Beyond Good and Evil:
Piotr Dumala's Crime and Punishment

by Chris Robinson

View the QuickTime movie clip of Crime and Punishment. All images from Piotr Dumala's film Crime and Punishment. © Piotr Dumala.
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"...[C]an it be that I will really take an axe and hit her on the head and smash her skull....slip in the sticky, warm blood....Lord, can it be?"

Turning books into animation is nothing new. Virtually all of Disney's early features were adapted from books. The Russians were also especially apt at adapting books without getting the rights first (e.g. Fedor Khitruk's Winnie the Pooh and Alexei Karaev's Dr. Seuss takes, Welcome and The Cat in The Hat). More ambitious adaptations include Jan Lenica's bizarre take on Ionesco's absurdist classic, Rhinoceros, Svankmajer's Faust and Alexander Petrov's recent The Old Man and The Sea. Some work well, others do not.

Now it's one thing to adapt fairy tales, plays and novellas, but it's an entirely different task when one is dealing with a mammoth work like Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Cinema has already attempted a number of adaptations most notably by Josef Von Sternberg and Aki Kaurismaki. Most recently, Polish animator Piotr Dumala, already well known for existential films Kafka and The Gentle One (based on a Dostoevsky short story) tried his hand, literally, at Dostoevsky's novel. While it's not the first animation attempt at Crime and Punishment (in 1999, student Zack Margolis made a short but inspiring take on it called A Trip to the Building), it is by far the most ambitious.

The cinematic temptation is obvious. For all its multi-layered philosophical, social and economic critiques of Russian society and humanity in general, Crime and Punishment contains all the tension and suspense of a Hitchcock film. As with Shadow of A Doubt, Rope, Frenzy, or even North By Northwest, to name a few, we know almost immediately who committed, or in the case of North by Northwest, who didn't commit, the foul deed. Like Dostoevsky, Hitchcock implicates the viewer in the crimes (e.g. the voyeurism in Rear Window, the shower scene in Psycho or the murder in Rope). Throughout the course of the works, the viewer/reader must live with what it knows. The tensions evolve out of this self-awareness. With our implication comes a variety of mixed messages that shuffle and confuse our own moral values and sense of right and wrong. Despite his monstrous actions, we (well, at least I) do not want Raskolnikov to get caught. Not only are we a witness to the crime, but also aware of the motivations behind it. The same can be seen in Psycho and Shadow of a Doubt. And despite its mythical and intimidating reputation, Crime and Punishment reads like a mystery novel. Indeed, the book was originally a serialization for newspaper readers.

"Man gets accustomed to everything, the scoundrel!"

The Distillation of Story
Dumala it seems also picked up the Hitchcock theme. Crime and Punishment opens with a marvellous Saul Bass inspired credit sequence. Thumping, repetitive piano notes accompany the reddish brown visuals that appear in and out of shadows. In between, we see what is almost an overture of images (including the murder) revealing in an almost Brechtian style what exactly we can expect to see in this film. The fusion of red and brown throughout the film captures the violence and griminess of this sick world, while the elliptical, paranoid, dimly lit images perfectly capture the increasingly blurred line of dream and reality in Raskolnikov's disturbed mind. As with the novel, the crime is very much an afterthought. What interests Dumala is less the crime and more the emotional and mental state of this troubled soul before and after the murder. This is not Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and nor should it be. Adaptations, like essays, should attempt to be personal re-creations of the feelings inspired by the adapted work. 

Unfortunately, Dumala has been criticized for his apparently unfaithful translation. "People wanted a standard adaptation. People expect to see what they read in the book. This is something else so they feel cheated. It was not my aim to copy the book. I was really close to the book. I took one level of the book. It's not possible to show everything from this book. I got what I wanted." Dumala's film takes only the main plots: the killings and meeting Sonia. This is not a tale of evil or the like in St. Petersburg. "This is about love and how obsession can destroy love. In our life we are under two opposite influences to be good or bad and to love or hate."

Dumala limited the film to five characters: Sonia, Raskolnikov, the old lady, and the old man who is always peering from the shadows. He also created a new character based on the dream that Raskolnikov has of himself as a young boy trying to save a horse from a severe beating. "I felt that I could make another hero who can exist like an angel representing his innocence."


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