Netflix's 'The Last Czars' Is a Bold but Flawed Docudrama About the End of Russian Royalty
In 1925 Berlin, a man approaches a hospitalized woman who apparently suffers from retrograde amnesia. He sits down beside her. "Do you remember me?" he asks her.
Memory is key to Netflix's The Last Czars, an absorbing docudrama about the end of the Russian monarchy and the start of the Russian revolution that recently hit the streaming service. The fascinating and flawed Romanovs, Czar Nicholas II, and Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna, along with their advisor, the perennially mythologized mystic Grigori Rasputin take center stage against this grand canvas. The show blends sumptuous drama (The Crown with more aristocratic British accents) with talking heads of historians giving context on the politics underpinning these seismic historical events. Yet for all its exalted ambitions, The Last Czars, made by a largely British crew and cast, including showrunner Hereward Pelling and directors Adrian McDowall and Gareth Tunley, works only in fits and spurts as historical document.
The show begins with the death of Czar Alexander III, moves on to Nicholas's marriage to Alexandra, and checklists more historical events in a 45-minute episode than most other series can handle over a season. That includes the Khodynka Tragedy, Bloody Sunday, the October Manifesto, the murder of Rasputin, the February revolution and Nicholas's abdication, finally culminating in the tragic execution of the royal family. The history of the Romanovs provides not only a window into Russia's emergence as a nation-state but also how the country grapples with its imperial history. Last year, there were almost no ceremonial state-backed events marking the centennial of the murders of the royal family in the country. Only two decades earlier, a few years after their bodies were discovered and identified, the former President Boris Yeltsin had led a lavish state funeral in St. Petersburg for the last Czar and his family. Clearly, Russia's reconstruction of its imperial legacy is ripe for exploring difficult questions about cultural cohesion and historical memory. Look no further than last years' divisive Matthew Weiner Amazon anthology series, The Romanoffs, following families who bizarrely claim to be descendants of Russia's last royal family.
It's no discredit to The Last Czars that it is unable to do justice to these polarizing discussions in the short span of six episodes. The lore of Nicholas, Alexandra, and Rasputin is so rich that it's no surprise that political figures outside the Alexander Palace get the short stick, symbolising nothing more than despair and revolt on the show. Even some of the Romanovs don't move past their character sheets. Nicholas's uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, is a brutish military man, at odds with the many historical narratives of an intellectual with diverse literary interests. His dialogue becomes shorthand for his public role in history. At one point he barks, "These bloody extremists should be shot!" Most frustrating is the show's use of the Anastasia 'mystery' as a framing device. The story of Anna Anderson, the Polish imposter who claimed to be the youngest daughter of the czar years after the assassination of the Romanov family, is bursting with dramatic potential. It, has little place, however, in this historical narrative; the animated feature Anastasia exists for those who truly are captivated by a more fantastical alternate version of Romanov history.
Interestingly some of the show's best scenes, like the 1997 film, are when it leans into the power of its visuals and goes for baroque. At the end of the second episode, the czarina incants, "Let not the devil come over the deathbed of thy servant," as the light-suffused figure of Rasputin steps into frame. Some of the show's scenes are stirring, whether it is a stunning panoramic view of people moving like ants towards the Winter Palace, women marching with defiant faces, or the pin drop silence when Nicholas announces he will abdicate. The show feels genuinely engrossing when it puts us in the shoes of the Romanovs illustrating their inability to see how the tides of history have seeped into their gilded cages. The last two episodes in particular as Nicholas gives up his royal title are gripping. Documentaries and movies that follow intractable historical figures marching towards preordained endings have an inexplicable lure about them.
The show's talking heads both enrich and flatten. Occasionally, earnest scenes are wittily undercut by the historians. Simon Montefiore, the LA Times British Book Award-winning author whose tome The Romanovs 1613-1918 is one of the sources for the show, pithily notes during a tender lovemaking scene between Nicholas and Alexandra, "They're one of the only royal couples in Europe who share a marital bed."
Occasionally the views of historians come into conflict with what we see taking place on screen. After Nicholas steps down as Czar, he greets someone by saying, "Hello, I'm the medieval regime." This self-awareness is at odds with the dogmatic decision maker the historians characterize him as. Even Alexandra and Rasputin's relationship is both amplified and undercut, creating an odd dynamic. As historian Pablo De Orellana contextualizes it as a psychiatric relationship, what we see on screen very much transgresses those boundaries. The show does well by Nicholas and Alexandra, played to great effect by Robert Jack and Susanna Herbert. Rasputin is a mixed bag, however, even if Ben Cartwright's charismatic performance does the heavy lifting. Thankfully, he isn't depicted as a charismatic sociopath but the show struggles to bridge the gap between the man and myth.
An odd choice on the show is its use of accents. "I can't even speak Russian," Alexandra tells her sister who fixes her wedding veil in an immaculate BBC English accent, the same one sported by all the Romanovs. As the show moves past the fall of the monarchy, fewer characters use a crisp, posh accent, transitioning to more characters speaking with (bad) Russian accents. Alexandra's disconnect with the Russian people had much to do with xenophobia about her German origins and inability to speak Russian well, something the show points out early on. Yet in a series where every character speaks English, language as a marker of difference isn't satisfyingly depicted. Moreover, there are inaccuracies and anachronisms even non-historians like me can point out: For example, an image of the Red Square in 1905 shows Lenin's mausoleum, almost two decades before Lenin's death.
The lack of Russian historians contributes to a show that feels removed from its subject. In the first episode, Sergei notes about the stampede at Khodynka, "It is only a tragedy if you make it one." The contentiousness of historiography, especially with Western historians' propensity to retroactively rehabilitate the Romanovs, could have been encapsulated in a show with Russian inputs. As the credits played over the final episode of The Last Czars, the words "This series is based on the events. Some of the characters and situations have been altered for dramatization purposes," flashed on screen. I cringed. What's the point of a history lesson if the historian isn't upfront about their own biases?