The two polar components of the language of cinema — documentary realism and lyricism — are both equally present and integrated in the works of Russian film–maker Alexander Sokurov. Snatches of real life, shot recently and long ago, have been incorporated into both his documentaries and feature films in unrestrained poetic compositions. In “Elegy from Russia» Sokurov and his colleagues, cameraman Alexander Burov and sound engineer Vladimir Persov, have constructed a film without stitches or knots; they have spun a single thread whose course reveals a new and unusual outlook on the world.
The final death throes of a human body that is not a body but a pair of hands and a voice escaping from a throat as it loses its warmth… the prelude and refrain of a dense tapestry of episodes and sounds, where time has no beginning and no end. Where continually gloomy landscapes remain intractable, where only intermittent gusts of wind and the flashes of lightning before a storm enliven the face of nature; where muddy, impassable roads are not the result of rain, just as human adversity is not the result of some epoch or environment. Here we see elderly people, our contemporaries, close to death.
And though they appear on the screen in different settings, their lives are equally tragic. One woman awakening in an armchair in a cosy interior by the light of a subdued lamp is faced with the same anxiety and impending homelessness as an old man seen in an environment reminiscent of a lodging house from a Gorky novel. A shabby wall, the old man’s bed with its grey linen and some crude household utensils are all too familiar to us. They belong to our reality, to our contemporary everyday life.
It is a reality not so far removed from the life we lived earlier… We are shown the banks of the Volga spanned by filigree bridges, lined with shops and churches whose golden cupolas can be seen reflected in the copious water.
Old photographs taken by Maxim Dmitriev at the beginning of the century come to life on the screen before our eyes: we can imagine ourselves stepping onto a bridge to gaze at the frolicking waves of the Volga below; riding up a hill in a two–wheeled cart to gaze down at the scurrying crowds of a Russian village below. We can feel what it is like to mingle with merchants, craftsmen and a mounted policeman outside a pub. We can feel what it is like to be on the ground among those who sleep in rows amid a maze of shops; to be among those who lie in the hay by day, dying of starvation or disease. We see sophisticated architectural structures and thatched roofs, bare feet, the bustle in the shops on a village square, the migrants with their hungry children, a dignified priest, well–fed dandies, drunkards in tatters. All this is Russia, the Russia we were not able to lose with time… It is the Russia we have had since long ago… It is not just today’s Russia. Just as it is not simply today’s notion that war is merely a man’s game. The preoccupation with the instruments of death (one of war’s merry little rituals), be they cannons, mortars, or rifles, is introduced into the film by an excerpt of a WWI newsreel which dissolves into a shot showing nature now devastated. This would suggest that an explosion that had occurred long ago could today still topple a tree, or even a man. Images of underwater life, the frozen surface of the water in the year’s first frost, followed by the image of a warmly swaddled and sleeping baby are not a haphazard arrangement of contrasting shots — they represent the phenomena of an epoch. They are interwoven, they melt into one another, like images in sleep. They are the phenomena of time, of our life. —sokurov.spb.ru
One of the most important directors in both Russian and world cinema, Alexander Sokurov is considered by many to be the spiritual heir of the great Andrei Tarkovsky. Sokurov — who has enjoyed a long creative relationship with Tarkovsky — has discounted such comparisons, but certain similarities between their works remain indelible: a predilection towards very long takes, natural performances by their actors, and an almost otherworldly use of natural sounds and music. And, perhaps most important, both directors are concerned with the essential questions of human existence and the state of the human spirit.
Sokurov was the son of a World War II veteran. His family moved around a good deal while Sokurov was growing up, and after finishing high school, he went to Gorki, Russia’s third largest city. There, he attended Gorki University and began to work as an assistant television director when he was 19. He continued to direct television programs for the Gorki station until 1975, and… read more