This semester the Russian Club hosted a three night event in Kaufman Hall airing the entire film series of War and Peace, originally written by Leo Tolstoy. We watched the 1996-1967 series version, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. Of course, this version was spoken in Russian and French with English subtitles and just over 7 hours long, hence the 3 night event. Prior to this event, I read the entire War and Peace, translated into English, for the Tolstoy class.
For those unfamiliar with War and Peace, it is a juxtaposition of history and narrative, difficult to name as a novel or text in a specific genre, published starting in 1865. It is broken into four volumes and two epilogues, and further broken into chapters. It is told with the focus of characters belonging to five noble, important Russian families. At the surface level, it tells the history of the French invasion of Russia, the effects on Russian society by Napoleon’s power, and society’s inner dramatic workings during this time. Upon deeper examination, there are many critical points for the reader to interpret.
Most noticeably, Tolstoy implements an aspect of dualism throughout the entire text. Obviously, from the title, there is a clash and consideration of the contrast between war and peace. Initially, readers imagine war to be on the front and peace to be in the drawing room. However, many men find inner peace, their calling, or the meaning of life while in marching ranks and more havoc is wreaked in their lives while at the mercy of gossip circles and charming women back at home. There is an aspect of dualism in the two styles the book is presented in: history and narrative. Some parts of history and narrative are blended together. For example, Napoleon was a genuine historical figure that now receives a personal, narrative side in War and Peace. The descriptions of balls and society life that seem like an intriguing fairytale are simultaneously a record of peoples’ lifestyles of this era. However, for most of the text, narrative sections and historical sections are simply fragmented and placed alongside one another with no smooth transition, almost the same way they would have been in real life: war goes on while the people at home continue living. A third element of dualism involves the pairing up of different characters, much like a “character foil” we all know so well. The actions, views, and emotions of the best friends Pierre Bezukhov, the illegimate son of a count that inherits all, becomes rich, struggles with understanding his own moral code, and falls in love with a girl that is as decisive as she likes to change her mind, and Andrei Bolkonsky, an independent military man that is burnt out from his arrogance, stuck in a rut, nearly dies multiple times, falls in love with the same woman as Pierre, and finally discovers his meaning of life, are comparable for the purposes of religious value and moral value comparisons. Through all of the characters actions and responses, values and emotions, ups and downs, weaknesses and growths, Tolstoy urges the reader to consider many deep importances of life while also bringing to light a humanistic side of the history of this period.
The movie itself felt very different than the text. Many scenes were strange, in comparison to the movies today and the way that I imagined the scenes in my head. They were prolonged for minutes at a time with little to no speech with focus on one or two characters’ facial expressions. Parts of the screen would be blurred out, like a vignette, in order to draw watchers’ attention to a certain focus. I think that this was the equivalent to Tolstoy’s lengthy descriptions of a particular character’s feelings and imagery in a certain scene and simply translated to screen in a way I was unfamiliar with.