Oh To Believe in Another World

William Kentridge

Programme note for first performances of Oh To Believe in Another World, at the KKL in Lucerne, June 2022.

How to make a film to accompany a live orchestral performance of a symphony?

There are already 80 musicians in the orchestra. There is the shine of the brass. The excitement of watching the relationship between the conductor and the musicians. Behind this, to put a film.

The key task in making the film Oh To Believe in Another World  to accompany the Shostakovich symphony no. 10, is to find something that does not turn the symphony into film music – a series of images and narratives that overwhelm the music itself; nor to have something that disappears, that runs simply as series of anodyne backdrops. But the story of Shostakovich and his complicated relationship to the state in the Soviet Union, from its early days just after the 1917 revolution, all the way through to Stalin’s death in 1953, provides the material for thinking visually about the trajectory that Shostakovich had to follow, from the early days of the Soviet Union to the writing of the symphony.

This is a retrospective look at the four decades of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, from the perspective of 1953 when both Stalin died and the first performance of the symphony was presented. In the 1920s there was the death of Lenin; in the 1930s the suicide of Mayakovsky; in the 1940s, the assassination of Trotsky; in the 1950s the death of Stalin – and here we are, almost 70 years later. The report that remains of these decades is in the music of Shostakovich, the one who against expectation got away, and survived.

The film is set inside what appears to be an abandoned Soviet museum, which in fact is made of cardboard, on the table in the artist’s studio (at times there are fragments of the studio visible). Using a miniature camera, we move through the different halls of the museum, which also include a community theatre hall, a public swimming pool, a quarry at the side of the main halls of the museum. A corridor of vitrines holding stuffed historical figures.

Intertitles in the film are from various sources, but the main source are the plays and poems of Vladimir Mayakovsky – who in the early years following the revolution was an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet project. But as the years passed and the hopes of the revolution receded, he grew increasingly disillusioned. In 1930 he shot himself.

The central characters of the film are Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin; Shostakovich and his student Elmira Nazirova (about which there are different theories regarding her relationship with Shostakovich and the 10thSymphony and whether her name is embedded into some of the key signatures of the symphony); Mayakovsky and his lover Lily Brik. These characters appear as puppets, but are also performed by actors inside of puppets. The form is one of collage, and the larger proposition is that one needs to understand history as a form of collage. The artistic medium is a way of thinking about the historical events.

The task of the project is to try to show within the visual film some of the ambiguities Shostakovich had to negotiate, not just in this symphony, but in all the work that he made. We have to find a way to both acknowledge the independence of the music  – that it exists now in the post-Soviet era (we can still feel the emotional journey of the symphony, independent of its historical moorings); but at the same time to acknowledge the particular character of the era from which it comes.