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Blu-Ray Review: Deaf Crocodile’s The Assassin of the Tsar (Collector’s Edition) 

The Assassin of the Tsar

The geniuses at Deaf Crocodile have brought another of director Karen Shakhnazarov’s work into the spotlight.  This time the mercurial The Assassin of the Tsar starring Malcolm McDowell debuts on Blu-ray with two versions: an English and Russian Language versions.  

The Film 

I love when a performer shocks me.  Especially one of my favorites. 

Malcolm McDowell has been a favorite of mine since when as a rowdy teenager I found Lindsey Anderson’s IF…. This sent me on a deep dive through his career over a few months hitting things like the notorious Caligula (a story for another time), A Clockwork OrangeTime After TimeCat People, and Royal Flash (which should have been an entire series of films). McDowell, a nimble actor with the ability to play just about anything (do a double feature of Caligula and Time After Time as proof) may have had his greatest performance in a film that’s only famous in Russia.  

The Assassin of the Tsar has McDowell playing two men in different times but caught in the same body.  In a 1980s Soviet Russian Mental Asylum Timofvey (McDowell) thinks he’s responsible for killing Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanovs back in 1918.  Timofvey piques the interest of Doctor Smirnov (Oleg Yankovsky).  So much so that Smirnov decides to use a risky bit of therapy on Timofvey.  That therapy has an unexpected result not just on Timofvey but on Smirnov as well.  Both men are tied intrinsically to one another in the present and in 1918.  

Part of the brilliance of not only McDowell’s performance but director Karen Shakhnazarov’s entire film is just how layered, considered, and unexpected it is.  There’s a subtly about The Assassin of the Tsar that feels almost experimental in a narrative film dealing with multiple lines of reality.  Often a film will want to be on the nose and give you the answers you crave.  Here there is nothing of the sort.  There is no cure-all or changing of the inevitable.  Just the slow march to what is one of the darker pieces of 20th Century Russian history.  

The way that Shakhnazarov’s film folds into itself and never truly comments on Timofvey and Smirnov being linked to one another as victim and perpetrator is what gives The Assassin of the Tsar its power.  By not pushing some emblematic statement, the viewer is forced to draw their own conclusions about the narrative and the history they are recounting.  

Are these two men truly linked in some sort of fantastical purgatory doomed to play variations on their roles as executioner and executed?  Or are both suffering from a shared delusion so powerful their bodies are reacting to said delusions?  Were the Romanovs clueless as to the nation that was starving and freezing to death?  Was Tsar Nicholas II merely a clueless pawn in a changing Country? 

At its sobering end, Shakhnazarov’s film presents more questions than answers.  The Assassin of the Tsar knows therein lies the power of its storytelling.  Allow your audience to answer the questions rather than making pejorative statements on the matters.  This is why after thirty years The Assassin of the Tsar remains a powerful, fresh, and potently biting account of history told in a way that only its director could have told it.    

The Transfer

This new restoration from original 35mm elements by Mosfilm with Blu-ray mastering and authoring by David Mackenzie/Fidelity in Motion is another beautiful and amazing transfer provided by Deaf Crocodile.  It never gets old saying that DC has managed to quickly and quietly become one of the best boutique labels that specialize in revelatory restoration work.  Their work with Mosfilm here and beyond (see Zero GradSampo, and Ilya Muromets for proof of this) is as considerate and beautiful.  The image is an amazing representation of the best of 35mm, specifically the image’s sharpness and film grain detail.  Their work here is almost alchemy in the way that there’s a photochemical liquid-like quality that film at its best is imbued with on-screen.  The result is a stunning image on the level that is as close to the best of what 4K UHD has to offer.  

The Extras

They include the following;

  • Commentary track by film writer and historian Samm Deighan
  • Interview with star Malcolm McDowell 
  • Interview with director Karen Shakhnazarov 
  • Russian language version of the film with different edits and score
  • New essay by film critic and historian Walter Chaw

The all-new commentary track by film writer and historian Samm Deighan continues where her commentary track for director Shakhnazarov’s Zero Grad left off.  Some of the details include this being one of the last Soviet films to be released, the two versions – the English and Russian language versions, how this is a spiritual cousin to Zero Grad and its commonalities with distortion of history, Shakhnazarov’s concerns with how history changes over the decade in the hands of the various generations outlook at the events, a discussion of the work, life, and frequent Shakhnazarov collaborator actor Oleg Yankovskiy, a discussion of the work, life, of actor Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, a discussion of Mosfilm’s work both pre and post-Soviet Russia and how Shakhnazarov figures into that work, a deep dive discussion about the real life history around Tsar Nicolas II – and also how it relates to the film and Shakhnazarov does with it, a very interesting discussion of the mental disorders that Shakhnazarov deals in and also the elliptical nature of the film’s fantastical moments as well, a discussion of post-massacre of the Romanov’s what happened and how Russia suppressed the knowledge of how this tragedy occurred – how it releases to this film and how much Shakhnazarov’s film has details accurate, a discussion of the historical figure Yurovsky – that Malcom McDowell plays, a discussion of the work of Malcolm McDowell – his work with Lindsey Anderson, Caligula, here in this film, and beyond, how McDowell and Shakhnazarov eventually met and end up working together, the connections to Zero Grad and how they are both similar and very different, the work of screenwriter Aleksandr Borodyanskiy, the self-mythologizing of its own history through art that Russia did – and has grown in the post-Soviet era, and much more.  Deighan produces another wonderful commentary track that’s engrossing, informative, and masterfully researched.  Anyone that’s even a slight bit curious about how, why, and context for everything inside and outside of the film makes this required listening/viewing.  

