A school for professional ice skaters in Leningrad in the final days of the Soviet imperium. A young girl, maybe ten, struggles to land her lutz. She jumps. She falls. Time and again. Failure after failure. Her sympathetic but stern trainer chides her, exhorts her to jump again. Without failure, the jump would remain eternally unattainable. The girl jumps. She falls. Again and again. Yet, unlike what a Western version of this documentary might have presented, the girl does not succeed. At least not within the scope of this documentary’s narrative, otherwise abundant with grace and movement, the rigor and creativity and training at the Leningrad Figure Skating School.
What better film than Patience, Labor (1985–1987) to take as an analogy for the life work of its director Aleksandr Sokurov, a life of patience and failure-ridden labor on display through his short films at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. In fact, many of Sokurov’s short films selected for the Oberhausen retrospective have two years of production—one representing the year they were made, a second representing the year of the final production copy—dates sometimes years apart, sometimes decades. Films which were banned or censored.
Yet work he did, on many films which revolved around the very essence of “Russianism” (Stalin, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky, Yeltsin, Orthodox Iconography, Soviet Iconography the Hermitage, etc.), films which brought him praise as much as censorship from the authorities. It was with the release of Mother & Son (1997) that Sokurov gained his notoriety in the West, and moved towards the fiction feature as an object of production. In many ways Sokurov is the descendent of Dostoyevsky, of Tarkovsky, in that he is more than simply devoted to cinema as an art, but creates a cinema imbued with a distinct sense of the Russian state of being, a cinema inscribed in the history of Russian film and literature.
How difficult it must have been for Sokurov to continue to produce, when film after film was censored, refused, delayed. And this retrospective shows a drive, a desire beyond that of being seen, of success, one for cinema itself. The essence of which emerges from Sokurov’s work itself, in what today may be considered a demoded communist idea—that the artist too works; attributing the artist’s craft not to a mythology of genius or luck or capital, but to perseverance through failure, with no guarantee of even having the works shown, never mind success or fame.
Sokurov’s films can be challenging, tedious, tight, often humorless little knots of cinema whose meaning are hard to unravel. Yet one thing is sure—meaning there is, even if the interpretation is often unclear. Sokurov’s films are all imbued with a sense of history, of politics, of poetics, or literature, and above all else, of time.
Sokurov’s obsession with the time of history is clear from his first short created during his student years: Sonata for Hitler (1979–1989). This short interlaces archival images from Nazi and Soviet times, weaving back and forth between the images of the mass at a parade with Hitler with that of a second mass at Stalin’s funeral.
The film, which juxtaposes images of the two autocrats and the masses which adored them, created them, sustained them, was unsurprisingly (the tyrannical similarities being too obvious) banned by the Soviet authorities, and it was not released until a decade after its completion. In Sonata for Hitler Sokurov mixes the images of Hitler’s and Stalin’s masses which meld into interchangeability, their presence on screen in a single conjoined cinematic space, in a clever use of the Kuleshov effect. And even though the year of each event (1945, 1953) is always displayed on the screen itself, reminding the viewer of the artifice of this juxtaposition, the effect is no less strong: it is the masses that enable tyranny.
Even in this first student film one can see Sokurov’s nascent fascination with power and power’s effect on history—an obsession which would continue throughout his entire oeuvre, and culminate in his tetralogy of tyranny: Moloch (1999), on Hitler, Taurus (2000), on Lenin, The Sun (2004), on Emperor Hirohito, and Faust, a filming of Goethe.
SPACE = TIME
Time, as Sokurov mentioned in a talk at Oberhausen, doesn’t move in Russia at the same speed as other countries, and this is because time is a function of space. Why does Russian history happen so slowly? Why did the revolution take so much longer after the people of Europe had been freed from their tyrannical monarchs? And when history does happen, why does Russia’s history lurch from event to event, with lightning speed? Sokurov postulates that Russia, spanning ten time zones, “is so huge that when a historical event happens slowly, it doesn’t happen,” the time in between the historical happenings is transformed into “a waiting and expectation that can last forever.”
