Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962)

*. A Siberian Lady Macbeth? The source is an 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. I don’t believe the Mtsensk District is anywhere near Siberia. I guess the title refers to Katerina and Sergei being packed off to Siberia at the end, though they never get there.
*. As for this movie, it was shot in Yugoslavia and directed by a Pole (Andrzej Wajda). The score borrows from Shostakovich’s opera, derived from the same source and later filmed by Petr Weigl. There was also a silent film version of the novella in 1927 and an updated English adaptation, Lady Macbeth, in 2016.
*. A popular story then, and I think for obvious reasons. And I don’t mean the Shakespeare tie-in. Despite the title there isn’t a strong connection to Macbeth. Katerina is cunning and murderous, but out of lust rather than social ambition. And Sergei is certainly no Macbeth. Instead of linking up with Macbeth then this is a dive into primordial urges and emotions, set in a bleak landscape with nowhere to hide from God or nosey neighbours.
*. It’s a stark story, but Wajda makes it even more raw. In the novella I believe the husband is buried in the cellar of the house. Here he’s thrown into the pig-yard. We see Sergei doing a bit of digging, but is he really burying his former boss? He’d have to dig pretty deep. I think he may just be feeding the corpse to the hogs.
*. I’ve often seen this described as noir, and I guess Katerina (Olivera Markovic) is a kind of femme fatale. But this strikes me as something earlier than noir, more like a kind of Naturalism in the vein of Zola or Dreiser. Those authors are at least its more obvious literary forebears.
*. I think it’s a wonderfully powerful and atmospheric movie, with two perfectly cast leads. You wonder what someone as beautiful as Markovic is doing in a crumby dustbowl village like this, and no doubt she’s wondering the same thing. Meanwhile, Ljuba Tadic is great as the seedy wimp who only gets to play the stud because he’s the tallest guy in town.
*. It does feel a bit stagey at times, but Wajda makes the village into a big stage and knows how to block out the action. I can’t judge the script, but the story is so elemental I hardly noticed the fact that I didn’t know the language. You don’t need subtitles for material like this. Katerina is still our contemporary, and her world doesn’t even feel that alien, especially for anyone anxious about our own slide into neo-feudalism.
*. If it doesn’t play as well today that may be due to the way we don’t care as much for archetypes in our fictions. But Katerina here is complicated. It’s hard to think of another role so dark that we can still find sympathetic. I think in the 2016 version they had to try harder to make this work, and finally went for something very different, an ironic twist to make us feel even worse. Here it’s more complicated. Katerina is larger than her fate.

19 thoughts on “Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962)

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