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The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov

The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox

Jeremi Szaniawski
Series: Directors' Cuts
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov
    Book Description:

    One of the last representatives of a brand of serious, high-art cinema, Alexander Sokurov has produced a massive oeuvre exploring issues such as history, power, memory, kinship, death, the human soul, and the responsibility of the artist. Through contextualization and close readings of each of his feature fiction films (broaching many of his documentaries in the process), this volume unearths a vision of Sokurov's films as equally mournful and passionate, intellectual, and sensual, and also identifies in them a powerful, if discursively repressed, queer sensitivity, alongside a pattern of tensions and paradoxes. This book thus offers new keys to understand the lasting and ever-renewed appeal of the Russian director's Janus-like and surprisingly dynamic cinema -- a deeply original and complex body of work in dialogue with the past, the present and the future.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-85052-0
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. INTRODUCTION: The Fragment and the Infinite, or, the Hypothesis of the Third Term in the Cinema of Alexander Sokurov
    (pp. 1-25)

    The year is 1951. A child is born. His father is in the military, so the family will move extensively throughout remote corners of a huge dominion – the Soviet Empire.¹ The child’s birthplace, Podorvikha, near Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, will be submerged under the waters of an irrigation plan, wiped off the face of the Earth before the boy can even form a memory of the place. Many years later, he will evoke the image of a boat on a lake, looking down into the water – looking down into the abyss of memory, a place where he was and yet...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Lonely Voice of Man: Singular Murmurs, Multiple Echoes
    (pp. 26-45)

    Sokurov first learned the craft of filmmaking while an assistant at the local TV station in the town of Gorky, where he also studied history, during the so-called Stagnation period (застой;zastoy) of the Brezhnev years (1964–82). Following the early 1960s’ ‘Thaw’ period (Oттепель;Ottepel), which had seen a renewed vitality in Soviet art, Soviet censorship was re-ignited in the 1970s in all its absurd vigour, as the extenuating and grotesque case surrounding the release of Tarkovsky’sThe Mirror(Зеркало;Zerkalo, 1975) testifies.¹ Against the general feeling, among the population, of a renewed decline (economic and democratic as well...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Mournful Insensitivity: The Apocalypse of the Modern
    (pp. 46-58)

    Following his eventful graduation from VGIK, and with the providential intervention of Andrey Tarkovsky, Sokurov found employment at Lenfilm where, for the next four years (1978–82), and until the death of Leonid Brezhnev, he produced documentaries made exclusively with archival footage, all of which were shelved. In many of these films, we can feel the disillusionment and bitterness of the director. However, Sokurov’s refusal, during this period of constant humiliation, to quit his position (he famously claimed, in a 1983 letter to the Goskino, ‘I am 32 and I have no intention to change jobs’ (in Arkus 1994:81)), and...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Days of the Eclipse: ‘Adieu, Babylone’; Adieu, Tarkovsky
    (pp. 59-79)

    While the negative ofLonely Voice of Manwas threatened with destruction and the film only shown in private circles, and the shoot ofMournful Insensitivityinterrupted for over a year before resuming in precarious conditions that prevented its satisfactory completion,Days of the Eclipsewas Sokurov’s first feature to enjoy a relatively unhindered production history. Upon its release in the context ofperestroika, which was favourable to original and ‘different’ Soviet products,Days of the Eclipsereceived a wide range of positive reviews and acclaim at festivals worldwide, leading to its theatrical release in numerous countries.

    In the West,...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Save and Protect: Of Angels and Flies
    (pp. 80-87)

    Days of the Eclipseextended the motifs of madness, alienation and apocalypse already at work inMournful Insensitivity. Sokurov’s following feature film,Save and Protect– an epic and epically strange adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’sMadame Bovary, located in a deliberately vague, timeless southwestern Soviet landscape – focused on the work and temporality of death and its intertwined relationship with human destiny and everyday actions. But whileDays of the Eclipseboasted a clear dialectics of light versus dark, youth versus old age, spirit versus matter, and life versus death,Save and Protectseems to posit its fundamental paradoxes at an entirely...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE The Second Circle: Winter, Light, and the Intimate Sublime
    (pp. 88-111)

    On the cusp between the Soviet and post-Soviet moments, Alexander Sokurov left behind the warm climates of his two previous features and shotThe Second Circlein a frigid, wintry environment. The film’s plot is extremely simple: on a cold, snowy winter day, Malyanov (although a different Malyanov from the muscular doctor ofDays of the Eclipse, and played here by another non-professional, Pyotr Alexandrov) comes to visit his sick father, only to find that he has arrived too late. Feebly, the hapless son witnesses rather than truly tends to his departed father’s funerary rites: robbed on a bus, the...

