Friday 21 December 2012

Lieutenant Kijé (1934)

This Russian comedy, 'Поручик Киже', has been largely forgotten (except, perhaps, in Russia, where I presently have no data-gatherers), and seems to be wholly unavailable on VHS or DVD.  I had thought it might have lapsed into the public domain and been exploited by some cheap DVD producer on the basis of its famous soundtrack - but since this has not happened I can only guess the Prokofiev estate is blocking it, since the music he wrote for it, while rightly famed (you almost certainly know the Troika) is crudely performed and recorded, and often accompanied here by bawdy lyrics.

The whole film can be found on Youtube, however, where I would suggest you might give it your attention.  'This is the story of a spelling mistake,' as we read at the film's beginning.  I'll give you a brief idea of the premise.  It's 1800, and the Tsar of Russia is asleep.  The palace guards, up until then marching with the help of early split-screen effects, stop where the are, mid-step, toes in the air.  Everybody stops because the Tsar is asleep.

Some guy, elsewhere in the palace - if the film names any of its characters, bar Kijé, I have remained oblivious - is being seduced by a woman pretending to be a cat.  She pinches his bottom, and he cries aloud, in surprise rather than pain.  According to the English subtitles, he shouts 'Ga-oo-ah-oo-ah-r-r-r-...!!', which is loud enough to wake the sleeping Tsar, and apparently sounds enough like the Russian word for 'guard' that the awoken tyrant demands to know who has called for a guard - and begins planning punishments for them.

This picture describes the film better than my words could.

The guards' daily orders are being transcribed onto fresh paper by a clerk who manages, though a no-doubt rib-tickling Russian pun, to make a duplication of syllables into the name 'Kijé'.  One of those things that doesn't quite work in English, but never mind.  Before the mistake can be corrected the nonexistent Kijé gets the blame for shouting, and is promptly banished to Siberia - with, as they say, hilarious consequences.  The rest of the film sees him recalled and married off to the jocular lady pictured above, who relishes the prospect of being married to (by that point) a general, even one who doesn't exist.

Perhaps appropriately, the film's comedy loses something in translation from screen to the page (though I know this blog is also on a screen), but the whole film is enjoyably silly, well put-together, and especially worth watching if you already have some familiarity with Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé suite.  It has a Christmassy flavour - perhaps down to the sleigh-bells, the Siberian snow, the booziness and the folk-tale quality.  There's something of pantomime to it, and it fills eighty minutes comfortably enough.  I can't offer the film high praise, but I've watched it twice and both times found it engaging and amusing - and both times forgotten almost every detail within a few days.


  1. "'Ga-oo-ah-oo-ah-r-r-r-...!" is meant to sound like the ENGLISH word "Guard", minus the D. In the Russian audio he actually cries something like "Ka-ra-ooooh!" which sounds like "Karaul" - Guard.