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Great Russian Writers: Fyodor Dostoevsky
The arts-and-literature homevideo label Kultur is issuing eight individual DVDs under the umbrella title "Great Russian Writers." There are no copyright dates on the discs' packaging or on the programs themselves, but the 25-minute films appear to date from the 1970s. They were originally produced in Russia and reworked with English narration by Britain's Channel 4, and seem best suited to elementary-school students.
The disk devoted to Dostoevsky adds nothing for anyone who has actually read anything by or about the author, and provides very little to pique the interest of the uninitiated. You immediately lower your expectations when the first line of narration is, "This is the story of one of the greatest writers of all time." What follows is hardly "the story," but simply a book report that ticks off major life events and mentions the novels that made the writer famous. The narration (spoken by British actor Alan Dobie, who starred in notable TV adaptations of great Russian novels) is augmented by photos of Dostoevsky, paintings and drawings from the mid-19th century, and present-day footage of some of the places the writer lived in or wrote about.
We learn that Dostoevsky was the son of a doctor, served in the military as a young man, then joined a Western-leaning intellectual circle, which led to his arrest by the state and his being brought to the brink of execution. Nothing is said about the theory that this nerve-shattering incident exacerbated Dostoevsky's epilepsy (or even that he suffered from the grand mal) or that the hero of his novel "The Idiot" is an epileptic. There are mentions of the early novels "Poor Folk" and "The House of the Dead," but the short work "Notes From the Underground," the profound 1864 turning point that set the table for the titanic masterworks to follow, is overlooked. For viewers wanting some meat and potatoes about Dostoevsky's themes and style, the psychological probings of his books and his place as a forerunner of 20th century existentialism, well, even CliffsNotes would be a better source to turn to.
Kultur's eight separately available DVDs -- the others are on Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, Pasternak, Pushkin, Mayakovsky and Blok -- are simple affairs: just the films, no extras. The titles have a uniform cover design in the manner of a book club of classic literature. The Dostoevsky disc has a simple menu offering "Play" and "Chapters." The picture is a decent, clean transfer of the shot-on-film original and is in the old TV standard of 1.33:1. The sound is Dolby 2.0 and English is the only soundtrack option.
Only very young viewers, if that, will get anything out of this extremely cursory and simplistic survey of the life and work of Fyodor Dostoevsky. The made-for-TV program's "and then" approach to narrative is something grade-schoolers will appreciate, but when it's over they probably won't get why the bearded guy is such a big deal. Granted, it's tough to say what needs to be said about one of the 19th century's key literary and intellectual figures in just 25 minutes, but this film's approach is not the way to go.