During the last two weeks of each June, St. Petersburg experiences one of its most famous natural phenomena – the White Nights, a period of sunshine near midnight. Fans of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose bicentenary is celebrated in 2021, like to walk in the evening on a summer night when a patch of daylight is visible in the city for almost a brief moment.
As you pass the canals and riverside walks, a reader cannot help but wonder if a particular building is indeed the same one that Dostoyevsky wrote when he walked these same streets in the 1840s. The unnamed narrator in the short story sleepless night guides the reader through parts of the city that have not changed much since the height of its imperial glory.
The story of an innocent young man and the love he feels for a woman he meets on the streets of St. Petersburg has been translated into several languages and has moved several directors who have interpreted the films in their own way. writings of Dostoyevsky.
1. Love and nostalgia in Livorno, 1957
Luchino Visconti / Cinematografica Associati (CI.AS.); Intermondia Films; Empty Cinematografica, 1957
In 1957, Luchino Visconti, one of the fathers of Italian neorealism, directed The notti bianche (White Nights), which has since become one of the classics of international cinema. Instead of mid-19th-century St. Petersburg, the film is set in the Tuscan city of Livorno. There is no first-person narration of the events, but viewers are introduced to Mario, played by legendary Marcello Mastroianni and Natalia, played by main Austro-Swiss star Maria Schell.
Mario appears to be much older than the narrator of Dostoevsky’s story, and Natalia is portrayed as much less innocent than the writer’s Nastenka. Shot on a set in Rome Cinecittà, the director, whose theatrical production of Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment was well received in Italy, wanted to have a hybrid set between a cinema and theater set. He used expressionist lighting and stage effects during studio shooting.
“In the film, Visconti balances formal elements like lighting, editing, camera movements, costumes, special effects and set design to highlight the complexities of the melodramatic tension that matures between the male lead roles and female, ”wrote Italian teacher Brendan Hennessey. in the January 2011 Italian issue of Modern Language Notes, an academic journal of John Hopkins University.
The film won the Silver Lion at the 18th Venice International Film Festival in 1957.
2. West German Television, 1971
kpa / United Archives / Getty Images
Seven years after Visconti’s film gained worldwide popularity, German journalist-turned-director Wilhelm Semmelroth attempted to make a more authentic version of the story, following the text closely. Semmelroth, who was known to make appearances in his own films much like Alfred Hitchcock, directed Helle Nächte (Bright nights) in a special production for WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln or West German Broadcasting Cologne). Semmelroth, who has adapted the works of William Shakespeare and Thomas Wolfe into television films, preferred to work with lesser-known actors.
The narrator of the story is called Fyodor, with the assumption that Dostoevsky’s story was autobiographical. Nastenka’s lover has more than a small but important role in the short story. The 75-minute black-and-white film premiered on WDR in July 1971 and received critical acclaim, but it didn’t make it past Germany. Sadly, he appears to have been lost, with WDR employees expressing utter helplessness when contacted for an impression. The film stands out, as it is one of West Germany’s few attempts to understand Russia at the height of the Cold War.
An award-winning 2017 German film of the same name is not based on Dostoevsky’s story.
3. Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1971
Robert Bresson / Albina Productions, 1971
French director Robert Bresson, one of the pioneers of minimalist cinema, directed Four nights of a dreamer in 1971. This adaptation of the story of the Russian writer takes place largely in Paris. Bresson has mostly worked with non-professional actors and Jacques, who is Dostoyevsky’s narrator, is played by Guillaume des Forêts in a very credible performance as a Parisian artist. Well-known actress, model and photographer, Isabelle Weingarten plays the French version of Nastenka – Marthe.
If the narrator of the story had been transplanted to the dreamy Paris of the early 1970s, he would probably have been like the bohemian Jacques. The romance of the artist and the lonely woman, who lives with her mother (unlike Nastenka, who is with her grandmother), is beautifully portrayed through nighttime footage in the city. The romanticism of the narrator and the time spent together by Nastenka are also well represented with Marthe and Jacques walking the streets, promenades and bridges of Paris, with the hallucinatory light and color of the city of love.
It was screened at the 21st Berlin International Film Festival in 1971.
4. A Brazilian version, produced by a Pole in 1973
Zbigniew Ziembinski / Rede Globo de Televisão, 1973
A Portuguese adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s story for Brazilian audiences was designed by Poland-born Zbigniew Ziembiński, a Polish Jewish refugee who fled the Holocaust and emigrated to Brazil. In 1941, when he arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Ziembiński did not speak a word of Portuguese, but by the end of the decade he would become a leading director. He continued to have an illustrious career over the next three decades.
In 1973, he directed Noites Brancas (White Nights) a TV movie that aired across Brazil. The film stars legendary Brazilian actor Francisco Cuoco as the narrator of Dostoyevsky and Nívea Maria, who is best known as a soap opera actress in Brazil. Nastenka’s elusive lover is played by Cláudio Cavalcanti, who was also a writer, singer and producer. Like the German television adaptation of sleepless night, the film is close to the story of Dostoïeski. An integral version of the film is difficult to trace. Considering the proximity of Portuguese and Italian languages, the version of Visconti enjoyed greater popularity in Brazil than the local version.
5. Black Coffee, 2009
Several Asian directors have adapted Dostoyevsky’s story to the big screen, with many productions in Indian languages. Most Asian films localize the story as Visconti and Bresson did.
Jung Sung-il of South Korea in one of the great debut made 카페 느와르 (Ka-pe-neu-wa-reu or Black coffee), which is a two-part film that adapts Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s film The Sorrows of Young Werther and Dostoyevsky’s short story. He was a well-known film critic in the country before choosing to direct films.
The second part is an adaptation of the Russian story with the protagonist Young-soo, a music teacher having a chance encounter by a bridge with Sun-hwa (Jung Yu-mi). The plot, more or less, follows Dostoevsky’s story and ends with the young man heartbroken as the woman he covets happily enters the arms of her elusive lover. Only in this film, the young man loses twice, with a similar sad ending in the first part. The second, more coherent part does full justice to Dostoevsky’s writing.
The film, released in 2009, toured several festivals in Asia and Europe, including Hong Kong, Venice, Copenhagen and Los Angeles. Its success reflects the rise of Korean cinema and the growing international popularity of Korean culture.
When Dostoyevsky wrote this story in the 1840s, he could not have imagined how it would travel to the far corners of the planet. It will always be a quintessential St. Petersburg story, but a reader from any part of the world cannot help but feel and relate to both the narrator and Nastenka. The joys, aspirations, passion, obsession, sorrow, anxiety, happiness, and sorrow in history are all things that human beings face at one point or another in their lives. For Russophiles around the world, the last two weeks of June will always be dedicated to the White Nights of St. Petersburg, both the natural phenomenon and the story of Dostoyevsky.
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