  11. CHAPTER SIX The Stone: No Way Home
    (pp. 112-118)

    In June of 1904, Dr. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, under the recommendations of his colleagues, was sent to a spa in the German town of Baden-Weiler. As soon as he arrived, he started writing letters to his friends and family, planning his return home. Chekhov’s condition improved initially, but the reprieve was brief, and the writer’s health declined spectacularly shortly thereafter. He died on July 15th of the same year, away from his beloved Russia. In his final letter to his sister, he was wondering about the best way to get home: by train or by boat.

    The motifs of death...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Whispering Pages: Death, Nothingness, Memory
    (pp. 119-125)

    As the final instalment in ‘the trilogy of death and nothingness’ (an aesthetic and thematically driven cycle initiated byThe Second Circleand continued inThe Stone),Whispering Pagesmarks a departure from these two previous projects, in the notable fact that Yuri Arabov was – at least officially – not involved in writing its script.¹ The result is that this latest film, based on ‘motifs from nineteenth century prose’ (and, as the end credits specify, personal archives from the period),² boasts a significantly different approach to literary sources and characters, and exposes what is quintessentially Sokurovian within his previous efforts: a...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT Mother and Son: Time Abolished, Time Transfigured
    (pp. 126-138)

    In the press dossier accompanying the release ofMother and Sonin the West, as well as in the course of numerous interviews, Alexander Sokurov exalted the bi-dimension ality and the flatness of the cinematic image, connecting it to the painterly tradition and specifically to that of the religious icon. The director argued no less that this very flatness founded the nature and dignity of cinema as art.¹ He also repeated his attachment to pre-twentieth century painterly traditions, while making disparaging comments about modernism and the twentieth century art at large. In his 1998 article ‘Le cinéma comme la peinture?,’...

  14. CHAPTER NINE Moloch: Adi (and Eve): Fear Eats the Soul
    (pp. 139-155)

    In a moving and telling interview conducted on Russian television in the summer of 2012, Alexander Sokurov revealed what the key to being human was in his view: to fear no more.¹ He disambiguated the statement: it had nothing to do with being fearless in a sense of temerity or daringness, but rather to have overcome fear, such a natural, but perhaps animal rather than properly human emotion.²

    Sokurov’s comment serves the purpose of the discussion ofMoloch, his 1999 feature about a day in the life of Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler, circa 1942, which marked the return to...

  15. CHAPTER TEN Taurus: ‘Father, where art thou?’
    (pp. 156-164)

    WithTaurus, Alexander Sokurov delivered the second instalment in his tetralogy dedicated to men of power (and to power itself ) and, in their close temporal proximity,MolochandTaurusresonate with one another on a variety of levels. But whereasMolochshowed us Hitler still at the height of his power (though a few short weeks before the Nazi defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad),Tauruspresents us with a crippled Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, his right side paralysed following a stroke.¹ Themes of solitude, alienation, and madness, which loomed large inMoloch, are all prominent again here, but in...

  16. CHAPTER ELEVEN Russian Ark: Imperial Elegy
    (pp. 165-184)

    As a child, Alexander Sokurov made early acquaintance with uncertainty and suffering in a surgical procedure that took part of his leg. The intensive surgery, along with a lengthy convalescence, introduced the young Sokurov not only to excruciating pain, but also to the profound, imaginative joy of high art: it was the classical music he could hear on the radio that helped the director through his illness and recovery process.¹ And it is thanks to his great loves – literature, painting, music – and the faith they gave him in Art, that Sokurov managed to endure the many years of humiliation under...

  17. CHAPTER TWELVE Father and Son: Beyond Absolute Intimacy
    (pp. 185-217)

    At the time of its Cannes premiere, the oneiric and sensualFather and Sonmostly attracted questions pertaining to Sokurov’s oft-suggested but never officially declared homosexuality. This was at once reductive, politically fraught, and to the point: the artist, after all, had already produced several films with strong undertones of queerness, privileging the representation of athletic, youthful, and often naked male bodies, invested with an unmistakable erotic charge. Furthermore, it was well known in private circles that the man was celibate and had often complained about his loneliness. None of this, of course, means that Sokurov is a homosexual – and...

  18. CHAPTER THIRTEEN The Sun: Iconoclastic Humanism
    (pp. 218-232)

    Alexander Sokurov’s third instalment in the tetralogy of power,The Sun, focuses on the crucial hours preceding the abdication of Japan in WWII and the relinquishing, by Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata), of his divine status. Separated from his family and awaiting the decision of the American victor, the meek, timid man is still treated as the descendent of the Goddess of the Sun by his suite of servants, as he goes about his daily activities: he gets dressed, meets with his distraught general staff, indulges in his passion for ichthyology, writes a letter to his son. The outside pressure takes...

