Features | Spiritual Voice, Material World: The Trouble With Sokurov’s Alexandra

By Michael Sicinski

There’s one major filmmaker from the pantheon to whom Alexander Sokurov is usually compared, and it isn’t Godard. But why not? Both men engage in “cinema” in the broadest possible sense, not only including feature-film work but also long- and short-form video, documentary, and television. Both filmmakers conceive of cinema as a means for sifting through the wreckage of the previous century (although they would undoubtedly provide very different accounts of just what caused said wreckage). And both Sokurov and Godard have arrived at mature styles in which their films are organized by the rhythms and histories of classical music and painting, far more than by conventional story values. To dive into late Sokurov—as with late Godard—is to open oneself to a bounded but relatively freeform ideational atmosphere, a space whose coordinates may well dissipate before you’ve found your way through to the other side. But here’s the catch: the general line on recent Godard (say, from 1990’s Nouvelle Vague onward) is that he’s become esoteric and inscrutable to all but the most devoted exegetes. Sokurov’s stock, on the other hand, has never been higher. Among his last four features, we find a bona fide arthouse hit (Russian Ark, 2002), an almost unanimous critical smash (The Sun, 2005), and one of the most widely acclaimed films from last year’s Cannes Competition, Alexandra, which is about to enter general release. It seems like a good moment to think about Sokurov’s journey, partly because Alexandra is, in some ways, a summary work. But a dominant narrative is also at work regarding Sokurov, one that bears scrutiny. To hear some critics tell it, it’s as though a sullen, tubercular boy had suddenly regained a rosy complexion, threw back the covers and began dancing with wild abandon around the room. The glum Sokurov has “lightened up.”
But is this exactly true? In some ways, the more accessible Sokurov’s cinema seems to become, the harder his films are to discuss. There are a few possible reasons for this, not the least of them being the musically derived structures and rhythms that tend to characterize Sokurov’s style. As such, his work can have an open, airy quality that seems to invite a viewer in but, upon inspection or attempted interpretive bearing-down, can dissipate like a fog. One of his “minor” works, Dmitry Shostakovich Viola Sonata (1988, co-directed with Simeon Aranovich) is a bit of a passkey to Sokurov’s thinking. Not only does it foreground the director’s worship of musical genius and relative denigration of the cinematic arts. It also highlights a favorite personality type in Sokurov’s work: the frail, the infirm, or otherwise subprime physical specimen. In profiling Shostakovich, it is almost as though Sokurov locates the composer’s unique gifts in his forced distance from the healthy world of men. Perhaps this was, or is, Sokurov’s psychoanalytically freighted way of coping with the Stalinist cult of dumb-but-honest rural beefcake. But throughout his films, knowledge is almost always bound to those bodies whose limitations coach them in the ways of physical resistance. Sokurovian materialism is a stalled dialectic, a will and yet a failure to transcend.

This aspect of his work was probably more pronounced in his earlier, more obviously forbidding films, characterized as they were by a thematic single-mindedness and tonal claustrophobia. Films like Days of Eclipse (1988) and The Second Circle (1990) combined the Sturm und Drang of cold-filtered Teutonic Romanticism with a blood-and-guts Russian physicality, as though Sokurov had smelted Tarkovsky (yes, there’s the inevitable name-check) in order to burn off all air, fire, and water, leaving only cold, dense earth, along with the corpses buried beneath it. Watching these films is a strange affair because their cinematic language is maddeningly counterintuitive. On Sokurov’s watch, a graceful tracking shot bears none of the buoyancy of Ophuls, Mizoguchi, or Tarr. Instead, it bores into the image like a dentist’s drill. Denotatively, the film image is frequently saying that something spiritual is hovering before you; one feels a ponderousness, as if the molecular weight even of light and shadow had been supernaturally expanded. The Second Circle, for example, is a kind of sagging, leaden love story between a man and his father’s corpse. Somehow Sokurov manages to invest the swirling grain of the film stock with the anguished, punishing weight of iron slag; it is a film that exhausts the eyeballs down to the bottom of the orb. Miraculously, these are the films that put Sokurov on the map. The world was amazed but befuddled (and obviously young James Fotopoulos was taking notes). Back to the Shostakovich film: in the opening seconds, Sokurov shows us a spherical object emerging from the darkness. It looks like a light bulb, but as it swings toward the lens we can see that it’s in fact a steel shot put or a wrecking ball. This pretty much sums up Sokurov’s first phase.