Interview with Malcolm McDowell (54:35) – hosted by DC co-founder Dennis Bartok this newly produced interview with McDowell begins with how he came involved with the film and how special it truly was.  Some of the other details include how this was produced during the collapse of the Soviet Union – literally was released two weeks before the actual collapse, how they worked to produce the dual versions – alternating takes in Russian and English, the differences between Russian Actors’ working methods and English/Western Actors’ working methods and how they rubbed against each other, the DIY way they dyed his hair – he even gives the recipe, the first meeting between McDowell and Shakhnazarov – and some very humorous anecdotes form the meeting, how they paid him – and a great anecdote about the “payment” including his response to his agent about their “commission”, the living conditions in Russia at the time of the production, the origins of the structure of the film being set in an asylum, working the Russian actors like Oleg Yankovskiy, an illuminating fact about Shakhnazarov and how he really got access to information about the assassination of the Tsar and the Romanov’s with accuracy, a crazy fact about the asylum, working with actor Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, the amazing accuracy of the production design of the Romanov’s home and furnishing, the technical aspects of the Russian and English language versions – having separate cameras and negatives and how difficult it was for him to act in the Russian version, Lindsey Anderson going to see McDowell in Russia during the production, and much more.  McDowell is an utter delight and gives some truly wonderful information about the film itself, the production and so much more from the era with Bartok prompting and guiding the conversation with ease and skill.  Note the interview was recorded via Zoom, though the quality is far superior to what we usually expect from these types of tech. 

Interview with director Karen Shakhnazarov (68:16) – hosted by DC co-founder Dennis Bartok this newly produced interview with director Shakhnazarov, with translation assistance by Elena Tazetdinova, begins with a discussion of the previous film (Zero Grad) and its similarities and differences to The Assassin of the Tsar.  Some of the details include an offer to direct a Chekov story (Ward #6) starring Marcello Mastroeni – and how it evolved into The Assassin of the Tsar after the Chekov project collapsed, how close they came to beginning Ward #6, a discussion about collaboration and friendship with screenwriter Aleksandr Borodyanskiy, a discussion of how he obtain the materials and was able to research the Romanov’s and Tsar Nicholas something that up until that time was suppressed by the Soviet Government, The Assassin of the Tsar being the last Soviet films ever released and the production of it and what separated it from other “historical dramas”, their wanting to connect the assassination of the Romanov’s to current events – and how they approached that, the work that went into getting Malcolm McDowell – via an Western Movie Producer, working on two different versions and how that was approached pragmatically, the variances between the versions as Shaknazarov – including the scores and the editing/performances, the version he prefers, and much more.  As with his interview on the Zero Grad disc, Shaknazarov is a great interview giving thoughtful, intelligent, and enlightening answers to Bartok’s great questions.  One hopes this relationship and interviews continue as DC releases further work by the director and Mosfilm in general.  Note the interview was recorded via Zoom – the quality, like the McDowell interview, is far superior to what we usually expect from these types of tech. 

Russian Language Version – Included in the Extras Menu, the Russian Language version is as beautifully restored as the English Language version (see notes on the Transfer above).  The film, tonally, feels similar.  Though the way it is approached with its score and subtle changes in the edit, shot composition, timing, and of course acting make it an interesting comparison.  I could not tell you what the superior version is because both have their benefits.  The Russian Language film feels more like Zero Grad in some respects.  There’s a more “playful” tone it feels like, which could be from the Russian actors being more comfortable in the native tongue and not having to phonetically pronounce their performances.  The score does make a difference with the Russian being composed by Vladislav Nemolyeav being more esoteric to John Altman’s Score for the English Language version being a bit more Westernized.  One should watch both back to back or as close as possible as it makes for an arresting comparison in a rare occurrence in cinema–dueling versions. 

Of course, one of the joys of Deaf Crocodile’s discs is the booklets.  Here is no different.  Featuring a new essay by film critic and historian Walter Chaw.  The essay is a brilliant discussion of the topics I’ve skimmed in my review, and much more.  One should definitely wait before reading Chaw’s take on the film.  

The Final Thought 

Deaf Crocodile continues their important and revelatory work with The Assassin of the Tsar.  Highest Possible Recommendations!!! 

Deaf Crocodile’s Blu-Ray edition of The Assassin of the Tsar is out now.

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