  19. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Alexandra: The Return to Neverwas and the Ambiguity of Romance
    (pp. 233-249)

    Through 2005, Alexander Sokurov followed Mstislav Rostropovich (1927–2007) and Galina Vishnevskaya (1926–2012) forElegy of Life, a documentary commissioned by the cellist to celebrate the couple’s 50th anniversary and their contributions, past and present, to the world of classical music.¹ Through their extraordinary life stories, they are presented as musical royalty of sorts – a metaphor Sokurov uses in his customary voice-over narration when he refers to Vishnevskaya as a ‘Czarina’, and one that is later reiterated in visual terms, through the couple’s palatial Moscow house, carefully restored from small, run-down Soviet units to its pre-revolutionary splendour. But the...

  20. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Faust: Sokurov Waltz
    (pp. 250-271)

    In 2011, Alexander Sokurov, hitherto accustomed to accolades and respect from the highbrow critical sphere, often selected in the most prestigious Western European art festivals, but rather absent from their lists of prizewinners, finally enjoyed consecration – and a modicum of public attention outside of Russia.² HisFaust, winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is a free adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749–1832) eponymous book, and constitutes an achievement as massive and impressive as it is strange. Much as was the case for his Locarno triumph withLonely Voice of Man, which served as the...

  21. POSTSCRIPT On the Poetics of Space in Sokurov’s Tetralogy (Moloch/Taurus/The Sun/Faust)
    (pp. 272-277)

    Through the course of this book I have noted how, in all of his films that are invested explicitly with history, war and power (and especiallyMournful Insensitivity,Father and Son,Alexandra, and, of course, the tetralogy), Alexander Sokurov has integrated scores of secondary characters spying or eavesdropping on the protagonists. The sole function of these ‘secondary’ vectors of vision seems to be a polarising of the perspective for a scene or two. This, in turn, has informed a very specific poetics of space, which is most fully integrated and developed in the tetralogy. In this short postscript, I would...

  22. CONCLUSION The (Im)Possibility of an Island
    (pp. 278-284)

    The motif of the island inhabits the life and works of Alexander Sokurov, from the name of his website and the television show he hosted in the late 1990s (Остров Сокурова; ‘Sokurov’s island’), to his love of Japan, his distinctive physical appearance, idiosyncratic personality, and the unique, insular quality of his cinema.

    In 2009, Sokurov published a book in Italy, released in Russia in 2012. The book, whose title (В центре океана/V tsentre okeana; ‘In the Centre of the Ocean’) also speaks to the insular motif, is straightforward in expression, and extremely deep and deceptively simple in content. This poetic...

    (pp. 285-287)

    Alexander Sokurov came to Brussels in September 2013, not only for the Belgian premiere ofFaustand the retrospective of his oeuvre (in a variety of venues in Brussels, including the Royal Film Archive), but also in order to open Aleksei Jankowski’s exhibition ‘Les Courageux’ (‘The Brave Ones’).¹ I had the honour to serve as Sokurov’s interpreter with the press and the public during his visit in my hometown. It was wonderful to be able to spend time with him, to clarify certain points and to elicit his comments during our interview together, eight years after the first one – thus...

  24. ADDENDUM A: Interview with Alexander Sokurov, 2005
    (pp. 288-300)
    Jeremi Szaniawski and Alexander Sokurov

    In July 2005, while staying in St. Petersburg, I had the privilege of meeting with Alexander Sokurov. A visionary figure, Sokurov is a man of great sensitivity and generosity, whose gentleness and existential solitude have prompted a beautifully contemplative oeuvre. In this interview I was able to elicit his comments on the formal aspects of his cinema and also its major concepts, such as film as art and its debt to the higher arts of painting, music, and literature; the concept of the other life; and montage and the instance of narration and focalisation in his films.

    Jeremi Szaniawski:The...

  25. ADDENDUM B: Interview with Alexander Sokurov, 2013
    (pp. 301-315)
    Jeremi Szaniawski and Alexander Sokurov

    Jeremi Szaniawski: Alexander Nikolaevich, it’s been eight years since we last met. I have a mountain of questions for you.

    Alexander Sokurov: Alright, let’s start digging into that mountain!

    JS: Your latest feature film,Faust, is another jewel in your cinematic crown. You told me you were working on it when we parted ways that day in July 2005, in St. Petersburg, and now the film is here. It won the Golden Lion in Venice, and it premieres at long last in Brussels.

    AS: Yes. It was a long and difficult process.

    JS: Let’s get this one out of the...

    (pp. 316-322)
    (pp. 323-329)
  28. INDEX
    (pp. 330-342)