This DVD release of Sergei Gerasimov’s 1957 adaptation of “Quiet Flows the Don” provides the first-ever full-length director’s cut of this Soviet epic: all five-and-a-half hours worth. Based on the novel by Nobel laureate Mikhail Sholokhov, the film offers the best and worst of postwar Soviet cinema.
To its credit, “Quiet Flows the Don” is a spare-no-expense extravaganza that the Soviet cinema occasionally turned out when it felt it needed to one-up Hollywood for grandeur. It is a sprawling tale of an adulterous love affair in a Cossack village which unfolds against the backdrop of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, and the production values (costuming, sets, scores of extras via the Red Army), intelligent music score (from Yuri Levitin) and lush color cinematography provides a memorable eyeful.
Yet the film also betray some of the problems inherent to this country’s cinema: overkill acting that seems more theatrical than cinematic, too much reverence to the Communist cause, and indelicate lapses of state-sanctioned crudity (pay close attention to the anti-Semitic reference in the anecdote from a Cossack who recalls how he first learned of Karl Marx). It also doesn’t help that Sholokhov’s source material pales in emotional texture next to another literary landmark that covered similar ground: Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago,” which was published in the West the same time “Quiet Flows the Don” was being shot (Pasternak’s brutally honest depiction of the Bolshevik uprising was banned during the Soviet years).
But even with its shortcomings, “Quiet Flows the Don” fills a wide gap in the appreciation of 1950s Soviet filmmaking. Its arrival may generate muted celebration for those who are not enthused with the genre, but those who are fascinated with Soviet movies will have cause to break out the vodka and balalaikas.