Tolstoy in Utah: How I waited 10 years to finish ‘War and Peace’

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The year I turned 8, my parents took us on a road trip to Colorado. We spent the first night in a hotel in Utah, and before going to sleep, my mother turned on the TV to see what was on. She landed on Turner Classic Movies, and the hotel room dissolved into chaos. There were women in glittering white gowns, diadems and sable coats, men in white tights and tricorn hats with ostrich plumes. There was a city under siege, burning windows, horses galloping aimlessly to their deaths, women struggling to pile family heirlooms into carriages. As if I were in a dream, I struggled to locate where and how the film began. My 8-year-old self became immersed in an opulent, militaristic drama worlds away from our hotel room. And then, suddenly, in the middle of the inexorable chaos, my mother said it was time to go to bed. I protested desperately, unable to tear myself away from the TV, as if the plot were physically gripping me by the arm.

“We can watch it again,” she promised.

“But how?” I asked, convinced that never in my life would I experience this again.

“It’s ‘War and Peace,’ ” she smiled. “It’s a classic.”

Unfortunately, I completely forgot the name of the film when I woke up the next morning and would not put the pieces together for almost a decade. But even without the name, images of czarist ballrooms and Napoleonic war zones continued to engross me. Life took me in many directions, but Leo Tolstoy always seemed to follow. In high school, I became obsessed with “Anna Karenina” and a musical adaptation of a section of “War and Peace,” titled “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” I read critical essays about Tolstoy’s craft, watched movie adaptations of his tragic heroines and even dressed up as Anna Karenina one Halloween. But it would be a long time before “War and Peace” came back into my life on screen. That is, until two weeks ago — when the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive showed a seven-hour adaptation over three weekends.

From the moment I saw the film schedule to the moment I entered the theater, I was wracked with anticipation. “War and Peace” is a story corseted by life and death — and sitting in the Pacific Film Archive watching Tolstoy’s masterpiece, I could not help but feel just as caught up as when I was as a child.

The film series, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, is the most expensive production in the history of the Soviet Union, bringing Tolstoy to life in living color. The American adaptation of “War and Peace” that I saw as a child pales in comparison. In Bondarchuk’s epic, the ball sequences are shot in actual czarist palaces, the battle scenes use actual soldiers from the Soviet Army as extras, and the aerial shots are of real-life farms, rivers and floodplains. Even the sky is Russian. As the hours pass, you become so immersed in the visuals that it no longer feels like watching a film — it feels like you are caught in the French invasion of 1812 and may never make it home again.

The epic flirts with its roots as Soviet nationalistic propaganda in every cannon fire, but this only serves to make the spectacle grander. In Part III, the military general tasked with defeating Napoleon Bonaparte vows that he will make the French eat horse meat before the war is out. Part IV finds Napoleon’s forces caught in a blizzard, hacking at the frozen bodies of their horses before the soldiers starve to death. Whatever may be said about the film as Soviet propaganda, it is difficult to resist the moral of a Russian winter: Invaders come and go, regimes fade, but the cold goes unconquered. This is Russia as survival, and it makes for an arresting cautionary tale.

I am drawn to Tolstoy now more than ever because his stories impart a glimpse of Russia that is not always easy to see in today’s world. They are a reminder that there is a Russia beyond cybersecurity, a Russia beyond the 2016 election, a Russia beyond Vladimir Putin. “War and Peace” offers us a Russia of might and chaos, love and fury, loss and exoneration.

After seven hours of Tolstoy on the big screen, I can’t help but think back on the first time I saw “War and Peace.” I can’t explain why I was so drawn to the story; in fact, I’m not convinced that I understood what was happening. But something inside me reacted forcefully to what I was seeing, and for the rest of my childhood, I was visited by memories and still frames from the film — strange, Americanized hallucinations of imperial Russia. There is nothing like Tolstoy on the screen, not even Tolstoy on the page; Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” is a window. The strength of “War and Peace” as film is its ability to communicate a place as big as Russia. For me, this is as true now as it was in that hotel room in Utah, when Tolstoy made for an inappropriate bedtime story.

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].