Now I feel even worse for the Romanovs

I’ve had this dreadful summer chest cold over the last week or so; it’s taking forever to go away. I have tried to go about business as usual, but it persists, so on Monday I just laid in bed all day determined to vanquish it with as much liquids, honey, throat lozenges, and rest as possible. I was too miserable to read, so television was the only option. I turned on my reliable Turner Classic Movies only to find that forgettable 1930s caper movies were the order of the day, and so surfed around on Netflix for a bit and chose one of their new offerings called The Last Czars, and once it was on, streaming and streaming, I found that I could not look away, simply because it was so awful. I was aghast; I remain aghast. If this is where history dramatizations are going, it’s over for us a civilization. Let me just start with one illustration of the series’ sloppiness: a screenshot supposedly representing “Moscow in 1905” with Lenin’s Mausoleum (which assumed its present form around 1930) clearly visible! Everything is fluid, right; Russian Empire, Soviet Union, what’s the difference?

Last Czars screenshot

I’m certainly not the first to point this error out: the series has received scathing reviews both in the West and in Russia (this particularly essay is great). And I’m also no Russian history expert, but even I noticed all sorts of little “discrepancies” and much chronological confusion: without sufficient context, the Russo-Japanese War seems to morph right into the First World War. But these are not the primary sins of The Last Czars (why “czars” and not “tsars”; and why plural?): its most glaring fault is its format, a weird, even bizarre, hybrid of talking-head commentary and very intimate drama. One minute we’re hearing that the Nicholas and Alexandra had a rare royal loving relationship and the next minute we’re seeing them rolling around on the bed and the floor with very little left to our imaginations. These transitions are far from seamless: when it first happened I thought (in my cold-medicine-induced haze) that I had somehow changed the channel. There’s nothing particularly new about the docudrama, but the contrast between the drama and the commentary is heightened to an unwatchable degree by the intense focus on the personal in the scripted scenes of The Last Czars, so that both parts of the production do not add up to something whole or greater, but something far less. It is neither feast nor fowl.

Last Czars ss 2

It’s all so personal and so sexual: perish the thought that an idea, a consideration, or even a well-articulated sentiment existed in the realm of the Romanovs. Even before the inevitable arrival of Rasputin there is gratuitous sex and once he is in the picture there is of course more, much more. No doubt the producers of The Last Czars have rationalized the inclusion of so much sex as a way to uncover their subjects’ humanity but instead they have robbed them of their dignity, particularly the Tsar and Tsarina, and their daughter Maria, often described as innocently flirtatious but ready to go all the way with a Bolshevik guard in the series’ last episode. Obviously there’s nothing fresh or new about the focus on Rasputin or the continuous thread of the Anastasia impostor, which serves no purpose that I could see. The sole redeeming features I could find in this soulless series are the contemporary film clips and anti-Rasputin ephemera (though I have since learned that the latter date from after the mad monk’s death in 1916) but even they add to the confusion of the presentation. After watching as much of The Last Czars as I could take, I felt worse, both for myself and for the Romanovs, who died very early on this very day one hundred and one years ago.

Last Czar Last PictureThe last photograph of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they were executed in the early hours of July 17, 1918.

12 responses to “Now I feel even worse for the Romanovs

  • Sean Munger

    This was on my watch list and I was looking forward to it, but I’m deleting it immediately. Thanks for saving me from a turkey that would have been infuriating to watch!

    • daseger

      I was too weak to stop the streaming……but really, I kept watching because it was so awful and I had to figure out why it was so awful. You might need to do that for yourself!

  • Laura

    I have to say I watched it too for about 30 minutes and stopped with the rolling around on the floor 🙂 Pretty awful.

    Netflix is a real mixed bag. But one historical series that I recommend for your cold recovery watching on Netflix is the series Charite about the hospital, headed by Ferdinand Sauerburch, a famous surgeon, with an ambiguous relationship with the Nazis, and what happens to that relationship and the hospital and its varying characters in the last years of World War II. Has some really interesting women characters. And I read about Sauerbruch afterward to see what happened to him. Pretty interesting and I think faithful to the facts.

    • daseger

      Thanks! I am still not well, so I’ll watch that today.

      • Laura

        Hope you feel better soon! Summer colds are particularly awful.

        I also liked Charite because their diction was excellent and I could work on my German a bit. 🙂

      • Laura

        I should say, the Netflix series I meant was Charite at War. There is another Charite series but it’s 19th century but actually also interesting and well done too (about Koch and the tuberculosis. There’s also the possibility that you don’t want to watch movies about illness at this time 🙂 🙂

      • daseger

        Thanks, Laura–I’m actually really inot the first Charite series—my simple cold, as annoying as it is, can’t compete! It’s great!

  • Jane Griswold Radocchia

    I am in an airport… in transit… and I almost laughed out loud enjoying your annoyance because I know it so well. I can’t watch many historic movies because they are so badly out of sinc. Thanks for writing.

    • artandarchitecturemainly

      Agreed Jane. Fiction doesn’t have to match any truth and therefore the novel or fictional film is judged on its own merits. But books and films that are supposedly historically-based are certain to annoy the historically-aware population.

      Mind you, in the deaths of the Romanovs I am still very angry at the British royal family who wouldn’t allow their cousins into Britain in 1917-18. At least they should have saved the children.

  • Lisa

    Thank you for putting into words the feelings I have everyday. I thought it was just me….dumbing down, that’s for sure! I hope you are feeling better. No reason to go out in this heat wave. Take it easy.

  • Nanny Almquist

    Thanks so much for warning me off this Netflix offering. I’d noticed and wondered if it was worth a watch. Now warned, I’ll spend my screen time on something else.

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