Needless to say, the exquisite palate of Mother and Son (1997) not only felt like a kind of revelation, but the commutation of a gulag sentence, the release of spirit matter from a chest cavity graying around the edges. Sokurov gave himself over to expansive pictorial beauty and an unbridled simplicity, the misty haze as a kind of warm dream rather than the imposed obscurity of Soviet ideology. The Romantics are the undeniable point of contact here, Caspar David Friedrich in particular, although J. Hoberman wisely made the comparison to Turner. Cinematic reference points are virtually nil. Affinities can be found, I suppose, with certain passages in the work of Dovzhenko. In Sokurov’s own time, one would have to rely on strained analogies with Malick or Brakhage, in particular their treatment of landscape as secular revelation. But Mother and Son is not so much a film about the overwhelming, miraculous indifference of the elements as it is a depiction of a self-enclosed dyad that marks the passage of a life —the mother’s slow, pained yet peaceful movement unto death. (Mother and Son is the anti-Lazarescu.) And yet, under Sokurov’s flattened gaze and attenuated pacing, the union of mother and son (the former frequently carried like an infant in the latter’s arms) is a structure that cancels time altogether. Here Sokurov achieves the sublime, nearly lifting cinema out of the realm of the temporal arts, much less “popular culture.” In a sense, we could perhaps see his earlier, more anguished films as attempts to retreat from the social sphere altogether, and into the private realm of family. Something kept pulling him back into contact with institutional structures, but with Mother and Son, the prelapsarian post-Oedipal bond could re-encircle itself and close out communication in favor of pure ecstatic display. Sokurov was free, as it were, to go back into the egg.

And yet Sokurov’s films have actually gotten stranger as they’ve entered the new “accessible” phase. A lot of what Sokurov has done recently has been fascinating precisely because it can be read as a fall from the Eden of Mother and Son, or in less extreme terms, a set of coordinate moves that can always be understood in reference to that hazy, glistening ground zero. Sokurov’s interests have never allowed him to retreat entirely from the political sphere, even though the projects he undertakes always seem to indicate his desire to do so. Tracing all the threads in adequate detail would be impossible here, but suffice to say, we have his video work, his dictator trilogy, and his familial films. Alexandra can best be understood as the juncture of all three, and that’s why even though it seems like humanist arthouse fodder to the point of being comically quaint, it’s ultimately very bizarre.

First things first: Alexander /Alexandra. Clearly the title character is meant as an internal stand-in for the director himself. Casting opera legend Galina Vishnevskaya certainly points back to Sokurov’s fascination with classical music, but it also signals a more general concern with Russian culture and the life of the mind, contemplation as a space apart from combat but somehow plunked down in the midst of it. This harks rather explicitly back to the director’s massive video project, Spiritual Voices (1994), which found Sokurov rather nervously riding shotgun with soldiers stationed along the Afghan border, benumbed and ever on the lookout for random skirmishes with an undefined enemy. Spiritual Voices was a five-part series, and the first segment is quite possibly the single most formally challenging, aesthetically transcendent passage in Sokurov’s sprawling oeuvre. The entire episode consists of a single camera set-up, gazing in long shot at a distant tree line along the border. Partly through real-time elaboration and partly through extremely subtle digital effects, Sokurov shows this patch of no-man’s land undergoing all manner of weather conditions, the tiny speck of an armed patrolman eventually making his way along the trees. On the soundtrack, Sokurov himself plays selections by Mozart, Beethoven, and Messiaen, discussing the composers’ circumstances and approaches, almost adopting the tone of an avuncular late-night DJ.

Again, the mind/body split is on his mind, as the first words he speaks (and he repeats them for emphasis) consist of a piercing description of Mozart’s physical decrepitude and ravishment by illness. This meme simply will not go away: in Sokurov’s universe, failing bodies tend to house extraordinary minds. But in the case of Spiritual Voices, Sokurov brings this dichotomy out into the open to such a degree that it becomes subject to internal contradiction and critique, a fact that makes the epic video one of his key intellectual successes. In this opening chapter, after all, Sokurov keeps “us,” his listeners, at an extreme distance from the fighting and the men who do it. Near the end of the segment, the landscape slowly morphs into the sleeping face of a soldier in repose. The message seems clear: Sokurov places the aesthetic tradition safely in a watchtower of sorts, emphasizing autonomous art’s remove from worldly matters and, in the end, the very foundation of that luxurious isolation. By the second chapter, Sokurov is bouncing around in the back of a truck, whining about the heat. If the young boys in uniform are, in Sokurov’s eyes, the nation’s unreflective heart and soul (a bit of semi-sexist, post-Stalinist proletcult folderol that on some deep-seated level the filmmaker seems to accept), then the ability to watch and comment might only point to the effete position of art and artist in this scenario to begin with. For the moment, the distance between them has been collapsed. But, at the same time, Sokurov never arrogates to himself any sense of having truly bridged that distance. He still sees himself as fundamentally other than the soldiers—older, weaker, more prone to hesitation. They, on the other hand, are fully embodied, and if the futility of their border guard has a cruel philosophical dimension it’s in the down time that forces young men of action into awkward introspection and doubt.
If Alexandra represents a kind of condensation and revision of the Spiritual Voices project, as applied to Russia’s present-day quagmire in Chechnya, the new film’s gender-reassignment surgery seems to allow for a kind of sass and candor in his surrogate that he’d never allow for himself. Why stand around gabbing, old man? Pick up a gun and help us fight these heathens! (Recall that in Russian Ark, Sokurov’s most overt paean to culture for its own sake, the man reduced himself to a roving eye and a voice, obviating his own body altogether.) It seems that slipping into the guise of the “fairer sex” is Sokurov’s last remaining effort to preserve a philosopher’s distance in an increasingly hostile, machismo-driven environment. Vishnevskaya provides, as it were, his “spiritual voice.” But this is what makes Alexandra a fascinating failure. Sokurov is at great pains to use the Chechen War as a touchstone for a resonant, somehow more ephemeral temperature-taking of the Russian psyche. We see this in sequences which find Alexandra offhandedly interviewing the troops, finding them exhausted, fixating on immediate needs (cigarettes, R&R), but absolutely honest and steadfast, vacant and yet somehow soulful. In these moments, Alexandra is little more (or, to be fair, less) that a more stylized version of recent “grunt’s eye” Iraq documentaries like Gunner Palace (2004). Sokurov uses timeliness to arrive at rather wan platitudes about the horrors of war, although he does so with a poetic grace that it would be churlish and doctrinaire to deny.

