Faces of Evil: Aleksandr Sokurov Discusses “Fairytale”

Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Churchill meet in a purgatorial netherworld through deepfake animation in the Russian director's new film.
Jordan Cronk

Fairytale will have its North American premiere at Locarno in Los Angeles, running March 16 - 19, 2023.


Fairytale, director Aleksandr Sokurov’s first film in seven years, arrived at its world premiere at last year’s Locarno Film Festival with little advance notice. A fanciful title and a cryptic artist’s statement was all most viewers had to go on when encountering what is, as I wrote in my festival report, arguably “the Russian master’s most left-field offering yet: a speculative fiction made with deepfake technology that imagines an encounter between Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, and Winston Churchill.”

Composed almost entirely of lightly animated archival footage, Fairytale plays like a belated companion piece to Sokurov’s series of biographical and mythological portrait films (collectively known as the “Tetralogy of Power”) that explore the psychological nuances of tyranny. But whereas those films centered on single subjects (Hitler, Lenin, Hirohito, and Faust), the director’s latest brings together four figures—plus Jesus and Napoleon Bonaparte—that altered the course of world history. Set in a monochrome netherworld, with subtly shifting backdrops fashioned from a variety of 20th-century paintings, sketches, and still photographs, the film unfolds in extended dialogue passages that find these men exchanging insults and morbid barbs (“Stalin smells of sheep,” goes one of Hitler’s characteristic jabs) as their surroundings crumble from on high and the souls of their victims cry out from beyond the grave. In a perverse bait-and-switch, Sokurov forgoes any sort of dramatic historical appraisal, opting instead to stage a kind of comedic burlesque in which three of the world’s most notorious dictators are reduced to disparaging each other’s body odor, while one comparatively well-respected statesman—seen in a near-constant state of worry over his next call to the Queen—assumes the role of eternal simp. A history film unlike any other, it’s proof that while Sokoruv’s productivity may be slowing, he is in no way resting on his laurels.

Following Fairytale’s premiere, Sokurov and I sat down for a conversation about the film’s protracted genesis and its surreal depiction of totalitarianism. In light of Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine and Sokurov’s history of occasionally contradictory political positions, he was understandably tight-lipped, but also unexpectedly droll and even sarcastic in his responses. With a slight smirk on his face, he offered a series of pithy remarks about a film that seems all but engineered to befuddle.

NOTEBOOK: We’re having this conversation in-person in Locarno, but I read that you were recently denied exit from Russia. How did you manage to cross the border to attend the festival?

ALEKSANDR SOKUROV: We crossed over into Estonia by car, through Nava into Tallin, and then from Tallin we traveled by plane to Milan. We’ll go back to Saint Petersburg the same way.

NOTEBOOK: How did you end up being denied permission to exit the previous time?

SOKUROV: At that time, in June, I wasn’t permitted to leave Russia. I needed to request permission. I was supposed to fly from Saint Petersburg to Finland, and then from Finland to Milan. By the time I received permission that trip had passed.

NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me a little about the initial idea behind the Fairytale project? You’ve made a number of films about dictators—what made you want to revisit this theme now?

SOKUROV: I felt there was a necessity to do it. The 20th century is part of my life. Its events are part of me. It’s my century. I lived through it.

NOTEBOOK: Why these four specific figures?

SOKUROV: As it turns out, these were the four figures of the 20th century. There were no others. I searched for others, but there was no one else. These are the four it all comes back to.

NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me about the research process as it relates to both the subjects and the archival footage?

SOKUROV: It took two years just to watch all the footage. During this time I also went through phonograms, printed materials, and translations of texts. From this research I wrote the script. I’m a history graduate, so these things interest me, but I have a close group of colleagues who began the process and worked on certain aspects of the research. For example, Alyona Shumakova worked with Mussolini’s archives, searching for materials related to him from this specific time period.

NOTEBOOK: How did you come to the idea to use deepfake technology to give life to these figures?

SOKUROV: I have a lot of experience with archival footage. I feel that I can read the faces of my subjects and recognize what I need from them and how to make use of them. It’s my job as a filmmaker to make these kinds of decisions, based on my attitude and experience as a professional in the field. It’s nothing fantastical or exceptional. We work the same way, even when the methods are different.

NOTEBOOK: What about the team of animators? I imagine they’re all new to working with you?

SOKUROV: Yes. I found them specifically for this project. They’re a group of five people I recruited from the north of Russia, Siberia, and Saint Petersburg. All young people—as much as three times younger than me. They had an incredible urge and will to work on the project.

NOTEBOOK: One of the things that surprised me about the film is the humor. Did you conceive of it as being a kind of comedy?

SOKUROV: It’s purposefully funny. I wrote it that way. It’s all my invention—all my jokes. I just decided when and how I wanted Hitler and Stalin to make the jokes. It’s a fairytale.

NOTEBOOK: How did Jesus and Napoleon make their way into the film?

SOKUROV: Jesus was just there amidst the ruins. I discovered him there. In the film, he’s dead—he hasn’t gone up to heaven or wherever. I found him in this indeterminate state, irritated by the company around him. He said, “I will stay here until my father resolves his issues with them.” He’s still there.

NOTEBOOK: Napoleon also makes an appearance in Francophonia (2015). What is it about him that interests you?

SOKUROV: His Frenchness—his French character. I enjoy the marvelous character of French people. They’re not like anyone else. You’re from where?

NOTEBOOK: Los Angeles.

SOKUROV: See, you’re not French. I could tell!


NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me about the classical music used in the film? I notice that it comes from a variety of sources, including your own archive.

SOKUROV: Some of the music was recorded for the film by a big symphonic orchestra. Other pieces come from my personal archive. In some cases these are pieces I had hoped to use in other films that I wasn’t able to.

NOTEBOOK: The music in your archive is in what format?

SOKUROV: LP. Some of them are really old LPs made to play on a gramophone.

NOTEBOOK: Do you have a gramophone?

SOKUROV: Yes, I do. I’ve been collecting LPs all my life. I can offer you some…

NOTEBOOK: Churchill plays an interesting role in the film. He’s mostly depicted as an onlooker, someone guilty by association, but guilty nonetheless.

SOKUROV: It’s the observational role he chose in this world, not in terrestrial life. It’s not a big honor for Churchill to find himself in this space, with these people. For this reason, his behavior is cautious. He hopes his fate will be better than the others.

NOTEBOOK: Is it better?

SOKUROV: What do you think?

NOTEBOOK: I guess slightly better, but only compared to the others. That’s why I was wondering if you think he’s somehow equally guilty for remaining somewhat neutral.

SOKUROV: He’s maybe also guilty, yes. He’s one of the strongest characters in the film, as he was in life. But being so strong, he has several faces.

NOTEBOOK: You’re no longer making films at the rate you once did. How do you spend your time when you’re not making movies?

SOKUROV: I spend my everyday life teaching. My latest group of students will graduate in November.

NOTEBOOK: Do you teach film theory, the technical aspects of moviemaking, or both?

SOKUROV: I teach the technical and professional tools of documentary and fiction filmmaking, not aesthetics: how to work with actors; how to edit; how to invent and compose.

NOTEBOOK: Is it more fulfilling for you at this point in your life to teach, rather than make movies?

SOKUROV: Yes. It’s time-consuming to make movies. Plus, in Russia there aren't proper financing channels. When financing opportunities do arise, I leave them to my students. That’s my preference.

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