronsky's horse race is a delirious series of close shots of charging horse heads, crowded in the frame, giving the viewer a vertiginous feeling of hanging onto the back of a steed. It's as exciting as the chariot race in Ben-Hur, unfortunately ruined by a final, furious, ridiculous montage that alternates shots of the horse's head and Anna's face, making the viewer laugh, and ruining the spectacular crash that follows. There's also the final scene, that achieves an almost spectral awe in its perfect, cramped mise-en-scene. Both scenes were shot exclusively by Kalashnikov (which further makes Zarkhi's contributions suspect). But perhaps my favorite moment in the film is a small, short one that you might almost miss, but that perfectly sums up the power and passion inherent in the film's main theme. Anna is sitting in her train compartment, rocking gently, sensuously, back and forth, as she remembers dancing with Vronsky. It's a perfect visual bridge from the earlier ballroom sequence where they dance togther, where Anna now "dances" on her seat, alone, lost in her sensual memory. The camera starts off blurry, and slowly racks into focus on her dreamy, dewy face. It's a breathtaking moment, and clearly an indication of Kalashnikov's art. It's such a shame that the print used here gives no indication of how clear and detailed the film might have looked, in its original, pristine 70mm clarity.
I received a great email from a reader, Jon Paul, who gave some good insight as to what might have happened to the print here for Anna Karenin. He's referencing RusCiCo's DVD of Sergei Bondarchuk's magnificent War and Peace, and the extras on the disc:
Here's another helpful email from reader Randy Riddle, who's commenting on Jon Paul's email:
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.