MAN + MASS = HISTORY
History may be just a function of the movement of masses, but masses are composed of individuals. Elegy from Russia (1992) lays bare the tangible connection between history and the present, starting from the life of a single anonymous man. The film opens with the image of a dying man’s hands. From offscreen arrive his final gasping breaths as life slowly seeps from his body, as he gags on the water meant to sustain him. The man shudders, his hands nestled in the hands of a woman, go still. He expires.
Elegy from Russia begins with death, and finishes with life: a crying baby held in arms over a forest, a forest which has witnessed the entire history of Russia, a ground steeped in the memories of war, seeded with the bones of dead soldiers, revealing the ground from which today’s Russia springs forth.
The film continues with a series photographed faces of hundreds of peasants. We see their work, their belabored limbs, the filth of their body, the poverty of their clothing in a series of stills taken of peasants from the end of the 19th century. Poverty and peasantry that is the base of Russia’s mass, the flesh of its composition. These anonymous serfs are shown on-screen, without commentary, without explanation. They may be just peasants, but implicit in the image of their poverty, inscribed in the roughness of their skin is also a celebration of life, of the passage of time, of the traces of work. Whereas the images which follow—the well-shaven aristocrats, the well-fed priests, the pristine rulers—seem not just aloof, but more like wax figurines than people. Their skin is too smooth, their bodies unused, their bellies too full. Their bodies suffer from a lack of suffering. They who have never lived.
There is no explanation, but one conjectures. We too would certainly revolt against such injustice. But other ideas are less clear. In this film, as often in Sokurov’s works, there is no voiceover, no context to assist our comprehension. To understand is the viewer’s task. Meaning is ever-present. Although it is often unclear what that meaning is.
MASS/MAN = ICON
Evening Sacrifice (1984–1987) is on the face of it a simple film: masses of Russians walking up and down the former Leningrad’s Nevsky Prospect during a firework parade on the 1st of May. Although Sokurov films masses in their anonymity, and every frame is replete with an infinitude of connected bodies, every frame also always has a subject: a pair of lovers, a soldier, a young girl who looks directly into the camera. From the mass, we can always extract an individual, an icon. And indeed, we are shown an icon proper: a mother protecting her son in a symbolic gesture that is a secularized and recognizable Maria icon. The masses are composed of people or individuals; the masses are us. And it is us who make history, although we are never sure how.
In Maria (1978–1988), Sokurov travels to a kolkhoz to film the hard life of what is a classic Soviet icon—the kolkhoz worker—the reaper of wheat. (And one half of the two iconic figures that compose the logo of Mosfilm.) Sokurov takes what is a symbol and makes it real. Brought down to the mundane, the symbol loses its sheen, although it gains in humanity. Filmed in glorious color, he shoots Maria working in the fields across the seasons. Mixed in with the glory of work is the hardness of toil. Maria, the isolated feminist symbol of the field worker is reconnected to a family in a living breathing family portrait which extends to include father and daughter as well. But with the transfer from the symbolic to real, the Soviet symbol can only lose is propagandistic intensity. Due cause for the film to be censored, banned.
In the second half of the portrait, shot in black and white, Sokurov returns ten years later for the funeral of Maria, who had worked herself to death to die at 45 and was killed by the very system she was purported to sustain. A bitter fate. In a reversal of the classic Western convention, which marks technological progress, in which black and white is the past and the color is the present, here, color perhaps marks a filming of an ideal, and black and white, the hardness of the real. A decade has gone by and these years have brought changes: people have gone, have arrived, have married and divorced. In yet another elegiac gesture, in the second half of the film, Sokurov shows the film to the survivors and neighbors in the village—filming the projection of the film of her memory
This portrait is simultaneously celebratory (of work and life) and it is subversive (of the work that killed, and the life that did not reward). A perfect example of how not to fear working within a censoring system, but how to exploit at that system to create film. Perseverance driven by the necessity of creation, through patience, through labor.