Nevertheless, once Alexandra actually ventures past the barricades into a Chechen marketplace, things truly get bizarre. Here’s where Sokurov plays the middle against both ends, abandoning the vague universalism, and this, without a doubt, is the film’s strongest sequence. Alexandra hikes her tired girth from booth to booth, pricing items for the boys at camp. Reaction shots zeroing in on gazes at the woman from the assembled Chechens range from bemusement to fury, and Sokurov’s careful editing and arrangement of this network of looks is clearly one of the finest moment of decoupage in his entire filmography. Although most of Alexandra is comprised of semi-static shots and slow pans, the formal energy of this section tells a story well in excess of any overt content, and maybe even beyond any conscious intention on Sokurov’s part. Whether purposeful or not, the complex editing and accelerated pace implicitly argue on behalf of Chechen culture, that it is comparably more alive and more vital than the Russian torpor that engulfs it. As was the case with Sokurov’s last feature, The Sun, a more traditional filmic organization speaks to a different worldview. (In the case of The Sun, it was that of the Americans, whose victory over Japan came in the form of classical Hollywood shot coverage, and a box of Hershey bars for the Emperor.) Alexandra’s trip to the marketplace signals an opening, the film’s and the director’s genuine encounter with otherness.

But before long, Alexandra and Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), a Chechen woman roughly her age, have retired to her bombed-out apartment to trade wizened-old-woman bromides. It’s as though the confrontation short-circuits Sokurov’s ability to think beyond cliché. And it’s in the final moments that Alexandra essentially recoils from the social and political spheres, retreating once again to the supposed safe haven of the family, the space Sokurov seems to feel he understands best. A Chechen teen, Malika’s neighbor, escorts Alexandra back to camp, and before they part, the boy pleads with her. “I know you have nothing to do with it, but please, give us our freedom.” (Bear in mind, he is most likely speaking to the only Russian he’s ever met who wasn’t holding a weapon.) At this moment, Alexandra (and, let’s face it, Alexander) drops all pretense of being an ambassador, a citizen of the world, or even a philosopher. The frailty of body, that elsewhere Sokurov has employed as a means to slink away from the tangible world for the purpose of reflection, here becomes joined with a frailty of mind. “If only it were that simple,” she says. “An old Japanese woman once said to me, what you should ask God for first is intelligence. Strength doesn’t lie in weapons. It doesn’t lie in the hands…” And then, after this perfectly useless grandmotherly advice, the two walk on.

Once back at the camp, the film basically concludes with an extended sequence in which Alexandra and her Army captain grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov) speak of family matters, why he’s in the armed forces, and the like. As she leaves the camp the next day, she learns that Denis is being deployed on another, more dangerous mission. By this point, all pretext of political analysis has been dropped, and Sokurov has turned in what amounts to a third film in the family trilogy. We could call it Grandmother and Grandson. This is lovely, as far as it goes. But when Alexandra, or the director whose mouthpiece she most certainly is, begins to assume that grandmaternal tone toward an entire ethnic population, he has little to contribute to the conversation, despite what I am convinced are the best intentions. In an interview with Cahiers de Cinéma issued just before Alexandra’s premiere at Cannes, Sokurov stated, “To me, Chechnya is part of my country.” It’s easy to read this statement as conservatism or even as possessive, but in context, it seemed to mean that if “Russia” should mean anything in the 21st century, it ought to be capacious enough to accommodate Chechen cultural difference, rectifying the root causes that have made secession a necessity. But if that’s the case, Russia will have to learn to listen. Alexandra is a film made by someone who wants to talk, which is an admirable gesture. It’s just not the correct one.

michael.sicinski@cinema-scope.com Sicinski Michael