Regarded as one of Russia’s most important contemporary directors, Alexander Sokurov is probably best known in the West for Mother and Son (1997), his first internationally-acclaimed feature film.
Regarded as one of Russia’s most important contemporary directors, Alexander Sokurov is probably best
known in the West for Mother and Son (1997),
his first internationally-acclaimed feature film. He cemented that
reputation with his tetralogy which explored the corrupting effects of power.
The first three instalments looked at twentieth-century rulers: Moloch (1999)
was about Hitler, Taurus (2000) about Lenin, and The Sun (2004)
about Japanese Emperor Hirohito. The final contribution was 2011’s Faust,
which won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival. Sokurov’s
films are deeply melancholic, and tend to focus on the internal emotions of his
dominant main characters. From a cinematographic perspective, he is famous for
his use of long shots: indeed 2002’s Russian Ark comprises a single 96
minute long take.
Although well-known to film
buffs, Sokurov’s slow and challenging films means he is perhaps not well-known
to the ordinary cinema-goer. It seems this collection intends to go some way to
changing this, although why these three films were chosen is somewhat
confusing. They do not seem to link to each other in any way and they span a
number of decades in time. Still, their diversity will give the viewer some
idea of both the prolific director’s variety and recurring interests, and will
serve as an introduction to this visionary but challenging director’s work.
Save and Protect
Taking inspiration from
Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, Save
and Protect follows the story of Emma (Cecile
Zervoudaki), who feels increasingly
strangled by her marriage and the provincial setting in which she is forced to
live. Her only release comes from extramarital
affairs, which are both numerous and deeply felt. As in Flaubert’s novel, we
have the affair with the aristocrat Rodolphe and the student Leon. We also see
her oafish, and totally dedicated, husband botch the operation on Rodolphe’s
servant’s club foot, leading to Emma’s humiliation and further frustration with
the inadequacies of her husband. It is a film in which the interiorities of
Emma’s mind are displayed on screen through a series of contrasts. The
sensuousness of Emma’s body is contrasted with the very banality of her
surroundings: workers in the village go on with their daily work just outside
the window of the room in which she carries on her affairs. Emma, moreover,
most of the time, speaks French – showing her urban pretences – to the Russian
peasants around her. This highlights her strangeness, her alienness in this
rural Russia, and yet no one seems to misunderstand her. She is both a part of
the world and not, at the same time. The universality of her situation is
depicted through the absence of a clear time or place. It seems to be set in
mid-nineteenth century Russia and yet at one point we both see an automobile
and hear a radio.
helps to know that the film takes its inspiration from Madame Bovary, as –
characteristically for Sokurov – not much is explained. Sokurov’s Emma is not
the beauty of Flaubert’s novel, but a rather sharp-faced middle aged women,
making it slightly unclear why the village men are so endlessly taken with her.
Still, that is not intended as a critique of Zervoudaki, who portrays the
emotional excesses and sexual passions of Emma with a striking intensity.
The Second Circle
bleak desolution of the opening image of Sokurov’s The Second Circle sets
the scene for much of what is to come. A figure makes his way slowly along an
empty road, being buffeted by gales of wind and snow. Suddenly, he kneels down
– in prayer, or exhaustion? – and slowly vanishes behind the swirling snow.
figure, who remains unnamed, has come to see his recently deceased father and
take care of funeral preparations. His father’s emaciated body remains in the
background throughout, as the son tries to find his way through the funerary
process, a reminder of the grim presence of death which has brought about this
reunion of father and son. We get the impression that the father and son were
not close – indeed it seems they barely knew each other. We are told the father
quarrelled with everyone: with his son, and with the military, which he was a
part of for most of his life. He was not, it seems, popular and died alone. And
yet the son, despite the indifference and bureaucracy that surrounds him,
searches for a dignity for his father in his death. When the undertaker, for
example, recommends cremation on the grounds it is hygienic, the son responds,
“I will burn everything, but not my father.”
deeply melancholy events are heightened by Sokurov’s use of colour, or perhaps
more accurately, the lack of it. Almost all colour is removed, save for a sepia
tinge that colours many of the scenes and the occasion burst of red. The
lighting is similarly bleak; the father’s poverty stricken household lit only
by light from the window, which leaves everything looking old and dirty. As in
Save and Protect, it is what is happening on an emotional level that is
important and Sokurov’s use of tight face shots exaggerates this. The son’s
journey on a bus, in which the jostling crowds of people turn, somehow, in to a
nightmare of violence: all we see is the son’s increasingly pained and panicked
face and the hands grabbing and pushing him.
between Sokurov and his mentor and master filmmaker Tarkovsky are
numerous and frequent, yet The Second Circle shows their intellectual
differences. In it, Sokurov’s depiction of the son’s trip to the hospital is a
clear nod to Tarkovsky’s Stalker but on a deeper level the differences
are profound. Sokurov, unlike his mentor, refuses to give the viewer any hope:
the film’s end is as desolate as its beginning and there is no possibility of
the religious salvation Tarkovsky at time relies on.
Elegy of Life
most approachable of the three films that make up this boxset, Elegy of Life
is an essentially straightforward documentary on Mstislav Rostropovich
and Galina Vishnevskaya, the power couple of Russian classical music.
The documentary centres around the couples’ celeb-packed 50th
wedding anniversary dinner, from which Sokurov spins off to archive footage and
interviews with the couple and their admirers. Rostropovich, for those not
aware, is a master cellist. So famous is he, in the classical music world, that
people will wait outside of his rehearsals, hoping for a glimpse of the great
man and we see a shot in which another member of the orchestra he is playing
with actually asks him for an autograph. While now aged, he speaks cogently
about the nature of Russian music and performers. Vishnevskaya, whose
independent spirit can perhaps be seen through the fact that she chose to keep
her own maiden name, is a soprano, famed for her powerful voice. Indeed, she
bemoans the current lack of “big women” who could fill the hall with their
feels that for Sokurov, a large part of the couple’s appeal lies in the fact
that while they are national treasures, they are also outsiders in Russia.
Neither, for example, are actually Russian, and more importantly, their
decision to shelter novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn meant they were
stripped of their Soviet citizenship in 1974 and lived in exile until welcomed
back in the 1980s by Gorbachev.
appeal also lies with their connections to many of Russia’s great composers,
and Rostropovich discusses his relationship with Dmitry Shostakovich and
Sergei Prokofiev. This documentary feels like it could be our last link
to these great composers.
serves as the interviewer and provides the voice-over for the documentary, and
while his deep tones introduces a melancholy, otherwise unseen in the film, his
clear reverence for his subjects makes the film both touching and engaging.