Adapting the Cinema to Shakespeare: Hamlet (Grigori Kozintsev, 1964)

It is perhaps a measure of the state of Soviet film culture in the Khrushchev era that the country’s highest grossing film of 1964 was a 140-minute Shakespeare adaptation directed by a filmmaker who had cut his teeth in the experimental workshops of the silent era. Grigori Kozintsev’s Gamlet (Hamlet, 1964) forms a diptych with his later film Korol Lir (King Lear, 1973), but many of its formal techniques also hark back to the director’s earlier collaborations with Leonid Trauberg, such as Shinel (The Overcoat, 1926) Novyy Vavilon (The New Babylon, 1929) and the Maxim trilogy (1934-38). Shot on black and white 70mm film in the 2.35:1 “Sovscope” format, the spectacular scenery, striking score and inimitable acting performances of Kozintsev’s Hamlet have led to its reputation as one of the best filmed adaptations of Shakespeare, and attest to the director’s stated intention that the goal of the film was “not to adapt Shakespeare to the cinema, but to adapt the cinema to Shakespeare.”1 Making use of Boris Pasternak’s translation of the original text into contemporary Russian and the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, Hamlet is the site for an encounter between three of the Soviet Union’s foremost artists. With this work, Kozintsev also renewed the tradition in Soviet cinema of combining artistic practice with film theory. His book Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, which appeared in English translation in 1966, combines a general study of Shakespeare’s work and its repercussions in the centuries following the artist’s own lifetime with extracts from Kozintsev’s journal entries from the time of Hamlet’s filming, a pairing of film and theoretical text that was followed in 1973 when the release of his second Shakespeare film was accompanied by the publication of a further volume, King Lear: The Space of Tragedy.2

In the opening of the appendix to Time and Conscience, Kozintsev confesses that his production of Hamlet has a longer provenance than he has usually cared to admit. As he relates: “The director Sergei Gerasimov recently recalled the distant past: it seems that I suggested to him (then a student at our workshop) that he rework the famous tragedy, using a modern tempo, and perform it in pantomime. This all happened in FEKS about forty years ago.” Concluding his anecdote, Kozintsev wryly notes that, “Luckily for me, no materials concerning this experiment have been preserved.”3 Throughout his two books, Kozintsev, while conceding the enormous influence that his 1920s experiments had for his later work, consistently maintains the gulf separating that period from the time of his Shakespeare adaptations. In The Space of Tragedy, he asserts that while, “What we did then [in the 1920s] helped me now in making a Shakespearean film,” he was unable to “work in the same way now” for the reason that “a lot of water had flowed under the bridge since then and even more blood. The world had changed.” Kozintsev can thus maintain that the duration of his “closer acquaintance with the Prince” should be given “a round figure – ten years,” with the justification that it was at this point that “I began to jot the first entries into my diary.”4 Similarly, he also posits the inexhaustibility of his source texts: “There are certain books which you cannot claim to ‘have read’; you ‘are reading’ Shakespeare every time. Having produced it in the theatre and written a study on it, I am still reading Hamlet.”[Ibid., p. 225]


The rugged landscapes of Hamlet, here during the “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

Perhaps the most immediately noticeable aspect of Kozintsev’s Hamlet is the act of opening Shakespeare’s play out to the elements, through the prominent role of location shooting. Capturing the sublimity of the rugged landscapes shown in the film was one of the primary means through which Kozintsev was able to adhere to his self-imposed command that “the screen must be charged with the electricity of tragedy”, and that “underneath the flow of Shakespeare must appear a texture of dynamic imagery.”5 Furthermore, it was the urge to expose the contents of Shakespeare’s corpus to the elemental forces of the natural world that pushed Kozintsev to pass from theatrical stagings of Hamlet in the Pushkin theatre to a filmed version of the play. As the filmmaker stated: “I am a movie director, and often, in the middle of the beautiful theatre which Rossi had designed, I missed the northern winds and the broad spaces of the sea. […] The opportunity of looking into the very depth of Hamlet’s soul was not enough for me. I desperately needed a movie camera.”6

Emphasising the northern setting of Hamlet was a key concern for Kozintsev, and even, as Sokolyansky notes, determined the use of black and white film stock, to “capture the cool greys of the north,” in opposition to the colour stock used for the “warm south” of his earlier film Don Quixote (1957).7. An aesthetic correspondence between the thematic concerns of Hamlet, its narrative of social tumult and unrest, and the physical qualities of the on-screen landscape was sought after, as a fervent passage from The Space of Tragedy attests:

Suffering passes over the whole world like a spasm and even the rocks have split and fallen in ruins, a cleft has appeared in the rocky mass. The torments of men have surrendered to the torment of the material world. It is an unfriendly, ruined and distorted world: there is nothing to eat, nowhere to sit and nowhere to shelter; a mean, cruel and heartless nature. The very earth is dry, stony, and the beggars find it hard to walk on with their bare feet… And so, step by step, we discovered the land of tragedy.8

If the influence of the 1920s Soviet montage school of filmmaking can be found anywhere in Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films, it is in his approach to location-shooting, and this is confirmed in Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, when he writes: “The general view of the castle must not be filmed. The image will appear only in the unity of sensations of Elsinore’s various aspects. And its external appearance, in the montage of the sequences filmed in a variety of places.”9 More specifically, Kozintsev reveals that, in the creative geography resulting from this method of working, “Hamlet took his first steps in our film on the shores of the Baltic Sea and his second by the Black Sea; there were several hours of flying time between the two.”10


Hamlet behind “bars”.

