The Island of Sokurov

Alexander Sokurov has been described as an “auteur’s auteur.” Undoubtedly, he has a difficult personality, makes obtuse films, rages against commercial cinema, and insists that only the intelligentsia can truly understand his art. He is also capable of brilliance. His supporters believe that his films elevate the medium and with it Russian culture. His work is part of a heated discussion over what contemporary “Russian” film should be.

Heavy-hitters such as Nikita Mikhalkov, the Oscar-winning director of Burnt by the Sun, preach that post-communist cinema should be audience-friendly. In his view, Russian cinema should adapt Hollywood blockbuster styles to domestic topics as a means to combat American cultural influence. Sokurov, by contrast, believes that Russian cinema should be stylistically and thematically distinct from Hollywood. His work therefore conforms to what many at home and abroad believe a “Russian” film should be: artsy, slow, obtuse and brilliant.

If these labels sound familiar, they should. Sokurov is the contemporary Andrei Tarkovsky. He cultivates this connection and in part owes his career to the great Soviet director’s tutelage.

Sokurov was born into a Soviet military family and grew up as an army brat, living in far-flung reaches of the Soviet empire. He began school in Poland and ended it in Turkmenistan. He finished his undergraduate schooling in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod again) and then entered VGIK, the famous Moscow film school. There he first gained recognition and the reputation of being difficult. His professors rejected his diploma film. He was allowed to graduate as an “external student” and not with the rest of his class. Yet the school officials also awarded him the highest marks. Sokurov’s legend had begun.

After he left VGIK, Sokurov met Tarkovsky. The brilliant and infuriating older director saw something in the brilliant and difficult young student. Tarkovsky helped Sokurov get a job at Lenfilm Studios, which was known then as the more artistic of the major Soviet film studios. There he worked on a number of documentaries and fiction films, many of which were banned, including Moscow Elegy, a documentary tribute to Tarkovsky that ensured Sokurov would be connected with his mentor.

Sokurov still works for the studio, which after communism’s collapse has marketed itself as the true inheritor of the Soviet film tradition. Lenfilm movies are made for art house studios and festivals. Its rival, Mosfilm, now puts out Russian blockbusters along with art house fare. For Sokurov, real Russian film is not audience-friendly. He has claimed that “cinema, fortunately or unfortunately, can exist without a viewer.”

Sokurov is a darling on the festival circuit and a regular at Cannes. His films do well in art house theaters, none more so than his 2002 Russian Ark, which was famously filmed in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage on one take during the shortest day of the year. Western critics hailed its technical brilliance and tended to ignore its commentary on Russian history and the Russian soul. In part, Russian Ark posits that the Hermitage—and metaphorically, St. Petersburg—saved European culture by preserving its artistic treasures during the course of the murderous 20th Century. Worried that American audiences wouldn’t get it, Sokurov even wrote a letter asking them to safeguard his treasure.

His other major films in the last decade include a trilogy of biopics. The first, Moloch (1999), is set atop Hitler’s Alpine estate on one day in 1942. Hitler, Martin Bormann, and Joseph and Magda Goebbels come to visit Eva Braun to relieve her boredom. The film is essentially about nothing and features long shots of the group chatting over dinner, of the group at play, and of Eva and Adolf having a fight. Its nothingness conveys something, namely, that Hitler was a human being and not just pure evil. On his Web site, appropriately entitled Island of Sokurov, the director argues that “Hitler is presented as a product of the decay of the whole epoch of culture, as a personification of the highest possible stage of Power, as a symbol of the absurdity of all the universal desires of man.”

The follow-up, Taurus (2000), dissects Lenin in 1922, just after he has suffered the first in a series of strokes that would kill him months later. We see the Bolshevik leader as a decrepit human being who cannot do anything, even perform bodily functions, without help. Sokurov believes that he captures not just Lenin, but his era: “Revolution was in his blood and, like all revolutions, he was doomed. His illness represented an unexpected halt in this murderous and inhuman marathon. He was no longer able to do any more; the time allotted to him had lost all meaning. He withdrew from life, because by that time he had effectively outlived himself.” This cinematic depiction deliberately rejected the mythic Lenin, the godlike leader of Revolution that Soviet culture promoted. Sokurov’s Lenin is a sickly man who can do nothing to prevent his death.

The last in the trilogy, The Sun, first screened at Cannes in 2004 and just received its American release. Filmed in dark tones that led some audiences at Cannes to ask whether or not the director had sent the final cut, The Sun is about Emperor Hirohito’s last days. The godlike Japanese ruler also appears as a human being with human frailties. He faces first a meeting with Douglas MacArthur and then his own death. Sokurov summed up his trilogy this way: “I don’t make films about dictators, but I make films about those people who are more outstanding than the rest of us. They appeared to be in possession of ultimate power. But human frailty and passion affect their deeds more than the status and circumstances. Human qualities and character are higher than any historical situation –higher and stronger.” Sokurov’s trilogy is maddeningly meditative. His protagonists speak cryptically. Moloch’s characters act theatrically. Those in Taurus and The Sun are more minimalist. Sokurov ultimately strips away the early 20th Century leader cult and reveals three men who face mortality and with it the death of their political systems. All three films are obsessed with death. Hitler tells Eva that “we will beat death.” Lenin faces his own mortality and cannot believe that his wife “intends to live after me.” Hirohito sees his impending death as a welcome release, declaring as he dies “we are free.”

“Filmmaking is a purely Russian business,” Sokurov once claimed, for “Russian cinema has a fundamental and highly artistic legacy that no other people have.” His films today are meant to evoke a particular tradition in Russian cinema – above all, the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky. They are meditations and certainly are not audience-friendly. They are meant as a provocative riposte to the current Russian cinematic trend of patriotic blockbuster historical epics. In an interview granted when Moloch appeared, Sokurov mused that his films were deliberately made to be difficult. “It annoys the audience,” he granted, “as they believe cinema is created for the viewer.”

Stephen M. Norris is an associate professor of history and the director of the film studies program at Miami University (Ohio).

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