THE MAKERS OF HISTORY
In three other films from Oberhausen’s program we are provided an intimate gaze inside the lives of politicians, the makers of history, but from a human perspective. In two films Sokurov shot about Boris Yeltsin, and one on the Lithuanian politician who declared independence from the Soviet state, Vytautas Landsbergis, Sokurov shows the individuals who make history, yet without ever being able to pierce that history in the making. History seems to be unfilmable. The historical journalistic meme (a handshake at camp David, a drunken Yeltsin dancing on stage, a president speaking at the Brandenburg Gate) is a setup, a fallacy, a lie, and Sokurov’s films avoid the easy meme, the thoughtless gesture, to contemplate the inner motivations of men who had the capacity to enact history.
In Soviet Elegy (1989) filmed in November 1988, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are witness to the moment in which Boris Yeltsin leaves the Communist Party. The film shows a long series of yearbook-like photographs of communist leaders from the history of the Soviet Union, whose names are read aloud, names which are the icons of Sovietism, over the images of leaders who prop up the system. A young Yeltsin appears in one of those photographs. The film then ends on slow static shots on a house. Through a window, we see Yeltsin sitting at home, despondent, at a table, reading a newspaper. He sits and waits for history. Minutes go by without a comment, and a melancholy poetic emerges, a mystery which is at the antipodes of commercial efficacy. We wait, as does Boris.
As Sokurov mentioned in his talk, a particular message emerged from the filming of Yeltsin, one which, through cinema, was revealed to Yeltsin himself—that there is only one way for history to move—and that is forward. But Boris, like us, had to realize it on his own.
An Example of Intonation (1991)is Sokurov’s second film portrait of Boris Yeltsin, now the president of Russia. Walking with his aides near his country house in the deep of winter, Yeltsin sits a park bench using that day’s newspaper with him on the (critical) headlines as a cushion against the cold. His neighbors greet him with the intimate diminutive, calling him Boris Nikolayevich. He invites the filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov in for tea, which he himself serves. Yeltsin’s house is humble, the president thoughtful. There is no lighting, no makeup, nothing that would obstruct from conversation.
Sokurov’s portrait of Yeltsin looks at a man of power, using cinema as an antidote to the temptation to immediate understanding. Such a thing is impossible to imagine today in Western media, where all “real” is constructed, where mediatization is infinite (as an exercise try and imagine a one-on-one interview with a dejected Obama talking about the Trump presidency in a small country house with no lights or makeup and brewing coffee for the filmmaker himself).
Beyond that, we see the leader of the world’s second most powerful country living in a simplicity that seems symphonic and natural in the intimacy and realness of a world that seems unimaginable today. More so, we hear in the words of our protagonist, the airing of the incredible idea that he entered politics with an idea to serve his people (resurging perhaps, hopefully, through candidates such as Bernie Sanders or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez).
Simple Elegy (1990), another portrait, is also representative of how elusive any attempt to film history can be. The film shuttles back and forth between the Supreme Council of Lithuania where Vytautas Landsbergis sits in front of a piano and the streets of Vilnius, where the masses prepare to celebrate independence.
We are in the moment before history, the calm before the storm. Landsbergis plays nocturnes on a piano. Outside, cannons boom. Landsbergis brings the piece to an end and, in one swift movement, he returns to his desk, littered with phones and stacks of papers. Decisions need to be met. A country needs to be run. The film takes place at the edge of history, but never in the heart of it—for history itself is unfilmable—it happens too rapidly, too slowly, too far from the camera, too near; it occurs in the minds and hearts of the powerful; it bursts forth into being the unnamable feelings of the masses.
Sokurov, in many ways, just like his compatriot Andrei Tarkovsky, has devoted himself to filming the unfilmable: where Tarkovsky’s obsession was to film unfilmable God, Sokurov’s was to film unfilmable history. And to film the unfilmable requires patience, labor, and maybe most of all, failure.