Throughout Hamlet, the recourse to location shooting affords Kozintsev the opportunity to alternate between the stifling claustrophobia of interior shots and the wide expanses of untrammelled landscapes, a practice which is frequently used to great effect. Invariably, a general correspondence is maintained between political/social repression and interiors, on the one hand, and the striving for basic freedom and exterior shots, on the other hand. Indeed, this was demonstrated not only by several interior scenes in Hamlet where characters are pictorially shown behind “bars” (usually banisters or bedposts in the scene), but also by the difficulties Kozintsev experienced with finding the appropriate setting for the Prince’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. After experimenting with various interior settings involving lengthy corridors or alleyways, Kozintsev found his desired solution on the Crimean coastline, at a site where, “the rocks formed huge blocks and, in order to find our way to the sea, we had to displace them and negotiate more piles of rocks. The camera followed behind Hamlet – the cold, grey-black surfaces towered over him, and one impasse followed another.” Such a solution was justified with the reasoning that “the whole point was to link the rhythm of the cine camera’s movements with the main character’s train of thought.”11


Dmitri Shostakovich

Undeniably, a significant part of the renown of Kozintsev’s film derives from the participation of Shostakovich in composing its score. Indeed, the collaboration between Kozintsev and Shostakovich ought to be recognised as one of the most prodigious intermedial artistic partnerships of recent times – ranking, in terms of film-scores, with Prokofiev’s role in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky or Artur Honneger’s compositions for Abel Gance. That the composer’s participation was integral for the fashioning of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare adaptations was readily acknowledged by the director, who wrote:

“I have no problem about film music. I do not take it upon myself to judge what sort of music one should have. […] I have not given it any thought. Shostakovich’s music is another matter. There is no point in my thinking about it. I would not be able to make a Shakespearean film without it just as I would not be able to do without Pasternak’s translation. What do I think is the main point about it – the feeling of tragedy? This is an important quality. But not just tragedy… philosophy, and a general concept of the whole world?”12

The music of the composer of the Leningrad Symphony stands, above all, in the filmmaker’s view, for “a ferocious hatred of cruelty, the cult of power and the oppression of justice,” and it is this quality which he seeks for the Shakespeare films.13


Hamlet sees the ghost of his father.

In Hamlet, the presiding principle was to create “themes” associated with individual characters. As such, the film is powerfully bookended by the Hamlet theme – rendered distinctly more mournfully in its latter outing. Still more striking, however, is the association of a blustering, orotund composition with the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet père. First used, in combination with bolting horses, thrashing waves and a stormy atmosphere, to underline the Ghost’s imposing, even terrifying figure when first seen by Hamlet, the theme’s repetition when the Prince next “sees” his father’s ghost, in Gertrude’s chamber, offers an intriguing formal solution to one of the thorniest issues in Hamlet-interpretation. The Ghost is initially viewed not only by Hamlet, but also by Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo. In the subsequent scene, however, it seems only to appear to Hamlet – as the Queen insists, in both text and film, that “this bodiless creation ecstasy” is “the very coinage of your brain” – and could, unlike in the earlier scene, be understood as the product of his own delusional state. Kozintsev handles this paradox by deliberately refraining from visibly showing the Ghost at the moment Hamlet sees him in Gertrude’s chamber (or even allowing the audience to hear his words). Instead a close-up of Hamlet’s terrified face is accompanied by a repetition of the Shostakovich theme associated with the Ghost: his image is thus present auratically, by having been synesthesically paired with a musical refrain. There is no need to show the Ghost, as it is evoked through other means, and Kozintsev thus ingeniously leaves the objective reality of its appearance as an open question, to be decided upon freely by the spectator.

A period piece drawn from a canonical work of world literature, Kozintsev’s Hamlet has the surface allure of a highly traditional film, despite being made at the height of the global “new wave” in cinema. Indeed, in a contemporaneous response to the film, film historian and Communist Party member Georges Sadoul polemicised against “certain people today [who] have reproached Hamlet for being too traditional.” But the writer seems to concede the point, by rhetorically asking: “Do we ask of Renoir, Fritz Lang or John Ford, when they direct films today, to adopt a ‘new wave’ style?”14 And yet, elements of the film exhibit innovative, even highly radical formal qualities. Above all, it was the desire of Kozintsev to give Shakespeare a renewed political resonance which pushed him to redefine the boundaries of cinematic convention. This desire is enigmatically evoked in the closing lines of Time and Conscience, when the filmmaker reminds the reader that Hamlet “was written in 1600 and performed in the forty-sixth year after the October Revolution.”15



  1. Jean de Baroncelli, “Un Hamlet soviétique mais fidèlement shakespearien”, Le Monde, September 11, 1964.
  2. See Grigori Kozintsev, Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, trans. Joyce Vining (New York: Hill and Wang, 1966); and Grigori Kozintsev, King Lear: The Space of Tragedy, trans. Mary Mackintosh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).
  3. Kozintsev, Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, op. cit., p. 211. FEKS was an experimental workshop for film actors established by Kozintsev and Trauberg in the 1920s.
  4. Ibid., p. 212
  5. Kozintsev, King Lear: The Space of Tragedy, op. cit., p. 172
  6. Kozintsev, Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, op. cit., p. 224.
  7. Mark Sokolyansky, “Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet and King Lear”, in Russell Jackson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare in Film (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2007), pp. 199-211, here p. 201
  8. Kozintsev, King Lear: The Space of Tragedy, op. cit. p. 131.
  9. Kozintsev, Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, op. cit., p. 267.
  10. Kozintsev, King Lear: The Space of Tragedy, op. cit., p. 80.
  11. Ibid., p. 115
  12. Ibid., p. 254.
  13. Ibid.
  14. George Sadoul, “La chronique de Georges Sadoul”, Les Lettres françaises, November 12, 1964.
  15. Kozintsev, Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, op. cit., p. 276.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is a doctoral candidate in Film Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University and book reviews editor at Senses of Cinema